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Question 395

Is there an Orthodox equivalent of the 'Just War Doctrine', in writing or just in theory, which would be compatible with the church’s historical involvement in all our wars..  Personally I agree with the 'Just War Doctrine' because unfortunately sometimes we have no alternative but to fight if invaded or under oppression... 

 

 

Answer to Question 395

 

When one hears or reads about wars one never understands fully the atrocities of war. It is not only the destruction of lands and people, but the destruction of civilized society, faith, and the very spirit of man. Christ gave his life for us and we are called to give our life for others if the need arises. If our country and faith are as risk, then we must defend ourselves and our society from destruction. The Church cannot just stand back and watch her people being destroyed, she must be at the forefront praying, blessing and giving encouragement to the young soldiers who go to battle to protect and defend both faith and nation.  She is also there in the background helping secret underground movements in whatever is necessary for the good of her people. Now in these situations, I can understand how even a Priest might himself take up arms, for he too is human and wants to defend his family and flock. Should we expect him to allow the enemy to just walk in and kill everyone close to him? Should we expect him to gather his flock around him and lead them as sheep to the slaughter or to keep silent – “as a lamb without blemish before the shearer is dumb, so he opens not his mouth”? Not everyone is called to Martyrdom, and especially when the war is not aimed at eliminating our faith, but on conquering lands.

 

Below is what St. Basil the Great has to say on killing in battle. It is numbered amongst his canons, it is not a compulsory canon, but rather, only makes a suggestion. 

 

CANON XIII OF ST BASIL THE GREAT

 

Our Fathers did not consider murders 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 defence of sobriety and piety. Perhaps, though, it might be advisable to refuse them communion for three years, on the ground that they are not clean-handed.

 

Interpretation of Canon:

By “Our Fathers” here Basil the Great means Athanasius the Great and his followers. For Athanasius says in his Epistle to Amun that for one to slay enemies in war is lawful and praiseworthy. But St. Basil explains also the reason why the more ancient Fathers permitted them to be pardoned, which is that those men who slay men in the course of war are fighting for the faith and for the maintenance of sobriety. For, if once the barbarians and infidels should succeed in gaining the upper hand, neither piety will be left, since they disregard it and seek to establish their own wicked faith and bad belief, nor sobriety and maintenance of honour, seeing that their victory would be followed by many instances of violation and ravishment of young women and of young men. 

 

The Saint goes on to add, however, on his own part, not a definitive Canon, but an advisory and indecisive suggestion that although these men who slay others in war were not considered murderers by the more ancient Fathers, yet, since their hands are not unstained by blood, it might perhaps be well for them to abstain from communion for three years solely as regards the Mysteries, but not to be expelled, that is to say, from the Church, like other penitents. 

 

Footnote to Canon:

But why did the old Fathers not canonize men who kill others in war, while St. Basil deprived them of communion for three years? God Himself solves this bewildering question in the second Book of Numbers (31: 19, 24), wherein He commands that Jews returning from the war with the Midianites shall stand outside of the camp for seven days, wash their garments, be purified, and then be permitted to enter the camp. “And abide ye outside of the camp for seven days. Whosoever hath killed anyone, and whosoever hath touched anyone slain, purify both yourselves and your captives; and wash your garments on the seventh day, and ye shall be clean, and afterwards ye may come into the camp” (Num. 31: 19, 24). And the reason is, according to the interpretation offered by Philo the Jew, that although the killing of enemies in war was lawful, yet anyone that killed a human being whether justly and rightfully, or for revenge, or that slays any person as a matter of violence and coercion, appears in spite of this to be responsible for the commission of a sin and crime, because he has killed a human being who is of the same race and of the same nature as his own. For this reason and on this account those who had slain Midianites in war, though they did so rightfully and justly, though they slew them as enemies, too, and though it was for the sake of revenge, too, as required by the passage saying: “for, said God to Moses, “Take revenge for the children of Israel on the Midianites” (Num. 31:2), yet as having slain kindred human beings of the same nature, and having consequently fallen under the stigma of sin and foul murder, they had to be purified of it by the seven days’ purification outside of the camp. 

 

This same reason is advanced also by Procopius and Adelus in their interpretations of these passages, and not any reason that, as some have said, the seven days purification was after they slew the wives of the Midianites and not before. For that seven days’ purification was carried out later, after they had put the wives of the Midianites to death, and not before, as is plainly stated in the same chapter. Hence, following this example, St. Basil the Great advises that it would be well for men who have killed others in war to abstain from communion for three years, because they polluted themselves with the blood of their fellow men, but also perhaps because they became adepts at injuring and destroying God’s creation (see also the Footnote to Ap. c. LXVI). But the Saint offered the Canon as one embodying advice and indecision, and out of respect and regard for the more ancient Fathers who left such persons uncanonized (i.e., unpunished), and on account perhaps of his philosophical modesty of mind and reverence.  But that this Canon of the Saint was accepted by the Church as a declarative Canon, and a definition, and a law, and not as a simple piece of indecisive advice, is a fact which is attested by the events which ensued in the reign of Nicephorus Phocas and which are recorded by both the expositors Zonaras and Balsamon, and by Dositheus (page 588 of his Dodecabiblus). For that Emperor had sought in his time to have Christian soldiers numbered with the martyrs, and to be honoured and glorified as martyrs, when they were killed in war with barbarians. But the Patriarch and Synod of Bishops in that period were opposed to this idea, and failing to convince the Emperor, they finally proposed this Canon of the Saint as a Canon of the Church, asking, “Are we going to number with the Martyrs men who have killed others in war and whom Basil the Great excluded from the Mysteries for three years as not having clean hands?” Moreover, even Basil himself, in his c. LV, cited this Canon there as being advisory, recommendatory, definitive, and devisive, according to Balsamon, after forbidding robbers to partake of communion if they had killed laymen who were actually attacking them. If it be objected that Zonaras asserts that this recommendation of the Saint’s, or rather the Canon, appears to be too heavy and onerous, owing to the fact that Christian soldiers engaged in continual and consecutive wars have never thus far been able to desist for three years straight and thus get a chance to commune, we too agree with this, that as long as soldiers are at war they cannot commune, but may do so only after three years cessation from war.