|Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries||Orthodoxy|
Does the Church bless Military Arms?
The excerpt quoted below is part of a far more extensive text by an orthodox theologian on a number of topics, and was addressed as a letter to an a-dogmatic Protestant.
In Romans 13: 4, the apostle Paul mentions that “it is not proper for the king to bear the sword, for he is a minister of God in wrath, judging committed evil.” (=he does not carry a sword without reason, but serves God, meting Justice upon the one who commits evil).
If Paul says this about the pagan ruler and king, then, when the king is a Christian (or should kings be excluded from baptism and salvation?) and hordes of barbarians attack, should the Church pray for divine help to the king or not?
If not - and more so if he enforces the abolition of the army - then he is condemning the people to compulsory martyrdom; however, martyrdom cannot be imposed compulsorily - not everyone is ready to be slaughtered like lambs, and many will be those who will grumble against God and thus lose their souls during the onslaught of the enemy, just because they or their families perish.
It is no coincidence that the Church prays to God for victories only to the king (“victories granted to kings, against barbarians” according to the hymn), and not for victories of the army, because in Rom. 13:4, the king 'does not bear the sword' (he does not carry his sword by chance) and that when he uses it against the one committing evil, he is 'a deacon of God'.
There is no ecclesiastic prayer for an army to be victorious - not only in today's ecclesiastic books, but also in the old ones, when the land was living in a time of war! The only relevant prayer is '…for our Christ-loving army, let us pray'. Naturally, soldiers cannot be excluded from the prayers of the Church; that is, to be excommunicated and surrendered to the devil! (Needless to highlight that those prayers only pertain to the ‘Christ-loving' army and as such a philanthropic one, and not to any and every army).
Of course there is no ecclesiastic prayer for the blessing of military arms (whereas there are prayers, for example, for Easter eggs or the pie of Saint Phanourios, e.a.). On the contrary, in every ecclesiastic ritual, the first supplication is in favor of peace, followed by other prayers on this subject. And then the Cross (through which we ask for 'victories to the kings') is characterized as 'a weapon of peace, an invincible trophy'. This characterization meets the warlike similes in the New Testament, such as Ephesians. 6: 11-17.
The holy 40 Martyr-saints who had disobeyed the emperor's commands, albeit soldiers, and were condemned to martyrdom. I could say that Christian Witnesses have been the most populous anti-authoritarian movement in History. Their presence even to this day solves every dilemma about how the words of the apostle Paul are applied faithfully, and where the authority of every political ruler, king or other ends ...
Also dealing with killings during wars are two canons by Saint Basil the Great, ratified by the Quinisext Ecumenical Council:
Rule 8, 'On murder and murderers', includes those 'voluntarily killing' who murder during war attacks: '[…]
«Voluntary is also (considered) to be that which is (committed) wholly and without any doubt; that is, attacks by robbers and by wars. For the former kill for the sake of money (and also) avoiding controls, while the latter that are in wars have come to murder; not to intimidate, nor to reform, but to kill the opposing ones, openly displaying their intention. […] ».
Consequently, these fall under Rule 56, for those who voluntarily murder; that is, they are subject to excommunication for twenty years: the first four to be standing outside the church confessing their crime and asking for the prayers of the Christians:
“The one who has murdered voluntarily and has afterwards repented, let him be excommunicated from all sanctifications, and twenty years of excommunication be imposed upon him. For four years, he is obliged to stand tearfully outside the door of the house of prayer, beseeching the prayers of the people entering therein, and publicly declaring his transgressions. After the four years, he will be accepted by those listening (to the church service), and in five years, he can exit together with them. In seven years, he can exit, having prayed together with the other attendees. In four years, he is introduced only to the faithful, but not receiving any offerings. After fulfilling all the above, he can partake of the sanctifications.»
Rule 13, «On those who have killed in wars» clearly refers to defensive wars, hence writes: «The killings in wars our Fathers did not take into account as murders; I think they were providing forgiveness, to those who were defending sobriety and piety. Apparently, he did well to advise that for having unclean hands, they should abstain only from Communion for three years.»
Significant points here are: (a) The saint mentions that those in the past (= the Church during the persecutions, when Christian soldiers participated in wars, before the supposed 'submission' of the Church to the state) had forgiven murder during war. (b) But he also differentiates himself from those Fathers, asking for three years of excommunication!! (c) Ôhe Quinisext Council validated this rule by Basil the Great and not the previous ecclesiastic practice, despite the fact that it was conducted in a Christianized state, whereas the ancient Church was outlawed, within an idolatrous state.
The 66th Apostolic Canon defrocks the clergy and excommunicates (cuts off from the divine Communion) the lay persons who kill during war: “If any of the clergy strikes someone in a battle and with one blow causes death, let him be expelled for his haste. And if it be a lay person, let him be excommunicated». [According to an article by Archimandrite Nicodemus Barousis, “Murder in war and our Priesthood”, this Rule obstructs the recognition of martyred clergymen who had committed murders in revolutions against the Turks – for example, the recognition as martyr-saint of Bishop Isaiah of Salona, the priest Ioannis (brother of the former) and of Athanasios the Deacon, were all rejected by the Church of Greece].
According to the 5th Rule of Saint Gregory of Nyssa, even the one who has killed someone inadvertently is barred from the priesthood: «Even if inadvertently, one becomes a miasma on account of murder, having rendered himself desecrated by the sin, thus the Canon pertaining to hieratic grace deems him rejected». «That is, whoever kills, even if hesitatingly and involuntarily, if he be a layman will not become a priest, and if he be a priest, is defrocked», as Saint Nicodemus comments in the “Pedalion”, pp. 657-658.
And he then adds: «And generally speaking, all the Clergy who might kill, either voluntarily or involuntarily, whether with their own hands, or put others to kill, are defrocked, according to the diagnosis of Constantine Chliarinos. (Balsamon also adds that he had seen a priest be defrocked, because when grabbing his book from someone, after arguing with another priest, the latter fainted because of this hassle and died. Likewise he had seen another priest-monk also defrocked, when, after an exchange of harsh words with another monk who -unable to tolerate those words - had sighed heavily, and who, immediately after that sigh, also promptly died. He had also seen, he says, a High Priest deposed for having killed a Hagarene in a time of war, “having re-wielded his sword against him”).
After all of the above, do you still insist that the Church “has no official view on bloody war”?
The spear-piercing martyrdom of Saint Demetrius.
As a certain author has pointed out, military saints are always defeated saints - and yet, they are the ones who have been recognized and honored as saints - not the proud victors. They were victorious, through their defeat.
The implementation in practice of the Church's view against war is evident in the Book of Saints:
A) Those who were killed in war against infidels are not honored as martyrs and saints (Nicephoros Phokas had requested it, but the then patriarch and the synod had rejected it, citing rule 13 of Basil the Great); recognizing only those who were killed during various persecutions without any war. (Some commentators, like Ms. Hélène Ahrweiler, by judging with social and political (but not Christian) criteria, puts blame on the Church for not recognizing the Emperor Constantine Palaiologos as a saint).
B) The saints serving in the military normally also become martyrs, inasmuch as they have washed away the blood of the enemies (even if shed during defensive wars) with their own blood. Even Nicephoros Phokas, who is a saint, had died of a knife wound but is not honored for having liberated lands from the harsh Arab occupation, but solely for his piety. He too died by a knife, albeit in his marital bed and not on the 'glorious' battlefield! Was it by chance?
C) In addition to the thousands of martyrs during the persecutions, there are other saints who refused to fight, having comprehended the viewpoint on war in their spiritual heritage. Saint Boniface, the enlightener of the Germans, in 754 AD, had refused to defend himself when he was attacked by barbarians in the woods across the Rhine, and had simply covered his head with the manuscript of the gospel.
The Russian saints, princes Boris and Gleb, in 1015, when their older brother Sviatopolk invited them to his palace and they realized he sought to murder them, went there anyway, and in fact within a month of each other, considering it contrary to their Christian faith to put their soldiers to fight for their sake.
In 452 AD, when Rome was besieged by Attila, the Pope - Saint Leo the Great - averted the occupation of the city by going out to meet him unarmed, in uniform, together with the priests of Rome. This act was repeated by Pope Saint Gregory II (717-731 AD), preventing the occupation of Rome by the Lombard king Liutprand.
What should a Christian king do when his country and people are under attack? Abolish the army (thus attracting the attacks of the barbarians) and impose involuntary martyrdom on everyone, or to have an army to defend itself?
This dilemma is huge, and has a direct bearing on Rom.13:4 mentioned above. Some holy kings tried to give a solution, based on their personal thoughts. Are they perhaps “not saints” if the solution they had given was wrong or misplaced? At any rate, they did what they believed most befitted Christianity, even sacrificing their own lives and in defence of their people:
Saint Sigibert, king of East Anglia, in 637 AD, while under pressure, was forced to lead his army into battle, after having abdicated the throne and become a monk. So he came down unarmed, with only a stick, and of course was killed. We do not know if he had prayed for his soldiers - that is, for them to be forgiven for the enemies they would kill - or if he had come unarmed, sacrificing himself for his soldiers.
Saint Edmund, another King of England, in 869 following a desperate resistance against the Viking invaders, surrendered his kingdom and himself in order to stop the war and was killed by arrows, like St. Sebastian, after refusing to renounce his Christian Faith. He was immediately honored as a miracle-working saint, while some 10-20 years later the Vikings minted coins dedicated to his memory!
On June 15, 1389, Saint Lazarus, King of Serbia, with 35,000 soldiers, fought against 100,000 Turks in Kosovo, in one of the most important battles in (at least European) history. His biography says that, before the battle, an angel of the Lord put him before the choice between the earthly or the heavenly kingdom: he could immediately attack the Turks and defeat them, or wait for the next day, for the army to attend the divine Liturgy and receive Holy Communion, but be defeated. The saint preferred the latter, choosing to send his soldiers to God equipped with Holy Communion. He was captured and executed, and before being beheaded, he prayed for the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation of his people. Despite the terrible losses of the Turks, the defeated Serbia became their vassal.
Even if we regard these miracles as myths (although they are no different to biblical miracles), the fact that these people are orthodox saints - that these DEFEATED kings were honored as saints – denotes many things as regards the Church's views on war.
The notion that a war for liberation is a holy war does actually exist among our people and to some priests (privately), but such a thing has not been established in any Ecumenical Synod, nor do I know if the Church Fathers express such an opinion. However, biblically speaking, we cannot rule out such a thing, since it is done for the benefit of the people and not for reasons of sovereignty, when we always have Rom. 13: 4, according to which “it is not proper for the king to bear the sword”.
Of course, if we followed the Bible verbatim we could imagine that holy wars do exist, which must be fought rabidly - according to the 4th chapter of Joel; the fact that he talks there about the final War does not change the fact that there are other wars “for the sake of God’s people”: when for instance the pagan Turks or the heretical Latins launch attacks. And yet, ecclesiastically, nothing has been spoken.
Glorifications sung during national holidays also praise God for His granting of liberation (=as His own gift, not thanks our weapons), but they do not highlight any victory over enemies, and even less, the extermination of an enemy.
Strangely enough, although we constantly voice praises in Church on the extermination of the Pharaoh in the Red Sea - as a miraculous intervention by God of course – we naturally utter no praises whatsoever for the extermination of the barbarians who had attacked Byzantium, or for those who had enslaved our nation, tormented us, killed us, burned our churches, pushed for a change in our Faith etc.. We only thank God or the Holy Mother Theotokos (with the hymn “To the Great Defender….”) for Her repulsion of the invaders. Should we not thank Her? Wouldn’t David have sung thanks when he defeated the Philistines?
The Church, by certain others, is accused of abstaining from the National Struggles! Saint Athanasios of Paros and Saint Cosmas of Aetolia had taught that the irreligious conquering Turk was unknowingly the guardian of the Orthodox faith against the lurking Franks; however, neither saint had ever incited the populace to embark on an armed revolution, but only to a spiritual awakening (through education and Orthodoxy). Were they truly traitors, as accused by atheists and neo-pagans, or were they genuine Orthodox Christians?
Article published in English on: 4-4-2021.
Last update on: 4-4-2021.