War and Virtue
Aristotle Papanikolaou, Fordham University
Paper delivered at the annual conference of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, Washington, DC – October 2013
[The following is the full text of Prof. Papanikolaou's essay/address. The first half was published as an essay in the summer issue of In Communion, IC69]
Orthodoxy and Secular Rule: Ethics and Politics
Contemporary discussions of just war theory in Christian ethics focus on whether Christians should be in the business of defining criteria for the decision to go to war and for the proper engagement in combat. There is very little attention to the way in which, debates about just war criteria notwithstanding, combat soldiers are forced to engage in practices, both in training before war and during war, that fine-tune the body to the constant threat of violence—what I term the ascetics of war. If war is seen as fostering a certain ascetics on the body, then the Orthodox notion of divine-human communion (theosis) is relevant to discussions of war insofar as divine-human communion is itself linked to an ascetics of virtue. Understanding the human as created for communion with God shifts the focus of the discussion from just war versus pacifism to the effects of war on the human person and the practices that undo such effects. After briefly discussing the current debate within contemporary Orthodox theology on just war theory, I will draw on the work of Jonathan Shay to illustrate the effects of the ascetics of war on the body. I will then argue that the ascetics of virtue that involves the particular ascetical practice of truth-telling has the power to undo the traumatic effects of war on the combat veteran. Insofar as this undoing is an embodiment of virtue, it is also an embodiment of the divine—theosis.
When it comes to the question of war, the Orthodox are probably most well known for asserting that there is no just war “theory” in the Orthodox tradition in the form of distinctions between jus in bello and jus ad bellum, and their respective criteria; there is also consensus that within the tradition there has been discussion about the need to go to war even if such discussion never resulted in a just war “theory”; the current debate centers on how going to war is characterized: For Fr. Stanley Harakas, it is always a necessary evil; for Fr. Alexander Webster, there has existed a justifiable just war tradition within Orthodoxy that identifies under certain conditions when war is virtuous and of moral value. What is remarkable about the entire debate is that there is little attention to what is arguably the core and central axiom of the Orthodox tradition—the principle of divine-human communion. Webster speaks of war as “virtuous,” and yet absent is any attention to the tradition of thinking on virtue in either the ascetical writings or in such thinkers as Maximos the Confessor; in both cases, the understanding of virtue is inherently linked to one’s struggle toward communion with God—theosis. How exactly is claiming to have fought in a virtuous war, or to have killed virtuously consistent with this tradition of thinking on virtue in light of the principle of divine-human communion? Is it really the case that being virtuous in war means moving toward a deeper communion with God? Webster does not give an answer to these questions. Although Harakas does argue for the patristic bias for peace, approaching the issue from an eschatological perspective, his emphasis is still on how to label the action to go to war, or the conduct during war, and there is no attention to war from the perspective of the Orthodox understanding of creation’s destiny for communion with God.
The Vice of War
One result of understanding war from the principle of divine-human communion is attention to the effects of war on those who live through it, no matter what side one is on. Discussions of justifiable war may create the impression that as long as one is on the morally justified side of war, then that should be enough to mitigate the existential effects of war and violence. There is plenty of evidence to indicate that the “side” one is on makes absolutely no difference to the non-discriminatory effects of violence in war.
There is no shortage of stories of the traumatic effects of war from soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War, or the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What stories from veterans of war reveal is that violence becomes embodied—its insidiousness seeps into the physiological infrastructure of the human person. If creation is created for communion, and if humans are the center of this divine-human drama, then divine-human communion itself is the presencing of the good into the deep recesses of the body—it is an embodied experience. Violence opens up the body not to God, but to the inhabitation of the anti-God.
This absence of the divine is evident in the staggering statistic that at least “one-third of homeless males are [Vietnam] veterans, with 150,000-250,000 veterans homeless on a given night and at least twice that number homeless at some time in the course of a given year.” It is also apparent in the study that showed that “35.8 percent of male Vietnam combat veterans met the full American Psychiatric Association diagnostic criteria for PTSD at the time of the study, in the late 1980s . . . This is a thirty-two-fold increase in the prevalence of PTSD compared to the random sample of demographically similar civilians. More than 70 percent of combat veterans had experienced at least one of the cardinal symptoms (‘partial PTSD’) at some time in their lives, even if they did not receive the full syndrome diagnosis.” This high rate of the experience of PTSD symptoms among Vietnam veterans demonstrates that the effects of war linger in the body long after a soldier’s tour of duty. This lingering is in the form of “(a) hostile or mistrustful attitude toward the world; (b) social withdrawal; (c) feelings of emptiness or hopelessness; (d) a chronic feeling of being ‘on the edge,’ as if constantly threatened; (e) estrangement.” Those who suffer from combat trauma often experience flashbacks to traumatic events, in which the primary image that is governing their emotional state is one of violence and impending threat to life. One would hope that sleep would give respite to such suffering, but combat trauma often leads to recurring nightmares; and, the lack of deep sleep leads to other inevitable emotional disturbances, such as increased irritability and tendency to anger. Beyond the recurring nightmares, combat veterans often simply cannot sleep because they trained themselves for the sake of survival to be hyper-alert and to react to sounds that may, in combat situations, be life-threatening; as any good ascetic would know, such training of the body is simply not undone by returning home. Add to all this “[r]andom, unwarranted rage at family, sexual dysfunction, no capacity for intimacy, [s]omatic disturbances, loss of ability to experience pleasure, [p]eripheral vasoconstriction, autonomic hyperactivity, [s]ense of the dead being more real than the living.” What is most damaging to combat veterans who suffer from symptoms of PTSD is the destruction of their capacity to trust, which inevitably renders impossible any forms of bonding with others that are meaningful. If Jesus’ greatest commandment was to “love the Lord your God with all your hear, with all your soul, and with all your mind” and to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:37-39), then experiencing PTSD symptoms simply makes that impossible. What is most demonic about the violence of war is its power to debilitate the capacity to experience love—both in the form of being loved and loving another.
Most frightening of the diverse forms in which PTSD is manifested in combat soldiers is that which is called the “berserk state.” The state of being berserk also poses a formidable challenge to Christian conceptions of the spiritual life, and, in particular, the notion of deification. Berserk is an extreme state of PTSD that is triggered by such events as “betrayal, insult, or humiliation by a leader; death of a friend-in-arms, being wounded; being overrun, surrounded, or trapped; seeing dead comrades who have been mutilated by the enemy; and unexpected deliverance from certain death.” Shay elaborates that “I cannot say for certain that betrayal is a necessary precondition. However, I have yet to encounter a veteran who went berserk from grief alone.” The characteristics of the berserk state are: “beastlike, godlike, socially disconnected, crazy, mad, insane, enraged, cruel, without restraint or discrimination, insatiable, devoid of fear, inattentive to own safety, distractible, reckless, feeling invulnerable, exalted, intoxicated, frenzied, cold, indifferent, insensible to pain, suspicious of friends.” Soldiers who go berserk in combat are often those who put themselves in the greatest danger and, if they survive, are deemed, ironically, the most heroic. There is growing research that indicates that the berserk state entail “changes in the parts of the brain that process incoming sensations for signs of danger and connect sensation with emotion.” Even after combat, a veteran can go berserk, and often have no recollection of it, as was the case with John, and Iraqi war veteran, who cut his fiancée and her mother with a knife after an argument over bus schedules, and after a long stretch in which John was showing progress through treatment. After cutting his fiancée and her mother, John then cut himself, telling the police as they walked in, “see, it doesn’t hurt.” John could not immediately recall the event; he had to be told what had happened; and, on being told, he was afraid that he had killed his daughter, which he did not.
What’s most troubling about the berserk state is that violence can imprint itself on the body—and, thus, on the soul—in ways that could be permanent: “On the basis of my work with Vietnam veterans, I conclude that the berserk state is ruinous, leading to the soldier’s maiming or death in battle—which is the most frequent outcome—and to life-long psychological and physiological injury if he survives. I believe that once a person has entered the berserk state, he or she is changed forever.” He amplifies that “[m]ore than 40 percent of Vietnam combat veterans sampled in the late 1980s by the congressionally mandated National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study reported engaging in violent acts three times or more in the previous year.” The spiritually challenging question is, what meaning could speaking about theosis possibly have for someone whose physiology has been permanently scarred by violence?
In addition to PTSD, a new category is emerging in order to distinguish a certain state of being that is effected by the combat veteran’s participation in war and that is no longer thought to be identical with PTSD, even if many of the symptoms are similar. This state of being is being called “moral injury,” which is distinguished from PTSD in the sense of not being induced through a fear response. Moral injury refers to the state of being when a combat veteran experiences a deep sense of having violating their own core moral beliefs. It may occur as a result of killing, torturing prisoners, abusing dead bodies or failing to prevent such acts; it may also ensure even if there was no way for the combat veteran to avoid doing such acts. In the experience of moral injury, combat veterans may judge themselves to be worthless, unable to live with an act he or she committed that is a never erasable act. Symptoms are similar to those as PTSD, such as isolation, mistrust of others, depression, addiction, emotional detachment, and negative self-judgments. There are countless stories that I’ve heard of combat veterans who admit that they are afraid to speak of all that they did in combat situations for fear that the one to whom they speak will deem him or her unlovable. In the situation of moral injury, the Christian concept of forgiveness is extremely relevant. Moral injury points to the need for self-forgiveness, which I would argue is impossible without some sense of transcendence. The necessity for some form of transcendence in order to enable self-forgiveness of an act committed that can never be taken back and never forgotten but is integratable in a personal narrative through an intuition of one’s narrative being a part of a larger cosmic and divine reality, in my mind points more powerfully to the existence of God than any other philosophical argument, whether it be the cosmological, ontological or teleological arguments.
It is very disturbing to hear the stories of combat veterans, which include: not sleeping with their spouses for fear that a nightmare may lead them to physically harm their spouse; not being able to sleep in the middle of the night because of hyper-vigilance; not wanting to be outdoors for fear that a sound, such as a bird chirping or water running, may trigger combat mode; not being able to enter public spaces, such as grocery stores or elevators; having dreams of mutilating one’s children; alienating friends and families; not being able to hold a job, or even get a job for fear of public spaces. These and many such similar stories reveal that there is an ascetics to war: either through the training received in the military, or through the practices that one performs in the midst of war to train the body for survival against constant threat of violence, war is the undoing of virtue in the sense that impacts negatively a combat veteran’s capacity for relationship with family, friends and strangers. War does not simply cause “lifelong disabling psychiatric symptoms but can ruin good character.” From the perspective of the principle of divine-human communion, the ruin of good character is not limited to the “soul” of the combat veteran; “character” is a relational category and the ruin of character is simultaneously the ruin of relationships.
What does theosis have to do with war?
On the surface, it would seem that for those who suffer from PTSD as a result of combat, or any trauma, talk of theosis or divine-human communion seems like a luxury. To some extent, the Orthodox have contributed to this perception of the irrelevancy of theosis to those who are in the midst of perpetual suffering by predominantly linking deification to the monk in the monastery, the desert, on a stylite or in the forest; add to this the tendency to describe theosis in supernatural terms of being surrounded divine light, battling demons, or eating with the bears. In order to have any relevancy for the experience of trauma, theosis must expand the boundaries of the monastery and be made more worldly.
This more mundane form of theosis is rendered possible in the Greek patristic tradition in its linking of divine-human communion to virtue, which can illuminate what Shay means by the “undoing of character” that occurs as a result of war. In the writings of Maximos the Confessor (d. 662), communion with God, which is an embodied presencing of the divine, is simultaneous with the acquisition of virtue: Virtue is embodied deification. To say that the human is created with the potential to be god-like should not conjure up images of Greek mythology; within the Greek patristic texts, it simply means that if God is love, then the human was created to love, and this love is simultaneously a uniting oneself with God, since God is love. In Maximos the Confessor, deification is the acquisition of love, the virtue of virtues, and his Centuries on Love is a treatise in which Maximos discusses a trajectory of the acquisition of virtues toward the acquisition of the virtue of virtues—Love. For Maximos, the human is created to learn how to love, and is in constant battle against that which weakens the capacity to love.
Virtue, for Maximos, is not a building of character for character’s sake; it is not a state of being where one displays one’s virtues like badges of honor; it is not simply the basis for proper moral decision making. The acquisition of virtue is the precondition for enabling the human capacity to love: “Scripture calls the virtues ways, and the best of all the virtues is love” (4.74). Virtues are necessary for the learning and acquisition of love: “All the virtues assist the mind in the pursuit of divine love” (1.11). Maximos does not restrict himself to only the four cardinal virtues—prudence, courage, temperance, and justice—but, consistent with the Eastern Christian patristic tradition, gives a wider catalogue of virtues and vices that correspond to the three parts of the soul: sensible, irascible and the rational. Particular virtues correspond to particular vices, insofar as each virtue is meant to neutralize a particular vice. The hermeneutical key to Maximos’s complicated detailing of the relation of virtues and vices to the inner life of the human person and to human agency is “progress in the love of God,” (2.14), which is measured ultimately by how one relates to others, especially those to whom one feels hatred or anger (1.71). This particular definition of virtue, then, illuminates the full force and terrifying implications of Shay’s idea of war leading to the “undoing of character.” What is being undone is the human capacity to love and to receive love. When something like the berserk state “destroys the capacity for virtue,” this destruction is not simply an evacuation of a “sense of being valued and of valuing anything,” as Shay defines it; according to the description of how combat veterans relate to their family, neighbors, friends and strangers, what is impaired is the capacity for authentic relationships marked by intimacy, trust, depth—love.
If virtues are embodied deification, the precondition for the learning of the virtue of virtues, which is love, then vice impairs the capacity for love. Maximos explains that “[t]he purpose of divine Providence is to unify by an upright faith and spiritual love those who have been separated in diverse ways by vice” (4.17). He elaborates that the “vice that separates you from your brother” includes “envying and being envied, hurting or being hurt, insulting or being insulted, and suspicious thoughts” (4.18-19). Maximos is also astute to know that vice breeds vice; i.e., that it is not simply the doing of vice that harms the capacity for love, it is being “viced upon”: “The things which destroy love are these: dishonor, damage, slander (either against faith or against conduct), beatings, blows, and so forth, whether these happen to oneself or to one’s relatives or friends” (4.81). Vices produce and are such affective emotions as anger, hatred, and fear. Thoughout this treatise, Maximos is attempting both to advise and exhort a form of training that can overcome what are ultimately corrosive emotions, no matter how justified.
Also relevant to illuminating the “undoing of character” that war and violence potentially effect on a combat veteran is Maximos’s discussion of the relation of images to the cultivation of vices and virtues. According to Maximus, what often incites and reifies a vice are images or thoughts that present themselves to the human person. Maximos explains that “Love and self-mastery keep the mind detached from things and from their representations . . . The whole war of the monk against demons is to separate the passions from the representations (3.39, 3.41). He adds that the “virtues separate the mind from the passions (3.44). Maximos also warns when “insulted by someone or offended in any matter, then beware of angry thoughts, lest by distress they sever you from charity and place you in the region of hatred” (1.29). “Detachment,” for Maximos, “is a peaceful state of the soul in which it become resistant to vice” (1.36). In terms of images that incite vice, this resistence is not a removal of the image, but disabling of its power to evoke such feelings of anger or hatred. To be virtuous is to experience in the face of images the emotions and desires that cultivate authentic relationships.
The problem that veterans with PTSD often face is that the images they confront, whether real or imaginary, trigger the emotion of impending fear, which leads to other negative emotions, such as anger-turned-to-rage and hatred, which then lead to a withdrawal from the other. The relation between images of impending threat and certain emotions and desires is reminiscent of Saint Anthony the Great’s encounter with images of the demonic; Anthony’s struggle was against those images and their potential impact on the passions. In this sense, the acquisition of virtue, has something to do with the affective response to certain images, either real or imaginary. Virtue is not the elimination of images—how could one forget a friend’s head being blown off—but, rather, an attenuation of the power of demonic images on the landscape of one’s emotions and desires, which forms the basis for the shape of relationality. In combat trauma, the redoing of virtue does not mean forgetting one’s friend’s head being blown off; rather, healing is about acquiring a new kind of memory of the events. The acquisition of virtue would be an affective response to the images of war and violence that do not destroy relationships but open the path for a breakthrough of love.
If the ascetics of war is an undoing of good character, which is the destruction of the capacity for authentic relationships, then the challenge for combat veterans is to engage in the tasks that lead to a redoing of virtue, which would increase their capacity for such relationships, and for the embodied presence of the divine—theosis. Maximos discusses the virtues in terms of the power to counter particular vices. Insofar as virtue is related to love, then virtues build relationships of intimacy, trust, compassion, empathy, friendship, sharing, caring, humility, and honesty: all that is apparently threatened by the experience of vice. Insofar as virtues build proper relationships while vices destroy such relationships, then the ascetics of theosis must be relevant to those attempting to undo the ascetics of war. According to Maximos, the acquisition of virtue is a training realized in and through certain practices that forms both the body and the inner life (soul) of the human person; virtue is a wiring of the self as openness to love. Thinking about the healing of combat trauma along the lines of practices and virtues provides a way for intersecting the psychological literature on trauma and the ascetical/mystical tradition on the formation of virtue. The connecting category is that of practices, since the combat veteran must engage in a new kinds of ascetics, one that replaces the ascetics of war in order to combat the demonic images impacting his relationships to self and others.
Although there are many practices that enable the acquisition of virtue, and thus, the capacity for relationships of trust, intimacy, depth and love, I will restrict my focus to one that is key to any redoing of virtue in both the psychological and the ascetical/mystical literature—the practice of truth-telling or confession. In the Christian tradition, truth-telling is primarily associated with the sacrament of Confession understood forensically as fulfilling a contractual obligation to tell a priest one’s sins before forgiveness is granted; or, with the moral obligation not to lie. When speaking about truth-telling as a practice that enables the capacity for love through the acquisition of virtues, I am not referring strictly to either a forensic understanding of the Sacrament of Confession, or the moral obligation to tell the truth. Speaking certain truths in the midst of another or other persons has the power both to reconfigure the relationships in which such a truth is spoken, and to produce an affective effect on the landscape of one’s emotions and desires. Truths spoken hover in the midst of a relationship with the power to affect both the speaker and the listener(s). It is not uncommon to think that one can protect oneself from a traumatic experience by simply attempting to forget it, or by not verbalizing it to others. The irony is that only through a verbal acknowledgement or recognition, which cannot be revoked, can the power of the traumatic image be mitigated. It is also the case that the affective result of truth-telling as an event depends on the listener, who can use the spoken truth either to iconically presence the divine toward mitigating the power of the effects of violence, or can image the demonic by adding violence to violence. In short, the event of truth-telling to another is a iconically charged event, that can potentially presence either the divine or the demonic.
Both Jonathan Shay and Judith Herman in their experience with trauma victims attest to the basic truth that healing cannot occur until the trauma victim can begin to speak about the traumatic events. Truth-telling in and of itself is not sufficient for healing, but it is absolutely necessary. Also, truth-telling of trauma cannot begin until a safe and secure environment is established for the trauma victim, what Herman refers to as stage one of recovery. Once such a secure and safe environment is established, it is absolutely essential that the victim of combat trauma speak about the truth about the traumatic event and reconstruct a narrative of the event itself.
To even speak the truth about the trauma of war can be interpreted as an embodiment of the virtue of humility, in the sense that making oneself vulnerable is requisite to opening the self to loving and being loved. The sixth-century Syriac Christian ascetic, Dorotheos of Gaza, analogizes the Christian life to building a house, “[t]he roof is charity, which is the completion of virtue as the roof completes the house. After the roof comes the crowning of the dwelling place . . .[i.e. railings around the flat roof] . . . The crown is humility. For that is the crown and guardian of all virtues. As each virtue needs humility for its acquisition—and in that sense we said each stone is laid with the mortar of humility—so also the perfection of all the virtues is humility.” As Shay declares, “the fact that these veterans can speak at all of their experience is a major sign of healing.” The reconstruction of the narrative must also be in the context of other persons, in the form of a community. Shay argues that the “healing of trauma depends upon the communalization of the trauma—being able to safely to tell the story to someone who is listening and who can be trusted to retell it truthfully to others in the community.” The mitigation of the demonic, thus, depends on truth, even if such a truth has to do with the experience of the demonic; and this truth needs to be “communalized” told and listened to by others.
Over the years, Shay has discovered that such communalization is most effective when the community itself consists of those who know, either directly or indirectly, the effects of combat trauma. Much like Alcoholics Anonymous, the healing power of truth-telling depends not simply on telling the truth, but on who is listening. The rebound effect of truth-telling depends on the symbolic/iconic significance of the one listening. In the end, the veterans heal each other. Theologically, the veterans are iconically charged to presence the divine to each other, even in the midst of, and because of, their shared suffering.
The affective effect of truth-telling might also require a listener beyond a community of combat veterans. Shay’s “clinical team has encouraged many of the veterans we work with to avail themselves of the sacrament of penance. When a veteran does not already know a priest he trusts to hear his confession, we have suggested priest who understand enough about combat neither to deny that he has anything to feel guilty about nor to recoil in revulsion and send him away without the sacrament.” What this need for a form of truth-telling beyond the community of combat veterans reveals is that the experience of forgiveness needs another kind of listener other than the empathetic combat veteran. Although the same ascetical practice, truth-telling to distinctive listeners does different kinds of work on the landscape of one’s emotions and desire. The chances are very high that the ascetics of war will lead some to engage in practices in which there is a felt need for forgiveness. Tom Mathews’s father felt this need, as did John, who could barely speak about how combat in Iraq lead to killing of kids whom he realized “could be your kids.” On the cosmic scale, other combat veterans cannot iconically symbolize that forgiveness; cannot be a kind of listener that enables the realization of that forgiveness as an affective event in the combat veteran. Someone like a priest is iconically charged to perform that role.
The importance of truth-telling in the redoing of virtue only highlights how the military culture of denial and repression of the combat experience is corrosive. When mistakes were made and innocent people were killed rather than the “enemy,” the military thought it was helping by covering for the solider(s), who were told that it would be “all right.” Shay relays one story in which the soldiers involved in such a mistake were actually given medals as a way of covering up for the mistake. When friends are lost, soldiers are told to “stuff those tears,” or “to get even.” Whereas in ancient cultures, dead bodies, including those of the enemy, were treated with respect, the US military had no mechanism in Vietnam for memorializing the dead. Ancient cultures also had rituals for reintegrating soldiers back into society after battle. Such rituals did not depend on whether the battle was just or not. American soldiers return from war with little to no fanfare, trying to figure out what to do next. What’s especially egregious is how the US military has not provided sufficient enough resources for combat veterans showing symptoms of PTSD, often making difficult the availability of such resources because of budgetary constraints. Although improvements have been made, what pervades military culture, and American culture in general, is a pelagian-like “suck it up” attitude, with no realization at all of how a combat veteran is ultimately in the grip of the demonic until engaging in ascetic practices that undo the effects of war and violence.
It is both encouraging, ironic and a little troubling to contemplate how an ascetics of virtue in the form of fostering a community of people who learn to trust each other, who form bonds of affection through telling personal stories, who become friends, has the power to mitigate the effects of the ascetics of war. Beyond the debates over whether Christians should think about criteria for judging decisions to go to war, which this essay has not necessarily dismissed as illegitimate, the formation of communities of virtue both before and after combat has the power to mitigate the effects of violence on any one of the members in the community itself, especially if that community of virtue presupposes an open space for truth-telling.
There is an even deeper theological significance to the necessity of truth-telling as part of an ascetic of virtue that undoes the ascetic of war. First, it reveals that God meets someone in the truth of her concrete, historical situation. In the case of combat trauma, it is not a matter of first undoing the effects of war and then going off to the desert to achieve theosis; undoing the effects of violence is itself the desert in which the combat veteran finds himself in his struggle to (re)experience the presence of the divine. The ascetical struggle toward divine-human communion is entrenched in a particular history and a particular body, which then demands the virtue of discernment on the part of the community of combat veterans, the mental health professional, the priest, even family and friends in order to extricate the combat veteran from the grip of the demonic. As Shay argues, “Modern combat is a condition of enslavement and torture.” The formation of communities of virtue, which presuppose truth-telling, mitigates and breaks the cycle of violence. Second, sin committed and sin that is done to us cannot be forgotten, repressed or denied. It is part of the fabric of the universe that the truth must be recognized, otherwise it will haunt us in other forms. It is only by integrating the truth of sin into our narrative that it can then be neutralized in its effect. In the end, God is the God of truth, which includes the unique and particular truths of our narratives; if God is truth, then God is found in the verbal recognition of the truths of our narrative, no matter how horrific those truths may be. Although “neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor power, nor things present nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39), to love and be loved by God and neighbor depends ultimately on the practice and virtue of honesty, which includes the courage to acknowledge and accept the truths of our own narrative.
In sharing these ideas with a colleague it was pointed out to me that perhaps I am confusing therapy with morality. I think that what I have presented here today is, in part, attempting to trouble the waters between too easy a divide between, to use a different word, spirituality and ethics. It is clear that in Maximos the Confessor that whatever virtue is it has to do with what humans are meant to be, which for Maximos was creatures built to learn how to love. In so far as the arena of war, which extends as far back as military training to post-deployment life, involves engaging in a set of practices that are constitutive of the self, then what happens to the combat veteran is as much an ethical concern as are the decisions about whether or not to go to war, and by what means should war be waged.
My discussion today did not in any way intend to undermine just-war ethics; nor am I advocating a pacifist position. Christian ethics still needs to discuss when and by what means violence is legitimate, or whether these are the right questions to ask. I do think, however, that an ethics of war that focuses simply on these questions is missing other dimensions in the ascetics of war which a Christian virtue ethics can illuminate and offer resources for reflection. There may, in fact, be just uses of violence, which are also motivated by courage, temperance, justice and charity, but such a use of violence is not the end of the ethical story. Ethics needs to consider the effect of inflicted and inflicting violence on the human person and the formation of virtue that could potentially mitigate or reverse such effects, the most damaging being the capacity to love and be loved.
Finally, this interrelation between violence and virtue that I am presenting today could also be extended to areas of ethics beyond the ethics of war, such as issues related to social justice. The effects of violence on the human is also clearly visible in the poor neighborhoods in the big cities of the United States (and I’m sure of Europe), where the threat of violence is constant. One teenager who lived in a poor neighborhood of Chicago, which is infested with violent gangs, described his neighborhood as a daily war zone. Related to this, one of the most difficult questions confronting educators in the United States is how to educate children in poorer neighborhoods, who are consistently underperforming in comparison with children in more middle-class or affluent neighborhoods. Paul Tough has recently reported on approaches to this problem that focus on character, such as the recent work and studies of the Nobel-Prize economist from the University of Chicago, James Heckman. Tough describes how educators for decades were focusing on improving what are called “cognitive skills,” which have to do with such things as reading and mathematics. Studies have shown that the skills correlated with success in such things as college graduation, or well-paying job are what are called “non-cognitive skills.” It is the development of non-cognitive skills that allow for the development of cognitive skills. Examples of non-cognitive skills are self-control, impulse control, anger management, delayed gratification, or thinking before making a bad decision. If you have not noticed already, these sound a lot like St. Maximus’s virtues.
What they have also discovered is that the stress from adverse experiences in childhood, such as the experience of violence or the threat of violence, can prevent non-cognitive skills from developing properly. If a child has experienced four or more adverse effects as a child, she is thirty-two times likely to develop learning problems. If a child is experiencing the constant threat of violence in the home, the stress that such a threat generates can prevent the development of the part of the brain responsible for non-cognitive skills. Another way it was explained is this: if one is in the forest and is confronted by a bear, then the part of the brain responsible for aggression will activate and that part of the brain responsible for reading and writing will deactivate in order for the person to prepare for an emergency response. Such an emergency response, however, is meant to be infrequent. For some children living in a family home situation in which the threat of violence is constant, the brain responds as if facing a bear every single day. If the emergency response of the brain is activated repeatedly, the brain forms pathways that get increasingly ingrained. In day-to-day situations, this means that it is difficult for such children to learn reading and mathematics in class when the brain is constantly on emergency response mode. It also explains why such children are plagued with two of the vices that St. Maximus says get in the way of love—fear and anger. It is not uncommon for such children to have behavioral problems in school that often manifests itself in rage. Being surrounded by or experiencing violence can actually form the brain in such a way as to form the vices of fear and anger (again, not necessarily self-love as much as self-loathing). These vices are impairing the ability to be in the kind of relationships that would not simply allow for love to occur, but to allow for learning to occur.
What was also interesting about these studies is that it is being shown how proper attachment to a parent or parents can help a child manage the stress of adverse situations. In other words, the development of proper relations through the virtues can counter the vices formed through the experience or threat of violence. What’s most hopeful is that these non-cognitive skills can be learned even throughout adulthood; in other words, the human was created in such a way that these non-cognitive skills can be learned no matter what the age of a person. What is really remarkable about all this, at least for me, is the connection between all that these studies are showing with all that St. Maximus says about the interrelation between the manifestation of the virtues and contemplation.
What I have attempted to suggest in this paper is that St. Maximus’s account of virtue can disrupt the current status quo in both philosophical and theological virtue ethics, as well as just war and social ethics, by offering a thick understanding of the human telos as one that entails learning how to love. St. John Chrysostom once said that even the poor need virtue. St. Maximus helps us to understand this comment in the sense that what is distinctive about an Orthodox war and social ethics for today goes well beyond simply congratulating the solider for his or her service, or helping the poor during a time of need, or advocating for systemic change. By never wavering in its understanding of the human being as being created to learn how to love, a Christian war and social ethics offers the very wisdom of the practices needed to form the human being in the virtues that would allow the human to mitigate the effects of poverty and violence, and enable the person to learn how to love, which is nothing less, according to St. Maximus, than the experience of God. If poverty and violence potentially depersonalize and render the human being faceless, then the ascetical practices that manifest the virtues and that enable the capacity to love are essential for the realization of the person as a eucharistic being in the world that is free (ekstatic) and irreducibly unique (hypostatic).