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Pacifism, militarism and Christianity

1 December 2010

I recently read an interesting article by John Milbank, Power is necessary for peace: in defence of Constantine. It helped me to understand why, as an Orthodox Christian, I often feel closer to Mennonites than I do to most other varieties of Protestants.

Unfortunately the site where it was published won’t allow me to cite it, so I’ll cite one of the books that Milbank cites instead:

Black Lamb and Grey FalconBlack Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The author and her husband travel through Yugoslavia in the 1930s, describing the places they visited and the people that they met, and giving a lot of the history of the places too. They visit the field of Kosovo Polje, where Prince Lazar died after being brought a message by an angel in the guise of a grey falcon.

Milbank notes that West grappled with the dilemma of whether one should remain ideologically pure, or whether one should compromise with the expediencies of power. According to Milbank, West associated the cause of non-compromise both with Eastern Orthodoxy and with modern left-wing political idealism.

West visited Yugoslavia when the cult of naked power was evident in Nazism, and the dilemma of those inclined to pacifism was whether to compromise their moral principles by taking up arms against the Nazi menace.

I’m not sure how West (according to Milbank)  sees the Orthodox Church as associated with non-compromise, though. Unlike the Mennonites and Quakers, the Orthodox Church is not a “peace church”, with an ideological pacifist stance. The Orthodox Church has soldier saints and pacifist saints, including both those who fought and those who refused to fight. And Stalin eased up on his persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church when he needed its support in the Great Patriotic War against the Nazis, even though Stalinism bore a more than superficial resemblance to Nazism. And the Russian Orthodox Church compromised.

It seems to me that the dilemma is far stronger in Western Christianity, which tends to be legalistic. In Western Christianity there have been great debates about justification by grace or faith, and arguments about whether salvation is by faith or grace on one hand, or by works on the other. Whatever position people take in the debate, it seems to be common cause that “salvation” consists primarily in “justification”. Whether or not a man can justify himself, or needs a saviour to justify him, there seems to be little doubt that he needs justification. There’s an interesting specimen of this kind of discussion here: Experimental Theology: The Sermon, Grace & Justification.

And so with the question of pacifism or militarism. In the West this is approched legalistically: is killing justified or not? Is it a “just” war? So pacifists say that no war can ever be justified, therefore participating in a war is a moral evil that cannot be condoned. And on the other hand there are those who seem to believe that war is an unmitigated good, and that military medals should not be “feminized” by giving them to those who save lives rather than to those who kill more people (see the earlier discussion on this blog here).

And in these things, it seems to me, the Orthodox Church is not legalistic, and does not see things primarily or exclusively in terms of “justification”. There is no such thing as a “just war”. And because killing someone may be “justifiable” in law does not mean that it is not a sin that one should confess. If you kill someone in self-defence, because they are attacking you and your life is in imminent danger, the law may regard it as justifiable homicide, and may therefore acquit you on a charge of murder. But a Christian, even though thus “justified” in the eyes of the law, will not therefore claim that the action of killing the other person was right and good, but will rather confess it as a sin with weeping and repentance. And this applies to those who kill in war or in abortion or in other circumstances. Obsession with “justification” makes easy to become self-righteous and filled with moral indignation against soldiers, or abortionists or whoever commits sins that aren’t our own favourite sins. And Western Christianity, for all its obsession with justification, is not entirely without awareness of this. It can be good to read G.K. Chesterton’s short story, The hammer of God — if you don’t know it, click here and read it, it won’t take long.

And the ideal of “justification by faith” is as easy to compromise as any other idealistic ideology.

Once I was involved with a church (not an Orthodox Church) where we invited an evangelical group to come and help run a programme for children during the school holidays. We called it a Vacation Bible School. The members of the outside group did this frequently, going to churches all over the town. For two hours they organised activities for the children, games and competitions, most of which required a lot of running around. The last hour began with a prizegiving — small prizes were given to the winners of the games and competitions, accompanied by applause. And, with the children tired out after all the activity, the could sit still and not fidget for 45 minutes to listen to a sermon on justification by faith and not by works. The trouble was that the words went right over their heads, because the lesson of the previous two hours had been one of justification by works — the one who ran the fastest, or dressed up in the fanciest fancy dress, or produced the best drawing was the one who won the prize. There was no grace about it — it was works all the way.If they had wanted to teach justification by grace, they should have given prizes to all the children, along the lines of the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1-16).

The Orthodox Church has often compromised with power, perhaps for reasons similar to those suggested by John Milbank, but there is quite an interesting thing: some Orthodox kings who had power are recognised as saints, and many of them ended their lives not in palaces but in monasteries, where they could repent of their compromises with power. Compromising with power may at times be unavoidable, but, like war, it is never “justified”.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 1 December 2010 9:52 pm

    Steve, complicating the picture in the west is that there are at least 2 varieties of pacifism: liberal pacifism and anabaptist pacifism. Speaking for the latter, we’re actually more concerned with discipleship than justification when talking amongst ourselves (and this is where some affinity with the orthodox comes in I think). Where we do become embroiled in questions about justification is in debates with others, for whom justification is a far more central concern. So its externally, not internally generated.

    I was particularly taken with some comments by Fredericka Mathews-Green who said the Orthodox were more concerned with future sin than past sin. With Calvinists and Catholics out of the picture I think western Anabaptists and eastern Orthodox could have some very fruitful discussions about what it means to become more peaceable and Christlike.

    • 2 December 2010 6:03 am

      Yes. In the discussion I referred to about the Sermon on the Mount, and perhaps reducing it to the Beatitudes, I think that one does not behave like that in order to be saved, but it is a description of the behaviour of the saved. As someone else once put it, Christianity is indicative, not imperative.

  2. 1 December 2010 10:32 pm

    Such discussions tend to remind me of Bonnhoeffer’s decision to participate in the attempted assasination of Hitler. He was deeply aware of that being a sinful, even though he judged it to be a necessary one.

    • 2 December 2010 2:16 am

      Yes, Bonnhoeffer’s reaction to Hitler was very much like mine to Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein was an evil dictator and the world would be better off without him. Assassinating him would be a sin, but maybe the lesser of two evils when compared to illegally invading a country and leaving it in chaos for a couple of decades or more.

      OTOH what I found strange was at one of the congregations we used to attend before the invasion they were talking about praying for country leaders of Bush and Blair since in Christian Scriptures it talks about praying for all leaders since they are appointed by God. OK, so… logically doesn’t that make Saddam Hussein ALSO appointed by God? Hitler too?

      Then we get into the huge controversy of free will and predestination. Then I get wanting to wipe all that discussion off the table and say it’s irrelevant, what is relevant is our relationship to our Father. Being a disciple is about following our Master on the way to the cross… the legalistic determination of theology cannot be that important or Jesus would have taught a systematic theology course to his disciples… instead he said ‘follow me’.

  3. 2 December 2010 11:19 am

    @Richard. Yes, logically is does follow that Saddam Hussein was also appointed by God.

    @Steve. Causes me to also pause and relect how militarists focus on exceptional circumstances, where nonviolent solutions are hard to find, over normal circumstances, where there is generally a choise between violent and nonviolent solutions. By citing possible exceptions they think it justifies ignoring the general rule, the call to suffering servanthood.

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