Nonviolence and Peace Traditions in Early & Eastern Christianity

Pantocrator (Tahull Barcelona, 1123 AD)

By Fr. John McGuckin

Fr. John McGuckin is professor of Church History at Union Theological Seminary and professor of Byzantine History at Columbia University, both in New York City. Footnotes are indicated by brackets. [1]

Ideals of Peace in a Violent World.

Christianity has had a very checkered history in terms of its peace tradition. It is often to images of Inquisition and Crusade that the popular imagination turns when considering the darker side of the church’s imposition of control over the personal and political worlds it has inhabited over long centuries. The figure of a pacific Jesus (the poet of the lilies of the fields, and the advocator of peaceful resistance to evil, who so inspired Tolstoy and Gandhi among others) is often contrasted with a church of more brutish disciples who, when occasion presented itself, turned willingly, and quickly enough, to tactics of oppression and coercion, policies which they themselves had lamented, as being against both divine and natural justice, when applied to them in the earlier centuries of the Roman persecutions.

The common version among Church Historians of this generic tale of a progressive sinking into the “brutal ways of the world,” also points to regular cycles of renewal and repentance, when Christians are said to reappropriate the “real” meaning of their past, and renounce violent resistance in the cause of a “truly Christian” non-resistance. This, of course, is usually a matter of occasional academic protest from the sidelines, or the wisdom of the aftermath, since in times of war the ranks of those who rush to defend the Christian defensibility of hostilities are rarely short of representatives, it would seem.

The key academic studies of the Early Church’s peace tradition, for example, had to wait until the 20th century. They appeared in two clusters, both of them the immediate aftermath of the great conflicts of 1914-18, and 1939-45, followed by a longer “tail” which was overshadowed by the Cold War’s generic fears of nuclear holocaust, and which produced a more thorough-going tenor of the “suspicion of war” in academic circles. Both the main-clusters of post-war re-assessments of Christian peace tradition in antiquity, witnessed a conflicted product in the tone of the literature. All lamented the fact and experience of war, from a Christian perspective, but some justified the concept of limited war engagement (usually Catholic scholars defending the then dominant Augustine-Aquinas theory of the Just War) while others were evidently more pacifist in tone (generally Protestant scholars calling for a “reform” of defective medievalist views). The more recent work, inspired by the public sight of several disastrously “failed” military interventions (such as Vietnam and Afghanistan) and the horrific record of genocidally-tinged conflict at the end of the 20th century (one of the bloodiest and nastiest on human record, though we still like to regard the ancients as less civilized than ourselves) have, again understandably, caused the Christian witness on war and violence to come under renewed scrutiny. Today the literature on war in early Christian tradition is extensive [2], and a synopsis of the primary sources has recently been collated in a useful ready-reference volume, with a good contextualizing discussion .[3]

While the common image of a militaristic Church is still, perhaps, prevalent in popular estimation, there are nevertheless, a multitude of pacific figures who feature in the Church’s exemplary stories of the lives of the saints.

One such hagiography was the narrative on Abba Moses the Ethiopian in the Tales of the Desert Fathers who, when warned in advance of the impending attack of marauding Blemmyes tribesmen in 5th century Lower Egypt, refused to leave his cell, and (though famed as a strong man of previously violent temper) stayed quietly in prayer waiting for the fatal assault of the invading brigands. This story of his election of pacific martyrdom was celebrated as most unusual; a heroic and highly individualist spiritual act of a master (and thus not normative). All the other monks of Scete in his time were either slaughtered because they were surprised, or else had much earlier fled before the face of the storm of invasion.

In terms of pacific saints, the Russian church celebrates the 11th century princes Boris and Gleb, the sons of Vladimir, the first Christian ruler of ancient Rus (Kiev) who, in order to avoid a civil war on the death of their father (when the third son, Svyatopolk, took up arms to assert his right to monarchical supremacy), are said to have adopted the role of “Passion-Bearers.” Refusing to bear arms for their own defense, and desiring to avoid bloodshed among their people, they followed the example of their new Lord, who suffered his own unjust Passion. The image and category of “passion-bearing martyr” is one that is dear to, almost distinctive of, the Russian church, so troubled has its history been.

Nevertheless, even this celebrated example contrasts, in many respects, with the witness of other Russian saint-heroes, such as the great warrior prince Alexander Nevsky and contrasts with the witness of many other ancient churches too (such as the Byzantine, Romanian, Serbian, Nubian, or Ethiopian) who had an equally fraught pilgrimage through history, but who proudly elevated and honored the icons and examples of warrior-saints who resisted the onslaught militarily, and died in the process.

In the Romanian Church one of the great heroic founders was the warrior prince Petru Rares who slaughtered the invading Turkish armies under the guidance of his spiritual father and confessor Saint Daniel the Hesychast. The saint commanded the prince to erect monasteries on the site of the great battles, to ensure mourning and prayer for the lost souls whose blood had been shed. This was an act that was seen as a necessary expiation of Petru’s “equally necessary” violence. Both he and his spiritual mentor were heavily burdened by their perceived duty of defending the borders of Christendom. To this day Romania’s most ancient and beautiful churches stand as mute witnesses to a bloody history where Islam and Christianity’s tectonic plates collided (as often they did in the history of the Christian East). The national perception in Romania of prince Vlad Dracul (the western bogeyman of Dracula) is diametrically opposed to the common perception of more or less everyone outside. Within the country Vlad himself is regarded as a national hero and a great Christian warrior who assumed the duty of defending the Faith against the military attempts of Islam forcibly to convert Europe.

Similarly, almost all the saints of Ethiopia are either monastic recluses or warriors. The saints of the (now lost) Church of Nubia [4] were also predominantly warriors. Likewise, the frescoes of saints on the walls of the ancient Stavronikita monastery on Mount Athos, on the Halkidiki peninsula, demonstrate serried ranks of martyr protectors dressed in full Roman battle gear, in attendance on the Christ in Majesty [5]. The monks were not particularly warlike themselves, but knew at first hand the terrors of living in the pirate-infested Mediterranean. Like the Nubians, a life entirely and permanently surrounded by hostile foes, gave the Athonite monks a very practical attitude to violence, pacific resistance, and the need for defense in varieties of forms.

The western church too has its share of noble saint-warriors. In medieval English literature the warrior saint was a highly romantic figure [6]. We can also think of the famed Crusading juggernaut Louis the Pious. These, however, are noticeably not, any longer, “popular saints” (as their counterparts remain in Eastern Christianity) though this may be laid to the door of a generic loss of interest in hagiography and the cultus of the saints in contemporary Western Christianity, as much to a sense of embarrassment that the ranks of saints included so many generals of armies.

Along with its warriors, the Western Church often appealed, for an example of pacific lifestyle, to the Christ-like image of Francis of Assisi, in preference perhaps to the more robust figure of Dominic and his inquisitional Order of Preachers, although one ought not to forget that the Franciscan order itself had from its early origins a foundational charge to evangelize Muslims in the Middle and Near East; its own form of potential “Inquisition” that never had the opportunity to flourish because of Ottoman power, but which was often felt as real enough and resented greatly by the Eastern rite Christians of those places.

This macro-picture of Church History as a sclerotic decline, where simple origins are progressively corrupted into oppressive structures as the church seizes an ever-larger foothold on the face of the earth, is so familiar, almost cliched, that it hardly needs further amplification.

It is perfectly exemplified in the general presumption that the Christian movement before the age of the Emperor Constantine the Great (4th century) was mainly pacific in philosophy, but afterwards began theologically to justify the use of coercive force, and so began the long slide into all manner of corruption of power, and abandonment of the primitive spirit of the gentle Jesus [7].

The theory is problematized to some degree by the issue of “conflicted contextualization” for the notable resistance of the earliest Christian movement (2nd through to early 4th centuries) to military service: whether this was predominantly pacifist in temperament; or was related to the military requirements to worship the pagan pantheon of gods; or was simply an aspect of the fear of an oppressed and persecuted group in the face of the state’s arm of power. In early canon law the military profession had the same status as a harlot when it came to the seeking of baptism: before admission to the church was countenanced an alternative career had to be sought.

After the Pax Constantina, that prohibition was relaxed as even the Christian emperors expected their fellow-Christians to take up their station in the army. Recent historical study has progressively argued that the advancement of Christians to political and military power should not be seen as a surprisingly miraculous event (as the legend of Constantine would have it be), but the result of more than a century of prior political and military infiltration of the higher offices of state by Christians bearing arms. The earliest materials (martyrial stories of how the poor resisted the Roman imperium) tend to come from the account of the churches of the local victims [8].

The full story (why, for example, Diocletian targeted Christians within his own court and army to initiate the Great persecution of the early 4th century) [9] is less to the front: but clearly the great revolution of the 4th century which saw an internationally ascendant Church, was not simply an altruistic “gift” of power to a pacific Christian movement, but more in the terms of an acknowledgment by Constantine that his own path to monarchy lay with the powerful international lobby of Christians. The question as to “who patronized who”: Constantine the Church, or the Church Constantine, remains one that is surely more evenly balanced than is commonly thought. The military and political involvement of Christians, therefore, (as distinct from the “Church” shall we say) is something that is not so simply “switched” at the 4th century watershed of Constantine’s “conversion.”

Nevertheless, the story that from primitive and “pure” beginnings the Christian movement degenerated into a more warlike compromise with state power, is a good story precisely because it is so cartoon-like in its crudity. It ought not to be forgotten, however, that it “is” a story, not a simple record of uncontested facts. It is a story, moreover, that took its origin as part of a whole dossier of similar stories meant to describe the movement of Christianity through history in terms of early promise, followed by rapid failure, succeeded by the age of reform and repristination of the primitive righteousness.

In short, the common view of Christianity’s peace tradition, as sketched out above, is clearly a product of Late-Medieval Reformation apologetics. That so much of this early-modern propaganda has survived to form a substrate of presupposition in post-modern thought about Christian history is a testimony to the power of the apologetic stories themselves, and (doubtless) to the widespread distrust of the motives of the late medieval church authorities in western Europe at the time of the Reformation.

The common view about Christianity’s peace tradition, however, is so hopelessly rooted in western, apologetic, and “retrospectivist” presuppositions (a thorough-going Protestant revision of the Catholic tradition on the morality of war and violence that had preceded it) that it is high time the issue should be considered afresh.

The common histories of Christianity, even to this day, seem to pretend that its eastern forms (the Syrians, Byzantines, Armenians, Copts, Nubians, Indians, Ethiopians, or Cappadocians) never existed, or at least were never important enough to merit mention; or that western Europe is a normal and normative vantage point for considering the story. But this narrow perspective skews the evidence at the outset.

Accordingly, the figures of Augustine of Hippo (the towering 5th century African theologian) and Thomas Aquinas (the greatest of the Latin medieval scholastic theologians) loom very large in the normative western-form of the telling of the tale. Both theologians were highly agentive in developing the western Church’s theory and principles of a “Just War.”

In the perspectives of the eastern Christian tradition, not only do these two monumental figures not feature but, needless to say, neither does their theory on the moral consideration of war and violence which has so dominated the western imagination. Eastern Christianity simply does not approach the issue from the perspective of “Just War,” and endorses no formal doctrine advocating the possibility of a “Just War.”

Its approach is ambivalent, more complex and nuanced. For that reason it has been largely overlooked in the annals of the history of Christianity, or even dismissed as self-contradictory. It is not self-contradictory, of course, having been proven by experience through centuries of political suffering and oppression. If it knows anything, the Eastern church knows how to endure, and hardly needs lessons on such a theme; but it is certainly not a linear theory of war and violence that it holds (as if war and violence could be imagined as susceptible of rational solution and packaging). Its presuppositions grow from a different soil than do modern and post-modern notions of political and moral principles.

Christianity was, and remains at heart, an apocalyptic religion, and it is no accident that its numerous biblical references to war and violent destruction are generally apocalyptic ciphers, symbols that stand for something else, references to the “Eschaton” (the image of how the world will be rolled up and assessed once universal justice is imposed by God on his recalcitrant and rebellious creation). Biblical descriptions of violence and war, in most of Christianity”s classical exposition of its biblical heritage, rather than being straightforward depictions of the life and values of “This-World-Order” are thus eschatological allegories. To confound the two orders [10] (taking war images of the apocalyptic dimension) for instances of how the world (here) ought to be managed [11] is a gross distortion of the ancient literature. This has become increasingly a problem since the medieval period when allegorist readings of scripture have been progressively substituted (especially in Protestantism) for wholesale historicist and literalist readings of the ancient texts. [12].

This is not to say that eastern Christianity itself has not been guilty of its own mis-readings of evidences, in various times of its history, or that it has no blood on its hands, for that would be to deny the brutal facts of a Church that has progressively been driven westwards, despite its own will, by a series of military disasters, for the last thousand years. But, Christian reflection in the eastern Church has, I would suggest, been more careful than the West, to remind itself of the apocalyptic and mysterious nature of the Church’s place within history and on the world-stage, and has stubbornly clung to a less congratulatory theory of the morality of War (despite its advocacy of “Christian imperium”), because it sensed that such a view was more in tune with the principles of the Gospels. What follows in this paper is largely a consideration of that peace tradition in the perspective of the eastern provinces of Christianity, the “patristic” foundation that went on to provide the underpinning of Byzantine canon law, and (after the fall of Byzantium), the system of law that still operates throughout the churches of the East.

In the decades following the First World War, Adolf Von Harnack was one of the first among modern patristic theologians to assemble a whole dossier of materials on the subject of the Church’s early traditions on war and violence. [13]. In his macro-thesis he favored the theory of the “fall from grace,” and argued that the Church progressively relaxed its earliest blanket hostility to bloodshed and the military profession in general. The relaxation of anti-war discipline, he saw as part and parcel of a wider “corruption” of early Christian ideals by “Hellenism.”

And yet, no Eastern Christian attitudes to war, either before or after the Pax Constantina, have ever borne much relation to classic Hellenistic and Roman war theory [14], being constantly informed and conditioned by biblical paradigms (reined in by Jesus’ strictures on the futility of violence) rather than by Hellenistic Kingship theory or tribal theories of national pride.

In the second part to his study (subtitled “The Christian Religion and the Military Profession”), Harnack went further to discuss the wide extent of biblical images of war and vengeance in the Christian foundational documents, suggesting that the imagery of “spiritual warfare” however removed it might be from the “real world” when it was originally coined, must take some responsibility for advocating the sanctification of war theories within the church in later ages [15].

For Harnack, and many others following in his wake, Constantine was the villain of the piece, and not less so his apologist the Christian bishop Eusebius of Caesarea. The latter finds no problem at all in comparing the deaths of the wicked as recounted in Old Testament narratives of holy war, with Constantine’s conquest and execution of his enemies in the Civil War of the early 4th century [16]. For Eusebius, writing in 336, the cessation of the war in 324 was a fulfilment of the Psalmic and Isaian prophecies of a golden age of peace [17].

Eusebius’ fulsome rhetoric has had a great deal of weight placed upon it by those who favor the “theory of fall,” even though on any sober consideration, to extrapolate a court-theologian such as Eusebius into a marker of general opinion in the Church of the early 4th century should have been more universally acknowledged to be a serious mistake. Eusebius’ more sober thoughts on the expansion of the Church (as exemplified by Constantine’s victory over persecuting emperors, and his clear favoritism for the Christians) was really an intellectual heritage from that great theological teacher whose disciple he prided himself on being — Origen of Alexandria.

It was certainly Origen who had put into his mind the juxtaposition of the ideas of the Pax Romana being the providentially favorable environment for the rapid internationalization of the Gospel. Origen himself, however, was pacifist in his attitudes to war and world powers, and was sternly against the notion of the Church advocating its transmission and spread by force of arms [18]. In his wider exegesis Eusebius shows himself consistently to be a follower of his teacher’s lead and the Old Testament paradigms of the “downfall of the wicked” are what are generally at play in both Origen and Eusebius when they highlight biblical examples of vindication, or military collapse.

Several scholars misinterpret Eusebius radically, therefore, when they read his laudation of Constantine as some kind of proleptic justification of the Church as an asserter of rightful violence. His Panegyric on Constantine should not be given such theoretical weight, just as a collection of wedding congratulatory speeches today would hardly be perused for a cutting edge analysis of the times. In applying biblical tropes and looking for fulfillments, Eusebius (certainly in the wider panoply if all his work is taken together not simply his court laudations) is looking to the past, not to the future; and is intent only on celebrating what for most in his generation must have truly seemed miraculous — that their oppressors had fallen, and that they themselves were now free from the fear of torture and death.

Origen and Eusebius may have set a tone of later interpretation that could readily grow into a vision of the Church as the inheritor of the biblical promises about the Davidic kingdom (that the boundaries of Byzantine Christian power were concomitant with the Kingdom of God on earth, and thus that all those who lay outside those boundaries were the enemies of God), but there were still innumerable dissidents even in the long-lasting Byzantine Christian politeia (especially the monks) who consistently refused to relax the apocalyptic dimension of their theology, and who resisted the notion that the Church and the Byzantine borders were one and the same thing [19].

The Canonical Epistles of Basil of Caesarea.

Basil of Caesarea was a younger contemporary of Eusebius, and in the following generation of the Church of the late 4th century, he emerged as one of the leading theorists of the Christian movement. His letters and instructions on the ascetic life, and his “Canons” [20] (ethical judgements as from a ruling bishop to his flock) on morality and practical issues became highly influential in the wider church because of his role as one of the major monastic theorists of Early Christianity. His canonical epistles were transmitted wherever monasticism went: and in the Eastern Church of antiquity (because monasticism was the substructure of the spread of the Christian movement), that more or less meant his canonical views became the standard paradigm of Eastern Christianity’s theoretical approach to the morality of war and violence, even though the writings were local [21] and occasional in origin. Basil’s 92 Canonical Epistles were adapted by various Ecumenical Councils of the Church that followed his time. His writing is appealed to in Canon 1 of the 4th Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451), in Canon 1 of the 7th Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (787), and is literally cited in Canon 2 of the 6th Ecumenical Council of Constantinople (681) which paraphrases much else from his canonical epistles. By such affirmations eventually the entire corpus of the Basilian Epistles entered the Pandects of Canon Law of the Byzantine Eastern Church, and they remain authoritative to this day.

Basil has several things to say about violence and war in his diocese. It was a border territory of the empire, and his administration had known several incursions by “barbarian” forces. Canon 13 of the 92 considers war:

“Our fathers did not consider 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 their hands are not clean.” [22]

The balance and sense of discretion is remarkable in this little comment, one that bears much weight in terms of Eastern Orthodox understandings of the morality of war. The “fathers” in question refers to Athanasius of Alexandria, the great Nicene Orthodox authority of the 4th century church. Athanasius’ defense of the Nicene creed, and the divine status of Christ, had won him immense prestige by the end of the 4th century, and as his works were being collated and disseminated (in his own lifetime his reputation had been highly conflicted, his person exiled numerous times, and his writings proscribed by imperial censors), Basil seems to wish to add a cautionary note: that not everything a “father” has to say is equally momentous, or universally authoritative. In his Letter to Amun Athanasius had apparently come out quite straightforwardly about the legitimacy of killing in time of war, saying:

“Although one is not supposed to kill, the killing of the enemy in time of war is both a lawful and praiseworthy thing. This is why we consider individuals who have distinguished themselves in war as being worthy of great honors, and indeed public monuments are set up to celebrate their achievements. It is evident, therefore, that at one particular time, and under one set of circumstances, an act is not permissible, but when time and circumstances are right, it is both allowed and condoned.” [23]

This saying was being circulated, and given authority as a “patristic witness” simply because it had come from Athanasius. In fact the original letter had nothing whatsoever to do with war. The very example of the “war-hero” is a sardonic reference ad hominem since the letter was addressed to an aged leader of the Egyptian monks who described themselves as Asketes, that is those who labored and “fought” for the virtuous life. The military image is entirely incidental, and Athanasius in context merely uses it to illustrate his chief point in the letter — which is to discuss the query Amun had sent on to him as Archbishop: “did nocturnal emissions count as sins for desert celibates ?” Athanasius replies to the effect that with human sexuality, as with all sorts of other things, the context of the activity determines what is moral, not some absolute standard which is superimposed on moral discussion from the outset. Many ancients, Christian and pagan, regarded sexual activity as inherently defiling and here Athanasius decidedly takes leave of them. His argument, therefore, is falsely attributed when (as is often the case) read out of context as an apparent justification of killing in time of war. He is not actually condoning the practice at all, merely using the rhetorical example of current opinion to show Amun that contextual variability is very important in making moral judgements.

In his turn Basil, wishes to make it abundantly clear for his Christian audience that such a reading, if applied to the Church’s tradition on war, is simplistic, and that is it is just plain wrong-headedness to conclude that the issue ceases to be problematic if one is able to dig up a justificatory “proof text” from scripture or patristic tradition (as some seem to have been doing with these words of Athanasius). And so, Basil sets out a nuanced corrective exegesis of what the Church’s canon law should really be in terms of fighting in time of hostilities. One of the ways he does this is to attribute this aphorism of Athanasius to indeterminate “fathers,” who can then be legitimately corrected by taking a stricter view than they appeared to allow. He also carefully sets his own context: what he speaks about is the canonical regulation of war in which a Christian can engage and be “amerced” [24]; all other armed conflicts are implicitly excluded as not being appropriate to Christian morality). Basil’s text on war needs, therefore, to be understood in terms of an “economic” reflection on the ancient canons that forbade the shedding of blood in blanket terms. This tension between the ideal standard (no bloodshed) and the complexities of the context in which a local church finds itself thrown in times of conflict and war, is witnessed in several other ancient laws, such as Canon 14 of Hippolytus (also from the 4th century) [25]. The reasons Basil gives for suggesting that killing in time of hostilities could be distinguished from voluntary murder pure and simple (for which the canonical penalty was a lifelong ban from admission to the churches and from the sacraments) is set out as the “defense of sobriety and piety.” This is code language for the defense of Christian borders from the ravages of pagan marauders. The difficulty Basil had to deal with was not war on the large-scale, but local tribal insurgents who were mounting attacks on Roman border towns, with extensive rapinage. In such circumstances Basil has little patience for those who do not feel they can fight because of religious scruples. His sentiment is more that a passive non-involvement betrays the Christian family (especially its weaker members who can not defend themselves but need others to help them) to the ravages of men without heart or conscience to restrain them. The implication of his argument, then, is that the provocation to fighting, that Christians ought at some stage to accept (to defend the honor and safety of the weak), will be inherently a limited and adequate response, mainly because the honor and tradition of the Christian faith (piety and sobriety) in the hearts and minds of the warriors, will restrict the bloodshed to a necessary minimum. His “economic” solution nevertheless makes it abundantly clear that the absolute standard of Christian morality turns away from war as an unmitigated evil. This is why we can note that the primary reason Basil gives that previous “fathers” had distinguished killing in time of war, from the case of simple murder, was “on the score of allowing a pardon.” There was no distinction made here in terms of the qualitative horror of the deed itself, rather in terms of the way in which the deed could be “cleansed” by the Church’s system of penance.

Is it logical to expect a Christian of his diocese to engage in the defense of the homeland, while simultaneously penalizing him if he spills blood in the process ? Well, one needs to contextualize the debarment from the sacrament in the generic 4th century practice of the reception of the Eucharist, which did not expect regular communication to begin with (ritual preparation was extensive and involved fasting and almsgiving and prayer), and where a sizeable majority of adult Christians in a given church would not have yet been initiated by means of baptism, and were thus not bound to keep all the canons of the Church. By his regulation and by the ritual exclusion of the illumined warrior from the sacrament (the returning “victor” presumably would have received many other public honors and the gratitude of the local folk ) Basil is making sure at least one public sign is given to the entire community that the Gospel standard has no place for war, violence and organized death. He is trying to sustain an eschatological balance: that war is not part of the Kingdom of God (signified in the Eucharistic ritual as arriving in the present) but is part of the bloody and greed-driven reality of world affairs which is the “Kingdom-Not-Arrived.” By moving in and out of Eucharistic reception Basil’s faithful Christian (returning from his duty with blood on his hands) is now in the modality of expressing his dedication to the values of peace and innocence, by means of the lamentation and repentance for life that has been taken, albeit the blood of the violent. Basil’s arrangement that the returning noble warrior’ should stand in the Church (not in the narthex where the other public sinners were allocated spaces) but refrain from communion, makes the statement that a truly honorable termination of war, for a Christian, has to be an honorable repentance.

Several commentators (not least many of the later western Church fathers) have regarded this as “fudge,” but it seems to me to express, in a finely tuned “economic” way, the tension in the basic Christian message that there is an unresolvable shortfall between the ideal and the real in an apocalyptically charged religion. What this Basilian canon does most effectively is to set a “No Entry” sign to any potential theory of Just War within Christian theology [26], and should set up a decided refusal of post-war church-sponsored self-congratulations for victory [27]. All violence, local, individual, or nationally-sanctioned is here stated to be an expression of hubris that is inconsistent with the values of the Kingdom of God, and while in many circumstances that violence may be “necessary” or “unavoidable” (Basil states the only legitimate reasons as the defense of the weak and innocent) it is never “justifiable.” Even for the best motives in the world, the shedding of blood remains a defilement, such that the true Christian, afterwards, would wish to undergo the kathartic experience of temporary return to the lifestyle of penance, that is “be penitent.” Basil’s restriction of the time of penance to three years (seemingly harsh to us moderns) was actually a commonly recognized sign of merciful leniency in the ancient rule book of the early Church [28].

Concluding Reflections

We might today regard such early attempts by Christians as quaintly naive. They are wired through the early penitential system, clearly, and have a fundamental “economic” character about them. By Economy the early church meant the art of doing what was possible when a higher ideal standard was not sustained. In the case of war Basil and the canonical tradition are tacitly saying that when the Kingdom ideals of peace and reconciliation collapse, especially in times of war when decisive and unusual action is required, and the ideals of reconciliation and forgiveness fall into chaos in the very heart of the Church itself [29], as members go off to fight, then the ideal must be reasserted as soon as possible — with limitations to the hostilities a primary concern, and a profound desire to mark the occasion retrospectively with a public “cleansing.” While the honor of the combatants is celebrated by Basil (even demanded as an act of protection for the weak), one essential aspect of that honor is also listed as being the public acceptance of the status of penitent shedder of blood. The clergy (as with other economic concessions of morality operative in the church’s canons) are the only ones not allowed benefit of necessity. In no case is violent action permitted to one who stands at the altar of God. Even if a cleric spills blood accidentally (such as in an involuntary manslaughter) such a person would be deposed from active presbyteral office. The sight of “warrior- bishops” in full military regalia, passing through the streets of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade, left its mark on contemporary Greek sources as one of the greatest “shocks” to the system, and one of the incidentals that were taken by the Greeks as proof positive that Latin Christianity in the 13th century had a serious illness at its center.

More than naive, perhaps, might we regard such a morality of war as seriously “under-developed”? Can such an important issue really be dealt with by so few canons of the ancient eastern church, and even then, by regulations that are so evidently local and occasional in character ? Well, the charges of inconsistency (praising a noble warrior then subjecting him to penance) and muddle-headedness, were raised in early times, especially by Latin theologians who wanted to press the envelope and arrive at a more coherent and all-embracing theory of war: one that balanced the apparent biblical justifications of hostility on the part of the chosen people, with the need to limit the obvious blood-lust of our species. The Latin theory of Just War was one result. Considered primarily (as it was meant to be) as a theory of the limitation of hostilities in the ancient context (hand to hand fighting of massed armies whose very size limited the time of possible engagement to a matter of months at most), it too was an “economic” theory that had much merit. It’s usefulness became moot in the medieval period when armament manufacture took ancient warfare into a new age, and it has become utterly useless in the modern age of mechanized warfare, where it could not stop the fatal transition (on which modernized mechanical warfare depends — both that sponsored by states, and that sponsored by smaller groups which we call “terrorism”) to the centrally important role of the murder of non-combatants. Be that as it may, it is not the purpose of the present essay to offer a sustained critique on Just War theory — merely to raise up a mainline Christian tradition of the ancient East which has never believed in Just War — and to offer instead of an elegant theory, a poor threadbare suggestion of old saints: that War is never justified or justifiable, but is de facto a sign and witness of evil and sin.

When it falls across the threshold of the Church in an unavoidable way, it sometimes becomes our duty (so the old canons say) to take up arms; though when that is the case is to be determined in trepidation by the elect who understand the value of peace and reconciliation, not in self-glorifying battle cries from the voices of the bloodthirsty and foolish. But in no case is the shedding of blood, even against a manifestly wicked foe, ever a “Just Violence.” The eastern canons, for all their tentativeness, retain that primitive force of Christian experience on that front. It may be the “Violence of the Just” but in that case the hostility will necessarily be ended with the minimal expenditure of force, and be marked in retrospect by the last act of the “violent Just” which will be repentance that finally resolves the untenable paradox. Ambivalent and “occasional” such a theory of War might be: but if it had been followed with fidelity the Church’s hands might have been cleaner than they have been across many centuries; and it might yet do a service on the wider front in helping Western Christianity to dismantle its own “economic” structures of war theory which are so patently in need of radical re-thinking. Perhaps the place to begin, as is usually the case, is here and now: with “Christian America” at the dawn of a new millennium, in which we seem to have learned nothing at all from generations of bitter experience of hostility: except the hubris that international conflicts can be undertaken “safely” now that other super-powers are currently out of commission. Such is the wisdom of the most powerful nation on earth, currently in an illegal state of war [30] which it wishes to disguise even from itself, even as the American military deaths this month exceeded 1000, with a pervasive silence all that it has to offer in relation to all figures of the deaths of those who were not American troops. Such is the wisdom under a leadership that is itself apparently eager to line up for a “righteous struggle” with the “forces of evil,” which so many others in the world outside, have seen as more in the line of a determined dominance of Islamic sensibilities by Super-Power secularism of the crassest order. In such a strange new millennium, perhaps the wisdom of the need to be tentative, finds a new power and authority.


1 The essay is published in: KK Kuriakose (ed). Non-Violence: Concepts and Practices Across Religions and Cultures. NY. 2005.

2 The chief sources in English are: RH Bainton. Christian Attitudes to War and Peace. A Historical Survey and Critical Re-Evaluation. Nashville. 1960; CJ Cadoux. The Early Christian Attitude to War. Oxford. 1919 (repr. NY. 1982); A von Harnack. Militia Christi: The Christian Religion and the Military in the First Three Centuries. (tr. DM Gracie. Philadelphia. 1980: original German edn. 1905; HA Deane. The Political and Social Ideas of St. Augustine. New York. 1963 (chs.5-6); J. Helgeland. Christians and Military Service: AD 173-337. PhD Diss. University of Chicago. 1973. (summarized in Idem. “Christians and the Roman Army. AD. 173- 337.” Church History. 43. June 1974. 149-161; JM Hornus. It is Not Lawful for me to Fight: Early Christian Attitudes to War, Violence and the State . (trs. A Kreider & O Coburn). Scottsdale, Pa. 1980; HT McElwain. Augustine’s Doctrine of War in Relation to Earlier Ecclesiastical Writers. Rome. 1972; TS Miller & J Nesbitt (eds). Peace and War in Byzantium. Essays in Honor of GT Dennis. CUA Press. Washington. 1995; EA Ryan. “The Rejection of Military Service by the Early Christians.” Theological Studies. 13. 1952. 1-32; WR. Stevenson. Christian Love and Just War: Moral Paradox and Political Life in St. Augustine and his Modern Interpreters. Macon. Ga. 1987.

3 LJ Swift. The Early Fathers on War and Military Service. (Message of the Fathers of the Church. Vol. 19). 1983. Wilmington. De.

4 Byzantine in foundation and structure, until its annihilation in the late 15th century.

5 See: M Chatzidakis. The Cretan Painter Theophanes: The Wall-Paintings of the Holy Monastery of Stavronikita. Thessaloniki. (published on Mount Athos). 1986.

6 Cf. JE Damon. Soldier Saints and Holy Warriors: Warfare and Sanctity in the Literature of Early England. (Ashgate press). Aldershot. 2003.

7 Helgeland (1973. p. 17.) illustrates how both Harnack and Cadoux’s works progress from this shared presupposition despite their different perspectives on the issue of pacifism as a general Christian ideal. (Cadoux regarded Harnack as having soft-pedalled the Church’s early peace witness).

8 The early martyrial acts are charged with the dramatic characterization of the martyr as the apocalyptic witness, and the condemning magistrate as eschatological servant of the Beast. The narratives often deliberately follow the literary paradigm of the Passion Story of the Gospels. The Martyrdom of Polycarp is one such example.

9 Or how it might well be the case that Christian soldiers had already taken the imperial throne by force of arms in the mid 3rd century (in the case of Philip the Arab).

10 What the ancient sources described as the “Two Ages” (This Age of turmoil that stands within the historical record and permits brutal oppression as the ultimate symbol of “the Beast,” that is evil personified, and the Other Age, which is the Transcendent “Kingdom of God” when peace will be established by the definitive ending of violent powers hostile to the good., and the comforting of the poor.

11 It is a major category mistake, therefore, for fundamentalist Christians to apply apocalyptically matrixed scriptural references to “war in the heavens spilling out on earth,” as authoritative “justifications” from the Bible for Christians to engage in violent conflict for political ends. The essence of biblical, apocalyptic, doctrine is that the Two Ages must never be conflated or confused. The “Next Age” cannot be ushered in by political victories gained in “This Age.” By this means Christianity, in its foundational vision, undercut the principles that continue to inspire Judaism and Islam with their (essentially) non-apocalyptic understandings of the spreading of the Kingdom of God on Earth in recognizable borders, and militarily if necessary.

12 As if, for example, the biblical narratives of the Pentateuch where God commands Moses and Joshua to slaughter the Canaanite inhabitants in the process of seizing the “Promised Land” were to be read literalistically — as both vindicating war for “righteous reasons,” and validating the forced appropriation of territories after conflict. Protestant fundamentalism would, of course, read the texts with that political slant (symbolically going further to adapt the text to justify Christianity’s use of violence in a just cause); whereas the ancient Church consistently reads the narrative as allegorically symbolic of the perennial quest to overcome evil tendencies by virtuous action. The Canaanites assume the symbolic status of personal vice, the Israelite armies, the status of the ethical struggle. While this allegorical symbolism still depends in large degree on a symbolic reading of violent images, it successfully defuses a wholesale biblical “sanction” for violence and war.

13 A. Harnack. Militia Christi. The Christian Religion and The Military in the First Three Centuries (Tr. D. McI. Gracie). Philadelphia. 1981.

14 Though Ambrose and Augustine take much of their views on the subject from Cicero.

15 He probably underestimated the extent to which the early Church was propelled, not by subservience to emperors, but more by the way in which the war theology of ancient Israel was passed on as an authoritative paradigm, simply by the force of ingesting so much of the Old Testament narratives in the structure of its prayers, liturgies, and doctrines. It is, nonetheless, worthy of note that formally, from early times, the war passages of the Old Testament were consistently preached as allegorical symbols of the battle to establish peaceful virtues in human hearts (not the advocating of conquest of specific territories). Harnack himself admitted (when considering the example of the Salvation Army, that this aspect of this thesis could limp badly.

16 Eusebius. Ecclesiastical History. 9.9. 5-8; Life of Constantine. 1.39.

17 Is.2.4; Ps.72.7-8.

18 See N McLynn. “Roman Empire,” pp. 185-187 in: J.A. McGuckin (ed). The Westminster Handbook to Origen of Alexandria. Louisville. Ky. 2004.

19 For a further elaboration of the argument see: J.A.McGuckin. The Legacy of the Thirteenth Apostle: Origins of the East- Christian Conceptions of Church-State Relation. St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly. 47. Nos. 3-4. 2003. 251-288.

20 The “Canonical Epistles of St. Basil,” otherwise known as the “92 canons.” They can be found in English translation in: The Pedalion or Rudder of the Orthodox Catholic Church: The Compilation of the Holy Canons by Saints Nicodemus and Agapius. Tr. D Cummings. (Orthodox Christian Educational Society). Chicago. 1957 (repr. NY. 1983). pp. 772-864.

21 Basil was the Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, now a city (Kaisariye) of Eastern Turkey.

22 Basil. Ep. 188. 13; Pedalion. p. 801.

23 Athanasius Epistle 48. To Amun. full text in A Robertson (tr). St. Athanasius Select Works and Letters. Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers of the Church. Vol. 4. (1891). repr. Eerdmans. Grand Rapids. 1980. pp. 556-557.

24 That is find canonical forgiveness for the act of shedding blood: which is canonically prohibited. The background context of the canons which forbid the shedding of blood are important to Basil’s thought, and are presumed throughout. He takes it for granted that clergy are absolutely forbidden to shed blood: and even if they do so accidentally, will be prohibited from celebrating the Eucharistic mysteries afterwards. In this case, just as with the church’s canonical rules relating to the prohibition of second marriages, what began as a general rule, was relaxed in its application to wider society, although the clergy were required to sustain the original strict interpretation (see Apostolical Canons 66. Pedalion. pp. 113-116.) Today in Orthodoxy, marriage is described as a one-time occurrence: but if the marriage is broken a second (and even third) marriage can be contracted “as an economy” to human conditions and relational failures. The clergy, however, are not allowed to contract second marriages (even if the first wife has died). The economy is not permitted to them. Clergy in the Eastern tradition are still canonically forbidden from engaging in any violence, beyond the minimum necessary to defend their life (Apostolic Canon 66.)though they are censured if they do not vigorously defend a third party being attacked in their presence. For both things (use of excessive violence in self-defence, and refusal to use violence in defense of another, they are given the penalty of deposition from orders).

25 “A Christian should not volunteer to become a soldier, unless he is compelled to do this by someone in authority. He can have a sword, but he should not be commanded to shed blood. If it can be shown that he has shed blood he should stay away from the mysteries (sacraments) at least until he has been purified through tears and lamentation.” Canons of Hippolytus 14.74. Text in Swift (1983) p. 93. See also Apostolic Tradition 16.

26 As developed especially (out of Cicero) by Ambrose of Milan On Duties. 1. 176; and Augustine (Epistle 183.15; Against Faustus 22. 69-76; and see Swift:1983. pp. 110-149). But Ambrose (ibid. 1. 35.175) specifically commands his priests to have no involvement (inciting or approving) whatsoever in the practice of War or judicial punishments: “Interest in matters of war,” he says, “seems to me to be alien to our role as priests.”

27 Many churches have uneasily juggled this responsibility in times past. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously denounced the Archbishop of Canterbury’s post-Falklands-war service in 80′s London (St. Paul’s cathedral), as ” far too wet,” while other critics in the country were hard on him for not stating at the outset that the Falklands invasion did not fulfill the requirements of a “Just War” in terms of classical western theory, and so should have been more severely denounced by the Church.

28 Ordinary murder was given a 20 year debarment from the church’s sacraments as well as all accruing civic penalties. Basil’s Canon 56. Pedalion. p. 827; manslaughter received a ten year debarment. Basil’s Canon 57. Pedalion. p. 828.

29 Note that they are not querying the collapse of peace ideals outside the church as they regard the spread of hubris and violence on the earth as a clear mark of all those dark forces hostile to the heavenly Kingdom. The advocacy of war that is not a direct response to a clear and present threat of aggression is thus permanently ruled out of the court of morality in this system.

30 The conflict in Iraq, an invasion not given sanction of international law through the medium United Nations, but initiated to overthrow the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein on the pretext that he was manufacturing weapons of mass destruction.

* * *