(Illustration by author)
One could hear crying, weeping, and groaning everywhere, the blood that the Tsar was shedding on a daily basis cried to the Martyr.[…] And there! The merciful and great Demetrius came around! Holy Demetrius set off to rescue his people saying, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold, and I must bring them in as well.” Demetrius himself delivered a blow to the wretched Tsar and knocked him from his horse. And those who walked with him saw it clearly, how the great Martyr had swiftly and vigorously attacked him, killing him with his spear. (From John Staurakios, The Miracles of Holy Demetrius, 13th century [author’s translation and adjustment])
Philippe Buc writes in his book on War, Martyrdom, and Terror (2012) that Eastern Orthodoxy has no tradition of religious wars or even a theology that justifies violence. This might be true to some extent if one looks for a Western-style comprehensive theology of just wars. The majority of Orthodox theology does not, at a glance, mention war as an option, but only peace. The business of war will frequently be dismissed from theological works. More often will quotes appear like the ones from Canon XII of Nicaea I that explicitly compares military service to men returning “like dogs, to their own vomit.” [i]
However, the past three decades have seen an increasing tide of military confrontations between not only Orthodox and Muslim groups, as the case was in Bosnia and Kosovo, but also outright slaughter between Orthodox groups, as in Georgia and now Ukraine (again, one might add). The call for peace in Ukraine from church leaders has been almost unanimous, with a few exceptions which I will return to. This is in many ways a parallel to the wars of former Yugoslavia, where church leaders called for the end of violence. At the outbreak of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Serbian Patriarch with his Muslim and Catholic counterparts signed the Berne Declaration stating that “Crime in the name of religion is the greatest crime against religion” (1992). This statement was repeated in different words in the Bosphorus Declaration sponsored by the Ecumenical Patriarchate a few years later. It is therefore easy to simply conclude that Orthodoxy has nothing to do with war—and thereby neglect the religious aspect of the current engagement. One could even add the brilliant analysis by the Catholic theologian, William T. Cavanaugh, who in his book, The Myth of Religious Violence (2009), demonstrates that far too often wars have been called religious without much basis for it. Cavanaugh’s main concern is the often flickering analytical tool used to declare wars religious, which tends to reduce economic, cultural, and even just raw power down to a causality in which the “barbarian” religion always leads to war. Cavanaugh’s point is that Francis Fukuyama’s description of a war-like Slavic culture dominating Eastern Europe (Serbs and Russians alike) is wrong—or at least has nothing to do what we usually would regard as religion and Orthodoxy.
Despite these initial dismissals of the role Orthodoxy plays in wars like the one in Ukraine, it seems to me necessary to nuance the Orthodox tradition of war a bit. I do not claim the Orthodoxy holds a theology of war or a systematic teaching about it. Rather Orthodoxy can—as so many other religions and religious narratives—be used for justification of violence and war. This use of Orthodoxy happens not only for doing evil, but also for what many would see as the good. The story of Holy Demetrius, cited above, is one of many examples of this. The saint defends the weak against the “wretched Tsar.” The same story can be found in the old icons of Demetrius in the Serbian Decani monastery. Stanley Harakas (2004) is therefore right when, he wrote back in 2004 that for Orthodoxy peace is a virtue, but war can become a necessity.
The necessity of war was certainly voiced amongst the Orthodox leaders of Serbia during the wars in former Yugoslavia, which might tell us how things will unfold in Ukraine. The war in former Yugoslavia holds dreadful patterns of what can happen in Europe when former “brothers” turn on each other and the stronger one claims the lands of those who might seem weaker. The long-lasting siege of Sarajevo seems to me to be the most frightful outcome of what is about to happen in Kyiv. In the dying hours of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a group of Serbian clergy and former high-ranking officers meet in Montenegro for a conference about the implication of what they had felt and experienced in Bosnia. Amongst them was the able, but controversial, metropolitan Amfilohije of Montenegro (d. 2020) and the president—now convicted war criminal—Bosnian-Serbian president. In the book God’s Lamb and the Beast from the Abyss (It only exists in Serbian as Jagnje Božije i Zvijer iz bezdana) they describe what the necessity of war was for them. War was most certainly a religious calling for these men, which of course can be dismissed as un-Orthodox or not truly Orthodox. This does not change their perception and that of those thousands of people who followed them into what they called “the abyss.” Metropolitan Amfilohije describes in his contribution to the volume, which is by far the strongest theological one, how the suffering of the Serbs is like Christ on the cross. A suffering that calls for action. The “blood was shed on daily basis,” to quote the story of Demetrius. According to Amfilohije, mankind had not reached the pathways of salvation, but was still hanging in the mud of the Old Testament world. The only pathway to redemption was through self-sacrifice. This Orthodox sacrifice was the participation in a defensive war, as Amfilohije claimed the war in Bosnia to be for the Serbs.
This notion of warfare out of necessity and violence as an act of love is not Amfilohije’s distorted view on the Orthodox tradition. Yuri Stoyanov (2014) has gathered an abundance of Orthodox texts which show how common this point of view has been amongst Eastern Orthodox theologians, soldiers, and politicians. The perhaps most noticeable and renowned text on this is an except of the Slavic life of St. Cyril. Here Cyril, the apostle to the Slavs, discusses warfare with an Islamic educated person and defends Christian violence on grounds of a quote from the Gospel of Jn 15:13, which says, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (KJV). In other words, the military defense of a state is an act of love, according to Cyril. The echo of St. Cyril and stories like the ones on St. Demetrius could certainly be heard in the infamous part II.3 of the Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church from 2000. War and love of the nation is a necessity in this fallen world, and men might strive to achieve Godmanhood if they lay down their life for the defense of others.
Returning to present day, Patriarch Kirill’s statement from the onset of wars seems to follow the trajectory of what can be called the doctrine of St. Cyril. The first words Kirill uttered officially about the conflict on February 23 were only to honor of the soldiers defending the “homeland.” On the 24th, he called for unity in his Church and for the army to avoid civilian deaths in face of the “evil forces.” It is hard for me not to hear the lines of similar statements from the Serbian Patriarch Pavle in the 1990s as the backdrop. This does not make the current war or the ones in former Yugoslavia religious ones, through. It only highlights the theological aspect of the wars. My point is much more to indicate the lines of thought on which the Moscow Patriarchate will probably continue to address the issues. This became clear last Sunday, March 13, when Patriarch Kirill gave a copy of the Avgustovskaya Icon of the Mother of God to the commander-in-chief of the National Guard of Russia. The icon is named after after the Polish city Augustów. The story behind the icon is that the Russian soldiers had a vision before the Battle of Laskin and Anielin (October 22-26, 1914) where they saw the Mother of God in the sky pointing west. The battle ended in a victory for the Russian Imperial Army. In other words, Kirill gave the army an icon that symbolizes how the Mother of God will lead Russia to victory over the West.[ii] It is clear that Kirill and others apparently see the war as defense of the fatherland—but whose fatherland and whose army Demetrius should aid, differs greatly.
Philippe Buc. (2012). Holy War, Martyrdom and Terror. Penn Press.
Yuri Stoyanov (2014). “Eastern Orthodox Christianity”. In Gregory M. Reichberg, Henrik Syse, Nicole M. Hartwell (Eds.) Religion, war and ethic: A sourcebook of textual traditions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Stanley Samuel Harakas. (2004). “An Orthodox comment on violence and religion”. In Emmanuel Clapsis (Ed.). The Orthodox Churches in a pluralistic world: An ecumenical conversation, p. 102-108. Geneva: WWC Publication.
William T. Cavanaugh. (2009) The Myth of Religious Violence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Emil Hilton Saggau. (2019) “The beast from the abyss – a contemporary Serbian Orthodox historiographical response to war”, Studia Theologica – Nordic journal for theology (2019).
– Saggau. (2019) “Kosovo Crucified – narratives in the contemporary Serbian Orthodox perception of Kosovo”, Religions (2019).
– Saggau. (2017) “Eastern Orthodox positions on violence”, in Religion and Violence ed. Ednan Aslan and Marcia Hermansen, in Wiener Beiträge zur Islamforschung, Wiesbaden: Springer VS.
[i] Fr. Hildo Bos & Jim Forest book For the Peace from Above. 2011 p. 60.
[ii] Thanks to David Heith-Stade for pointing this out.
Emil Hilton Saggau is a research fellow of church history at Lund University, Sweden. His doctoral degree was on the revival of Eastern Orthodoxy in former Yugoslavia after communism, on which he has published substantially. He was awarded the Miklos Tomka Award (2017) for his work on the connection between Orthodoxy and nationalism in Southeast Europe. He is a member of the Protestant Churches of Scandinavia and has worked as an advisor for the Swedish and Danish Lutheran Churches in dialogue with the Eastern Orthodox Church.