Just war

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Just war doctrine attempts to define situations wherein the waging of war becomes a moral necessity. It lays out criteria by which a Christian is intended to determine whether or not a specific war was entered into and is conducted in a virtuous manner, that killing becomes a moral necessity. The doctrine was developed by theologians of great influence in much of non-Orthodox Western Christianity, such as Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas. This principle was the underpinning of Roman Catholic doctrinal support for the Crusades, presumably including the Fourth Crusade.

By contrast, Orthodox Christianity has never developed an explicit "just war" doctrine, and the weight of Tradition is that the taking of human life is never a morally edifying act, although circumstances may require that such an act be taken, it would only be as an alternative to an even greater evil.

The idea of a "lesser evil" is, at best, a difficult and imprecise way to look at warfare. Fr. Samuel Harakis, after his study of the Fathers, has concluded that "no case can be made for the existence of an Orthodox just-war theory". In 2003, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople stated that "in a few specific cases the Orthodox Church forgives an armed defense against oppression and violence" but that "war and violence are never means used by God in order to achieve a [just] result". In addition, the examples of countless martyr-saints can be consulted to show Orthodox Christians who refused to use force even upon threat to their lives and families, up to and including their deaths.

This might be read to mean that Orthodoxy embraces pacifism. However, the Orthodox Church recognizes not a few militant saints, such as Alexander Nevsky. Likewise, Saint Cyril, Apostle to the Slavs, is recorded as stating the following:

Christ is our God Who ordered us to pray for our offenders and to do good to them. He also said that no one of us can show greater love in life than he who gives his life for his friends. That is why we generously endure offences caused us as private people. But in company we defend one another and give our lives in battle for our neighbors, so that you, having taken our companions as prisoners, could not imprison their souls together with their bodies by forcing them into renouncing their faith and into godless deeds. Our Christ-loving soldiers protect our Holy Church with arms in their hands.

This statement apparently contradicts the words of Patriarch Bartholomew and the witness of the martyr-saints. However, while Cyril provides an Orthodox justification of a specific war, he does not extend it as a doctrine of "just war". That is, Cyril explains that circumstances may exist wherein it is desirable for an Orthodox Christian to take up arms. However, his statements do not extend to the claim that they do so as an innately virtuous act. The Orthodox combatantants would be driven by necessity and love for each other, not the belief that what they do is a positive good, in and of itself.

The apparent contradiction between Bartholomew's statement and that of Cyril can be further resolved when examining the words of Saint John Chrysostom, when, in his On the Priesthood, he stated:

Christians above all men are not permitted forcibly to correct the failings of those who sin. Secular judges indeed, when they have captured malefactors under the law, show their authority to be great, and prevent them even against their will from following their own devices: but in our case the wrong-doer must be made better, not by force, but by persuasion.

Thus, according to John Chrysostom, the Christian response to wrongdoing is not the use of force, even if it may be a necessary act on the part of secular authority. Thus, while it may be permissible by circumstance, it is not thereby transformed into virtue.


Bartholomew I. 2003. "War and Suffering." Cosmic Grace - Humble Prayer: The Ecological Vision of the Green Patriarch Bartholomew I. Ed. John Chryssavgis. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Jubilee Bishops' Council of the Russian Orthodox Church. 2000. The Orthodox Church and Society: The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church. Belleville, Michigan: St. Innocent / Firebird Publishers.