Peace and War in the Eastern Orthodox Church

Part 2 of 2
From the January 2003 "Messenger"

How can these seemingly opposite emphases co-exist in the Orthodox Christian tradition? Perhaps it can be best understood by the unique applications of “akrievia” and “economia” in Orthodox ethics and canon law. “Akrievia” represents the strict application of the gospel principles embodied in canon law. “Economia” is a dispensation from this strict requirement in view of human weakness and the compromising circumstances of life in a fallen world. Perhaps divorce provides a good example. According to “akrievia,” the norm is one marriage for life, and divorce and remarriage constitutes adultery. This is a direct word of the Lord. Nonetheless, the Orthodox Church blesses the remarriage of divorced persons in various circumstances as an act of mercy, knowing the frailties of our fallen nature and the difficult situations of life. Simultaneously, the norm is upheld and there is an accommodation to the realities of fallen world - a concept and practice that may seem contradictory to Western Christians.
Similarly, peace is the norm and goal of Christian life for all. In its very nature, it embodies the gospel of the kingdom. War by nature is a manifestation of sin, and therefore, can never be “just.” War is to be avoided at all costs, and the peaceful resolution of human conflicts is to be pursued without limitation. However, there are occasions when the peaceful resolution of conflict is in fact impossible. Such is the case when a hostile enemy attacks, and would deprive peace-loving Christian citizens of life and liberty. In such situations, a pacifistic position may indeed attract and beget violence because of its public refusal to defend even the innocent against violence and murder.

Orthodox Christians do indeed undertake warfare in such situations, but purely as a “necessary evil.” It is necessary because the innocent and good must be protected; it is evil because such protection involves the taking of human life, which by all accounts, is among the most terrible of crimes.

The Orthodox Church therefore is not pacifistic, although it in practices encourages governments always to pursue the “preferential option for peace.” Nonetheless, the Church recognizes that this world is fallen and is not yet equivalent to the kingdom of God. For this reason, governments in general cannot be held to the strict requirements of the gospel. Although under God’s authority, they belong to the fallen world. At times statesmanship fails, and Christians are called by their governments to defend their commonwealth by means of war, for to fail to do so would result in an increase in the measure of evil in the world.

This does not mean that war can be “just.” It may serve a just cause, but war itself is unjust by nature. The Orthodox Church therefore has never elaborated a theory of “just war.” For Orthodox Christians, “just war” is a contradiction in terms.

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