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War and Peace: What does Orthodoxy teach us?

An AGAIN interview with Fr. Alexander F. C. Webster

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Fr. Alexander F. C. Webster, Ph.D., is the co-author, with Dr. Darrell Cole, of The Virtue of War: Reclaiming the Classic Christian Traditions East and West, published in 2004 by Regina Orthodox Press.

The book explains the moral teachings known as the "justifiable war tradition," and their importance today. In The Virtue of War, Fr. Alexander argues that:

We need not have any moral qualms about the war against international Islamic terrorism. . . . As the vanguard of Western civilization, we Americans and our allies in the "coalition of the willing" are duty-bound to lead the counterassault against the evil scourge of anarchic, nihilistic terrorism. . . . The virtues of prudence, courage, justice, and charity demand that we continually prepare to resort to force of arms in accordance with the highest moral teachings of historic Christendom, both East and West. . . . Orthodoxy developed a realistic justifiable war tradition firmly grounded in natural law and the ancient Christian virtue tradition. . . . It is precisely the synthesis of idealism and realism, of vision and power, of mysticism and justice in the Orthodox justifiable war tradition that might speak forcefully to the role of the United States in the contemporary world.

AGAIN: Welcome, Fr. Alexander, and we're honored to have you return to our pages. Debate over war has dominated civil discourse since the attacks of September 11, 2001. However, many of our readers may not be aware of how deeply those within the Orthodox community have wrestled with issues of war and peace. To open our discussion, what are your thoughts on the spirit in which we should approach this topic?

Fr. Alexander: As one might expect, issues of war and peace are fraught with violence. My hope is that interest in the Church's teachings on war and peace has finally come of age in Orthodox churches both here and abroad. I also hope that we may engage one another not just civilly, but also with respect and mutual affection as brothers and sisters in Christ, and also with an openness to the facts. We need to be open to research, to what the history of our Church tells us is the normative tradition on issues of war and peace.

I say that because, unfortunately, in the comments I've seen on recent American military operations, including the campaigns against terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is too much sloganeering going on and not enough knowledge displayed concerning what the tradition yields. And it's a rich tradition, one that is complex and yet brilliantly antinomical, presenting us with an apparent paradox that is resolved only in Christ. Our tradition is antinomical in the sense that one may be Orthodox and an absolute pacifist--or one may be Orthodox and a just warrior. While no person can be both at once, the Church embraces both the absolute pacifist perspective on war and that of the just warrior. This conclusion is the result of more than a quarter-century of research.

AGAIN: Could you speak more to the problem of "sloganeering"?

Fr. Alexander: I'll give you an example of a slogan from each side that I would call extreme. One became famous during World War I--the German Gott Mit Uns, or "God is with us." It's not unique to the Germans of that era under the Kaiser. The easy slide from justifiable war to "holy war" or "crusade" is reflected in such a slogan. God is on our side, and, therefore, though it's not necessarily a logical conclusion, "we are justified whatever we do." That slogan leads to a lack of restraint and respect for the enemy as person, as human being, as a creature created in the image and likeness of God.

My second example is not really equivalent, but I see it, too, as a mere slogan, voiced perhaps without serious reflection and certainly without a firm grounding in research: "There is no such thing in Orthodoxy as a just war." It's extremely frustrating for me to hear this so often, especially from leaders of our Church--some very distinguished and otherwise very knowledgeable theologians, clergy, and laity. The corollary--that war may be a "necessary" or a "lesser" evil--has also become a slogan. In fact, I would go further: it's become a mantra. My intent in my new book, co-authored with Professor Cole, is to put that canard to rest once and for all.

AGAIN: You have authored The Pacifist Option, published in hardcover in 1998, and co-authored The Virtue of War, published in 2004. How did you come to write at length on both sides of this issue?

Fr. Alexander: Both books are products of my ongoing research on this topic as a particular problem in moral theology and social ethics since the mid-1970s, when I was a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School. I published my first scholarly articles on this subject in 1978, in the Greek Orthodox Theological Review, and in 1980, in St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly. The first was on the canonical validity of military service by Orthodox laymen, but not clergy, and the second was on military saints--both those engaged in warfare as Christians and those who abandoned the profession of arms after their conversion. The idea of a dual tradition began to coalesce and spurred me to continue my research in the Old and New Testaments, the writings of the Church Fathers, the lives of the saints, canon law, liturgical tradition and iconography, and modern writers like Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn.

What I've discovered through this decades-long research into the components of Orthodox moral tradition is the primary thesis of my scholarly life--the inescapable conclusion that Orthodox Christianity approaches war and peace from two apparently contradictory but integral perspectives. I like to compare this phenomenon to our visual perception of railroad tracks. The ties bind the two rails, but the two rails continue separate until the horizon, where they appear to converge at a vanishing point. That point could be the Eschaton, the coming of the Kingdom, when all things are revealed and we have a better understanding of the working of God's universe. But in the interim we've got parallel tracks here, neither one stronger than the other. There is an equality of the two moral trajectories: absolute pacifism as well as justifiable war.

When I wrote my doctoral dissertation, my original plan was to review the entire Orthodox moral tradition on war and its implications for the contemporary nuclear age. But it was too much. Since the justifiable war tradition seemed self-evident, or at least widely accepted, and didn't require much amplification, I decided to focus on the historical and moral case for absolute pacifism. The idea was to present Orthodox pacifism as a kind of corrective to the popular view of Orthodoxy as a primarily bellicose tradition, with Byzantine emperors and tsars in Holy Russia. That dissertation, The Pacifist Option, disclosed a wonderful tradition of nonresistant nonviolence that most Orthodox have overlooked over the years.

But something kept gnawing at me concerning the ways in which the other moral trajectory was routinely summarized. So I began to look more closely at the justifiable war tradition, no longer taking it for granted. By the time The Pacifist Option was published in late 1998, I realized that the Orthodox justifiable war tradition had to be reframed properly for our present era.

The Virtue of War is not the more scholarly study that I had planned to write as a companion volume to The Pacifist Option. However, in summer 2001, when I read an article titled "Good Wars?" by Dr. Darrell Cole in the journal First Things, I discovered to my delight that Darrell was making the same case for the mainstream Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions that I had begun to make for the Orthodox community. We were plowing parallel fields of research, so I thought perhaps it was better for us to join forces and present a united case for some wars, though hardly most, as virtuous or righteous endeavors--a "lesser good" than nonviolent diplomacy or even Byzantine chicanery, but not a "lesser evil." The shocking terrorist attacks on 9/11, the war against terrorism, and the current U.S.-led campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq have obviously brought the question of war as virtuous or evil to the forefront. Now is the time for a book that can really help inform the debate in the Orthodox community in the United States, as well as among Orthodox elsewhere and other American citizens.

AGAIN: As you've alluded, since the outbreak of war a debate has been under way regarding the Orthodox teaching on war. Respected scholars and theologians have seemed to reach conflicting conclusions. What are your views on this debate? How do you believe we should approach the history and theology of Orthodoxy when it comes to matters of war and peace?

Fr. Alexander: There are only two historically grounded and morally acceptable positions that Orthodoxy allows, based on the extensive research I've already mentioned: absolute pacifism and justifiable war. What I think is happening, ironically and sadly, is the creation of another stance that reflects neither of the two classic trajectories. It's the worst of both possible worlds. This new idea insists that war may be a "lesser evil" or a "necessary evil." In my more polemical moments I call it a "lesser morality." Our Orthodox tradition is better than that. We need not concede that we must do evil to achieve good.

St. Paul is not one to mince words. In several passages in his Epistle to the Romans, he writes against repaying anyone evil for evil, or assuming that any evil we do will be overcome by good. In Romans 3:8 he asks rhetorically, "And why not do evil that good may come?" But then he dismisses that confused causality as a slanderous charge--"worthy of condemnation"--that his critics had leveled against himself! This "Pauline principle," as Oxford professor John Finnis has dubbed it, is the bedrock principle on which the virtuous approach to war rests. We may not do evil to achieve good. The means to a good end must itself be good, or at least morally neutral, but never evil. We simply cannot choose any evil in good conscience.

I've agonized over this problem for almost fifteen years and have disavowed my earlier support for such an inauthentic "middle position." Now I see that it's not just a dead end, historically speaking: it's a dangerous stance to take at any time. It can lead to a lack of restraint in war. If war is always so heinous, so evil, so despicable, yet we may have no alternatives other than war and a worse "choice," then it must be a "necessary," though "lesser," evil. But that is a pacifist premise with a justifiable war conclusion! You cannot rationally invoke a pacifist premise that all war is evil and then act upon it positively--at least not without misunderstanding the logic of absolute pacifism, which has its own vitality and integrity, and also seriously misconstruing, and, I think, distorting the justifiable war tradition.

Here's the crux of the problem. When you allow an evil as a necessary condition for a good end, when and where does such evil stop? If you allow evil "x," why not evil "y"? Anyone can construct a situation where he says, "Well, this is necessary to achieve my good ends." We're left with a very flawed morality, based solely on intentionality. That's not what the Orthodox moral tradition teaches. Instead, Orthodoxy provides a far more integrated, cohesive, and coherent understanding of good means--or at least morally neutral means--to good ends.

AGAIN: In early 2003, the Orthodox debate over the war reached a new level of public exposure with the release of an open letter by the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, co-signed by many prominent Orthodox, and a response by Orthodox writer and publisher Frank Schaeffer published in the Washington Post. This exchange was quite heated, with the OPF document declaring that "fighting an elusive enemy by means which cause the death of innocent people can be regarded only as murder," and Schaeffer, the father of a Marine, responding, "I don't see my son as a murderer." What are your thoughts on this exchange?

Fr. Alexander: First, let me say that OPF has made a tremendous contribution to serious moral reflection and action, both in this country and in Europe, and its leaders have conducted themselves in a highly literate, deliberate, and pious Orthodox way. I'm quite impressed by the level of maturity they have brought to their public role. It's in light of this that their "Plea," which was drafted in October 2002--some five months before the current military action in Iraq began--but was never revised, disappoints me greatly. The OPF statement is downright shrill and extreme. The signatories level unwarranted accusations against the government of the United States and our armed forces.

In the opening paragraph, we read: "Saddam Hussein is an enemy of the United States and of the people of Iraq, but we declare that there are better ways to respond to terrorism than to respond in kind." Now I write a lot, and I try to respect the use of words. This is a statement of moral equivalence. "To respond in kind" means on the same level, in the same way. The "Plea" states, therefore, that the military action that the U.S. government was contemplating against the regime of Saddam Hussein was--and presumably still is, since March 2003--the moral equivalent of terrorism. That is--and I have to use the word--odious.

It is irresponsible to call what the United States would do, and has, in fact, done in Iraq--or anywhere, for that matter--terrorism "in kind." Terrorism, in its extremist Islamic form, means suicide bombings and flying airplanes into civilian buildings to massacre the people inside. It means trying to cause as much pain and suffering and destruction as possible in the hope of wearing down the enemy, especially by attacking noncombatant civilians, above all innocent women and children. Nothing could be more removed from the principle of noncombatant immunity from direct attack, one of the two key tenets (together with a proportionate use of military means to political ends) of the classic justifiable war tradition, which this country and its armed forces have honored at a great cost in soldiers' lives in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

I have wrestled with such moral questions for most of my life. I've served as an Orthodox chaplain in the armed forces of the United States for almost 19 years. I've ministered to soldiers who have had to deal with the agony and anguish of combat, and the grave personal risks as well. I cannot help but take such criticism personally. On August 7 of this year, the Virginia Army National Guard suffered two tragic casualties, two men killed in action in Afghanistan. As their division chaplain, I accompanied the young officer who had the sad duty to notify one of the new widows that her husband had died in combat earlier that day. I was also privileged to assist at the military funeral for that 35-year-old hero. More than 500 people showed up in little Martinsburg, West Virginia. I am outraged beyond words to think that anyone would equate the men whom I just helped bury--or any of their fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines in Afghanistan or Iraq--with terrorists.

And yet the OPF "Plea" goes further: "The Orthodox Church has never regarded any war as just or good"--there's the slogan, the mantra--"and fighting an elusive enemy by means which cause the death of innocent people can be regarded only as murder." That's the term that drove Frank Schaeffer, father of a young Marine in Iraq at the time, to write his impassioned op-ed in the Washington Post. Again, words have meanings. We cannot use a word and then disavow the meaning of the word. If the OPF wishes to accuse the United States of "murder," then it should own the inescapable conclusion of its use of that highly charged term. Murder is not committed by machines or impersonal forces. Murder requires a conscious and willful act. It requires an agent. That's fundamental moral theology: "Moral Theology 101." And so what I object to strenuously is not just the tone of the OPF "Plea," which I've called shrill and extreme, but also the breathtaking misrepresentation of what the intent of the U.S. government was before the military operation in Iraq, as well as of the way our military conducts itself in war.

Now, having argued against the OPF's main charges, I hasten to add that atrocities do occur in war, even otherwise "virtuous" wars such as the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. I'm not sanguine about them. What happened in the Abu Ghraib prison is an abomination and an atrocity. It's a war crime to humiliate human beings is such sexual ways. It's not physical torture, but it's psychological abuse, moral abuse, unspeakable, beneath the dignity of the soldiers who did it or anyone else who may have given the command at higher levels, if that should prove to be the case. No prisoners of war, even terrorists, deserve to be treated that way. Abu Ghraib is an embarrassment and a disgrace. I wish to be as unyielding in my criticism of that particular evil as possible.

But while these things may happen, they're not inevitable, they're not a part of war that we have to accept. We must strive to overcome such abuses, and we must train to prevent them. One of my roles as a military chaplain is precisely that--for example, in moral values (or "virtues") workshops for troops on the ethical conduct of war. Whenever most of the chaplains I've known through the years can be involved in such training, we leap at the opportunity. And we raise those issues regularly with our commanders, their staff, and the entire cadre of leaders in our respective units of assignment. That is how the U.S. armed forces ought to train for war and how they do, with rare exceptions today, actually conduct themselves in war.

AGAIN: What do you think we can learn from these difficult debates as we move forward?

Fr. Alexander: The most important lesson is that all parties to the debate need to conduct ourselves with much more care in the words we choose, the tone we take, and also the degree to which we research and understand the Church's moral positions on war and peace. It all falls under the categories of truth and charity.

First, we need to respect the truth: to seek the truth, whatever it may be or wherever it may be found, even if it means rethinking our positions. I became an absolute pacifist when I was a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh. And I can tell you there was a single scripture verse that finally tipped me over to that camp. I cite it in The Pacifist Option as one of the crucial, though unlikely biblical texts that reflect a pacifist perspective. In a course on New Testament Apocalyptics, I read Revelation 12:11 with different eyes. That verse kept gnawing at me: "And they have conquered him [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death." Many martyrs from every Christian communion have been both inspired and consoled by this verse, and it convinced me that I could never in good conscience take up arms against another human being.

I remained a pacifist even while serving initially as a military chaplain, first on active duty and then in the Virginia Army National Guard, because, as an Orthodox priest who was both vocationally and personally committed to nonviolence, I felt I could help lessen the evil that the troops might do.

However, at the beginning of the Persian Gulf War in January 1991, as my research in the Orthodox moral teaching on war and peace continued, I was struck by the enormity of might have taken place, with Saddam Hussein hurling into Tel Aviv and Haifa SCUD missiles armed possibly with chemical munitions--that is, gas warfare--precisely as a way of invoking memories of the gas chambers during the Holocaust. Hussein was trying to terrorize the survivors of the Jewish Holocaust who had settled in those cities. There was no way that civilized men could dissuade such a manifestly evil being short of military force. He and his regime were then--and again in March 2003--precisely the kind of unreasonable, vicious aggressor for which the justifiable war tradition mandates justice in the form of military force. For me, that realization was another unexpected epiphany. I became a just warrior once again.

We need to be able to change our views when confronted with undeniable evidence that contradicts them. We must be open to and even respectful toward other points of view. But we, as Orthodox Christians living in community, not mere individuals, must always abide by the revealed Tradition, which requires research and reflection, personal reexamination and prayer. That's the importance of truth--the Truth that Jesus Christ alone embodies and offers in fullness.

The other virtue to keep in mind is charity. I've said some pretty strong things about the OPF "Plea" concerning Iraq. But I hope and believe I have not insulted anyone's personal integrity or spirituality. If I have, then I ask forgiveness.

Since 9/11, with international terrorism a constant threat and U.S.-led military operations ongoing in southwest Asia, the debate on issues of war and peace is more timely than ever. I think it's going to be a healthy debate. We can't just retreat into our liturgical life, as if that can be hermetically sealed from the world around us. The moral issues of war and peace are crucial, especially in this election year, in political campaigns at the national and state levels. This is a golden opportunity for the Orthodox in America, in a sense to come of age, not only as citizens of the United States, but also as a community with a tremendously rich--I would say unsurpassed--moral tradition to offer our troubled society.

Fr. Alexander holds a B.A. in History from the University of Pennsylvania, a Master of Arts in History and Education from Columbia University, a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard University Divinity School, a Graduate Certificate in International Security Studies from the University of Pittsburgh, and a Ph.D. in religion/social ethics from the University of Pittsburgh. Fr. Alexander is parish priest of Protection of the Holy Mother of God Orthodox Church in Falls Church, Virginia; a military chaplain (with the rank of lieutenant colonel) in the Virginia Army National Guard; Associate Professorial Lecturer in the University Honors Program at George Washington University; and the author of The Pacifist Option: The Moral Argument against War in Eastern Orthodox Theology (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998).

Read this article on the Again Magazine website. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Posted 10/26/04

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Copyright 2001-2020 OrthodoxyToday.org. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article is subject to the policy of the individual copyright holder. See OrthodoxyToday.org for details.

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