What does the Church say about war?
One may ask, “How can we pray for peace and at the same time pray for our armed forces?” Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople declares: “war and violence are never means used by God in order to achieve a [just] result.” 1 Can there ever be justification for war? He continues: only “in a few specific cases the Orthodox Church forgives an armed defense against oppression 2 and violence.” He then goes on to set forth the axiom: it is better “to be treated with injustice ourselves than to do injustice to others.” 3 Elsewhere, in what became a famous declaration, he makes it clear that religion-motivated wars are unacceptable: “a war in the name of religion is a war against religion.” 4
Patriarch of Constantinople
It is, nevertheless, our moral obligation to defend our country when threatened. The government has the authority to execute and wage war. St. Athanasios the Great († A.D. 373) states that although “it is not permissible to murder anyone (cf. Ex. 20:13), yet in war it is praiseworthy and lawful to slay the adversaries.” 5 St. Basil the Great († A.D. 379), however, reflecting somberly upon this “rule,” mitigates its impact: “Our Fathers did not consider killings committed in the course of wars to be classifiable as murders at all, on the score, it seems to me, of allowing a pardon to men fighting in defense of sobriety and piety. Perhaps, though, it might be advisable to refuse them communion for three years, on the ground [sic] that they are not clean-handed.” 6
There is a certain justification in taking up arms, because, as St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite († 1809) explains,
“if once the barbarians and infidels should succeed in gaining the upper hand, neither piety will be left, since they disregard it and seek to establish their own wicked faith and bad belief, nor sobriety and maintenance of honor, seeing that their victory would be followed by many instances of violation and ravishment of young women and of young men.” 7
In our fallen world sometimes we are left with no clear choice between good and evil, but between evil and lesser evil. “Justifiable war” falls in this last category. 8 Nevertheless, we Christians are called to bless everyone (Rom. 12:14), and love our enemies (Mt. 5:44)—not kill them. The ideal is shown in the Church’s Canons, which prescribe that priests and monks are not to serve in the armed forces. 9
- Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, “War and Suffering,” Cosmic Grace - Humble Prayer: e Ecological Vision of the Green Patriarch Bartholomew I. Ed. John Chryssavgis, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan 2003, p. 262.
- o.c., p. 263. St. John Chrysostom wrote: “It is certainly for us a greater and more wonderful work to change the minds of our enemies, bringing about a change of soul, than to kill them.”
- Speech by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to the C.E.O. of Istanbul Ministry “Fundamentalism and Faith in the New Millenium: A View from the Crossroads Between East and West,” October 25, 1995.
- St. Athanasios the Great, First Letter to Amoun.
- Canon 13 of St. Basil (Rudder, p. 801).
- St. Nicodemos, Interpretation of Canon 13 of St. Basil (Rudder, p. 801).
- See a recent study from an Orthodox perspective on war, The Virtue of War, Reclaiming the Classic Christian Traditions East and West, by Fr. Alexander F.C. Webster and Dr. Darrell Cole, Regina Orthodox Press, Salisbury, MA 2004. Both quotations in this paragraph and the one in the next from the Fathers are mentioned and discussed by the authors on pp. 75-77.
- Canon 7 of the Fourth Ecumenical Synod and Canon 83 of the Apostles, among others. The justification for the prohibition is stated in a letter of St. Gregory of Nyssa which became a Canon of the Church (Canon 5), which states that should a priest “fall into the defilement of murder even involuntarily (i. e. in self-defense), he will be deprived of the grace of the priesthood, which he will have profaned by this sacrilegious crime.” They whose hands have shed blood can no longer be icons of Christ and are not suited to serve at the altar.
4 thoughts on “What does the Church say about war?”
War as a “lesser evil”? That’s a moral oxymoron perpetuated by many of my colleagues in moral theology, including my mentor, Fr. Stanley Harakas, and, unfortunately, parroted by many. Father, you might take a close look at my co-authored book, The Virtue of War: Reclaiming the Classic Traditions of East and West (2004)), esp. ch. 5
Dear Father Alexander,
I’m not a proponent of the “lesser evil.” I wasn’t even aware of a “lesser evil” culture, and I won’t enter into a debate about it. I don’t even believe in a “moral theology.” Fr. Harakas was also my professor, but certainly not my mentor. Prof. George Manzaridis is. He treats “The problem of war” in his book Christian Ethics (pp. 347-52) (in Greek).
I don’t want to embarrass you, Father, but you must have missed my note in the last paragraph, which not only refers to your book (which I own), but even quotes from it. I really feel we are on the same page on this subject.
Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople declares: “war and violence are never means used by God in order to achieve a [just] result.”
This from the Patriarchate that does not hesitate to call out Greek police to beat monks, priests, and presvyteras who do not conform to its anti-orthodox decrees.
You are right on again, Isidora.
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice” (Mt. 23:2-3)