The Virtue of War
Reclaiming the Classic Christian Traditions East and West
by Alexander Webster and Darrell Cole
Salisbury MA: Regina Orthodox Press, 2004;
ISBN 1-928653-17-0; $20
This book is a work of polemic. The opening chapter is a clarion call to the Christian West to realize the danger of militant Islam and gird itself to fight back and defeat it. “Nine-Eleven” is presented as a belated moment of awakening for the West, and the purpose of this book is to convince Christians of the “virtue of war,” as the title puts it: that is, to demonstrate that in certain circumstances (which include the present circumstances of an Islamic attack on Western civilization) war is not only a regrettable necessity, but a positive good, in which good ends are achieved by the virtuous means of warfare.
The book is co-written by an Orthodox priest and theologian, Fr. Alexander Webster, and a Western theologian, of probably Protestant credentials, though with a deep and articulate sympathy for the Western Catholic tradition of the just war. The aim is to demonstrate broadly-based Christian support for an offensive war against evil, and especially to include the Orthodox tradition, that has often been presented as viewing war in deeply mistrustful terms. The opening chapter, as part of its clarion call, presents an alarming account of Islam, centrally and essentially committed to jihad in military terms, in the course of which there are several references to Orthodoxy’s long familiarity with Islam, as compared with the West.
This might be a good place to begin an assessment of the book, as it is certainly true that the Orthodox have a long familiarity with Islam, reaching right back to the beginnings of that religion. In the centuries since, Orthodox have often had Islamic states as close neighbors, and also lived cheek-by-jowl with Muslims, in Palestine and later under the Ottomans and the states that succeeded that empire. At times this relationship has been sharply antagonistic; so it was in the first century or so of Islam, when the Umayyad Empire sought to take Constantinople. But more often, the Orthodox have found a modus vivendi with their Muslim neighbors, as the Western crusaders found out to their annoyance, when they discovered that the Byzantine Emperor was engaged in diplomatic negotiations with the Muslims, to their mind simply enemies of the faith.
Plenty more examples could be cited for this Orthodox quest for a modus vivendi: Manuel Komnenos’ modification of the rite of conversion for Muslims, making it clear that Orthodox and Muslim worshiped the same God, however different their conceptions of him; Gregory Palamas’ favorable impressions of the mullahs with whom he met and engaged in theological discussion during the couple of years he spent as a prisoner of the Sultan (only Palamas’ more conventional, “apocalyptic” view of Islam is cited here).
In contrast, the West has tended to see Islam in terms of extremes: either the infidel, against whom one waged crusades, or a representative of an alluring “orientalism,” explored by the late Edward Said in his famous book of that name. Fr. Alexander, in his chapters in this book, seems anxious that the Orthodox should not be left out of this crusading drive against Islam, which is very much the fruit of such extremes of perception on the part of the West.
The chapters by Fr. Alexander are not a little confused. He seems to accept the virtual pacifism of the Church before Constantine, and seems uneasily aware that the Byzantine attitude to war was ambivalent; he speaks of a “penitential gloom” in Orthodox attitudes to war, but it is this that he seeks to dispel. His argument advances along several lines. First, he draws attention to the bloodthirsty God of the Old Testament. He is certainly right to warn against the potential Marcionism of opposing a God of love in the New Testament to a God of armies in the Old, but in his resolution he seems to obscure the prevailing impression left by the Lord’s teaching.
The canonical tradition poses a fairly daunting challenge. As he admits, there is virtually no exception to the canonical requirement of penance for any Christian soldier who killed in war before the eleventh century, and it is only thereafter in the West that this requirement comes to be forgotten. He might have mentioned, but does not, how the Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros Phokas — disturbed that Muslim warriors went into war with the promise of eternal bliss if they fell in battle, whereas Christian warriors had no such promise, but rather faced penance if they killed — pleaded with the patriarch and the bishops to change this canonical regulation, but in vain. Instead, Fr. Alexander tries to suggest that the canon of St. Basil requiring three years’ penance (that is, three years’ exclusion from communion) is in some way ambivalent.
Another argument draws attention to the Byzantine military martyrs: but what is striking about these martyrs is that none of them died in battle, indeed in many cases their military careers are largely, or entirely, posthumous (e.g., the historical Procopios or Demetrios). These are not glorified combatant soldiers, but rather notable participants in the struggle against evil, and defenders of Christian cities and peoples.
Fr. Alexander draws attention to prayers for the armed forces in the Divine Liturgy; true, he mentions the threefold petition for peace at the beginning of the Great Ekteny, but not the fivefold petition for peace in what the Greeks call the Eirenika. It is clear on which side the weight falls. A good deal is made of the services for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
Here we touch on something that needs to be brought out into the open. There is no question that, in the wake of the conversion of Constantine, the Church, both in the East and the West, lent not only its prayers for the peace and prosperity of the Empire, but also its blessing (within the limits noted above) to armed Defense of the Empire.
But is this part of the Church’s tradition, or a betrayal of it? The way in which the cult of the Holy Cross became part of the Imperial cult was dangerously close to idolatry, even if it is reflected in prayers and songs we still use. The way in which these remnants of the Christian imperial cult have come to serve a questionable role in modern Orthodox nation states might be regarded as one of the more dire consequences of “phyletism,” condemned, at least notionally, as a heresy by all Orthodox Christians.
I have concentrated in this review on Fr. Alexander’s contribution, because this is an Orthodox journal (and, indeed, the Orthodox Peace Fellowship is singled out for criticism by Fr. Alexander). The rest of the book presents the Western case. There we have a fine presentation of the Western case for a just (or justifiable) war, and an exploration of its history. Some good points are made, notably that the idea of a just war in which the virtue of the warrior is displayed and tested actually provides a means by which justice in war can be maintained. It is still the case, however, that Dr. Cole favors quite a hawkish conception of the “just war”; he is unhappy with the idea of such a war as a “mere” last resort. His position here leaves this reviewer with the impression that for him a just war can actually be a good thing, something that can be pursued with enthusiasm, rather than regret.
Whatever the merits of some of the arguments advanced, this book’s wider purpose is to justify a modern crusade against Islam — even though it recognizes, though to no noticeable effect, that Islamic terrorism is not actually a tautology — and calls on Western civilization to commit itself to such a crusade. This seems to me to leave no ground for questioning the right of the United States, or any other state powerful enough, to set itself up as a world policeman, the consequences of which seem to me profoundly alarming.
For a world power to take upon itself the role of being a world policeman raises Cicero’s question: Quis custodiet custodes ipsos — who will guard the guards themselves? The damage that well-intentioned people can do with the resources of a state (especially one so wealthy and powerfully armed as the US), as opposed what terrorists can do (and I certainly am not defending terrorism, or minimizing the guilt of terrorist action), seems to me immense. Consider Kosovo.
Look even at Iraq, where it more and more looks as if the military action there has destabilized the country and region in ways that are likely to have unfortunate long-lasting consequences. Simply in terms of numbers (which are ultimately irrelevant), the body count from allied action in Iraq exceeds that of the terrorists — and there is also the question, still quite unresolved, as to whether attacking Iraq had any impact on al Qaedi, or even was ever expected to. The metaphor of the policemen makes one think of friendly people keeping the peace. But the reality depends on who you are.
Here in England there is growing consciousness of the dangers of “institutionalized racism”: the policeman is not perceived as friendly — and often isn’t — if you are a black and living in South or East London. I know about this from teaching in South London for ten years. Similarly in Iraq: for a great many people there, the American “policemen” are not welcome, and thus are finding it more and more difficult to fulfil a police role. The atrocities in the Shia holy cities, almost certainly the work of Sunnis, are blamed by the Shiites on the Americans.
But are such factors irrelevant to the book, The Virtue of War? They would be (or only tangentially relevant) if the book confined itself to a discussion of the question of war and the Christian conscience, but it doesn’t. The first chapter — drawing on a one-sided use of Huntingdon’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis — is, as I said above, a clarion call for Christians to support the American attack on militant Islam, supported by arguments that Islam as a whole is potentially militant.
It is interesting to see what Christos Yannaras makes of the Huntingdon thesis, which sees Orthodoxy as a separate civilization from the West, something Yannaras welcomes with undue enthusiasm, though I think he is right in saying that Orthodoxy has at least as much in common with Islam as with the West. This might lead one to the conclusion, which Yannaras does not seem to draw, that we Orthodox are in an unusual position to mediate in what could become a fatal fault-line for the history of the 21st century.
– Fr. Andrew Louth
Fr. Andrew Louth is an Orthodox priest of the Diocese of Sourozh in Great Britain and Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies, University of Durham, UK.
Faith of Our Sons
a Father’s Wartime Diary
by Frank Schaeffer
Carroll & Graf; 320 pages
ISBN: 0786713224, $25
In 1998, Frank Schaeffer’s 18-year-old son, John, joined the Marines straight out of prep school, a family journey recounted in Keeping Faith. In
Faith of Our Sons, Schaeffer picks up his family’s ongoing story as Corporal John Schaefer is deployed to the Middle East on the day Gulf War II begins.
Schaeffer offers his often moving reflections on the torments of having a son at war, as well as incisive observations on the place of the military in our society. Schaeffer observes how military culture has overcome class and race barriers much more effectively than its parent society, and writes about how a life of service seems to have become a lower-class occupation. He notes that in the Second World War many government officials had sons in combat and wonders how government policy would be different if this were still true. He is pained and bewildered by the ways in which we praise our soldiers, expect almost infinite sacrifices from them, but at the same time hold them at arm’s length. The book is not a pro-war diatribe, but a very personal reflection of the thoughts and feelings shared by many Americans in the last several years.
The book devotes several highly critical pages to the Orthodox Peace Fellowship’s Iraq appeal and Schaeffer’s reactions to it.
– John Brady
John Brady is treasurer of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in North America.
For a Culture of Co-suffering Love
the Theology of Archbishop Lazar Puhalo
by Andrew J. Sopko
Archive Publications, 2004, 148 pages.
The Orthodox tradition in North America has done much in the last few decades to make its presence felt. The ethnic Orthodox and the Orthodox Church of America have waged their wars to make the Orthodox way relevant to the North American context, with the OCA establishing itself as a leading and articulate voice in this debate. Many has been the fine volume and seminary that has walked the extra mile to articulate a view of Orthodoxy that comes as a needful and necessary critique of western theology and denominational schism. Many has been the Orthodox mystical theologian that has made the Orthodox way appealing and attractive. Many have heard of Kallistos Ware, Vladimir Lossky, John Meyendorff, Alexander Schmemann, Thomas Hopko and John Zizioulas. But, there is a form of Orthodoxy in North America that is not as well known. It is this mother lode that Andrew Sopko has attempted to unpack and unravel in his book on the theology of Archbishop Lazar Puhalo.
Archbishop Lazar has dipped his bucket deep in the wells of Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky, John Romanides, Michael Azkoul and George Florovsky.
Archbishop Lazar Puhalo is, without doubt, the most prolific Orthodox theologian in Canada, and he is certainly one of the most prolific Orthodox theologians in North America. It is about time that Archbishop Lazar was given his due, and
For a Culture of Co-Suffering Love does such a deed well. The book is divided into seven sections: Orthodox Christianity and Culture, Gender as Prophecy, Beyond Morality and Ethics, Science and Theology as Empirical Quest, The Aesthetics of Reality, Last Things and Church and/or World.
The book’s strength lies in Sopko’s highlighting the ways in which Archbishop Lazar has engaged the culture he is living in rather than retreating into an idealized past, an ethnic subculture or a reactionary and right of center political theology. A weakness of the book is the way that Sopko has excluded economic and political questions from culture. Archbishop Lazar has never done this. Again and Again, Archbishop Lazar has faced and confronted many tough economic and political questions. He has dared to address, at times to the annoyance and chagrin of other theologians, many issues of injustice rather than either slip into an insulated pietism or genuflect to Americanized forms of Caesar worship. It would have helped if Andrew Sopko had highlighted how and why Archbishop Lazar has articulated a political theology that cannot be taken captive by the right, sensible center or political left, and done so from the unique Canadian Red Tory tradition.
For a Culture of Co-Suffering Love is a fine primer on the work of one of the pre-eminent Orthodox theologians of North America.
– Ron Dart
Ron Dart teaches in the department of political science/philosophy, religious studies at University College of the Fraser Valley, Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada.
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