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Pacifism, Orthodoxy and the “just war”

14 July 2011

Most people who know anything about the Orthodox Church know that it is not a “peace church”, like the Quakers or the Mennonites. But Western Christians who know something about theology are often puzzled when they discover that the Orthodox Church also rejects the theological notion of the “just war”.

Orthodox Christians don’t get involved in great ethical discussions about whether a particular war is “just”, and therefore whether it is “legitimate” for Christians to fight in it. In Orthodox theology there can be no such thing as a “just” war.

Hat-tip to Fr Obregon (the Orthocuban) for pointing to this site where the matter is explained clearly and succinctly: OCA – Q & A – War and non-violence

total pacifism is not only possible, it is the sign of greatest perfection, the perfection of the Kingdom of God. According to the Orthodox understanding, however, pacifism can never be a social or political philosophy for this world; although once again, a non-violent means to an end is always to be preferred in every case to a violent means.

When violence must be used as a lesser evil to prevent greater evils, it can never be blessed as such, it must always be repented of, and it must never be identified with perfect Christian morality.

In Orthodox theology there is no such thing as “justifiable homicide”. The soldier who kills in battle needs to repent of that and confess it. Perhaps the difference is that in Western theology legalism tends to be prominent. The concept of “justification” is very important, so that it has long been central to Western soteriology, leading to debates about “justification by faith” and “justification by works” and “justification by grace”. Whatever the parties to such debates disagree about, the one thing they are all agreed about is the importance and centrality of justification. Hence the concern with such concepts as “just” war and “justifiable” homicide.

SS Boris & Gleb, Passionbearers. Honoured for refusing to fight.

The same applies, mutatis mutandis to Western arguments about abortion. The thing that it is wrong with abortion, for many Western Christians, is that it is the taking of “innocent” life — so legalism intrudes yet again. If it were “guilty” life, then the killing might be “justified”. In one of the classic examples of a moral dilemma, the obstetrician who is faced with the choice of saving the life of the mother or the child, and there is no possibility of saving both. If the obstetrician has to kill the child so that the mother may live (or vice versa), in Orthodoxy there is no question of either killing being “justified”. Whatever happens, the need to repent remains. “Justification” means that there is no need for repentance. For the Orthodox, killing someone, even accidentally, always requires repentance. And so it is with the soldier who kills in battle.

And so the Orthodox Church has among its saints both pacifists and soldiers; those who fought and those who refused to fight, and those in between like St Boris and St Gleb, the Passionbearers, who were selective conscientious objectors.

But pacifism is a “more excellent way”.

For more, have a look at the web site of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. Isaiah permalink
    14 July 2011 6:27 pm

    Out of curiosity how would Orthodoxy engage with current trends in western peace churches to see nonviolent direct action as an application of their pacifism (taking a cue from MLK jr and authors like John Howard Yoder)? Your comment about pacifism in Orthodoxy not having political connotations help spur this question…

    • 15 July 2011 6:00 am

      I was hoping that someone else might respond to that, because I don’t really see the connection.

      Orthodox Christians have sometimes engaged in violent direct action (example here), but pacifism suggests that it is preferable for it to be non-violent. But that has little to do with pacifism as a political policy (eg When we get into power we will abolish the armed forces and disarm the police”).

  2. John permalink
    9 December 2012 6:21 pm

    I’ve a bit confused. So if he Jesus had tripped and accidentally killed someone, he would be judged guilty and would have had to repent? Hmm.

    And if Jesus himself encountered a situation where it was absolutely necessary to use violence, else only more violence would result, what would He have done? i.e. a situation where twenty children are about to be tortured to death by a mad man… Jesus is locked in a cage a mile away and has no way of communicated with this guy or trying to convince him to take another option, or otherwise offering any legitimate ‘non-violent resistance’… however someone has implanted a deadly device inside the would-be torturer’s heart, and given Jesus a switch he can pull which will kill him. So if Jesus doesn’t act, these children will undoubtedly suffer horrible deaths… the only possible action is direct violent by pulling that switch, there’s no possibility to persuade or disable the person… and to top it off nobody is even around to see all this (not even the murderer or children, as they have no idea about the switch and as far as they’ll be concerned he’ll just have randomly died of a heart attack first) so there’s no moral lesson about the disarming power of non-violence or some other such nonsense to be gained by anyone. ANYWAY in that situation… what would Jesus do? I’d find it horrifying if he would just let the children be tortured to death. But if he wouldn’t, wouldn’t he be guilty of sin under your definition? Which the Bible says Jesus can never do?

    I find that if we expand the meaning of sin so much that it makes even Jesus Christ a sinner, we’ve probably gone a little astray.

    (although actually… maybe this is just the kind of ‘sin’ Jesus perhaps ‘repented’ of at his baptism? So he was never truly ‘guilty’ in the sense of having wronged God, of failing to show love for God and the good and taking the best possible path… but he still acquired a kind of ritual impurity simply by being a member of this world, and sometimes being compelled to do things which wouldn’t be going on in a perfect world? e.g. in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus counsels non-anger as the first-preference… but later he obviously gets pretty furious at the Pharisees, is basically deeply insulting and what we moderns would probably call ‘nasty’ to them, and takes a whip and drives them out of the temple! Another ritual impurity perhaps?

    I know this is a bit late, but would love to hear your thoughts 🙂


  1. Conflict, violence, and non-violence « Khanya

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