126. War and Peace: Part One – Christ, the Early Church, the Just War Theory

Christ is risen! Truly he is risen!

“Wars and Rumors of Wars”

The time to think about war rationally is before we get into one. Once war begins it’s too late. Then all sorts of emotions and reactions, pride and propaganda take over. And after people are killed in war, there is a fervent and very natural desire to prove that our brave men and women did not die in vain – even if they did. “The fog of war”.

I have had this article on War and Peace on hand intending to publish it “sometime”. Now is the time. Suddenly talk of war is in the air again. It sounds much like what preceded the 2003 Iraq War. It’s no secret that some in our government have long wanted war with Iran. Is the present talk serious or is it just bluster? We’ll never know until…

So here is the article I wasn’t intending to publish right now.

I wrote this paper originally for my parish just before the 2003 Iraq War. At our Metropolitan Philip’s request, it was later published in our Antiochian Archdiocese magazine The Word: http://ww1.antiochian.org/sites/default/files/Word200306.pdf   I have updated it a little to match the current situation, and also to say some things more clearly.

Thank God (and James Madison who wrote the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution) that we Americans live in a country where these things can be openly discussed. May it always be so.

A Prologue

The Holy Orthodox Church is concerned not only with saving souls but with building good societies and a just world. Orthodoxy has social and ethical teachings, based on the Tradition: the Scriptures and the Fathers. However, we do not live in an Orthodox country. What is passed off as traditional old-fashioned Christianity in America is often not traditional Christianity. So we are very unlikely to hear Orthodox teaching on war and peace except from an Orthodox source – and unfortunately often not even then, since this is a touchy subject.

In what follows, I am trying very hard not to promote partisan politics, and to be objective. After living and watching for eighty years (I actually remember World War Two!) and then being shaped for sixty years by traditional Christianity, I certainly have my opinions about particular wars. (OK – I’m against many of them.) So if you think I have failed in either case, please comment below.

My purpose here is only to set forth the classical Orthodox approach to war and peace  – also taking a look at the traditional Western Just War theory. I hope this will help you (and me) to think about war and peace in an Orthodox way – not just according to other peoples’ theories or the latest political propaganda.

Christ’s Teachings

We know that Mohammed led an army. We know that Jesus did no such thing. When Peter took to violence, Christ told him to put his sword away, saying, “those who live by the sword will die by the sword”. Matthew 26:52 Jesus taught: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you: Do not resist an evil person. Whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also … You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you”. Matthew 5:38-39,43-44 Whatever one may think of these teachings and how to apply them, they are very clear. 

An extraordinary misleading column in the New York Times back in January 2003, just before the Second Iraq War, was titled “The Prince of Peace was a Warrior too.” (It’s still on line, if you want to check it out: https://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/28/opinion/the-prince-of-peace-was-a-warrior-too.html )

Yes, Jesus did make war, but on Satan, not on people. Yes, Jesus said he came to bring not peace but a sword, but it is clear he was speaking only of the divisions he would cause within families and societies between those who believed in him and those who did not. Yes, Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple, but his concern was with the defilement of worship.

But No. In military wars, Jesus was not a warrior. The people of his generation turned against him precisely because he did not drive out the Roman oppressor, because he who had all power chose to be a noncombatant. No. In the wars between nations and peoples, Jesus was not a warrior. 

The Early Church

It appears the earliest Christians followed their Lord in this. So far as I know (correct me if I’m wrong), there is no evidence in the New Testament or from any first or second century source of Christians serving in the military. Justin Martyr wrote that Christians “who formerly killed one another … refuse to make war on [their] enemies.” Origen wrote that Christians “no longer take up the sword against any nation, nor do we learn the art of war any more. Instead … we have become sons of peace through Jesus our founder.” There are other similar references.

This, of course, was a fairly easy stand to take when the Empire was pagan, there was no military draft, and the Church was small and usually uninvolved in worldly affairs. Was the early Church pacifist on principle? Some scholars say yes. However I think the evidence, judging by the Church calendar, is that it was not or at least not for long. For the Church honors many third and fourth century military men as saints — not because of their military activity, certainly, but rather because they were martyred for refusing to deny Christ. But the point is that, on principle, they saw no conflict between serving in the military (even serving a pagan Empire) and being a Christian. Nor did the early Church disown them for being in the military. Later, after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, it became common for Christians to serve in the armed forces, defending the Christian Empire. 

As time went on, Eastern and Western Christians began to diverge on the subject of war.

The Western Just War Theory

For comparison’s take, let’s first take a westward excursion. We’ll spend the rest of this column on this.

In the West in the fifth century, Saint Augustine began to teach what came to be called the Just War Theory. This held that under certain conditions war may be a just and good thing, that some wars are ordained by God. Soon, a kind of Christian cult of the glory of war began to develop in the West. There was a reason for this: Remember the West at that time was being overrun by barbarians from the north. Augustine had seen the fall of the city of Rome. Westerners wanted to know: Was it morally right for Christians to defend themselves and their society? The Western Church also wanted to try to apply some standards to war other than the contemporary one: “Might makes right.” Thus the Just War Theory. 

Let’s be clear: The Just War Theory is not Orthodox teaching. Orthodoxy takes a very different approach to the issue, which we’ll come to next week. But the Just War Theory is the source of modern international law. Today people on all sides, both religious and secular, debate and explain themselves using the standards for the Just War, often unknowingly. I have found it helpful for myself, as a way to analyze and evaluate particular wars.

The basic points of the Just War theory have varied quite a lot, but generally it includes these requirements: 1 The war must be authorized by proper authority. The war must be defensive, in defense of territory or of established human rights; wars of aggression are unjust. Every effort must be made to avoid civilian casualties on grounds of the dignity of all human life, from conception to the grave. Our enemies are human beings, created in the image of God, for whom Christ died — peoples’ children and grandchildren and husbands and wives. 4 There must be a reasonable hope of success in the war; it must not be fought to no purpose or simply to assuage pride or anger or to save face. This would apply, for example, to the latter years of the Viet Nam War when, as it turns out, our government knew it could not be won, but… well let’s not go there, now. War must be the last resort; all other options must be excluded first. 

There are sometimes a number of other requirements.

But how to apply the principles of the Just War Theory…  

This gets tricky. 

Consider Point One: What is “proper authority”?  Once it was clear: the Emperor or the Pope. Most Western moral theologians today say this means each nation’s laws should be followed. However, the Constitution of the United States requires a formal Declaration of War by Congress – and no American war since 1941 has been formally declared. So are they all to be considered unjust? Do members of the United Nations need specific UN authorization, or do they not? Who decides these things? The Just War Theory does not say. 

Or Point Two: What is defensive war? What is aggression? This is even more confusing and, even when clear, has been applied very erratically. 

In World War Two when Germany and Japan attacked other countries, we rightly called it aggression. However, in previous centuries when Western European nations built their empires by military invasion, we called it not aggression but “the white man’s burden” or something to that effect. When Anglo Americans drove native Americans off their lands and confined them to reservations, we described it not as unjust aggression but as “manifest destiny”. 

Again, when in 1947 the United Nations, led by the United States and Great Britain, established Israel, driving Palestinians from their ancestral homes and lands, the Western powers did not call that unjust. However, when Palestinians and their allies tried to defend and recover their land, that was considered unjust by the West.

Take a current issue: pre-emptive (“preventive”) war. By the traditional Just War standard, the United States’ attack on Iraq in 2003 would probably be considered unjust aggression, since Iraq had not attacked us. However, since modern attacks can be launched and completed within a matter of minutes, some Western moral theologians now argue that a pre-emptive attack to head off imminent attack by an enemy is justified. But this is a two-edged sword. As we prepared to make a pre-emptive attack on Iraq, why then would it not have been just for Iraq to launch a pre-emptive attack on us? Can we see a contemporary application here? (And as it turned out, Iraq never had the intention or ability to pull off an attack on us. It was all a mistake.)

Furthermore, if many nations should choose to launch pre-emptive wars against  potential enemies, what would keep the world from quickly being thrown back into barbarism? So where does this leave us?  

Or take Point Three: It was easier to avoid civilian casualties in earlier times, when many (though certainly not all) wars were fought on battlefields outside cities. Beginning with World War Two, the great powers generally abandoned this principle. Civilians were intentionally attacked, beginning with Hitler’s blitzkrieg of England and other countries, followed by Allied saturation bombing of German cities and American nuclear bombing of Japanese cities. In the Viet Nam War American bombing killed between 500,000 and a million non-military civilians. 

With modern “precision” bombing and now bombing by drones, we in the West  (though certainly not those conducting the Syrian war) have tried to recover the principle of avoiding civilian casualties, but with only limited success because of the immense power and imprecision of our weaponry. Can the requirement of avoiding civilian casualties be fulfilled in any modern war? 

Results of the Just War Theory

They are very mixed.

It has allowed Christians to defend their homelands without guilt. If America had not got involved in World War Two, we might all now be living under the Nazi Thousand Year Reich.

It has given Christians a way to evaluate wars and their intentions instead of just charging into them full speed ahead, and to learn from wars instead of just being “winners” or “losers”.

I think the biggest problem with the Theory is that it does not take into account the possible unexpected consequences of war. What so-called just wars intend and what they accomplish are often two very different things.

The Crusades, for example, were authorized according to the Just War Theory. These were to be the good war, properly approved by the Pope, to liberate the Holy Land from Muslim aggressors. But in fact the Crusades did immense unintended harm. Crusaders ravaged soldiers and civilians, Muslims, Christians and Jews alike. (Well, they none of them looked like Europeans, did they?) Christians were still the majority in Jerusalem before the Crusaders “liberated” it, but never since then. Crusaders sacked and occupied Constantinople, setting up a Latin Emperor and Patriarchate. The Byzantine Empire was recovered but greatly weakened. This was the chief cause of its being conquered by the Turks. 

In this context, I think something should be said about the Iraq Wars. The wars themselves were relatively “clean”. But by reputable estimates, their unintended aftermath resulted in from 150,000 to over 450,000 deaths, most of them civilians.

You can see that the Western Just War Theory, though helpful to our thinking in many ways, is also a can of worms.

I’ve spent a lot of time (too much?) on this Western approach to war in order to draw the contrast: Eastern Orthodoxy, as so often, comes at the subject from an entirely different (and much less complex) angle.

Next Week: The Eastern Orthodox Approach to War and Peace

I had intended to complete a series which began last week on the Gospels of Pascha season. I’ll try again next year, God willing.

Week after Next: ???  I haven’t decided. 


28 thoughts on “126. War and Peace: Part One – Christ, the Early Church, the Just War Theory

  1. “So far as I know (correct me if I’m wrong), there is no evidence in the New Testament or from any first or second century source of Christians serving in the military.”

    Father, how then do we interpret Christ’s interaction with the Centurion (Luke 7)? He praised the man’s faith and, important to this discussion, never told him to leave his duties as a soldier. If it were wrong to be a soldier in the Roman army, wouldn’t He have said so? Or am I missing something else there?

    Also, I’m looking forward to the rest of this series!

    1. I think the answer is that the centurion was not a Christian. He somehow perceived Jesus’ power but was not a follower.

      1. Fr. Bill,

        Forgive me, but could anyone be considered “Christian” at that point, given that this was prior to The Passion and Resurrection? And if his faith was greater than Christ had found in all of Israel…?

        1. I guess I was using “Christian” to mean “followers of Jesus”, which the centurion was not.

  2. In the direction of Gregory’s comment (which was not directed at me, so I hope I am not being presumptuous), the interaction of John the Forerunner with soldiers is much more direct, he simply commands them to be honest soldiers. We do have church tradition on the fate of Longinus, the centurion at the cross, who chose to leave military service and be a missionary (http://oca.org/saints/lives/2019/10/16/102980-martyr-longinus-the-centurion-who-stood-at-the-cross-of-the-lord). In his case, honest was incompatible with soldier, so he chose the better part.

    Forgive me for interposing another RTE article, but this one may more directly speak to this train of thought: https://www.roadtoemmaus.net/back_issue_articles/RTE_52/WAR_BYZANTIUM_AND_MILITARY_SAINTS.pdf

    The distillation of the article that I come away with is: the Roman army was deeply pagan, early converts who happened to be soldiers would often end up martyrs by refusing the cultic elements of the military. Post-Constantine, the Eastern Roman military is a profession a Christian can enter legitimately (like being a policeman), it is fraught with temptations and dangers to body and soul (like being a policeman); some Christians served, some Christians refused to serve, some Christians died serving honorably; but only martyrdom – witnessing for Christ – is specifically honored as holy. An interesting fact noted in the article is that pre-Iconoclasm, the military saints that come first to mind, like George, Demetrios, are portrayed in civilian dress.

    I’m inclined to think that the modern American situation is more akin to Rome than to Byzantium (whereas, for instance, Tsarist Russia was much more Byzantine in this sort of consideration). I also think of Fr Valentin (“On Earth We’re Just Learning How to Live”), who fought as a Soviet in WW2, but vowed along with other Orthodox comrades to sincerely keep the Sermon on the Mount as a soldier. It’s a remarkable book, the military aspects are ~10% of the material, but do illustrate how a faithful Orthodox did military duty under an atheist state.
    In Christ,

  3. I’m curious how you interpret Luke 22:36 ‘Then He said to them, “But now, he who has a money bag, let him take it, and likewise a knapsack; and he who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one.’

    I look forward to reading your explanation of the Orthodox view.

    1. I don’t think there is an “Orthodox view” on Luke 22:36. Here is my opinion: Considering that later that same night he forbade Peter to use his sword, he must have been speaking in symbols as he so often did. I think he meant “Once you had it easy but now you’re going to have to fight for it, so get ready” or something like that.

      1. My thinking was that the advice to buy a sword was more for self-defense purposes, and Peter’s attacking of the solider was clearly not a defensive use but one borne of temper and outrage. This could be why Jesus chided him so – it’s one matter to carry a sword so as to avoid trouble on the road, it’s another to use it aggressively against a soldier following his orders.

        In that same manner, in modern terms it’s one matter to use a gun to defend yourself or your family against a home invasion, but another to shoot a police officer who is serving a legitimate warrant. Defending your family is not living by the sword, but violent resistance to the law most definitely is.

        1. Or, bigger picture, what if Christ was saying — as it appears to me, at least — to be saying that you can’t stop what’s about to happen by defending me because this is much bigger than you think.

          In other words, as I’ve always read it (this is what seems plain to me, but am happy to be corrected), Christ tells his disciples to buy swords for the purpose of defending themselves on the roads they will be traveling. But Peter draws it at the time He is to be taken, and Christ essentially says, “this is not the time for that.” My Greek is pretty non-existent, but I take His words to be “put up” your sword (as in, put it back in its scabbard) and not “put down” your sword, as in, throw it down on the ground and never use it.

          The former seems to be the most plain reading and the latter seems to make Christ’s command to buy them the day before seem rather pointless. But again, I’m a layman and happy to be corrected.

          1. First, Gregory, never NEVER EVER say you’re “happy to be corrected” because you’re only a “layman”! Clergy aren’t all-knowing. Laymen can have insights that clergy don’t. We all need to be corrected or given further insights. The fact remains that after that, so far as we know, the apostles never used swords in defense.

        2. But Peter was using his sword in defense of Jesus – against soldiers who were following orders, yes, but whose orders were a “set-up” against an innocent man. Had Jesus violated any civil law? How about the Soviet Union when soldiers following legitimate orders were arresting and sending Christians to their death? I’ve always thought the Lord’s saying about “not living by the sword” were a general admonition: “Those whose life consists of living by threat and force will be be destroyed by force.”

  4. Thanks for your summary of American views on wars. The British views are different especially about Palestine which had been a British Protectorate since the Ottoman defeat in World War l. Palestine was full of people from other parts of the Middle East It was just an administrative area. I remember the fighting by terrorists called the Stern gang but since I was only nine years old I remember little else about the establishment of Israel. It certainly was not peaceful. Bombings and shootings and violent attempt on British lives. were in the newspapers everyday. I later had Jewish friends at my new school aged eleven and no one not even the bigger girls even mentioned going to Israel.. I think.

    1. Please forgive me for being slow to reply. I’ve been on vacation for a few days. What I said was not the “American” views on wars. Both Americans and Orthodox come to different conclusions about particular wars. In the article I was just using the Israeli-Palestinian situation as an example of how different people can see the same situation in very different ways.

  5. Thank you Father, for this challenge to face a most difficult subject.
    Your particular straightforward manner of addressing it from different angles allows for further clarity in thought. The issue is not cut and dry, although I admit, in my mind, I have reached a firm conclusion. But not so firm as to be closed off from further consideration.
    For what its worth, I will share….
    Maybe it is me, but I always come to the same conclusion: there is no such thing as “just war”. War, and all manner of killing, is an aberrancy . It is a departure from our image and likeness in God. God is the Creator of life. He has gone so far as to conquer death due to our departure from Him. To kill, no matter the attempts to justify it, analyze it, glorify it, honor it, defend it…can not take away from the fact that it is taking life away prematurely. It is the Lord who gives and it is He who takes away. At least that is how I think it was meant to be.

    Killing has its beginnings in “Beginnings”, Genesis. Interestingly, killing was not the cause of the Fall. But shortly after, there is first mention of murder. It is almost as if we are being shown what God meant by telling Adam “and you shall surely die”. Death/sin is separation from Life. Sin’s severity is likened to taking the life of another…i.e. killing. Cain is “marked”…and his end is not good. But death was never the final word with God. Our Savior and Lord Jesus was before the foundations of the world…God in His infinite mercy “had a plan”. In His foreknowledge He knew what we would come to. Needless to say, He is not “surprised” that we are still killing each other. And like many other sins, He allows this to continue. I do not see this as a nod of approval. Not in any case or in any situation do I think this is approved. I think it comes down to another $64,000 question…the existence of evil.
    War is an evil. And I refrain from calling it “a necessary evil”. To me, that just doesn’t make sense.
    I do not condemn our soldiers. We did that mess in the ’60’s and it was devastating. God forgives and makes a way through repentance. It has always been like that, as we see in the words of the prophets.
    War… it is a most difficult, dreadful, grievous situation. I truly believe that there will be true peace, the absence of war, only in the age to come when all is “in Christ”…where there will be “no more tears and sorrow”.
    In the meantime, with all that is in us, as St Paul says, we try to live peaceably with each other. An extremely great challenge in the world today. But God does not, will not, abandon us.

    1. My country was saved from communist threat only by spilling blood, which sadly include a lot of innocent, ignorant rurals. Well, God worked in mysterious ways. Even with imperfect post Soeharto government, it still better than my country being a commie one like Laos or North Korea.

      No peace with Communism as an ideology!

      Go search “1965 Indonesian anti communist killings” for further information.

      God bless America and Indonesia.

  6. To Paula AZ,
    I totally agree 100% with your analysis, see it myself this way too and have so all my life. It has been difficult for me to see my oldest son in a career for over 20 years as a Navy Seal with whom I no longer can get along, or can have a civil conversations. (though we were once very close) Now 2 of my grandchildren are in the Military too. I was born after WWII in Germany and remember the aftermath and it made me think allot after WWII living, breathing and raised among Baptists , Christians were in all Countries and they were killing each other the child in me thought. (you know the story of WW1 on Christmas day, French, English and Germans in the Trenches celebrating and singing Christmas Carols together) What loyalty to people or a Nation makes us do to others boggled my mind. This issue is more complex today with the sentiment of dog eat dog, or kill or be killed, winners and losers mind set. What is one to do when the survival of Christianity or just laws are no longer a “Given”. as it is today? This in an age of an overload on ideas, cultures and so on. It is taking hold of our living-space from which there is no escaping. We die, die out,, fight or flight and where to? Looking forward to hear what the Orthodox Version is to the problem.

    1. Hi Maria W
      I appreciate your heartfelt comment. Thank you.

      I can not imagine the pain, as a mother, of not being able to speak with your son and share your lives together, especially in our later years. So many things come to a head, and some painfully so, when we get older. And some childhood memories do not fade, especially times of war and post-war. As a child, I would imagine the chaos becomes internalized, and carried on into adulthood. It is hard to endure, I’m sure.

      I am not much of an analytical thinker, where all angles of a situation are thoughtfully and rationally discussed, as Father Bill does so well in his writings. I come at it the other way…from the gut, and then try my best to put my thoughts into words, with the help of those more learned than I. But that initial gut feeling, when it is strong, is quite hard to change.
      Here we are talking about the act of taking a life. This is beyond a legalistic ‘right and wrong’. I am not speaking here of scenarios such as killing another in defense. I am talking about the taking of a life. If it is done in defense, in war…any scenario… it is still taking a life. They’re dead. Gone. For many, right in front of their eyes. This surely, in the depth of the soul, in ones conscience, must have a serious impact. It is because it is so against human nature, as we were created. There is no justification for such tragedy. Just sadness and grief, for the dead as well as for the one who took the person’s life.

      And then there is the Cross…and He forgave them, and we as well, who look to Him. Surely Christ is the answer, Maria. There is indeed consolation there…

      1. Yes, I agree. But what about people who die defending the life of their loved ones? What about the boy who recently died defending the lives of his classmates against a shooter? Without his bravery many more would have died. The pain of his loss would still be there, but…

        1. Well Father Bill…I surely do not claim to have all the answers! Like I said, I speak from the gut, or rather, instinctively. Therefore, even when I consider a rational parsing out of this issue I will inevitably hear “there are some cases that killing is approved/just/ necessary”…and Father, that is where I come to an impasse.
          Regarding your question above, those who kill in defense are still taking a life. This is different than “taking a bullet, or blow” by placing oneself in front of another.
          What I am trying to emphasize is that no matter the situation, and here we are talking about war, I can not agree that there is such a thing as a “just war” given the killing, carnage, and destruction of it all, not to mention its aftermath. To me, taking the life of another, no matter the situation, is nothing short of tragedy. For heaven’s sake, is this not behind the Passion of Christ…that He suffered due to our hatred and separation from God and our brothers and sisters?! And we want to justify instances of killing?!
          I simply can not make that connection, or exception, Father Bill.

          1. If People’s Liberation Army landed in your shores, you will shoot them. All of them.

          2. Unlikely possibility! However, yes. I think the Church affirms that defense of one’s own country from invaders is justified.

          3. So you don’t fear the Red Chinese as a kind of big bad monster? (Which I admit I am, to the point that I often wish that America and China better just wipe themselves out with nuclear weapons. Like Japan was put into submission with two bombs…)

  7. Paula, yes, when I get to the end of all my analyzing, thinking and trying to figure things out so I can live in this world, and trying to avoid the cultural norms that have lost their way or common sense, than I always come back and end with “Forgive them” and at the same time I must say it to God for myself “forgive me”, because I know I am not immune to the infections and cancers that are spreading thru social acceptable structures.
    Thank you for speaking Truth to the situation.
    Maria W

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