By V. Rev. Fr. Peter-Michael Prebl
Once again, the world waits as the government of the United States and her allies decide what should be done about the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The United Nations is at the present time investigating the use of these weapons, but the U.S. is convinced that this was the work of the Assad government and not that of the rebels. The world is once again on the eve of war and peace loving people around the globe are holding their breath.
Each time I serve the Orthodox Divine Liturgy I am reminded of the words from the Beatitudes from Matthew Chapter 5; Blessed are the peacemakers. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is a peacemaker, thus it is the role of the Church to continue this mission. In his book Contemporary Moral Issues Facing Orthodox Christians, Fr. Stanley Harakas says, “the Church as a whole and its ethical teaching is opposed to war, which it sees as a most terrible evil which nations inflict upon each other. In the strict sense of the word, there is no good war.”
From an Orthodox perspective there is no possibility of a just war, as all war is evil and therefore cannot be justified for any reason.
The entirety of the Orthodox spiritual life requires humanity to be at peace with itself and with one another. The Great Litany is used each time the Orthodox gather for worship. The litany begins with the words, “In peace let us pray to the Lord”, and the word peace appears three more times in that litany alone. During the services of the Orthodox Church the faithful continually pray for peace so that we may live out our spiritual lives in harmony with all of humanity. We are to share God’s peace with those around us and in doing so we imitate the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ and we participate in His work.
But what are we to do when there is great evil being done to innocent human beings, as we have witnessed in Syria? We are to strive for peace without question, but we must also care for those who are in harm’s way, so this puts the Orthodox Christian in what would seem an untenable position. Peace is a great virtue and should be sought after in love but, according to Fr. Harakas with the onset of the Christian Byzantine Empire the Church recognized the possibility of a just war to protect the innocent.
As much as we strive for peace there is an understanding that sometimes war is inevitable but that all peaceful resources should be exhausted first. Governments have the moral obligation to protect their citizens from attack from both inside and outside, and to make this possible there must be an army. However, that army should only be used for defense and not for offense or retribution.
From an Orthodox perspective there is no justification for war; even a war of defense is a lesser evil but is still an evil. The Orthodox Church, by faith and practice, believes that peace is normal and just. Therefore, war would be not only evil but it would be non-normative. We are to seek peace in each and every situation. The Greek Fathers wrote about peace in all situations and as such there would be no Orthodox Just War Theory as exists in Western theological thought.
St. Basil the Great, writing in the 4th century, taught that although an act of violence might be necessary in the defense of the weak it is never justifiable. "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" -- Canon 13 of St. Basil.
Writing in May of 1999, His All Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew said that, "...the irrationality of war is evident from its effect on humanity and on the natural environment." We must use spiritual vigilance to safeguard the world from destruction and work to address the causes of war and strife in our world. During another speech in 1999 His All Holiness stated, "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.”
The decision to go to war, even for defensive purposes, is not one that should be entered into lightly. Consultation needs to be made and all of the laws, both of the nation as well as international, should be followed. Those engaged in the war should fight with the best principles in mind and in justice. Innocent civilians should be protected at all costs and destruction of personal property should be kept to a minimum.
It is a result of our fallen human nature that there is evil in this world and sometimes violence is necessary to overcome that evil. It is my prayer that a peaceful solution can be found to end this horrific situation in Syria and in Egypt but if peace does not work that hostilities are kept to a minimum.
Preble is an Orthodox priest in the Romanian Orthodox Archdiocese in the Americas. He is pastor of St. Michael Orthodox Christian Church in Southbridge, Massachusetts and host of the podcast Shepherd of Souls. He is a Stavrofor monk, author, speaker and essayist.