No Just War in the Fathers

by Father Stanley Harakas

Occasionally one finds Orthodox authors who argue that the Orthodox Church espouses a “just war” doctrine similar to that which gradually developed in the Roman Catholic Church and, since the Reformation, is also found in certain Protestant churches.

The Orthodox Christian tradition is broad, long, complex, and variegated. It honors not only princes who gave up their lives rather than resist evil, but also warrior-saints whose icons were carried into battle by soldiers chanting, “Grant victory to Orthodox Christians over their adversaries.”

My understanding about this complex situation regarding issues of war and peace has evolved over a number of years, culminating in what was an ethical revelation for me.

The first opportunity I had to speak publicly on the issue came at during the Vietnam War. My speech in that period echoed the assumption that the Orthodox stance was grounded essentially in the just-war tradition. I spoke out of some familiarity with traditional Orthodox ethical handbooks, having been taught from the textbook of Professor Chrestos Androutsos at the University of Athens School of Theology. The evidence seemed to show a wide range of attitudes and worship celebrating victories in war, while it also affirmed peace values. What could this be, if not some kind of just-war position? And so I rejected pacifism as an Orthodox position.

My next invitation to speak on this topic came from Fr. George Papademetriou, chaplain of the Orthodox Fellowship at the Naval Academy at Annapolis. The research I did for this presentation raised some serious questions about my heretofore uncritical assumptions about an Orthodox just-war position. The most striking point was the canonical exemption of the clergy from any military activity, although this activity was permitted to laity.

The more I studied the relevant texts, the clearer it became that the Church preserved in its clergy an ideal standard that it somehow could not demand of its laity. I called this the “stratification of pacifism” in the Church. Clergy were to function as pacifists, uninvolved in any military activity, even prohibited from entering military camps. (Eventually the substance of that speech was published as a chapter entitled “The Morality of War” in Orthodox Synthesis, edited by Fr. Joseph Allen; Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press.)

The next step in my intellectual odyssey came with an invitation from Catholic University in Washington, DC, to contribute a chapter to a book of evaluations of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 1985 pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace. That document was a thorough attempt to apply just-war theory to issues such as nuclear deterrence and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

As I searched the sources of Eastern Orthodox tradition for material regarding war, I began to see that these contained none of the traditional components of the western just-war theory. The West, beginning with St. Augustine, had developed a set of ethical prescriptions and proscriptions concerning entrance into war (jus ad bellum) and behavior during war (jus in bello). I couldn’t find such ethical reasoning in the Greek Fathers or in the canonical tradition of the Orthodox Church.

In that chapter, published in 1986, I focused on patristic sources, Byzantine military manuals, and contemporary Orthodox statements about war. I found an amazing consistency in the almost totally negative moral assessment of war coupled with an admission that war may be necessary under certain circumstances to protect the innocent and to limit even greater evils. In this framework, war may be an unavoidable alternative, but it nevertheless remains an evil. Virtually absent in the tradition is any mention of a “just” war, much less a “good” war. The tradition also precludes the possibility of a crusade. For the Eastern Orthodox tradition, I concluded, war can be seen only as a “necessary evil,” with all the difficulty and imprecision such a designation carries.

Still, that conclusion regarding war seemed to be missing something, like the obverse side of a coin. A conference in 1986 sponsored by the Orthodox Center of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Geneva, Switzerland, finally made it clear to me what the missing element was. The conference theme was “The Orthodox Concern with Peace.” Paper after paper revealed that peace, in its multifarious dimensions, was central to the ecclesial, patristic, canonical, and ethical concerns of Orthodoxy. I was assigned the topic “The Teaching of Peace in the Fathers.” Suddenly I had found the Orthodox motif for talking about the issue of war!

That study documented the “pro-peace” stance of the Church Fathers throughout the whole range of theological and social concerns. It discerned differing strands about involvement in war, showing how the pacifist emphasis is retained in liturgy and in clerical standards. My research also showed the divergent responses in East and West to the ethical problem of war.

In light of the patristic evidence, my conclusion was and still is: The East did not seek to answer questions concerning the correct conditions for entering war and the correct conduct of war on the basis of the possibility of a “just war,” precisely because it did not hold to such a view. Its view of war, unlike that of the West, was that it is a necessary evil. The peace ideal continued to remain normative, and no theoretical efforts were made to make conduct of war into a positive norm. In short, no case can be made for the existence of an Orthodox just-war theory.

Fr. Stanley Samuel Harakas, now retired, was for many years Archbishop Iakovos Professor of Orthodox Theology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts. He is now pastor of a mission parish in Florida. This text is based on an article first published in the Winter 1992 issue of American Orthodoxy.

Text revised: August 15, 2003