Religion and Conflict

On Non-Violence, Defense, and Victory in the Context of the Russian Aggression against Ukraine

Published on: May 17, 2023
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First of all, let me make my standpoint clear: I am from Ukraine, I am Orthodox, I have experience and interest in peacebuilding, and I co-translated the document For the Life of the World: Towards the Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church (FLOW) into Ukrainian and Russian. I find this document a profound and inspiring testimony of the potential of the “post-Byzantine” church in the world today. However, for more than a year now, I have some questions with respect to its “War, Peace, and Violence” section in view of the Russian aggression in my country. It is a question of non-violence, self-defense, and victory considered from the Ukrainian context.

According to FLOW, “Every act of violence against another human being is…violence against a member of one’s own family, and the killing of another human being—even when and where inevitable—is the killing of one’s own brother or sister”; “in the end, we may justly say that violence is sin par excellence.” The non-violent self-sacrificial ideal of Sts. Boris and Gleb is proclaimed as “the ideal of human conduct established by Christ during his earthly ministry.” Meanwhile, defensive violence is characterized as “the tragic necessity of individuals or communities or states using force to defend themselves and others from the immediate threat of violence.” “Self-defense without spite may be excusable,” although any option for “just war” criteria is categorically denied as contrary to the Orthodox teaching. Interpreting John 15:13 (“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”), FLOW reminds us that “when one must defend the innocent against the rapacious,” “the only proper Christian motivation for doing so is love,” but also says that Christ’s Cross, to which this passage points, was “a place primarily of surrender to violence and the refusal of retribution.” Importantly, it is stated that all sides of conflicts suffer from violence, including “many soldiers, police officers, and perpetrators of violence,” and the Orthodox Church “must never cease to offer ministries of spiritual healing” to both victims and perpetrators, “offering care to all who are receptive to God’s mercy and grace.” The section ends with the praise to peacemakers of different kinds.

Such a stand on violence is different from a much more aggressive one of the Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church (2000), but in tune with the global tradition of peacebuilding, which has been unfolding in the West after WWII and especially from the 1970s on. In short, this tradition insists that, to reach peaceful existence, we need to think in terms of non-violence and “just peace” instead of violence and “just war.” Peacebuilding paradigms were to a great extent developed by members of traditional “peace churches,” especially the Mennonites, whose ethic is based on radical non-violence and willingness to make an ultimate sacrifice for an enemy (J.P. Lederach). Since the 1960s, they have also become fundamental for the Catholic Church. In the modern Orthodox world, peace theology has been for many years promoted by the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. The recent book Orthodox Christian Perspectives on War (2017), some of whose authors took part in drafting FLOW, although it encompasses different perspectives, is dominated by preference for non-violence, not distinguishing between “murder” and “killing”—and suggests closeness between the Orthodox theology and the just peace ideal (in the article by Perry Hamalis).

Since the beginning of the full-scale Russian aggression against Ukraine, many references have been made to the need for peace and non-violence by voices from the global Orthodox world. Mainly those messages were addressed to Russia and the ROC, which blesses and supports the war. The “War and Peace” panel of the International Orthodox Theological Association (IOTA) 2023 conference dealt with this issue extensively. In his talk on Eireinology, the chair of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, Nickolas Sooy, emphasized the need to nurture the culture of non-violence and the theology of peace in the Orthodox Church, clearly implying the current Russian involvement. At his recent lecture on the 7th c. hymn, “Soson, Kyrie, ton Laon Sou and the Sacralization of Violence in Ecclesiastical Texts,” George Demacopoulos connected the historic Byzantine acceptance of violence as beneficial for the Christian empire with the rhetoric of the ROC—and criticized it. Clearly, there is a need to show today that violence cannot be justified from the post-Byzantine Orthodox perspective. And I agree.

However, when the same close-to-pacifist rhetoric of non-violence and peace, with very little attention to the question of defense, is addressed to the reality of Ukraine now, to me (and many Ukrainians) it feels somewhat uncomfortable and even painful—just as it does when people think that Ukrainians should easily find common language with anti-war Russians. The whole country has been praying not just for peace, but for the Armed Forces of Ukraine and their victory for more than a year now. Almost everyone has someone in the service. For more than a year, or almost ten years, many people (someone’s relatives and friends) have died in the frontline and in the cities; civilians suffer and die as well. But the majority of Ukrainians are not willing to agree to the occupation and genocide, offered as a solution by the Russians, and choose military resistance.

Characteristic of the Ukrainian perception of God and war now is the recent sermon of Metropolitan Epiphany (April 3). At the beginning, implying the Russian side, he says that the war cannot be “holy” and is a consequence of a great sin; therefore, it cannot be sacred, or sanctified (i.e. dedicated to God) in any way. In the spirit of FLOW, he continues: “It is very important in the matter of war and peace to call things by their names: hatred is hatred, injustice is injustice, murder is murder…And no political, ideological or other interpretation can justify the pernicious destructive nature of war, which is a terrible sin and a crime against humanity.” However, in the second part, addressing Ukrainians, he explains at length why the Church blesses the soldiers: “Unlike the occupiers, our soldiers are defenders. They do not encroach on other people’s property, they do not come to a foreign country with a sword, they do not commit acts of aggression, they do not deliberately hurt others, they do not sacrifice other people’s lives.” They perform a feat of self-sacrifice, putting themselves at risk for the sake of others, showing the highest degree of love (John 15:13). “This is the great difference between those who “bring the sword” and those who defend themselves with the sword. The army and weapons are not forbidden by the Bible, but according to Christian teaching, they exist to defend, not to attack. The Church of Christ is against violence, but always in defense of truth, peace and neighbors.” The emphasis on self-defense is much stronger here, and I believe that in principle it is shared by the majority of Orthodox Ukrainians independently of the jurisdiction.

I assume that the lack of positive interpretation of self-defense in FLOW can be explained by two reasons: (1) the desire to avoid any “Byzantine” or “just war” sacralization/justification of violence and the military, although escaping radical pacifism; (2) the cultural context of its authors and the lack (or absence) of their experience of being attacked in a war (and by another “Orthodox nation”). I also understand that our modern, post-Byzantine, Orthodox refusal from the sacralization of violence is theologically explained by our wish not to involve God in the sin “par excellence” at all. But do we think that it would be improper to say that clearly defensive actions can have not only God’s “excuse,” but also blessing—even in the post-Byzantine time? Do we think that it is “dubious” today for Ukraine to pray not only for peace, but also for victory—not a conquering or triumphalist one, but one that would stop Russian genocide—which is never mentioned in FLOW as a possibility? Without in any way denying the need for healing for all sides in the end? Or are Ukrainians only expected to pray for the miraculous conversion of the enemy while the enemy is massively terrorizing them with no reason? Would the blessing of soldiers and praying for victory in this case really drag us back to the “Byzantium,” even though Ukraine, unlike Russia, has no imperial ambitions? Or do we simply want to “leave it all to God,” “mystery,” without getting too involved into “too human” things?…

Yes, I understand that blessing the military and praying for victory, considering all the violence the Orthodox were involved in history, in the West might feel just as uncomfortable as talking non-violence to Ukrainians. Of course, it may be easy to manipulate anything; in the end, Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church say they are defending against the evil of the collective West in Ukraine and often use the same passage from John 15:13 to justify their aggression; moreover, today violence sometimes takes place in and around Orthodox churches in Ukraine itself, perpetrated by Ukrainians with different political and ecclesial views. But the question—asked from the context of the suffering Ukrainian society—still remains. The same language of non-violence does not work well for Russia and Ukraine simultaneously, and this issue must be addressed more meaningfully.

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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.

About author

  • Lidiya Lozova

    British Academy Fellow in the Theology and Religion Department, University of Exeter

    Lidiya Lozova defended her doctoral thesis in History and Theory of Culture/Art History at the Modern Art Research Institute of the National Academy of Art of Ukraine in 2015 in Kyiv. Her dissertation examined the theological dimension of the Leningrad School of Avantgarde Art from the 1920s-1960s. ...

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