Orthodox Christians and Conscientious Objection

by Jim Forest

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”

- Matthew 5:9

Peacemaking is an essential dimension of any Christian vocation. One sees by studying the lives of the saints how many ways there are to be a peacemaker. There is no single norm. Nor can those who renounce violence claim there is an automatic sanctity in such a renunciation. What one does in life is more significant than what one refuses to do, though there are many occasions in each life in which saying “no” is essential. For those who are troubled by the moral implications of war and who may either be subject to conscription or already wearing a military uniform, there are several alternatives to consider.

One option is “conscientious objection.” This is a modern legal term referring to people who, in response to their religious or philosophical convictions, either refuse to take part in war in any capacity or will participate in the military only in noncombatant roles. Some are conscientious objectors to war in general; others may be conscientious objectors to a particular war or type of war.

In countries where there is military conscription, usually there is legal provision for conscientious objection, though it may be restricted to those who in principle oppose war in general. Typically the conscientious objector will be required either to perform civilian alterative service or, if he or she does not object, assigned to noncombatant service within the military. Alternative service is often performed in hospitals or other community agencies.

Non-combatant military service has most often been performed in medical units, though any assignment is possible as long as the use of weapons is not required. It should be kept in mind that non-combatant personnel share in overall military goals. According to the Army Field Manual, “The primary duty of medical troops, as of all other troops, is to contribute their utmost to the success of the command of which they are a part.” (FM 8-40, p.195)

Many people don’t think seriously about the question of war, peace and personal responsibility until they are actually in the armed forces. For those who become conscientious objectors while in the military, in most countries there are provisions for a special discharge. Usually any chaplain can provide information about how to apply for such a discharge.

There is no shortage of people eager to tell others what to do, be they government leaders, leaders of movements, parents or friends. But each of us stands alone with his conscience before God. Each of us must arrive at his or her own choice. Part of the decision-making process, however, ought to be consultation with trusted advisors, family members, clergy, and a qualified counselor if one is available. While once it was difficult to find a bishop or pastor who understood or valued the conscientious objector, today it is difficult to find one who does not. The legalization of abortion in many countries has spurred the Church’s understanding of its role in the protection of life at all stages. There is today renewed interest in the witness given against bloodshed by Christians in the early Church.

As a further resource, what follows in this essay pulls together the root sources of Christian conscientious objection

Following our Lord God and Savior, Jesus Christ

In the dark hours leading up his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus led his disciples to the garden of Gethsemani, just east of Jerusalem, and there he prayed with such intensity that he sweated blood. His prayer ended with the arrival of members of the Temple guard led by Judas, who identified Jesus to the guards with the gesture of a kiss. The disciples had slept while Jesus prayed, but were now wide awake. One of them, Peter, had a sword which he used in an attempt to defend Jesus. He managed to strike one effective blow, cutting off the ear of a servant of the High Priest. The last miracle of Jesus before his crucifixion was the healing of the wounded man – a powerful gesture embodying his commandment that his followers must love their enemies. At the same time he said to Peter: “Put away your sword, for whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword.” (Mt 26:52)

Jesus was no coward. He made no attempt to escape arrest and all that followed. To the distress of his disciples, he repeatedly placed himself at risk. In word and action, he provides a model of courage. Yet in his years of public ministry he neither killed nor wounded anyone, nor did he bless any of his followers to commit such actions. He was well known for healing the ill and offering forgiveness. In one case he saved the life of a woman whom a crowd was poised to stone to death. A merciful Messiah was not the Messiah everyone had hoped for. Many hoped for a general who would initiate a successful military campaign to end Rome’s occupation, a leader who would not hesitate to shed the blood of Israel’s enemies.

The Approach of the Early Church

In the early Church, Christ’s disarming words to Peter were understood as being addressed to all Christians. In the Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus of Rome, written in the second century and attributed to one of the first Bishops of Rome, renunciation of killing is regarded as a precondition of baptism:

“A soldier under authority shall not kill a man. If he is ordered to, he shall not carry out the order, nor shall he take the oath. If he is unwilling, let him be rejected. He who has the power of the sword or is a magistrate of a city who wears the purple, let him cease or be rejected. Catechumens or believers, who want to become soldiers, should be rejected, because they have despised God.”

(Canon XVI: On professions)

In a famous criticism of Christians written by the pagan scholar Celsus in 173 AD, Christians were sharply condemned for what today would be called conscientious objection to participation in war. “If all men were to do as you,” wrote Celsus, “there would be nothing to prevent the Emperor from being left in utter solitude, and with the desertion of his forces, the Empire would fall into the hands of the most lawless barbarians.”

Defending the Christian community the theologian Origen replied:

“Christians have been taught not to defend themselves against their enemies; and because they have kept the laws that command gentleness and love of man, they have received from God that which they would not have achieved if they were permitted to make war, though they might have been quite able to do so.”

(Contra Celsum 3, 8)

The Christian refusal of military service, Origen argued, did not indicate indifference to social responsibility, but rather response at the spiritual and transcendent level:

“The more devout the individual, the more effective he is in helping the Emperor, more so than the soldiers who go into the lines and kill all the enemy troops they can … The greatest warfare, in other words, is not with human enemies but with those spiritual forces which make men into enemies.”

In the same period St. Justin Martyr wrote similarly: “We who were filled with war and mutual slaughter and every wickedness have each of us in all the world changed our weapons of war … swords into plows and spears into pruning hooks.” (Trypho 110) Elsewhere he wrote, “We who formerly murdered one another now not only do not make war upon our enemies but, that we may not lie or deceive our judges, we gladly die confessing Christ.”) I Apol. 39)

“The Church,” said Clement of Alexandria, is “an army which sheds no blood.” (Protrepticus 11, 116) “In peace, not in war, we are trained.” (Paedogogus 1,12) “If you enroll as one of God’s people, heaven is your country and God your lawgiver. And what are His laws? You shall not kill, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. To him that strikes you on the one cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Prot. 10)

Early Examples of Christian Conscientious Objectors

St. Maximilian

In narratives of the early Church that come down to us regarding the lives of the saints, some concern those who refused military service. One of these was a young Christian named Maximilian, a recruit tried the 12th of March, 295, at Mauritania in Northern Africa.

On trial for his life, Maximilian told the proconsul Dion, “I cannot serve because I am a Christian…. I cannot commit a sin. I am a Christian.”

“Serve, or you will die,” said Dion.

“I shall not serve,” said Maximilian. “You may cut off my head, I will not serve this world, but only my God.”

Dion asked, “Who turned your head?”

Dion said to Victor, the boy’s father, “Speak to your son.”

Victor said, “He is aware and can take his own counsel on what is best for him.”

Dion said to Maximilian, “Agree to serve and receive the military seal.”

“I will not accept the seal,” he replied. “I already have the seal of Christ who is my God.”

Dion said, “I shall send you to your Christ directly.”

“If only you would,” he replied. “This would be my glory.”

Dion addressed his staff, “Let him be given the seal.”

Maximilian resisted and said, “I will not accept the seal of this world; and if you give it to me, I shall break it, for it is worthless. I am a Christian I cannot wear a piece of lead around my neck after I have received the saving sign of Jesus Christ my Lord, the Son of the living God. You do not know him; yet he suffered for our salvation; God delivered him up for our sins (cf. Acts 2:22-4; Rom. 8:32). He is the one whom all we Christians serve: we follow him as the prince of life and the author of salvation.”

“You must serve,” said Dion, “and accept the seal – otherwise you will die miserably.”

“I shall not perish,” said Maximilian. “My name is already before the Lord. I may not serve.”

Dion said, “Have regard for your youth: serve. This is what a young man should do.”

“My service is for my Lord,” Maximilian replied. “I cannot serve the world. I have already told you: I am a Christian.”

The proconsul Dion said, “In the sacred bodyguard of our Lords Diocletian and Maximian, Constantinus and Maximus, there are soldiers who are Christians, and they serve.”

Maxmilian replied, “They know what is best for them. But I am a Christian and I cannot do wrong.”

“What wrong do they commit,” said Dion, “who serve in the army?”

Maximilian replied, “Why, you know what they do.”

The proconsul Dion said, “Serve. If you despise the military service you will perish miserably.”

Maximilian said, “I shall not perish, and if I depart from this world, my soul lives with Christ my Lord.”

“Strike out his name!” said Dion. And when his name had been struck out, Dion said, “Because you have refused military service out of disloyalty, you will receive a suitable sentence as an example to the others.” Then he read the following decision from a tablet: “Whereas Maximilian has disloyally refused the military oath, he is sentenced to die by the sword.”

The last recorded words of Maximilian are “Thank God.”

St. Martin of Tours

From the mid-fourth century comes an account of the life-risking refusal to participate in combat by St. Martin of Tours. a young Roman officer who had recently become a Christian.

Martin was about twenty when a barbarian invasion of Gaul – today’s France – brought his personal situation as a Christian convert to a head. His company was called to appear before Caesar Julian (Caesar 355-360, then Augustus 360-363) to receive a war-bounty. Refusing to accept his, Martin explained to Julian: “Up to now I have served you as a soldier. Now let me serve Christ. Give the bounty to these others – they are going to fight, but I am a soldier of Christ and it is not lawful for me to fight.”

The irate emperor accused him of cowardice, to which he replied that, in the name of Christ, he was prepared to face the enemy on the following day, alone and unarmed. He was thrown into prison, but a swift end to the hostilities meant that no further action was taken against him, and he was discharged. After his discharge, Martin was ordained a priest and went on to become one of the most important missionary bishops of his generation.

Christian iconography often focuses on a telling incident from Martin’s life. While still an army officer and not yet baptized, he encountered a beggar outside the gates of Amiens in Gaul. He responded to the freezing man’s need by cutting his outer robe in half, giving half to the beggar. That night, in a dream, it was revealed to him that he had given his cloak to Christ.

The Approach of the Church since the Time of St. Constantine

During the Church’s first three centuries, Christians were repeatedly the object of state repression. Many were martyred: burned, crucified, eaten by wild animals, tortured to death, beheaded. Persecution at last ended in the year 313 when the Emperor Constantine issued the edict of Milan. Though baptized only on his deathbed and thus only fully a member of the Church in his final hours, Constantine nonetheless acted as a guardian of the Church.

Constantine died in 337. Within half a century of his death, Christianity became the official religion of the Empire. Far from being persecuted, the Christian Church was favored by the state. The relationship between Church and secular authority was drastically changed. It was not in every way a blessing. As St. Jerome observed in that period, “When the Church came to the princes of the world, she grew in power and wealth but diminished in virtue.”

Late in the fourth century the foundations were laid of what is today referred to as “the just war theory.” This provided a justification for Christian participation in defensive wars under specific conditions. Even then St. Ambrose (d. 397) and St. Augustine (d. 430) maintained the traditional view that the individual Christian was barred from violence on his own behalf, but proposed that defense of one’s community was a different matter. Both insisted that under all circumstances the command to love one’s enemies remained in force.

In the course of time the just war theory was developed until it reached its classic form in the Middle Ages.

Under the terms of this teaching, a war may be considered just, and Christians may participate, if, without exception, it meets certain conditions: the war must be declared by the legitimate authority of the state. It must be fought for a just cause and with a just intention, not simply to satisfy national pride or to further economic or territorial gain. Just means must be employed, respecting the right to life of the innocent and noncombatants. The war must have a reasonable chance of success. There must be a reasonable expectation that the good results of the war will outweigh the evil caused by it. War must be the last resort. The burden of guilt must be clearly on one side.

The just war theory is chiefly associated with Western Christianity. Fr. Stanley Harakas, for many years Professor of Orthodox Theology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Massachusetts, writing about his search through patristic sources and Byzantine military manuals for texts concerning war, notes:

“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 … war can be seen only as a ‘necessary evil,’ with all the difficulty and imprecision such a designation carries.”

["No Just War in the Fathers," full text on the web site of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship; search "Harakas."]

Fr. Harakas discovered what he referred to as the “stratification of pacifism” in the Church. The discipline of not killing others under any circumstances, applied to all baptized Christians in the early Church, came to be required only of those serving at the altar and iconographers.

Even in Constantine’s time, one sees within the Church a profoundly critical attitude regarding military service. The First Ecumenical Council, held at Nicea near Constantinople in the year 325, one of the canons issued by the bishops declared:

“As many as were called by grace, and displayed the first zeal, having cast aside their military belts, but afterwards returned, like dogs, to their own vomit, so that some have regained their military stations; let these, after they have passed the space of three years as hearers, be for ten years prostrators. [Hearers and prostrators are categories of penitents who can be present, like catechumens, for the Liturgy of the Word, but are barred from the Eucharistic Liturgy.] But in all these cases it is necessary to examine well into their purpose and what their repentance appears to be like. For as many as give evidence of their conversions by deeds, and not pretense, with fear, and tears, and perseverance, and good works, when they have fulfilled their appointed time as hearers, may properly communicate in prayers; and after that the bishop may determine yet more favorably concerning them. But those who take the matter with indifference, and who think the form of not entering the Church is sufficient for their conversion, must fulfil the whole time.”

(Canon XII)

In The Canons of Hippolytus, written not later than 340 AD, one finds a section that expands on canons from previous centuries:

“Concerning the Magistrate and the Soldier: they are not to kill anyone, even if they receive the order: they are not to wear wreaths. Whoever has authority and does not do the righteousness of the gospel is to be excluded and is not to pray with the bishop.

“Whoever has received the authority to kill, or else a soldier, they are not to kill in any case, even if they receive the order to kill. They are not to pronounce a bad word. Those who have received an honor are not to wear wreaths on their heads. Whoever is raised to the authority of prefect or to the magistracy and does not put on the righteousness of the Gospel is to be excluded from the flock and the bishop is not to pray with him.

“A Christian is not to become a soldier. A Christian must not become a soldier, unless he is compelled by a chief bearing the sword. He is not to burden himself with the sin of blood. But if he has shed blood, he is not to partake of the mysteries, unless he is purified by a punishment, tears, and wailing. He is not to come forward deceitfully but in the fear of God.”

(Canons XIII-XIV)

Details of penitential practices varied from region to region, but one sees something of the general attitude of the Church in the late fourth century in the canons of St. Gregory the Great:

“He that is guilty of involuntary murder, shall do eleven years’ penance – that is, if the murdered person, after he had here received the wound, do again go abroad, and yet afterward die of the wound…. Our fathers did not think that killing in war was murder; yet I think it advisable for such as have been guilty of it to forbear communion three years…. He that willfully commits murder, and afterwards repents, shall for twenty years remain without communicating of the Holy Sacrament. Four years he must mourn without the door of the oratory, and beg of the communicants that go in, that prayer be offered for him; then for five years he shall be admitted among the hearers, for seven years among the prostrators; for four years he shall be a co-stander with the communicants, but shall not partake of the oblation; when these years are completed, he shall partake of the Holy Sacrament.”

(Canons XI, XIII and LVI)

To abstain from communion meant to be excluded, along with those preparing for baptism, from the Eucharistic Liturgy.

Christians who had once been notable for their abstention from war and their condemnation of blood sports were, by the fifth century, found in the military in every rank. Yet the Orthodox Church never saw war as a something that might be regarded as good or just – rather, in the best of circumstances, the lesser of two evils, nonetheless inevitably involving the commission of grave sins. Clergy were – and still are – forbidden to take part. Even to kill another person in self-defense or by accident was seen as precluding a person of serving at the altar.

St. Gregory of Nyssa (395 AD) wrote late in the fourth century:

“Scripture not only prohibits inflicting the slightest wound, but moreover all foul talk and slander (Col. 3:8; Eph. 4:31) and similar things that proceed from the incensive power of the soul; yet only against the crime of murder our fathers have imposed canonical sanctions. With regard to this crime a distinction is made between involuntary homicide and premeditated murder. As voluntary, murder is considered, first of all, when someone dares to commit this act in a premeditated manner. Secondly those are considered as voluntary murderers who during a fight, while exchanging blows, strike in some dangerous place. For once overcome by wrath and giving way to the movements of anger, during their passion they will not accept anything into their minds that may prevent evil. Therefore a killing that results from a fight is attributed to the effect of compulsion, and not considered an accident. Involuntary homicide can be recognized by the feature that someone, aiming to achieve something else, by accident inflicts such great evil. For those who wish to heal the crime of premeditated murder by repentance, a triple lapse of time is required. Three nine-year periods of penitence are imposed, with nine years in each degree of penitence….

“Involuntary homicide is considered worthy of indulgence, although not praiseworthy. I say this in order to make clear that someone who has defiled himself with murder – be it involuntarily – is considered impure through his impure deeds and the canon considers such a person unworthy of the grace of priesthood.

(Canon V, The Canonical Epistle of St. Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa, to St. Letoius, Bishop of Melitene)

Soldier saints

But are there not soldier saints? Indeed there are.

The church has never canonized anyone for his military skills or achievements in war, even in cases where war was entirely defensive and could not be avoided. Nonetheless it should be noted that one finds many examples not only of courage and self-giving love but of sanctity among people in the armed forces. Those who refuse to take part in war need to be cautious of adopting a self-righteous attitude toward those in military service or to imagine themselves better people.

St. George

In the early Church converts were found in every profession, both noble and ignoble. Converts included soldiers. One of these is the Great Martyr George, the most famous “soldier saint.”

In icons we are used to seeing St. George battling a dragon, but that image arose centuries after his death. The actual George died a martyr’s death not unlike that suffered by thousands of other Christians of his generation. The real dragon George fought against was fear. George lived in the time of the persecutions of Diocletian and Maximian, when many Christians were being arrested and taken away to torturers and executioners. As a young army officer, George had the courage to walk into a public square and shout, “All the heathen gods are devils. My God made the heavens and is the true God.” For this he was arrested, tortured and put to death. His witness is said to have led to the conversion of many and given courage to others who were already baptized.

The image of a battle with a dragon came much later: According to the legend, a dragon lived in a lake in the region of Cappadocia in Asia Minor and was worshiped by the terrified local people, who fed him their children to subdue the dragon’s rage. When it was the turn of Elizabeth, the king’s daughter, to be sacrificed and she was going toward the lake to meet her doom, St. George appeared riding a white horse. He prayed to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then transfixed the dragon with his lance, and afterward led the vanquished creature into the city. The wounded monster followed Elizabeth, says the Legenda Aurea of Blessed James de Voragine, “as if it had been a meek beast.” Afterward George called on the local people to be baptized.

The icon of St. George in combat with the dragon is a simple but powerful image of the struggle against evil and fear, represented by the dragon. The white horse St. George rides is a graceful creature as light as air and as fearless as his rider. The thin cross-topped lance the saint holds is not tightly grasped but rests lightly in his hand – meaning that it is the power of God, not the power of man that overcomes evil. George’s face shows not a trace of anger, hatred or anxiety. Often the hand of the Savior is extended from heaven in a sign of blessing.

St. Alexander Nevsky

While there is no record of St. George having taken part in war, the church calendar includes saints whose life story includes combat on the battlefield. Perhaps the best known of these in the Russian Orthodox Church is St. Alexander Nevsky, a prince of Novgorod. In his early life he led successful military campaigns against the Swedish army and later against the Teutonic Knights; Russians still commemorate his victory against the Teutonic Knights on the ice of the Lake Chud in 1242. In 1938, Alexander Nevsky was portrayed by the Russian film maker, Sergei Eisenstein, as an invincible warrior, an image that met Stalin’s needs at the time and is still dominant in our own day. However, when we study Russian history, we meet not only a man of war but also the peacemaker Alexander Nevsky later became.

Exchanging his armor for the gown of a diplomat, Prince Alexander succeeded in normalizing relations with Khan Batu, saving Russia from a war it could not win and winning concessions protecting Church life. Finally he retired from both military and diplomatic roles to put on monastic robes and lead a penitential life. After he died, the people of Russia remembered him as the prince- warrior who became a peacemaker and in the end embraced the ascetic life of a monk. It was as a monk that he was shown in icons. It was only centuries later, at the time of Czar Peter the Great, that icons of the prince-turned-monk were revised so that he was shown dressed as a warrior rather than as a monk. “In this way,” notes the Russian scholar Fr. Georgi Chistyakov, “a monastic saint was made into a Russian version of Mars, the god of war, whose worship is connected with the cult of arms. The modification of the icon was pure paganism, Orthodox only in its form, a slander against the saint himself.”

Choosing a path

Various religious and secular organizations exist to help conscientious objectors. Orthodox Christians seeking assistance should contact the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

With or without the support and understanding of friends and family, the questions remain intimately one’s own. What will I do? About war? For peace? With the rest of my life? How can I best follow Christ? The basic question is much larger than whether or not to be a soldier. It’s a question of basic direction. It is a question of putting everything, including citizenship and political opinions, in the context of faith.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” Who are these? Those who imitate the Divine love of others, who show forth in their own life the characteristic of the Divine energy. The Lord and Giver of good things completely annihilates anything that is without affinity and foreign to goodness. This work He ordains also for you, namely to cast out hatred and abolish war, to exterminate envy and banish strife, to take away hypocrisy and extinguish from within resentment of injuries smoldering in the heart. Instead, you ought to introduce whatever is contrary to the things that have been removed. For as light follows the departure of darkness, thus also these evil things are replaced by the fruits of the Spirit: by charity, joy, peace, benignity, magnanimity, all the good things enumerated by the Apostle (Gal 5:22). How then should the dispenser of the Divine gifts not be blessed, since he imitates the gifts of God and models his own good deeds on the Divine generosity?

- St. Gregory of Nyssa

Whatever choice we make, we must always bear in mind our responsibility to love even our enemies and to recognize Christ in the stranger. “What you have done to the least person,” Christ reminds us in the Gospel, “you have done to me.”` (Matthew 25:40)