Just war

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Just war doctrine attempts to define situations in which the waging of war becomes a moral necessity. It lays out criteria by which a Christian is intended to determine whether or not a specific war was entered into and is conducted in a virtuous manner, so that killing would become a moral necessity. Although the Orthodox Church has used something like a "just war" doctrine to determine when a state or empire may engage in armed conflict, it has nevertheless always considered killing even in such cases to be a sin, and has thus required the therapy of repentance.

Humanities, Social Sciences, and the Church

Many sociologists are intrigued with examining the formation and results of wars in order to gain understanding of why war continues to reoccur throughout the world.
The Greek philosopher Heracleitus believed war to be the "father of all...."
The Church teaches that God is the "Father Almighty."

Holy Scripture and the Tradition of the Church

In St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans, God is referred to as a "God of peace" (Romans 15:33). The development of a war is a result of a separation from God, which is also a separation from peace and love. Since God is the source of our existence, separation from God leads to chaos and destruction.

"If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword…" (Isaiah 1:19-20).
"…for all who take the sword will perish by the sword" (Matthew 26:52).
"…for the authority (civil) does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer" (Romans 13:4).

Christians are focused on peace and must work towards preserving a loving attitude that is not separate from God.

"My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews" (John 18:34).
"I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another" (John 13:34).
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God" (Matthew 5:9).

The Tradition of the Fathers and the Early Church

The Church during the first centuries was very negative towards the participation of Christians in war. Origen was completely against the idea of Christians participating in any form of military duty, while Tertullian believed that Christians should participate in military duty. Many of the Saints were involved in military duty and many Christians were members of St. Constantine’s army. The Church has always upheld her fundamental resistance towards war and does not allow clergy to be involved in any military activity.

Latin Fathers

Neither St. Ambrose nor St. Augustine accept the "just war" theory but recognized the reasons that lead to it – the defense of those unjustly treated. Never has the Church presented nor accepted a theory of "just war," but it has tolerated it to protect greater standards. War promotes its participants to murder one another and encourages all of the participants to bring victory to their side. It is difficult to have peace on earth when a man with a violent inclination has the potential to cause devastating destruction to the world.

Greek Fathers

According to Fr. Stanley Harakas, there is no ethical reasoning for war in the writings of the Greek Fathers. Fr. Harakas states that the fathers wrote that only negative impacts arise from war. Even in unavoidable circumstances, Fr. Harakas mentions that the fathers thought of war as the lesser of greater evils, but none the less evil. Fr. Harakas declares that the term "just war" is not found in the writings of the Greek Fathers. The stance of the Fathers on war is pro-peace and an Orthodox "just war" theory does not exist.

St. Athanasius

"Although one is not supposed to kill, the killing of the enemy in time of war is both a lawful and praiseworthy thing. This is why we consider individuals who have distinguished themselves in war as being worthy of great honors, and indeed public monuments are set up to celebrate their achievements. It is evident, therefore, that at one particular time, and under one set of circumstances, an act is not permissible, but when time and circumstances are right, it is both allowed and condoned" (The Letter of St. Athanasius to Amun).

Fr. John Anthony McGuckin|John McGuckin]] says that this argument is misleading since it does not deal with justifying killing during war. According to Fr. McGuckin, this letter was regarding sexual activity and uses a "rhetorical example of current opinion to show Amun that contextual variability is very important in making moral judgements." For further information, please refer to the Rudder or the Letter of St. Athanasius to Amun.

St. John Chrysostom

"Christians above all men are not permitted forcibly to correct the failings of those who sin. Secular judges indeed, when they have captured malefactors under the law, show their authority to be great, and prevent them even against their will from following their own devices: but in our case the wrong-doer must be made better, not by force, but by persuasion" (St. John Chrysostom, "On the Priesthood").

The Canonical Tradition of the Orthodox Church

Any act of violence contradicts the ethics and principles of the Kingdom of God. St. Basil states that although the act of violence may be required for the "defense of the weak and innocent…it is never justifiable."

Canon 13 of St. Basil

"Our Fathers did not consider the 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 that they are not clean-handed."

St. Basil references the beginning of this canon to St. Athanasius in order to clarify and accurately interpret what was meant in his Letter to Amun (The Rudder). St. Basil the Great did not count the "shedding of blood" committed during wars as murder, but he does require the penitent to abstain from partaking of the Eucharist for three years. Although three years may seem harsh to us today, Fr. McGuckin states that this "was actually a commonly recognized sign of merciful leniency in the ancient rule book of the early Church."

Canon 83 of the Holy Apostles

"If any Bishop, or Priest, or Deacon is engaged in military matters, and wishes to hold both a Roman (i.e.; civil) and a holy office, let him be deposed. For "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s" (Matthew 22:21).

Church and State

Christianity is responsible for first introducing the belief of non-violence. A true Christian would rather be killed than to kill. However, it is the civic duty of a Christian to obey the civil authority, not only because of fearing punishment, but since it is ethically and honorably conscience. It is inevitably understood that the will of the civil authority will conflict with God’s will over time, and it’s important to understand that "we must obey God rather than any human authority" (Acts 5:29).

The Church and the Roman (Byzantine) Empire

In the Byzantine Empire, the enemies of the State were also the enemies of the Church. So the defense of the State also became the defense of the Church. The State was considered to be protected by God since it was connected to the Church. The Church has upheld its position on war and has never deserted its stance. Emperor Nicephoros Phocas of Byzantium (963-969) requested the Church to recognize the people dying at war to be classified as martyrs.

The response was "How could they be regarded as martyrs or equal to the martyrs those who kill others or die themselves at war, when the divine canons impose a penalty on them, preventing them from coming to Divine Communion for three years."

The Church has always condemned war, but has always been tolerant of the Christian soldiers that served in a military unit. War may be necessary under certain circumstances to protect the innocent and to limit even greater evils.

Orthodoxy Today

His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I

Address in Athens, Greece on May 24, 1999

As declared by Patriarch Bartholomew, "...the irrationality of war is evident from its effect on humanity and on the natural environment."
Through spiritual vigilance and focusing on safeguarding the world from destruction, war and the causes of war must be addressed and eliminated. Peace can only be upheld if the causes of war and hostility in our times are being addressed. Some of the causes of war relate with discrimination, subjugation, hostility, and depressing social conditions. As the causes of war intensify, our chances of upholding peace in the world fade away. For these reasons, we must use all of our resources on a global scale to eliminate these causes. The uncontrollable issues that are the strongest contributors to war deal with nations overemphasizing preparations for war and increasing the manufacturing initiatives of military ammunition.

Address in Novi Sad, Serbia on October 22, 1999

Patriarch Bartholomew states that "War and violence are never means used by God in order to achieve a result. They are for the most part machinations of the devil used to achieve unlawful ends. We say "for the most part" because, as is well known, in a few specific cases the Orthodox Church forgives an armed defense against oppression and violence. However, as a rule, peaceful resolution of differences and peaceful cooperation are more pleasing to God and more beneficial to humankind."
In addition to the aforementioned statement, Patriarch Bartholomew references St. Paul's epistle to the Romans, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Romans 12:21).


Additional Reading

Orthodox References

Non-Orthodox References