Make Peace, Not War

by Fr. Philip LeMasters

4305861269_f639d99f20There is no question that we Orthodox Christians would prefer to make peace instead of war, but even in the context of Christian ethics, it is difficult to shift the categories of discussion from “just war” to “just peace.” Unfortunately, like so many others, we too are in the habit of giving more serious attention to the question of when war is justified, or can be tolerated, than to the moral imperative of building a peace among nations and peoples that is based on justice and protects human beings from harm. The well-established centrality of peace within Orthodoxy provides the proper context for discourse about pacifism, just-war theory, the crusade, and other stances on the use of military force. Rather than abstract moral theories, these orientations point to the tensions experienced by those who seek to bring peace in our fallen world. Orthodoxy does not have an abstract theory of peace so much as a commitment to the praxis of peace, a dynamic project which is compatible with the vision espoused by advocates of “just peace.”

It is well established that, in contrast to churches in the West, Orthodoxy does not have an explicit just-war theory  there is certainly no “crusade” ethic  and sees the taking of life in war, even in wars that might be regarded as necessary and unavoidable, as a tragic, broken undertaking for which repentance is required. The Church does not require pacifism in the sense of renouncing all use of violence or force, though the normative Christ-like response to evil is to turn the other cheek and forgive. (The root meaning of the word “pacifism” is peace, from the Latin word pax.) However, while the Church views war as an unsuitable undertaking for the clergy or members of monastic communities, participation in war is not canonically prohibited for the laity.

While peace is the norm for human relations, the imperfect peace that sometimes exists among us is sustained by arrangements of political, social, economic and military power. Rather than condemn these dynamics, our challenge is to do what we can to make peace within the context of the realities we face.

Orthodox Christians should embody a true pacifism which engages the dynamics of human society in order to work for a peace based on justice that is pleasing to God. Our concern should not be whether the use of violence is ever acceptable, but whether we are doing the things that make for peace. The question is: Are we living as the peacemakers who will be blessed in God’s Kingdom?

Orthodox Christianity rejects the Gnostic view of salvation as escape from the world, as well as Manichean dualism. These ancient heresies are not dead museum pieces from the early centuries of Christian thought. They represent enduring temptations which are especially powerful when we consider the relationship between the “peace from above” and the broken realities of politics and international relations. We will not bear witness to God’s peace by fleeing to an imaginary, disembodied realm of spirituality that ignores the suffering of those who bear the image of God or by demonizing the less appealing dimensions of humanity’s collective life. Instead, our calling is to offer all dimensions of our creaturely reality to the Holy Trinity as best we can for blessing, healing, and transformation.

In the Divine Liturgy, the many petitions for peace reflect a holistic vision of a world participating in God’s peace. Immediately after the priest’s opening exclamation of the blessedness of the Kingdom of the Holy Trinity, the deacon exhorts the people to pray in peace. The biblical roots of this peace are in the Hebrew shalom, understood not merely as the absence of war but as freedom from fear and threats. In the New Testament, peace becomes a synonym for salvation.

The first petitions of the Liturgy are for our participation in God’s peace and salvation, including “the peace of the whole world” and “the union of all.” We pray for government authorities, healthful seasons, abundance of the fruits of the earth, and peaceful times, as well as deliverance from all tribulation, wrath, danger, and necessity. We pray for peace both as the absence of war and strife, and as God’s eschatological gift of salvation.

It would be possible to identify many other examples from the Liturgy which indicate the centrality of peace to Orthodox views of both worship and salvation. It is enough, however, to note that in the liturgical center of our faith, we pray for a peace characterized by justice for all nations and peoples, including those with political and military power as well as those who suffer from the abuse of such power. We pray for God’s peace and blessing upon all the peoples of the world in the circumstances they face. We look forward to the fulfillment of this peace in the reign of God, a peace the Church already experiences in the Liturgy.

The peace we seek is not removed from the challenges posed by nationalism, weapons of mass destruction, the scarcity of natural resources, and the many other geopolitical and ideological causes of conflict among peoples and nations. To separate God’s peace from these challenges would be to succumb to an almost Gnostic temptation to escape the creaturely realities of life in God’s world for a salvation that concerns only a privileged few who somehow rise above it. As Father John Chryssavgis has noted, “Christians ought to show an interest in, and zeal for, the fundamental needs of people, and not despise them from the heights of their spirituality. There can be no justification for those who find a way of sitting comfortably on the cross as if in an armchair. The life of a Christian is lived out on a cross in a creative tension between the world as we have it now and the world as we hope and pray for it.”

The peace of Christ cannot be identified with any political arrangement or social order. Jesus Christ is our peace, our salvation, our healing, our fulfillment and our transformation as we become partakers of the Divine Nature and share by grace in the Divine Energies of the Holy Trinity. Theosis is a dynamic process of sharing more fully in the eternal life, blessedness, and peace of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We participate in Christ’s healing and divinization of our humanity in His Body, the Church, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Through ongoing ascetical struggle and the nourishment of the Holy Mysteries, we grow in the peace of our Lord and His Kingdom.

St. Justin Martyr taught that all who use reason are, in a sense, Christians, for the Word of God is the source of all truth. Whenever we see harmony, justice, forgiveness, respect for human dignity, generosity, and care for the weak in the common life of humanity of, we witness a blessing of the Lord and catch a glimpse of the peace of Christ. Orthodox Christians should work for and welcome even broken and obscure manifestations of “just peace” which fall short of the fullness of the eschatological Kingdom of God.

In the Divine Liturgy, we pray for such mundane matters as good weather, the well-being of travelers and the salvation of captives, our deliverance from danger and necessity, and for the peace of the whole world. These petitions indicate that there is no dimension of creation for which God’s blessing and peace are irrelevant. If we see no connection between Christ’s peace and our response to present social conditions, we will find ourselves wondering why we pray for peace and blessing upon people who suffer from violence and injustice in the world as we know it. If the “peace from above” has no relationship at all to present wars, such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is hard to see why Orthodox would involve themselves in any way in contemporary political and social debates.

In the account of the last judgment in the 25th chapter of St. Matthew’s gospel, Jesus Christ identified Himself with the most miserable of human beings. The righteous in the parable were rewarded for caring for the Lord in “the least of these my brethren,” even though they did not know that they were thereby serving Jesus. Surely, those who bring even a small measure of peace to suffering human beings today also serve Him in some way. Those who pray “for the peace from above and the salvation of our souls” must accept the challenges of working for a more just peace for the living icons of Christ in the less than ideal situations in which they find themselves. If we do not, we risk identifying ourselves with those condemned for ignoring the sufferings of Jesus in their wretched neighbors.

Advocates of just peacemaking seek to discover methods of peacemaking that can make a difference in the “real world” and are in accord with the Gospel  for example, supporting cooperative conflict resolution, nonviolent direct action, sustainable economic growth, the development of grassroots peacemaking groups, a reduction of offensive weapons, acknowledgment of responsibility for injustice, and seeking forgiveness.

This approach calls for a variety of social, political, and international institutions to be proactive in building a world in which the causes of violence are mitigated. It is not an idealistic or utopian movement that dreams of a peace so far removed from the lives of peoples and nations that we cannot imagine how it will be achieved or sustained.

This perspective does not necessarily rule out the use of military force, either as an intervention to protect human rights or in national self-defense, but it would place the use of force within the larger context of sustaining a peace based upon justice, rather than within the moral trajectory of the just war. There is a preference in this school of thought for multinational discernment as to when the responsibility to protect a population from grave harm should be invoked, as well as for “collective, multilateral intervention” to guard against “self-interested interventions thinly cloaked in humanitarianism.” Such an approach addresses a weakness identified by Fr. Stanley Harakas in just-war theory, the tendency to rationalize “that ‘our side’ is always justified, thus allowing the legitimization of military exploits, precisely and paradoxically as it seeks to reduce the excesses of war.”

Advocates of “just peace” do not, however, envision simply an internationalist interpretation of just-war theory. A representative collection of essays by scholars in this field includes nine chapters on nonviolent practices that foster peace and only one that focuses on a multinational responsibility for military intervention. [Just Peacemaking, Glen Stassen, ed., The Pilgrim Press, 2008]

Since we pray for peace for the whole world and everyone in it, and uphold our Lord’s love and forgiveness as the ultimate example of how to respond to evil and to our enemies, Orthodox Christians should find much common ground with the proponents of the “just peace.” Surely, our faith calls us to give far more attention to the question of how to establish and maintain peaceful and just societies than it does to justify, or even tolerate, any instance of war.

Fr. Harakas appeals to the doctrine of “synergy” to emphasize the obligation of Orthodox to cooperate with the work of others in bringing peace, and especially in addressing the economic and social injustices that often amount to “the real causes of war.” He calls Orthodox to “organize ourselves in realistic, practical, and down-to-earth projects for social renewal. Where there is less pain, less suffering, where there is less hunger, the likeliness of war is lessened.” In taking such action, we are to manifest “the theology of the transfiguration” as we help others and ourselves see more clearly the spiritual significance of these projects for peace. Fr. Chryssavgis agrees that “we can and must look to the real causes of war which are to be found in the economic and social injustices abounding in our world” [and] respond to them in a spiritually responsible way.

This stance also places the possible use of military force to maintain peace in its proper context. Questions of the necessity of war find their setting in the moral trajectory of establishing, at least imperfectly, the peace for which we pray and in protecting vulnerable populations. Fr. John McGuckin places Canon 13 of St. Basil the Great in precisely such a context, arguing that he responded with oikonomia to soldiers defending “Christian borders from the ravages of pagan marauders” for “passive non-involvement betrays the Christian family (especially its weaker members who cannot defend themselves but need others to help them) to the ravages of men without heart or conscience to restrain them.” In this context, “a limited and adequate response … will restrict the bloodshed to a necessary minimum,” even as repentance is required for soldiers who kill.

His Eminence Metropolitan George of Mount Lebanon strikes a similar note of realism about the Byzantines, for “The Empire, though it was becoming Christianized, could not simply abolish the army. The Empire was not yet the Kingdom of God. It had to defend itself against the barbarians.” The Empire could not avoid defensive wars; the acceptance of the necessity of such wars indicated that “pacifism as a theory was no longer known in the Christian East.”

I find it more fitting to say that Orthodoxy does not have so much a theory on pacifism, just-war, or the crusade as we have a dynamic commitment to the praxis of peace. In every dimension of life, we are called to embody the way of Christ as fully as we can in the circumstances that we face: to forgive enemies; to work for the reconciliation of those who have become estranged; to overcome the divisions of race, nationality, and class; to care for the poor; to live in harmony with others; and to use the created goods of the world for the benefit of all. Our advocacy for peace must not stop with praying the litanies of the Liturgy. We may pray these petitions with integrity only if we offer ourselves as instruments for God’s peace in the world, only if we live them out in relation to the challenges to peace that exist among peoples and nations.

In this context, the Church may at times tolerate war as a lesser evil, a tragic necessity for the defense of justice and the preservation of the imperfect, yet still imperative, peace that is possible among the nations and peoples of the world in given situations. But even the use of force to protect people from genocide falls short of the fullness of the peace of Christ, for such projects involve soldiers in the work of death and open them to the terrible passions inevitably inflamed by war. Soldiers who shed blood, even in the most humanitarian military intervention, stand in need of the spiritual therapy of repentance. Still, such military interventions may be necessary practical steps for building a peace that protects the weak from aggression and abuse.

In this light, we recall that St. Basil’s Canon 13 is not an abstract theoretical statement on the morality of warfare. Instead, it concerns the restoration to full participation in the sacramental life of the Church of those who have killed in war. It is a pastoral statement on the appropriate guidance given to those whose souls have been damaged by doing what was necessary to protect their fellow Christians and subjects from destruction. Patriarch Polyeuktos used the canon in the tenth century to reject an imperial appeal to recognize as saints Byzantine soldiers who died in battle. Not an abstract theoretical statement, this application of the canon responded to a challenge to the Church’s stance on the spiritual significance of warfare. For even a necessary war is not a crusade; the imperfect peace sustained by war is not identified with the peace of the Kingdom. And canon law continues to prohibit clergy and monastics from serving in the military, holding government office, and shedding blood.

Orthodoxy does not present the world with abstract theories of pacifism, just war, or the crusade. Instead, it calls the members of the Church to work for the practical realization of a peace based on justice for all the peoples of the world. This dynamic practice of peace is the true pacifism which is incumbent upon all those who pray “for the peace from above and the salvation of our souls.” Orthodox Christians have a moral imperative to support practices and structures that build a “just peace” in the world as we know it, even though this peace falls short of the fullness of God’s eschatological reign.

While military intervention may be tragically necessary to sustain a just peace in given circumstances, such uses of force fall short of normative Christ-like ways of responding to evil. An advantage of “just peacemaking” over just-war theory is that it places discussion of any possible use of force within the moral trajectory of sustaining peace rather than within that of justifying war. The advocates of “just peace” give much greater attention to nonviolent practices that sustain peace than to discourse about the morality of war. The same should be true of the Orthodox peace witness. Though the historical distinctions between pacifism, the crusade, and just-war theory remain quite relevant for many other Christian bodies, none of them fits perfectly with Orthodoxy.

Perhaps that lack of fit is an indication that the Church’s prayer, witness, and work are not fundamentally about war, but about a peace which is not yet fully present in this world. The “peace from above and the salvation of our souls” are not yet wholly realized. In a corrupt world in which most peoples and nations do not intentionally seek the peace of Christ, even some wars are opaque works of peace. Orthodox Christians should place far greater stress, however, on nonviolent practices that help to sustain peaceful societies, reconcile enemies, and prevent wars and other conflicts. In doing so, we will bear witness to a peace that is not of this world, but which at the same time is the only true answer to the world’s strife.

Fr. Philip LeMasters is professor of religion and director of the Honors Program at McMurry University in Abilene, Texas. A priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese, he serves at St. Luke Orthodox Church in Abilene. He is the author of The Goodness of God’s Creation (Regina Orthodox Press).
Winter Issue IC 55 2010
IN COMMUNION 55 / FEAST OF ST. BASIL THE GREAT / JANUARY 2010