128. War and Peace, Part Three – The Orthodox Priority of Creating Peace

Christ is risen! Truly he is risen!

Here’s what we’ve covered so far:

In Part One we looked at New Testament and Patristic teaching, and then at the Western Just War Theory by which wars may be judged to be good or bad.

In Part Two we saw the classic Orthodox approach: Father Harakas said Eastern Orthodoxy had no theory for evaluating wars, but instead emphasized making peace. Dr. Steven Runciman on how the Byzantines, while sometimes finding war a necessary evil, tried almost every way to avoid bloodshed, and never glorified war.

Two Afterthoughts

Since writing Part Two, I’ve been wondering how the above relates to the glorification of killing in movies and TV shows today.  Really, these days it’s pretty hard to find a movie that doesn’t have somebody being gunned down or destroyed in some other more innovative way. So many of the most popular ones involve threats to the end of civilization which must be stopped by whatever means – which seems to be as much destruction as is possible. Khouria Dianna and I innocently went to a movie starring a number of our favorite British actors, and what did we get? Shootings! Cars exploding! (She claims that’s how auto-makers stay in business: by selling cars to be blown up in movies!) What’s the cause of this? Why is it so popular? What is it doing to us?

Also, in recent decades we have tended to see enemies as absolutely evil, so that any means are justifiable to bring them to unconditional surrender, complete capitulation. The Byzantines never tried to wipe out the Persians, only to restore the boundaries of the Empire and then have a peace treaty with them. In the West, the Church converted the barbarian invaders (my ancestors) and made Christians of them – and so here I am writing this Blog! Once again, what has changed? What’s going on here?

The Priority of Peace in Orthodox Worship

We Orthodox say that what we believe is found in how we worship.

Our emphasis on peace seems obvious if we look at the words of our worship services: “In peace, let us pray to the Lord … For the peace from above and for the salvation of our souls … For the peace of the whole world, the good estate of the holy churches of God, and the union of all men … For healthful seasons, abundance of the fruits of the earth and peaceful times, let us pray to the Lord.” “The Orthodox servants of God … that they may have mercy, life, peace, health, salvation …” “All things good and profitable for our souls and peace for the world …” “That we may complete the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance…” “For all civil authorities, and our armed forces; grant them, O Lord, peaceful times, that we in their tranquility  may lead a calm and peaceful life in all reverence and godliness.” “For the peace and stability of the whole world …” “Give peace to thy world, to thy churches, to the priests, to the civil authorities, to the armed forces and to all thy people…”

It seems clear that in the Orthodox understanding, peace is the foundation of all else that is good. The peace of God in our hearts leads us to be at peace with other people, to peace in the world. Peace in the world provides the stability which makes civilized society possible, allowing people to seek God in peace.

At every Divine Liturgy we pray for the armed forces. But in the Orthodox understanding, the function of the military is not to make war, but to establish and preserve peace. This interconnection is expressed fully, I think, in this petition from the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil: “Be mindful, O Lord, of all civil authorities and of our armed forces; grant them a secure and lasting peace; speak good things in their hearts concerning thy Church and all thy people, that we in their tranquility [i.e. the peace they provide] may lead a calm and peaceful life in all reverence and godliness.”

Saint John Chrysostom on the Priority of Peace

Saint John Chrysostom summed up the Orthodox approach, surely applying it not only to personal relationships but also to world affairs, since he was Archbishop of the imperial city. The Emperor and Empress were listening to him (except maybe Empress Eudoxia!), and it was their job to apply Orthodox teaching to the Empire. I’m wondering if Orthodoxy even made the distinction between “inner” and “external” peace that we do.

Chrysostom said: “God is not a God of war and fighting. Make war and fighting to cease, both that which is against Him, and that which is against your neighbor. Be at peace with all men, consider with what character God saves you. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God’… Matthew 5:9 … The more your brother wars against you, by so much the greater will be your reward. For hear the prophet who says, ‘With the haters of peace I was peaceful.’ Psalm 120:7 This virtue which is beyond understanding makes us near to God. Nothing so much delights God as [for us] to remember no evil. This sets you free from sins, this looses the charge against you. But if we are fighting and clashing, we come to be far from God: for conflicts produce hatred, and from hatred springs remembrance [not of God but] of evil.” John Chrysostom, Homily XIV on Philippians

Those are the Orthodox principles regarding peace, whether in our hearts or in the world.

How some Non-Orthodox have lately prioritized Peace

Warning: Paragraph after next, I am going to get into politics – but for the most part not current events. (That would be pretty dicey.) This will be ancient history to many of you. But not to me. I remember much of this.

It involved people who, I suspect, knew nothing about the Orthodox Fathers, though many of them were Christians of various sorts. (This was before Europe went secular.) This suggests to me that what Christ and the Fathers taught about peace was really just good common sense, reflecting what God has built into the nature of human affairs. Isn’t it obvious that peace tends to promote peace, and violence increases violence? Without referring to Christ and the Fathers at all, can’t we think of a multitude of cases where this has been true?

Now for the politics.

World War I, that horrible pointless war, was to be “the war to end all wars”. Afterwards the League of Nations was formed to try to prevent another war – but the United States refused to join, and that pretty much killed the project. The Allied Powers proceeded to punish Germany, requiring them to try to pay for all the damage they had done. This caused the German economy to fall apart. (Read up on it for yourself. It was awful.) Many Germans blamed the victors for it, and in desperation turned to a strong man – and once Hitler took control it was too late for peace. World War II, which was far more horrible, followed. The “war to end all wars” obviously hadn’t worked. To put it mildly.

Therefore, after World War II the great powers of the world decided to try something else. This time, when Germany and most of Europe were in shambles, the United States government decided to try to “create peace” and keep another major war from happening. (As an American, I am so proud of this!) The European Recovery Program (popularly called the Marshall Plan, after General George Marshall who had proposed it) was an American initiative to aid Europe, overwhelmingly passed by Congress in 1948. The United States gave $13.3 billion (about $100 billion in current US dollars) in economic assistance to help rebuild Western Europe – including our recent enemy, Germany. It worked. * Western Europe emerged with democracies, no dictators. Germany became the peaceful powerhouse of Western Europe and remains one of our chief allies. And if this should ever cease to be, the result would be…?

* I wonder what a “Marshall Plan” for Central America might accomplish today.

Also the Europeans themselves decided to find a way to build and keep the peace, to work together and support each other instead of making war with each other, as European countries had been doing for longer than anyone could remember. They formed the European Economic Community, later renamed the European Union (the EU). It also worked. In over 70 years there have been no wars among EU members. The EU was not perfectly designed and certainly needs some reforming. But the attempts today to dismantle the EU simply show that, after a couple of generations, people no longer remember. And the result will be…?

Also, after World War II, the great powers of the world formed the United Nations, dedicated to preventing another world war by laying the foundations of peace through humanitarian aid and cooperation. The UN has been dysfunctional in some ways and needs reforming, but it has provided an enormous amount of humanitarian aid in a multitude of ways in a multitude of countries. It has been widely condemned or ignored by some in the United States. However, the fact remains that before the UN there had been two world wars in 20 years. In the nearly 75 years since its foundation, has there been another world war?

Then, when the Soviet Union became a threat, the Western nations formed NATO (the North Atlantic Treat Organization), using our armed forces for their proper role – preventing war, preserving the peace. That also has worked. Despite coming to the edge of nuclear war (which terrified us several times in my youth) there has been no war. And if NATO should fall apart, the result would be…? *

  • P.S. [after publication]: A comment from Alan (see way below) has made me want to revise what I said above. Regarding NATO, I should have said “That also worked… there was no war… If NATO had not existed, the result would have been…? Whether NATO serves the same purpose today is a political issue that can be debated, and I didn’t intend to get into that here.

In the preceding paragraphs I know I have oversimplified enormously. Many other factors have been involved. But still… these were all attempts to create peace in the classic Orthodox way, and they seem to have worked.

Can Orthodox Leaders today prioritize Peace in the World?

In recent centuries there have been few opportunities for Orthodox countries or their leaders to do much of anything but survive, let alone try to create peace. The only modern exception is Russia, now a powerful Orthodox country. Russia has many reasons to be suspicious of the West: Napoleon’s invasion (the “1812 Overture”), Hitler’s invasion and more. Communism was a disastrous Western atheistic ideology imposed on Orthodox Russia. Their post-Communist experiment with Western “unbridled capitalism” was another disaster, except for the “oligarchs”. They now feel threatened, surrounded by NATO.

However, I remember when the United States and the Soviet Union were making treaties to limit missiles with the purpose of trying to reduce the threat of war. The first of these was signed in 1987 by Mikhail Gorbachev (baptized Orthodox, a Communist reformer who late in life admitted that he had always been a Christian) and Ronald Reagan (an evangelical Christian of a sort) whose peacemaking efforts are now largely forgotten. Both countries then began to systematically reduce our nuclear stockpiles in hopes of preventing war and achieving peace.

Whatever happened to all this? Now we’re all building up our nuclear weapons again.

I think it was during Holy Week 2018 that our very Orthodox Vladimir Putin (right: one of many available pictures showing him lighting candles) announced Russia’s new hypersonic nuclear missile, with “invincible” power to destroy enemy civilizations. It’s hard to know what to expect from the United States these days, but why could not Mr. Putin, as an Orthodox Christian with great power, be taking the lead in trying to create peace? laying the foundations for peace in the world?

OK  I’m done with politics. In the preceding I was for the most part just describing. And wondering. And wishing. And asking. And maybe daring to hope just a little?

How can We apply Orthodox Principles about Peace?

How to create peace in our personal lives is perfectly obvious. Brothers and sisters, stop fighting with each other! Do good to all people, even – no, especially – your enemies. When they go low, we go high. Create peace. Of course, if peacemaking fails, defend yourselves, defend others, if an enemy invades defend your country. Don’t let nasty people run all over you. (That is not good for their souls.) Try to keep crazy people with guns from shooting up your kids or your church. * But stop petty pointless bickering.

  • That’s another interesting subject which I probably shouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole, but maybe I will someday. Or maybe not.

But this article  is about War and Peace in the world. So back to the original questions.

What should we, as Orthodox Christians, think about a possible war with Iran or North Korea or whoever? Should we make use of the Just War Theory? How do we apply Orthodox principles to the world?

That is for you and me to try to decide. We Orthodox need not come to the same conclusions. But (forgive me) I do wish Orthodox leaders and people today would get as excited about the traditional Orthodox principles regarding peacemaking *, as they do about the traditional Orthodox principles regarding abortion and homosexuality.

  • In this regard I just came across an interesting statement on the subject from the Russian Orthodox Church. https://mospat.ru/en/documents/social-concepts/viii/  Have I missed anything from our American bishops? If so, please add it to Comments below, and I will apologize.

However, unlike some religious groups, the Orthodox Church does not expect her members to all vote the same way. But we all do vote, don’t we? (I hope.) So don’t just go along with the flow of modern politics. “Inform your conscience”, as it is sometimes called. Learn about the issues, seeking the facts, the truth – don’t just absorb the propaganda. Learn the Orthodox way. Think in the Orthodox way.  So that you, as an Orthodox Christian, can justify what you think and how you vote before God.

And here, I believe, is where we should start our thinking: “Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, and give no place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. Therefore ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:17-21


Out of all this, I think we should especially remember these things:

1  The chief work of Orthodox Christians is not negative but positive. We are to do the things that create peace. War or fighting of any sort is almost always the result of not having done the things (often for many years) that would have made for peace.

2  If we should go to war again, whether we “win” or not, from the Orthodox point of view we will have lost. War is always failure, never a good thing. Sometimes it may be the lesser of evils, but it is always, in a multitude of ways, a grave evil. 

+     +     +     +     +     +     +

If you want to go deeper into this subject from the Orthodox point of view, there’s a lot online. Google it, taking care to seek genuine Orthodox sources. (There are a lot of freaks online.) I’d recommend beginning with:

Orthodox Perspectives on Peace, War and Violence by Dr. Philip LeMasters in The Ecumenical Review. See: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1758-6623.2010.00093.xOrthodox

An interesting article by Dr. Timothy Patitsas from the journal Road to Emmaus (well worth subscribing to), recommended by one of our commenters. Among many things he deals with a subject I’ve omitted: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the horrible negative effects which war can sometimes have on combatants. (I could tell you some stories.) Our national leaders rarely take this into account when making war, but Dr. Patitsas says this is something the Orthodox Church was aware of long ago. See: https://www.roadtoemmaus.net/back_issue_articles/RTE_52/THE_OPPOSITE_OF_WAR_IS_NOT_PEACE.pdf

Next Week and Week after Next: Now that we have solved the problems of the world…. It’s summer! Let’s take a break! – My 2011 Trip to Greece

11 thoughts on “128. War and Peace, Part Three – The Orthodox Priority of Creating Peace

  1. Thank you Fr. Very nice job navigating the political minefield. I would only quibble with one minor point. You asked “And if NATO should fall apart, the result would be…?” Well, if it fell apart, that would likely be a good thing for the world. Someone needs to ask the obvious question: Since NATO was created to counteract communism in Europe, why did it need to continue on as an entity, after communism fell in Europe? How many billions of dollars has the US poured into NATO since the fall of communism in Europe, now almost THREE decades ago? But I suppose anyone who asks those questions might also be inclined to ask other questions that good, patriotic Americans aren’t supposed to ask. Other questions like why do we still have bases in Germany and Japan, when the war there ended SEVENTY FOUR years ago? Thanks again Father.

    1. Thanks, Alan. Good point. I’ve gone back and added a P.S. at that point in the article to say what I intended to say. That should clarify things. I hope? Maybe?

  2. “I wonder what a “Marshall Plan” for Central America might accomplish today.”

    Is that our responsibility, though? We had practical interests in helping to reconstruct Europe after WWII. If not us, then the Soviet Union would have happily filled the void. That $13 billion investment paid untold dividends in creating a vibrant economy capable of being a bulwark against Soviet influence. Same for Japan. Leaving the Japanese in ruins would have endangered the western Pacific. Had we invested as heavily in China after the war, perhaps we could have headed off Mao. Imagine if China had been on the same economic trajectory as Japan after the war.

    I don’t think it’s America’s responsibility to “money bomb” problem areas around the world, though. I think it would be inexcusable to pour $100 billion into Central America while we have crises of homelessness, mental illness, drug abuse, and crumbling infrastructure that remain unsolved. It would likely produce better results than literally bombing problem areas, but we do have a touch of a debt problem. Borrowing money from China to lavish on Central America seems like using the credit card you share with your wife to buy Christmas presents for your girlfriend’s kids.

    “I think it was during Holy Week 2018 that our very Orthodox Vladimir Putin…”

    I hope that was simply an omission of the sarcasm font. I can’t find it on my computer, either. Microsoft needs to do something about that.

    1. Thanks, Kevin. Funny! In what follows here I’m not arguing in favor of anything. However the Central American problem certainly is impinging on us. And as I understand it, many of their problems are related to gangs supplying drugs to the US, their best customer. In the past we have overthrown a number of Central America governments and installed “our guys”. Christians are, of course, supposed to care for the needy somehow. Can we maybe talk the EU into covering everything? Their budgets are mostly balanced. (That was offered facetiously.) Regarding Mr. Putin: touche!

  3. Thank you Father for these eye opening articles. I’m not Orthodox and I’m finding their reaction to war and peace very interesting and so different from the way I was raised in Christian Protestantism.
    I wanted to know how you might explain to a non-Christian this quote “
    Chrysostom said: “God is not a God of war and fighting. Make war and fighting to cease, both that which is against Him, and that which is against your neighbor“
    If you read the Old Testament one would see the wars and fighting God told Israel to be apart of etc.
    How do you reconcile that? I know Jesus is the Prince of Peace and the New Testament encourages peace and love, I’m just not sure what to say about the numerous wars and killings in the O.T. that God basically commanded.

    Thank you Father,
    Christ has Risen, Truly he has Risen!

    1. Here is my understanding: Orthodox do not require a literal acceptance of every word in the Bible. Even a few things that Saint Paul wrote the Church has never picked up on. We see the Old Testament as the progressive revelation of God and his will, in preparation for the ultimate revelation in Jesus Christ. During the Old Testament, as God revealed himself people gradually grew in their understanding. So in the early parts of the Old Testament, don’t expect too much too soon. For example, in the Ten Commandments, God required “You shall have no other gods but me”, as if there might be other gods. Eventually the Jews came to understand that there can be only one true God. Likewise with the moral life. Did God commanded Joshua to wipe out Jericho? I doubt it. But I don’t doubt that Jesus commanded us to love our enemies, love our neighbors as we love ourselves. That is the ultimate revelation of God’s will.

      1. Fr Bill, thank you for your article and your thoughts. I am not sure I track with you on the OT Canaan questions, though. It’s also very possible I am still working through Reformed lenses on that, but my understanding has been that:
        1) St Paul says that all the history of Israel is pedagogical
        2) The Joshua/Canaanite paradigm is a picture of the Christ/demons paradigm
        3) The Canaanites included among their number Anakim/Nephilim that were under a unique ban by God (your colleague Fr Stephen DeYoung has a post on this heading: https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/wholecounsel/2018/10/09/here-there-be-giants/ )
        4) The Canaanites who repented and sought refuge with Israel were indeed received and protected (notably Rahab, who is in the line of Christ, but also the city of Gibeon).

        The sum total of the above leaves me thinking that God had his reasons (explained in the books of Moses as “the iniquity of the Amorites is / is not yet complete”), and just as we don’t dispute the Divine supervision of the overthrow of Sodom and the cities of the valley, we ought not dispute the Canaanite conquest. Just as we don’t take Sodom and Gomorrah as normative (Jesus would NOT let the Sons of Thunder re-create that act on Samaritans), neither do we take the conquest as normative. Just as we see the utter incompatibility of holiness with evil in these narratives, so should we flee to the mountain of Christ from our passions, and call on our great General who makes war in righteousness to drive out our sins and the demons. Just as Christ made this war by self-emptying love and obedience to the Father, so we take up only that weapon, the Cross, and lose our lives to follow Him.

        Maybe I’m not getting to your point above, but where Maggie sees an unresolved tension, and you seem to suggest a non-literal reading, I just see a shadow that gets fulfilled in Christ, and serves as an example for the Christian life. Am I missing the point?

        Thank you again, and please forgive me if I have gotten off-topic. I am thankful for your writing and your perspective.

        Christ is Risen!
        Mark M.

        1. Mark:

          The simple answer is: I don’t know. But I still incline to my approach. In light of the ultimate revelation in Jesus Christ, I can’t believe that our good God has ever wanted anybody to wipe out anybody – except in defense of others. I think the Hebrews destroyed Jericho (if the story is historically accurate) because in those pre-Christian days they didn’t know any better, and then read God’s will into it. I think we just should accept the “pedagogical” element, take the message, and move on.I don’t think Christians required any more of such stories till after Protestant Scriptural literalism came along. It didn’t occur to them to ask the kinds of questions we do today. However, I would never approach the later Old Testament or the Gospels that way – these were stories grounded in history, well-documented by those who were present at the time. Now have I got off-topic? I’m no expert. The preceding is mostly just opinion and blathering.

          Father Bill

        2. Mark, I was out of town last week and didn’t get around to reading Fr Stephen deYoung’s article. My reaction: Hmm… Very interesting but speculative at best. I know own my reply from last week has the danger of falling into the trap of “demythologizing” the early Old Testament. I don’t intend that. Well, for the most part. But I think it is fair to read and interpret the OT in light of Christ.

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