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A "Just" War?
By Father Andrew Harrison

As I write this article, bombs, paid for by our tax money, are dropping over Iraq. A reporter in Baghdad said he saw three bombs fall on a single spot, previously occupied by an ambulance. (He feared that shattering glass would hurt women and children). Seventy percent of Americans support President Bush's decision to go to war. However, protesters against the war fill streets all over the world.

The National Council of Churches recently ran a TV ad equating protest against the war as the only way to support Jesus and his message. However, Evangelical Christians, in a letter to President Bush, said the Iraq war meets all the criteria for a "just war." The America Catholic Bishops agreed that Saddam Hussein's regime should cease repression, stop threatening its neighbors, end its support of terrorism, and abandon weapons of mass destruction. Nevertheless, these bishops have difficulty accepting the war in Iraq as a "just war."

The "Just War" Theory

St. Augustine, a fourth-century western Church Father, developed the "just war" theory. He speculated that war could be justified if it meets certain conditions based on various passages from Scripture: "There will be wars and rumors of wars"(Matt. 24:6); "Love your enemies"(Matt. 5:44); "Obey civil authorities" (Rom. 13) and pray for them (1 Tim. 2:2); and the conversion of Cornelius the centurion (Acts 10:1-23). Yet, these passages have also been used to support an entire war-related spectrum from pacifism to holy war (i.e., the Crusades).

According to St. Augustine war is justified if its purpose is to restore justice and if it is declared:

  • By a civil authority (not an independent group of people).
  • After all peaceful means to resolve conflict have been exhausted.
  • With the expectation of meeting reachable goals.
  • With the understanding that:
    Impending loss of human life corresponds to the situation and purpose of the war.
    Lives of civilians will be protected.
    Law and order can be restored.

Religious groups, the media and governmental agencies continually discuss this "just war" theory. That's why it is important for Orthodox Christians to know about it and whether the Orthodox Church adheres to it.

Officially, the Orthodox Church has never accepted the "just war" theory. The Church believes that war is never, ever justified. War is the work of the Devil and therefore can never be seen as "just." However, the Church does recognize the lesser of two evils. So during war she prays for peace, repentance, and the defeat of the Enemy: the Devil.

War in The 21st Century

A document, entitled The Orthodox Church and Society (OCS), published by the Russian Orthodox Church, addresses the problem of war in the 21st century. It states that the world is filled with violence and Christians may be required to involuntarily take part in battles. While calling all war evil, the Church permits its members to participate in hostilities for the sake of their neighbors' security and to restore trodden-down justice. Under these conditions war, although undesirable, may be necessary.

The OCS document describes a situation in which St. Cyril of Constantinople defended war-related Christian principles. Islamic theologians questioned him about Christ's command to turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39). They asked St. Cyril how it is possible for Christians to fight in a war. He responded by posing this question: "If the law had two commandments, which person would be greater, the one who followed only one commandment or the person who followed both"? They answered, "The person who followed both."

St. Cyril then said that Christ commanded us to pray for our enemies and to do good to them. However, he affirmed that a Christian could show no greater love than to lay down his [or her] life for a friend. This is why we endure offenses caused by individuals, but in company we defend one another. We give our lives in battle to prevent the enemy from making our neighbors prisoners and enslaving their bodies and souls by forcing them to renounce their faith. Soldiers are granted great respect when called to give their lives to protect the lives and security of their neighbors. Some soldiers have even been canonized saints by the Church.

Evil And Sin

The struggle with evil and the struggle against sin must be separate. This is clearly seen in the icon of St. George, where he is shown sitting on a white horse and trampling a black dragon. Even though St. George struggles with evil, he has no hateful feelings towards his enemy. There is victory in his heart over evil. The OCS document supports this: "Christian moral law does not deplore the struggle with sin, nor the use of force towards the bearer of sin, and not even taking another's life in the last resort, but rather deplores malice in the human heart and the desire to humiliate or destroy the person who sins." In essence, love must be asserted in all human relations. This assertion rejects the idea of resistance to evil by force. Thus, it is only when we love our enemies, and have no ill will towards them, that any necessary use of force against them can be justified.

The OCS document then poses this question: "On what bases should the church support or deplore a war"? The document recognizes that it is difficult to distinguish between a defensive war and an offensive war. In addition, each war has to be given special consideration. The document then presents a list of signs regarding the equitable treatment of each other by warring parties. These signs involve:

  • Attitude toward prisoners, with humane care for wounded persons.
  • Attitude toward civilians, especially women, children, and the elderly.
  • Methods used. Evil methods reduce the moral stand even of the defender.
  • War raged with righteous indignation, not with maliciousness, greed, or lust.
  • Proper attitude toward the war's success, which should not be considered an achievement or robbery with rejoicing over dead enemies.

The American Orthodox Stance

What position should we, as Orthodox Christians living in the United States, take regarding the current war in Iraq? This involves a very gray area, since it is morally correct to both support the war and protest it. The war in Iraq is necessary for two reasons: 1) to defend our land from possible future attack by weapons of mass destruction, and 2) to free a people who have been brutally oppressed by an immoral dictator. However, protest of the war is also necessary because: 1) all war is evil and 2) we should not support any evil act by our government or any other one.

No War Is "Just" Or Good

Before the war began, the Orthodox Peace Fellowship (OPF) issued a statement opposing it. (One of the signers of the OPF statement is our Bishop, Job). OPF acknowledged the immoral nature of the Iraqi regime and agreed something must be done, but OPF declared that war was not the answer. The following is an excerpt of this statement. (The entire statement is on our web site, along with the document The Orthodox Church and Society, under Current Issues).

"As Orthodox Christians, we seek the conversion of enemies to friends in Christ. Saddam Hussein is an enemy of the United States and of the people of Iraq, but we declare that there are better ways to respond to terrorism than to respond in kind.

We do not argue against attacking Iraq because of any admiration for Saddam Hussein. He came to office by intrigue and murder, and remains in power by the same means; he is his own country's worst enemy. The Iraqi people deserve to be rid of him.

"The United States is ready to overthrow him by any means, including an attack which would kill thousands of civilians and maim many more, justifying such an attack on the possibility that Hussein's regime is producing weapons of mass destruction and preparing to use them against America and Israel and their allies.

Because we seek the reconciliation of enemies, a conversion which grows from striving to be faithful to the Gospel, the Orthodox Church has never regarded any war as just or good, and fighting an elusive enemy by means which cause the death of innocent people can be regarded only as murder. Individual murderers are treated by psychiatrists and priests and isolated from society. But who heals the national psyche, the wounded soul of a nation, when it is untroubled by the slaughter of non-combatant civilian"?

As we debate this war it is important to continue the dialogue and agree to disagree. We pray that God will guide us into asking the right questions so that eventually we will be led to Jesus Christ, Who is the Prince of Peace, and Who always has the right answers.

A Prayer for Peace

Let us pray to the Lord. Lord have Mercy

O Lord, grant wisdom and discernment to those who govern us. Protect the men and women in the military services. Be merciful to all who suffer in this war and bring healing, hope and consolation to them. O Lord, You commanded us to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, and pray for them. We especially pray for the innocent men, women, and children of Iraq and the Middle East; and that You will protect them and bring a quick end to all hostilities; that You will restore all nations to reconciliation, blessing our land and every nation with lasting peace. For You are the Prince of Peace, and it is to You that we give glory, honor, and worship to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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