Reflections in Times of War

Bishop Seraphim : Article
Reflections in Times of War
[Published in the “Canadian Orthodox Messenger”, Summer 2003]

The way of the Christian is very particular, and our responsibilities as we Christians live in this world are very particular. We are not citizens of this world, but of the Kingdom of Heaven. We are sent by our Saviour Jesus Christ into this world to be salt and yeast (see Matthew 5:13 ; 13:33). We are His witnesses. In this world, we are bearers of Him and His light and His love. The Orthodox way is all concerned with balance – not extremes, but balance.

The fear of the Lord increases days, but the years of the ungodly will be shortened” (Proverbs 10:28) ; “The horse is prepared for the day of war, but help is from the Lord” (Proverbs 21:30). These two proverbs of Solomon summarise both what is necessary for us Christians, and also where so many of us go astray. For us, communion with the Lord, being loved by Him and loving Him, is the foundation of our life in Christ. Indeed, this has been the real foundation of our path in life since our creation. God said : “‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness’” (1 Moses [Genesis] 1:26) ; and at the giving of the Law (the Ten Commandments), He said to us through Moses : “‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord. You shall love the Lord your God from your whole heart, from your whole soul, and from your whole power. So these words I command you today shall be in your heart and in your soul’” (5 Moses [Deuteronomy] 6:4-6). The Apostle John also reminds us : “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in Him” (1 John 4:16), and “We love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). This loving relationship with God must be the real raison d’être of our lives. The Apostle John further says that if we love God we will, in being salt and yeast, definitely do works of love for the sake of our fellow human beings, and indeed, all creation. If we live in this love, and therefore can willingly and instinctively (like Adam and Eve before the Fall – it is possible in Christ) follow His commandments, the Lord gives us salvation and life. This is the essence of His covenant with us, from Noah and Abraham until now. He loves us far beyond our capacity to comprehend such love ; and even more, He invites us to participate in this love, to grow up in it, and therefore, in Christ, as members of His Body, to grow up in Him, Himself (theosis).

However, as is so often the case (even from the time of Adam and Eve), we have a tendency to look at ourselves, to focus on ourselves instead of on God. We tend to substitute ourselves for God, and by doing this to abandon our part in the established covenant, and to turn our backs on His salvation. In reading the Psalms, and in reading again the Prophet Isaiah during this year’s Lent, I have had this brought home to me time and again. Very many times, when kings and princes took matters into their own hands, there were disasters. However, very many times, when these rulers trusted in God, the Lord delivered His faithful people from the hands of their enemies, even by the work of angels. Very frequently in the Christian era, the Lord has delivered His faithful people (as we are so often begging) from earthquake, flood, fire, invasion by enemies, and civil war. All this, for Orthodox Christians, is reinforced by our reading of the lives of the saints. For me, too, this reality has been reinforced by both reading about (and listening to the reading on tape of) the book Father Arseny (Piotr Andreievich Streltsov). In cases when some prisoners were ready to kill him (or sometimes each other), God gave him both the right words and a strong supporter. When he and Alexie were placed in an outdoor punishment cell at -30° C, God protected and warmed them. This was supplemented for me by the teachings of Saint Silouan through Archimandrites Sophrony and Zacharias. They say (and I see) that we must try to depend on God for everything.

Our canonical history has parallel lessons for us. From the earliest apostolic times until now, the Orthodox Church has taken the shedding of blood very seriously. This serious attitude began in her pre-history, I suppose in part starting from Abel. This attitude may be found throughout the Old Testament up to and including the suffering of Christ. For instance, even if a cleric should accidentally kill someone while driving, he is automatically stopped from serving (sometimes permanently). If anyone at all accidentally kills anyone, it means that the person is to abstain from receiving Holy Communion for a substantial length of time, as a sign of sorrow for the loss of human life. In the past, if soldiers killed anyone (even if under orders), it would be the same. From those earliest times, it was accepted that Christians would sometimes have to participate in armies of the civil governments. When they did so, however, they participated still knowing what are the foundations of Christian consciousness. If they shed blood, they showed appropriate repentance. We have soldier-martyrs who give us examples of this. Some soldiers (and even kings) became monks afterwards, including perhaps one tsar of the 19th century. One may do one’s duty, but also bear the consequences of this duty. Recently, there was an old Cossack in France who would not receive Holy Communion until his death-bed, because he had shed blood in World War I.

It has always been understood that we do not live (and never have lived) in a Christian theocracy, in which the ideal and the covenant might actually be lived out. Even the so-called Christian empires of the past were really mostly so only in name. Furthermore, in all governments there are always armies, and with all governments, there is always the risk of war. For warriors, there is always the risk of killing or being killed. We must, as Christians, find the middle way in Christ.

From the earliest times (see 1 Timothy 2:1-2), we have known that we are obliged to pray for our civil governing authorities (even and especially if they are killing us). Therefore, early Christians prayed for persecuting emperors, and martyrs forgave and blessed those who were killing them as they echoed the words of our Saviour from the Cross (see Luke 23:34 ; Acts 7:60). This is strikingly the case in the martyric death only 200 years ago in Alaska of Saint Juvenaly, the priest-monk companion of Saint Herman.

Some people like to glorify certain wars, and to say that they are just. However, there is no such thing as a just war. All wars kill many soldiers, and all wars kill large, sometimes unimaginably large numbers of innocent persons of all ages. All wars feed and fuel a blood-thirsty demon, and all wars make soldiers vulnerable to the blindness of slavery to the demon of bloodlust. No matter how “just” they are made out to be, all wars have long-lasting consequences, often with deep hatreds, and often with subsequent wars. Such consequences of war are amongst the most dangerous of all factors, and there is certainly no balance, no middle way in it. Without a strong faith in Christ, a person would be lost. I have met many a person (amongst them my own relatives) who suffered for many decades after their participation in wars. They were tortured in their hearts, and in their dreams. Some persons never were able to live a balanced life again because of the spiritual trauma. Wars are simply destructive. Customs and ways of life are destroyed forever, not to mention monuments, buildings and human lives.

Even though this is a sad fact, the Church does not condemn anyone’s serving in the armed forces. Many true Christian believers have served and do serve in the armed forces, and they do so honourably. They do so not because they are so strong themselves, but because they have many people praying for them. Many a person has truly been saved from death, many a person has been saved from killing unnecessarily, many a person has been saved from all sorts of catastrophes, because others were praying for God’s protection for him or for her. It is indeed our responsibility to do so.

It is correct for us to do our part, to remind our leaders to do everything they can to avoid an armed conflict. It is right that we always pray for the peace of the world, and for reconciliation. This is exactly what we sing about in the “Beatitudes”, and it is what we ask in the “Our Father”. It is right that we, as Christians, pray for our governing authorities, and ask for God’s wisdom for them. It is also our responsibility to live in forgiveness with all, as Christ does, and through His love to bring true peace to the world. In the world, there is always the temptation to resort to violence of various sorts. It is our challenge as Christians, by our love, by our service in the footsteps of Christ, to show to the world the better way. It is our challenge to show how the “weapon of peace” brings life, and how Christ is the real Victor for us all.