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Peace and War in the Eastern Orthodox Church

Part 1 of 2
From the December 2002 "Messenger"

Those who are familiar with the liturgy of the Orthodox Church will be aware that the term “peace” is used frequently in her services. Major Orthodox services all contain the “litany of peace,” which begins with the petition, “In peace, let us pray to the Lord,” and then continues, “For the peace from above and the salvation of our souls . . . for the peace of the whole world, the good estate of the holy churches of God, and the union of all, let us pray to the Lord.” Orthodox faithful are accustomed to repeated petitions for peace, in its personal, social, and global dimensions.

Many Christians are aware that the biblical concept of peace is rooted in the Hebrew “shalom” (Arabic “salaam”), which contains a positive conception of peace. This means that peace is not just the absence of warfare and conflict, but is an active state of harmony and well-being that applies to all relations, and especially and fundamentally, to the relationship of God and man. The Church of Jesus Christ, as the historical manifestation of the kingdom of God, embodies and fosters the dynamic aspiration to all forms of peace in the world.

Following the traditions of Holy Scripture and the teaching of the Church Fathers, the Orthodox Church teaches that peace is divinely ordained condition for human existence, and that every form of conflict and strife is a manifestation of sin. War, as the antithesis of peace, therefore belongs to the realm of human sin. Thus warfare as an activity belongs to realm of fallen human existence and can in no way embody the justice, righteousness, and indeed peace that are the very essence of the reconciliation of God and humanity.

However, when one examines the services of the Orthodox Church in greater detail, one finds other petitions that imply recognition of warfare as an activity in which God’s people are actively involved. The national armed forces are regularly commemorated, and it is asked that they be granted “victory over every enemy and adversary.” Phrases such as “grant victory to thy faithful people over the barbarians” embody historical reminiscences in which a Christian empire is actively fending off barbaric attacks. Following the precedent of Constantine the Great, the cross as seen as a potent symbol by which the enemies of faith and empire are vanquished. Even the Virgin Mary is presented as interceding in heaven and protecting the Christian commonwealth against such assaults.

Yet in spite of such seemingly pro-war sentiments, Orthodox canon law prescribes that soldiers who kill in warfare must undergo a penitential period of separation from the eucharist, which is “excommunication” in Eastern parlance. The taking of human life is always considered an objective evil, even when done in the pursuit of a “just cause.” As such, it has the effect of rupturing one’s communion with Christ and thus requires repentance.

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