Monday, February 28, 2022

War and the Orthodox Church (George Mantzarides)

By George Mantzarides,
Professor Emeritus of the Theological School of the 
Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

War, as an armed and bloody conflict of organized groups, is one of the most serious and distressing problems of man, especially in our time. The experience of the two world wars, the endless series of military engagements that followed them, but also the existence of terrifying means of destruction, which can wipe out hundreds of times not only the human race, but also every trace of civilization from the face of the earth, is enough to reveal the magnitude of the problem.

Heraclitus argued that war was the "father of all." This view remains with small variations strong to this day. Many even observe that peace is a form of war, waged with politics or economics. On the contrary, for the Church the "Father of all" is not war, but the God of peace (2 Cor. 13:11). And the coming of God into the world is a gospel of peace (Luke 2:14).

War comes as a consequence of the alienation of man from God, of himself and his neighbor. And because this alienation in its triple form is general, war is a general phenomenon.

War is a tragic adventure or test of man, who was created to live with love, peace and dignity. Alienation from God is alienation from love and peace. It is still an alienation from the foundation of human dignity. When man is alienated from the God of love and peace, who is the archetype of his existence, he is inevitably debased and immersed in turmoil and destruction. In the Old Testament God addresses His chosen people: "If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land, but if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it" (Is. 1:19-20). Christ Himself condemned violence, as we know, and even said that "all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Matt. 26:52).


Of course, the Church does not ignore the power of evil in the world, nor does it question the right of the state to exercise its power to curb evil and maintain order (Rom. 13:4). But the exercise of power also implies the use of force, which is incompatible with the spirit of Christ. That is why a true Christian does not resort to violence, nor does he reciprocate evil. Even when he is in danger as a person, although he has the right to defend himself, he prefers to be harmed rather than harm. As a citizen of a state, however, he finds himself in a special situation determined by additional variables: He is obliged to obey state power not only for fear of being punished, but also for reasons of conscience (Rom. 13:5).

But above state power there is God, the Lord of the world and of history, from whom man was created and to whom the Christian has the final reference. When the demands of state power conflict with the will of God, the rule for him is: "We ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).

The gospel of Christ leaves no room for justification of war. And the Church has never taught about a "just war", because war is always based on some sort of injustices. But man has to tolerate by oikonomia as a "minor evil" the defensive war, to which the provoked or wronged and oppressed resort to by necessity, in order to save more important things.

However, the "lesser evil" here is very relevant. In fact, there is no greater sin than war, because it almost invariably leads everyone to moral involvement in the killings. Everyone wants victory on their part. That is why those who still do not kill are complicit in the murders against their opponents. In fact, the most tragic phenomenon is that today, with television and the internet, war becomes an interesting spectacle, which is "enjoyed" by man with peace and apathy in the warmth of his home.


In general, it can be said that the Church, embracing all levels of human life, followed the following tactic: While at the primary level of personal relationships it absolutely and categorically condemned violence and murder, at the secondary level of institutions it maintained by oikonomia a dialectical stance. On the one hand the Church condemned war and violence, while on the other it showed mercy to those who took part in wars fighting for the common good.

It goes without saying, of course, that these struggles are always meant in the context of defensive rather than conquest wars. But if in the past it could be argued that war, in spite of its repulsiveness and horror, somehow served the common good, today this seems rather impossible. Christ's word, "Do not resist the wicked" (Matt. 5:39), is the most perfect timeless principle.

Source: From the book Christian Ethics. Translation by John Sanidopoulos.