Saturday, 20 December 2008

Jus ad Bellum

We received a comment on our Sarah Palin 3 post on which we would like to make a few remarks.

The comment goes like this, slightly edited (for the original comment, see the post):

I have an idea for another post, perhaps only indirectly related but no less relevant. The post I have in mind would tackle the topic of jus ad bellum (a.k.a. ‘Just War Theory’).

A few questions which might be worth answering are:

1) Is there such thing as Just War Theory in Orthodoxy? I.e. do the Orthodox historically define preconditions wherein war may be engaged without commission of evil?

2) Related to #1, is there such a thing as “necessary evil” in Orthodoxy? I.e. is there a scenario where going to war will be evil, but not going to war is also evil, but the former is adjudged a lesser, but necessary evil?

We have never studied the law or theology of war systematically. Our comments are really informal.

The theory of the just war arose in the West as part of Scholastic theology. It left its Scholastic context behind in the work of certain secular legal scholars of the Renaissance who based themselves on the Scholastic tradition. The very systematic nature of the theory is peculiar to the Western Scholastic tradition as modified in the Renaissance. The separation of the law of war into jus ad bellum and jus in bello is, despite the Latin, a very recent innovation in the law of war.

Jus ad bellum deals with when going to war is justified. Jus in bello is the proper conduct of a belligerent once he is in a war. As we recall, there are 5 conditions for a just going to war, including such things as just cause and the possibility of winning. As we recall, killing your opponent’s civilians indiscriminately is contrary to the proper conduct of war.

In the little time we have been an Orthodox monk, we have never encountered the issue of the law of war in an Orthodox context. We have not seen the matter discussed in any patristic texts—although we have never searched to find out. The lives of saints, even of martial saints or saints who were soldiers before becoming monks, do not address the issue in any obviously recognizable way that we recall. We are thinking here of the lives of St Ioannikios the Great and St Peter the Athonite. There is one Byzantine saint who became a monk after deserting from the Byzantine army and who despite the fact that he had become a monk was obliged under the law to serve in the army for something like 10 years once he was caught. The Life records the events without commenting on the justice or not of the penalty. The modern Elders we are aware of never addressed the issue in the way it is being posed.

In general, our experience has been that there is an informal sense of justice on the part of the saints, and a recognition that some wars are just and some are not, and some rulers just and some not, but that there is not a developed legal or theological analysis of when a war is just or not, or when a ruler is just or not. The discernment is more informal, or spiritual, as you prefer.

Elder Paisios (1924 – 1994) served in the Greek army during the Greek Civil War and never regretted it. He never shot his rifle in anger (he was in communications) but he risked his life under fire to save a fellow soldier who had fallen. He has remarks in the books that are published of his sayings about the proper conduct of a soldier in war, but as far as we know he doesn’t address the issue of jus in bello in the way it is being posed.

The canons of the Orthodox Church do address the issue of when a soldier who has fought in a war can be ordained a priest.

With regard to the second question posed by our reader, we imagine that all Orthodox saints, not being militarists, would treat war as an evil. That being said, they would take it as given that there are some cases in which going to war is necessary—we are not aware of Orthodox saints who were what would today be described as pacifists. We do not think that they would accept any decision to go to war as justified just because a ruler made it, but it might depend on the particular saint how he handled the issue.

In this matter, we suspect that an Orthodox saint would direct you to the Old Testament, where there is considerable treatment of both jus ad bellum and jus in bello, although not according to modern ideas.

In general, we think that the whole law of war or theory of war apparatus is an artefact of the Western intellectual tradition. As such, it has no genuine Orthodox counterpart since the Orthodox tradition did not go through a similar development.

Sorry that’s the best we can do.

–Orthodox Monk


  1. Thank you for your comments on this topic; they pretty much corroborate what I've learned from my limited study. Perhaps I have been seduced by the allure of resolving such questions through a set of precepts and categories distilled through ratiocination. Part of the allure being a misconceived optimism that one can bypass spiritual discernment and simply resolve the question by brute force of reason. Armchair philosophizing tends to be more comfortable than ascetic struggle.

  2. As an Orthodox Christian serving in the US Army, the ideas of "just war" and war within the Orthodox Tradition in general are something that I've thought a lot about. Here's a couple of quotes from the Fathers that I keep:

    "Although one is not supposed to kill, the killing of the enemy in time of war is both a lawful and praiseworthy thing. This is why we consider individuals who have distinguished themselves in war as being worthy of great honors, and indeed public monuments are set up to celebrate their achievements. It is evident, therefore, that at one particular time, and under one set of circumstances, an act is not permissible, but when time and circumstances are right, it is both allowed and condoned" - St. Athanasius of Alexandria

    "Our Fathers did not consider the killings 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 defense 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." - St. Basil the Great

    There are two excellent books on the subject by Fr. Alexander Webster, who is also a chaplain in the US Army:
    The Pacifist Option: The Moral Argument against War in Eastern Orthodox Theology
    The Virtue of War: Reclaiming the Classic Christian Traditions East and West

    I hope that these resources help you, Martin, in what it is you are looking for.

  3. Thanks for the quotes. As I remarked in the post, this isn't something that I have followed. It should be noted that the Orthodox Church does not ordain men who otherwise have no impediment if they have killed in war (there are I believe some provisos and exceptions; in all these things one has to consult his confessor and/or the bishop who is interested in ordination). On this, consider that David did not build the temple for just that reason, but Solomon his son.

    Orthodox Monk

  4. I am also an Orthodox Christian serving in the Army. Like Orthodox Monk, I have not yet found a convincing corollary to just war theory in Orthodoxy. Although I have not read Fr. Alexander's books, I have read reviews of them and listened to his interview on AFR. He sees two distinct and contradictory tracks in Orthodoxy, one similar to just war and one of total pacifism. I do not quite agree, although Fr. Webster is probably much more knowledgeable in the area. I thing I noticed was that Fr. Alexander does not believe in the "necessary evil" position. He believes that allowing for evil (war) to achieve good ends is a slippery slope. Personally I do not agree with Fr. Alexander and definitely do not agree with his interpretation of the justifiability of war in religious terms. I do not believe that war is ever the proper instrument to further the Christian cause. It might be necessary for security or stability, but these are not religious goals. I believe Fr. Alexander also is dangerously applying a religious connotation to our current wars. He sees the fight against "terrorism" in frighteningly religious terms. I think it is better to acknowledge the fact that the Church does not condemn killing in war as murder and that serving in the military is considered honorable and leave it at that. Looking for justification of one of the greatest evils wrought by man is dangerous business. There is a very close similarity between Just war theory and the Law of Jihad. Both of these religious theories of war have been used to fight man-created conflicts for political, territorial, or other gains. I think there is a strong argument that these religious theories are developed by man to justify human evils rather than by the Church as guided by the Holy Spirit.

    Also the Orthodox Peace Fellowship is a good source for materials on the subject.