War and Peace: Part One – Christ, the Early Church, the Just War Theory

Fr. Bill Olnhausen | 21 May 2019

Christ is risen! Truly he is risen!

“Wars and Rumors of Wars”

The time to think about war rationally is before we get into one. Once war begins it’s too late. Then all sorts of emotions and reactions, pride and propaganda take over. And after people are killed in war, there is a fervent and very natural desire to prove that our brave men and women did not die in vain – even if they did. “The fog of war”.

I have had this article on War and Peace on hand intending to publish it “sometime”. Now is the time. Suddenly talk of war is in the air again. It sounds much like what preceded the 2003 Iraq War. It’s no secret that some in our government have long wanted war with Iran. Is the present talk serious or is it just bluster? We’ll never know until…

So here is the article I wasn’t intending to publish right now.

I wrote this paper originally for my parish just before the 2003 Iraq War. It was later published in our Antiochian Archdiocese magazine The Word.  I have updated it a little to match the current situation, and also to say some things more clearly.

Thank God (and James Madison who wrote the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution) that we Americans live in a country where these things can be openly discussed. May it always be so.

A Prologue

The Holy Orthodox Church is concerned not only with saving souls but with building good societies and a just world. Orthodoxy has social and ethical teachings, based on the Tradition: the Scriptures and the Fathers. However, we do not live in an Orthodox country. What is passed off as traditional old-fashioned Christianity in America is often not traditional Christianity. So we are very unlikely to hear Orthodox teaching on war and peace except from an Orthodox source – and unfortunately often not even then, since this is a touchy subject.

In what follows, I am trying very hard not to promote partisan politics, and to be objective. After living and watching for eighty years (I actually remember World War Two!) and then being shaped for sixty years by traditional Christianity, I certainly have my opinions about particular wars. (OK – I’m against many of them.) So if you think I have failed in either case, please comment below.

My purpose here is only to set forth the classical Orthodox approach to war and peace  – also taking a look at the traditional Western theory. I hope this will help you (and me) to think about war and peace in an Orthodox way – not just according to other peoples’ theories or the latest political propaganda.

Christ’s Teachings

We know that Mohammed led an army. We know that Jesus did no such thing. When Peter took to violence, Christ told him to put his sword away, saying, “those who live by the sword will die by the sword”. Matthew 26:52 Jesus taught: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you: Do not resist an evil person. Whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also … You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you”. Matthew 5:38-39,43-44 Whatever one may think of these teachings and how to apply them, they are very clear. 

An extraordinary misleading column in the New York Times back in January 2003, just before the Second Iraq War, was titled “The Prince of Peace was a Warrior too.” (It’s still on line, if you want to check it out )

Yes, Jesus did make war, but on Satan, not on people. Yes, Jesus said he came to bring not peace but a sword, but it is clear he was speaking only of the divisions he would cause within families and societies between those who believed in him and those who did not. Yes, Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple, but his concern was with the defilement of worship.

But No. In military wars, Jesus was not a warrior. The people of his generation turned against him precisely because he did not drive out the Roman oppressor, because he who had all power chose to be a noncombatant. No. In the wars between nations and peoples, Jesus was not a warrior. 

The Early Church

It appears the earliest Christians followed their Lord in this. So far as I know (correct me if I’m wrong), there is no evidence in the New Testament or from any first or second century source of Christians serving in the military. Justin Martyr wrote that Christians “who formerly killed one another … refuse to make war on [their] enemies.” Origen wrote that Christians “no longer take up the sword against any nation, nor do we learn the art of war any more. Instead … we have become sons of peace through Jesus our founder.” There are other similar references.

This, of course, was a fairly easy stand to take when the Empire was pagan, there was no military draft, and the Church was small and usually uninvolved in worldly affairs. Was the early Church pacifist on principle? Some scholars say yes. However I think the evidence, judging by the Church calendar, is that it was not or at least not for long. For the Church honors many third and fourth century military men as saints — not because of their military activity, certainly, but rather because they were martyred for refusing to deny Christ. But the point is that, on principle, they saw no conflict between serving in the military (even serving a pagan Empire) and being a Christian. Nor did the early Church disown them for being in the military. Later, after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, it became common for Christians to serve in the armed forces, defending the Christian Empire. 

As time went on, Eastern and Western Christians began to diverge on the subject of war.

The Western Just War Theory

For comparison’s take, let’s first take a westward excursion. We’ll spend the rest of this column on this.

In the West in the fifth century, Saint Augustine began to teach what came to be called the Just War Theory. This held that under certain conditions war may be a just and good thing, that some wars are ordained by God. Soon, a kind of Christian cult of the glory of war began to develop in the West. There was a reason for this: Remember the West at that time was being overrun by barbarians from the north. Augustine had seen the fall of the city of Rome. Westerners wanted to know: Was it morally right for Christians to defend themselves and their society? The Western Church also wanted to try to apply some standards to war other than the contemporary one: “Might makes right.” Thus the Just War Theory. 

Let’s be clear: The Just War Theory is not Orthodox teaching. Orthodoxy takes a very different approach to the issue, which we’ll come to next week. But the Just War Theory is the source of modern international law. Today people on all sides, both religious and secular, debate and explain themselves using the standards for the Just War, often unknowingly. I have found it helpful for myself, as a way to analyze and evaluate particular wars.

The basic points of the Just War theory have varied quite a lot, but generally it includes these requirements: The war must be authorized by proper authority. The war must be defensive, in defense of territory or of established human rights; wars of aggression are unjust. Every effort must be made to avoid civilian casualties on grounds of the dignity of all human life, from conception to the grave. Our enemies are human beings, created in the image of God, for whom Christ died — peoples’ children and grandchildren and husbands and wives. 4 There must be a reasonable hope of success in the war; it must not be fought to no purpose or simply to assuage pride or anger or to save face. This would apply, for example, to the latter years of the Viet Nam War when, as it turns out, our government knew it could not be won, but… well let’s not go there, now. War must be the last resort; all other options must be excluded first. 

There are sometimes a number of other requirements.

But how to apply the principles of the Just War Theory…  

This gets tricky. 

Consider Point One: What is “proper authority”?  Once it was clear: the Emperor or the Pope. Most Western moral theologians today say this means each nation’s laws should be followed. However, the Constitution of the United States requires a formal Declaration of War by Congress – and no American war since 1941 has been formally declared. So are they all to be considered unjust? Do members of the United Nations need specific UN authorization, or do they not? Who decides these things? The Just War Theory does not say. 

Or Point Two: What is defensive war? What is aggression? This is even more confusing and, even when clear, has been applied very erratically. 

In World War Two when Germany and Japan attacked other countries, we rightly called it aggression. However, in previous centuries when Western European nations built their empires by military invasion, we called it not aggression but “the white man’s burden” or something to that effect. When Anglo Americans drove native Americans off their lands and confined them to reservations, we described it not as unjust aggression but as “manifest destiny”. 

Again, when in 1947 the United Nations, led by the United States and Great Britain, established Israel, driving Palestinians from their ancestral homes and lands, the Western powers did not call that unjust. However, when Palestinians and their allies tried to defend and recover their land, that was considered unjust by the West.

Take a current issue: pre-emptive (“preventive”) war. By the traditional Just War standard, the United States’ attack on Iraq in 2003 would probably be considered unjust aggression, since Iraq had not attacked us. However, since modern attacks can be launched and completed within a matter of minutes, some Western moral theologians now argue that a pre-emptive attack to head off imminent attack by an enemy is justified. But this is a two-edged sword. As we prepared to make a pre-emptive attack on Iraq, why then would it not have been just for Iraq to launch a pre-emptive attack on us? Can we see a contemporary application here? (And as it turned out, Iraq never had the intention or ability to pull off an attack on us. It was all a mistake.)

Furthermore, if many nations should choose to launch pre-emptive wars against  potential enemies, what would keep the world from quickly being thrown back into barbarism? So where does this leave us?  

Or take Point Three: It was easier to avoid civilian casualties in earlier times, when many (though certainly not all) wars were fought on battlefields outside cities. Beginning with World War Two, the great powers generally abandoned this principle. Civilians were intentionally attacked, beginning with Hitler’s blitzkrieg of England and other countries, followed by Allied saturation bombing of German cities and American nuclear bombing of Japanese cities. In the Viet Nam War American bombing killed between 500,000 and a million non-military civilians. 

With modern “precision” bombing and now bombing by drones, we in the West  (though certainly not those conducting the Syrian war) have tried to recover the principle of avoiding civilian casualties, but with only limited success because of the immense power and imprecision of our weaponry. Can the requirement of avoiding civilian casualties be fulfilled in any modern war? 

Results of the Just War Theory

They are very mixed.

It has allowed Christians to defend their homelands without guilt. If America had not got involved in World War Two, we might all now be living under the Nazi Thousand Year Reich.

It has given Christians a way to evaluate wars and their intentions instead of just charging into them full speed ahead, and to learn from wars instead of just being “winners” or “losers”.

I think the biggest problem with the Theory is that it does not take into account the possible unexpected consequences of war. What so-called just wars intend and what they accomplish are often two very different things.

The Crusades, for example, were authorized according to the Just War Theory. These were to be the good war, properly approved by the Pope, to liberate the Holy Land from Muslim aggressors. But in fact the Crusades did immense unintended harm. Crusaders ravaged soldiers and civilians, Muslims, Christians and Jews alike. (Well, they none of them looked like Europeans, did they?) Christians were still the majority in Jerusalem before the Crusaders “liberated” it, but never since then. Crusaders sacked and occupied Constantinople, setting up a Latin Emperor and Patriarchate. The Byzantine Empire was recovered but greatly weakened. This was the chief cause of its being conquered by the Turks. 

In this context, I think something should be said about the Iraq Wars. The wars themselves were relatively “clean”. But by reputable estimates, their unintended aftermath resulted in from 150,000 to over 450,000 deaths, most of them civilians.

You can see that the Western Just War Theory, though helpful to our thinking in many ways, is also a can of worms.

I’ve spent a lot of time (too much?) on this Western approach to war in order to draw the contrast: Eastern Orthodoxy, as so often, comes at the subject from an entirely different (and much less complex) angle.

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