Friday, March 20, 2015

War and the Church, Part I: The Orthodox Church

The banksters, talking heads, and others of the Superclass of the West are clearly laying the groundwork for a war with Iran (or trying to).

With anoðer war looming, then, it is worth asking:  What does the Church say about war?

The tradition of the Orthodox Church answers:  There is no good war, not even those fought in defense of faith, family, and so on; all are alike sinful and destructive, although at times necessary.  Orthodox priest Father John McGuckin clarifies:

 . . .

Basil has several things to say about violence and war in his diocese. It was a border territory of the empire, and his administration had known several incursions by barbarian forces. Canon 13 of the 92 considers war:

Our fathers did not consider killings committed in the course of wars to be classifiable as murders at all, on the score, it seems to me, of allowing a pardon to men fighting in defense of sobriety and piety. Perhaps, though, it might be advisable to refuse them communion for three years, on the ground that their hands are not clean.

 . . .

Basils text on war needs, therefore, to be understood in terms of an economic reflection on the ancient canons that forbade the shedding of blood in blanket terms. This tension between the ideal standard (no bloodshed) and the complexities of the context in which a local church finds itself thrown in times of conflict and war, is witnessed in several other ancient laws, such as Canon 14 of Hippolytus (also from the 4th century):

A Christian is not to become a soldier. A Christian must not become a soldier, unless he is compelled by a chief bearing the sword. He is not to burden himself with the sin of blood. But if he has shed blood, he is not to partake of the mysteries, unless he is purified by a punishment, tears, and wailing. He is not to come forward deceitfully but in the fear of God.

The reasons Basil gives for suggesting that killing in time of hostilities could be distinguished from voluntary murder pure and simple (for which the canonical penalty was a lifelong ban from admission to the churches and from the sacraments) is set out as the defense of sobriety and piety. This is code language for the defense of Christian borders from the ravages of pagan marauders. The difficulty Basil had to deal with was not war on the large-scale, but local tribal insurgents who were mounting attacks on Roman border towns, with extensive rapinage. In such circumstances Basil has little patience for those who feel they cannot fight because of religious scruples. His sentiment is more that a passive non-involvement betrays the Christian family (especially its weaker members who cannot defend themselves but need others to help them) to the ravages of men without heart or conscience to restrain them.

The implication of his argument, then, is that the only fighting that Christians ought ever to accept, in order to defend the honor and safety of the weak, will be inherently a limited response, mainly because the honor and tradition of the Christian faith in the hearts and minds of pious and sober warriors will restrict the bloodshed to a necessary minimum.

His economic solution nevertheless makes it abundantly clear that the absolute standard of Christian morality turns away from war as an unmitigated evil. This is why we can note that the primary reason Basil gives that previous fathers had distinguished killing in time of war from the case of simple murder was on the score of allowing a pardon. There was no distinction made here in terms of the qualitative horror of the deed itself, rather in terms of the way in which the deed could be cleansed by the Churchs system of penance.

Is it logical to expect a Christian of his diocese to engage in the defense of the homeland, while simultaneously penalizing him if he spills blood in the process?

Well, one needs to contextualize the debarment from the sacrament in the generic 4th century practice of the reception of the Eucharist, which did not expect regular communion to begin with (ritual preparation was extensive and involved fasting and almsgiving and prayer), and where a majority of adult Christians in a given church would not yet have been initiated by means of baptism, and were thus not bound to keep all the canons of the Church.

By his regulation and by the ritual exclusion of the illumined warrior from the sacrament (the returning victor presumably would have received many other public honors and the gratitude of the local folk ), Basil is making sure at least one public sign is given to the entire community that the Gospel standard has no place for war, violence and organized death. He is trying to sustain an eschatological balance: that war is not part of the Kingdom of God (signified in the Eucharistic ritual as arriving in the present) but is part of the bloody and greed-driven reality of world affairs which is the Kingdom-Not-Arrived.

By moving in and out of Eucharistic reception Basils faithful Christian (returning from his duty with blood on his hands) is now in the modality of expressing his dedication to the values of peace and innocence, by means of the lamentation and repentance for life that has been taken, albeit the blood of the violent. Basils arrangement that the returning warrior may stand in the Church (rather than in the narthex, where the other public sinners were allocated spaces) but refrain from communion makes the statement that a truly honorable termination of war, for a Christian, has to be an honorable repentance.

Several commentators (not least many of the later western Church fathers) have regarded this as fudge, but it seems to me to express, in a finely tuned economic way, the tension in the basic Christian message that there is an unresolvable shortfall between the ideal and the real in an apocalyptically charged religion. What this Basilian canon does most effectively is to set a No Entry sign to any potential theory of Just War within Christian theology, and should set up a decided refusal of post-war church-sponsored self-congratulations for victory.

All violence, local, individual, or nationally-sanctioned, is here stated to be an expression of hubris that is inconsistent with the values of the Kingdom of God, and while in many circumstances that violence may be necessary or unavoidable (Basil states the only legitimate reasons as the defense of the weak and innocent), it is never justifiable. Even for the best motives in the world, the shedding of blood remains a defilement, such that the true Christian, afterwards, would wish to undergo the cathartic experience of temporary return to the lifestyle of penance, that is be penitent. Basils restriction of the time of penance to three years, seemingly harsh to us moderns, was actually a commonly recognized sign of merciful leniency in the ancient rule book of the early Church.

Source:  ‘St. Basil’s Guidance on War and Repentance’, In Communion,, posted 19 Feb. 2006, accessed 20 March 2015

Þere is no ‘just war’ theory in Orthodox Christianity as there is in the Western churches:

And that is what Part II will look into - Western thoughts on war.

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