One night terror I experienced during my childhood included bombers flying over the roof of our fifteenth-floor apartment in Moscow. No wonder, as every evening the news reported heavily on the enemy’s military build-up. At the time I could not quite understand why such a nice girl’s name as Nata (short for Natalia) was used for the organization that was terrorizing our people. All we knew was that we did not want war; we were always for peace; it was always them attacking and threatening, never us.
A patriotic education did not deter some of my generation from taking a radical stance against the violence of war, which extended to all institutions and ideologies that supported it. Perhaps it was a belated wave of the Western youth rebellion of the 1960s that found its footing in the late Soviet counterculture, or some revival of interest in the nonviolent teachings of Tolstoy and Gandhi in the 1990s. Some of my friends burned their military service books, resulting in compulsory months in a mental hospital. In my country, conscientious objection was seen as either mental illness or a criminal act, publicly regarded as a lack of patriotism and masculinity. What I did not know at the time was that the roots of this radical, moral stance toward violence and war could be found in Christianity.
At the height of the Cold War, Thomas Merton famously wrote, “Where I stand as a Christian, a writer and a priest in the present war crisis.” Although he felt there was little he could offer, he made this step to distinguish himself from those who were advocating a pre-emptive nuclear attack on Soviet Russia. He wrote to Erich Fromm regarding his concern that the human race was on the verge of a crime second to no other save the very crucifixion of Christ, stating, “Then, as now, religious people are involved on the guilty side.” To him, the support of war was not compatible with Christianity.
Merton was a lone voice: many Catholic theologians, such as Jesuit priest C. McHugh, justified retaliation. In Merton’s opinion the duty of the Christian was “to strive with all his power and intelligence, with his faith, his hope in Christ and love for God and man . . . to work for the total abolition of war.” Merton’s vision of the Church was to “lead the way on the road to the non-violent settlement of difficulties and toward the gradual abolition of war as the way of setting international or civil disputes.”
All of the early anti-war articles by Merton were published by Dorothy Day, who refused to participate in rehearsals for nuclear attacks when New Yorkers were instructed to hide in bomb shelters. During the drills Day demonstrated by sitting on a bench in Central Park and was soon joined by dozens of others. Her newspaper The Catholic Worker, which published Merton’s articles, became one of the main media for anti-war Christian activism. Jim Forest, who passed away in January of this year, was a close associate of Day and a correspondent of Merton. I met Jim at a conference organised by the community of Bose in Piedmont, a community founded by the visionary Enzo Bianchi, which has been inspired by the spirit of Vatican II in bringing two churches, the Orthodox and Roman Catholic, together. I approached him during the break but found him surrounded by young sisters of the community who looked at him as if he was a rock star. Apparently, Jim’s book Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment was translated into Italian and found huge success among young Catholics who were interested in ecumenism.
Jim left the Navy on the grounds of conscientious objection after he met Dorothy Day. I have not met anyone whose life has been dedicated with more devotion to this one single purpose, to promote peace. Jim spoke out with a quiet, confident voice, as did others like him. Not many people in the Orthodox countries know about his work and his legacy. But what he started in the 1960s is urgently needed today. The advice for Christian peace activists—the subtitle of his book on Merton—is still, regrettably, lesser known.
While Jim was indeed influenced by the outlier Catholics, another person who might inspire contemporary Orthodox peace activists is Saint Sophrony Sakharov, the founder of the monastic community in Essex, UK. As a young person he experienced personal crisis in the aftermath of the First World War, a tragedy, albeit through which he was led to God. As a monk on Athos Sakharov saw the Second World War unfolding; met soldiers and officers, including Nazis officers; and developed the position, risky and unusual, of not taking sides in the war. In this he differed from other Orthodox theologians such as Vladimir Lossky, for whom two paths existed, one in which the enemy was excluded and the other in which the enemy was loved, believing that one should take sides in military conflicts. Reflecting on his experience of two world wars and writing in the atmosphere of the Cold War, Father Sophrony had a pessimistic vision: “The atmosphere of the earth is saturated with the smell of blood. Every day the universe feeds on the news of murders or the torture of the vanquished in fratricidal conflicts. Dark clouds of hatred hide the light of heaven from our eyes. Men themselves build their own hell. Not without our total change through repentance will come a deliverance to the world: a ‘deliverance’ from the worst of all curses—wars. For the humble bearer of love, it is preferable to be killed than to kill” (We Shall See Him as He Is). Following his spiritual father monk and Saint Siluan, he believed that love and praying for one’s enemies were criteria of being Christian.
Father Sophrony’s vision stands apart. Most Christian churches supported their governments in wars: priests blessed the soldiers, officers, and weapons; during the liturgy, prayers were read that called for the destruction of the enemy; they served liturgies in the trenches and, later, after battle, served panichida over the bodies of the soldiers who only a few hours earlier had taken Holy Communion. After the First World War, Christian churches were involved in the new round of militarisation: Christian scouts prepared for the battle; the martyrs of the communist regime were used for mobilisation of anti-communist militants. Yet, the tragedy of the Second World War was a watershed, when the European churches truly began to work for peace. The Orthodox churches in Eastern Europe lagged behind this process for mainly political reasons. There is no theologically sound ethics of peace among the Orthodox theologians. Today in the present crisis of war with Ukraine this omission can lead to catastrophe, as members of the Orthodox churches are on different sides of the military conflict. The years of isolation and compliance of the Orthodox Church of Russia during the Soviet era mean ignorance and neglect of the peace-building experience and theology of Christians in the West. While many Russian Orthodox have shown their reverence to Sophrony (Sakharov), his view of war as the heaviest sin has not been digested. All these led the uncritical glorification of past victories and creating the image of the enemy. What we see today is the result of this.
I wish that the number of peace activists among Orthodox Christians would grow. And I would like the church authorities to recognise their efforts, support them, provide them with priests and patron saints. I would like to see the books of Jim Forest translated into the languages of the church that he had chosen to be his own: Russian, Greek, Romanian, and so forth. I would like people who venerate Saint Sophrony of Athos to remember his radical stance against the war. And I would like the Orthodox Church to use its authority to condemn and even excommunicate those who are guilty of starting war conflicts. I would like those Christians whose talent and position in society allow them to speak out without mincing words to call things by their name, to say that Christianity is not compatible with solving problems by the means of military conflict. “Victory through violence is always and inevitably short-term in this world. Translated into eternity it will prove a never-ending disgrace.” (Sophrony Sakharov, On Prayer)
Irina Paert is a Senior Researcher at the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Tartu.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.