Pacifism, Orthodoxy and the “just war”
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.
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.
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.