War and Peace in Today’s World

by Nicholas Sooy

“The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World” offers timely statement on war, peace, and justice. The nature of conflict has evolved and the Church needs to counsel the faithful on the peacemaking vocation. This document offers an authoritative peace stance, and makes recommendations, but these are mostly too vague and incomplete. In particular, more should be developed regarding faithful responses to violence.

The basis for peace is the dignity of the human person (1.2), and peace is defined as the manifestation of dignity, social justice, freedom, the unity of mankind, and love among peoples and nations (3.1). War, conflict, violence, the arms race, and destructive weapons are all identified as the result of evil and sin (2.2, 4.1). Thus, peace and war are viewed first through a theological lens. The Church’s mission is to address the spiritual roots of conflict; however, the Church is also called to respond to conflict in the world and to make peace. St. Basil is cited as saying “nothing is so characteristic of a Christian as to be a peacemaker” (3.2).

This document definitively states, “The Church of Christ condemns war,” and condemns nuclear weapons and “all kinds of weapons” (4.1). It also calls it a “duty” of the Church to encourage whatever brings about peace and justice (3.5). Specific actions are recommended, including prayer, cooperation with social institutions, cooperation among nations and states, cooperation between Christians, peacekeeping, solidarity, and dialogue (1.2, 3.1, 3.2, 6.1, 6.6).

This list is good, but is incomplete and vague. The Church “supports all initiatives and efforts to prevent or avert [war] through dialogue and every other viable means;” such a statement should be strengthened by specifying some other viable means (4.2). Specifically, all weapons, including nuclear, are condemned, but no calls are made for disarmament or limiting the production and trade of arms, and the use of nuclear weapons is not unequivocally condemned. Likewise, nothing is said of the practice of blessing conventional and nuclear weapons with holy water. In the same vein, while wars based on nationalism are condemned, nothing is said of modernist nationalism generally (4.3). Orthodox nationalism should be condemned, since it divides.

Similarly, while the proven strategies of peacebuilding, sustainable development, and nonviolence are all implicitly endorsed, they should also be explicitly called for. In particular, the viability of nonviolent campaigns and institutions has risen dramatically over the past century. Chenoweth and Stephan (2008) found that nonviolent campaigns are more than twice as successful as violent ones at achieving their goals, and each decade the ratio increases. The language of nonviolence has been employed by many including Patriarch Kirill, while Metropolitan Tikhon of the OCA has called nonviolence “the Gospel’s command,” and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has called nonviolence a “Christian concept” with Orthodox roots. Given the role of nonviolence in the contemporary world, nonviolence should be mentioned. Wars are rarely openly fought between nations anymore, and conflict today involves greater civilian participation; the Middle East and former Soviet countries exemplify this. Nonviolence is most effective in such contexts, and the Church should recommend Christian investment and participation in nonviolent action, while condemning violent action.

War is condemned without qualification, and yet the document is ambiguous regarding participation in war, “When war becomes inevitable, the Church continues to pray and care in a pastoral manner for her children who are involved in military conflict for the sake of defending their life and freedom” (4.2). While language of ‘inevitability’ is better than the theologically problematic language of ‘necessary evil,’ it would be better to say that the Church cares for all involved in conflict. No elaboration is given regarding what makes a war ‘inevitable,’ or under what conditions fighting is allowed. The only conditions listed are for life and freedom, but ‘freedom,’ a common excuse for unnecessary fighting, is undefined. Martyrdom should also be mentioned as an alternative response to violence. The martyrs faced death and imprisonment, and are lauded over soldiers. Even so, the document glosses over the fact that most soldiers today do not fight for such causes, but instead are employed in ‘humanitarian’ interventions or fighting insurgents. These realities should be addressed, since such military operations are usually the result of nationalism and globalization, both of which are condemned in one form or another (4.3, 6.5).

Also missing is counsel regarding conscientious objection. In this document, the Church promises care to those who fight, but a similar pledge is not made to those who for Christian reasons refuse. Given the strongly anti-war statements in the rest of the document, one might expect that the Church would recommend conscientious objection or disobedience in at least some circumstances. Nothing is said of this, or of the practice of universal conscription in countries like Russia and Greece.

There is a final weakness in the account of violence. Peace is aptly defined as the presence of justice and dignity, rather than the cessation of violence. Along these lines, “oppression and persecution” in the Middle East are condemned, along with religious fanaticism, because they “uproot Christianity from its traditional homelands” (4.3). In response to this, the document calls for a “just and lasting resolution” (4.3). These statements, along with other condemnations of things like secularism and globalized consumer capitalism, are too vague to accomplish anything. In particular, such condemnations can and have served as pretexts for Orthodox Christians to take up arms and engage in interventionist warfare. Peace is defined as the “reign” on earth of “Christian principles” of justice and dignity, and such language may be seen by some to warrant Christian warfare for the sake of establishing such a ‘reign’ (3.1). It would be counterproductive if a document condemning war allowed escape clauses for Christian nationalists to undertake war in defense of “traditional homelands,” or some other noble cause. Such inconsistencies threaten the integrity of the document, and as such the Great and Holy Council should clarify which methods and means are acceptable for addressing injustice. As it is, greater clarification and revision is needed.

Nicholas Sooy is a doctoral student at Fordham University. He writes for the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, an endorsed organization of the Assembly of Bishops.