I probably should have titled my previous post “How I Came to the Orthodox Church”, but “Why Orthodoxy?” sounded a lot better. I’ll get into the specifics of “why” I decided to convert to Orthodoxy as time goes on – it’s too much for just one post.
As I was trying to decide what to post next, I read some articles this week from The American Conservative on the issue of war that made me stop and think for a while about it from a political and theological perspective. You can find the articles here and here. The American Conservative, by the way, is an outstanding source for traditional, “Old Right” conservative commentary on current events. It’s a breath of fresh air in the midst of the typical “neoconservative” commentary we see from so-called “conservative” sources. The neocons actually came from the political Left and took over the GOP and conservative movement over the last few decades. That’s another topic entirely, though.
As I read these articles, I couldn’t help but think back to the Republican debates over the last two election cycles – watching the candidates engage in hawkish rhetoric to thunderous applause while the only man who had the courage to stand up for peace (Ron Paul) was nearly booed off the stage. I want to address the issue of war from a theological perspective and a political perspective. I’ll address the theological side first in this piece and then move on to the political side in the next post.
In the Seventh (and last) Ecumenical Council of the Church at Nicea in 787 AD, the Church confirmed the use of icons as objects of veneration (images of Christ, St. Mary – the Mother of God or Theotokos, the saints, angels, and holy events). The Orthodox, everywhere in the world, continue to venerate icons to this day. For Orthodox Christians, the veneration of icons isn’t just something nice to add to one’s personal devotion – it is a vital part of the daily life of an Orthodox Christian and absolutely essential in rightly glorifying God. This is because the Seventh Ecumenical Council, in ending the period of iconoclasm, made it clear that in venerating icons (Orthodox typically pray in front of them, prostrate themselves before them, light candles in front of them, and kiss them) right worship is being directed to God.
According to the Council’s Proclamation: “We define also that they should be kissed and that they are an object of veneration and honor (timitiki proskynisis), but not of real worship (latreia), which is reserved for Him Who is the subject of our faith and is proper for the divine nature, … which is in effect transmitted to the prototype; he who venerates the icon, venerated in it the reality for which it stands.”
So in venerating the icon, the honor is passed on to the prototype – the reality for which the icon stands. What was at stake at Nicea was much more than a mere religious practice – the controversy went down to the core of what the Church believed about created matter and ultimately what the Church believed about the Incarnation. Like many of the other Councils, this was a Christological controversy. To put it as simply as I can, because Christ put on created matter in the Incarnation, the Lord proved that matter can be sanctified. In taking on human nature and created matter, God the Son redeemed the created order and human nature, making it clear that matter can be sanctified by the Lord’s grace. Because of this, the Orthodox see icons as holy objects worthy of veneration and in honoring the icon, we affirm the goodness and redemption of created matter and honor the Lord.
So what does the issue of icons have to do with war? In order to answer that question, there’s another point in Orthodox theology that I will have to briefly explain – the concept of humans being made in God’s image. In the creation narrative in Genesis, we see that God created humanity in His image. So in a sense, human beings are an “icon” of God. This is why our Lord Jesus Christ said that when we minister to “least of these”, we are ministering to Him.
Now, growing up in the Southern Baptist tradition, I was taught that humanity lost the image of God at the Fall and became totally depraved. I’ve heard some Baptists who believe otherwise, but the teaching of total depravity was most common in the churches that I grew up in.
In the East, however, the teaching on the consequences of the Fall is quite different. Orthodox theology teaches that humanity did not fall into total depravity, as humans were created perfect in a potential, not realized, sense before the Fall. Instead, humans chose to ignore the call to attain the likeness of God and fell into egotism and self-centeredness, making it impossible to grow into the likeness of God. So for the Orthodox, there is a distinction to be made between the image and likeness of God. After the Fall, it was impossible to live up to the call to grow into the likeness of God, but the image of God still remained. No matter how wicked a person may become, the image of God is always there in that person.
With this background in mind, I wonder how it’s possible that so many Christians in America have adopted an almost crusader-like mentality when it comes to war. How is it possible that so many people who call themselves Christians, as soon as a politician utters the word “war”, completely forget themselves and bow down at the altar of the State? We’ve forgotten who we are, we’ve forgotten where we’ve come from, and we’ve forgotten where we’re going – where our home and our first allegiance truly lies.
I’ve said that Orthodoxy has some important insights to offer us in the West and I believe this is one of the most important truths that we can take from Orthodox Christian teaching: every human being is an icon of God and God is the Father of us all. It doesn’t matter who we are or where we’ve come from or what we’ve done – each of us is a unique, unrepeatable, precious child of God. This includes the best of us and the worst of us. Each time a person is killed, for whatever reason, God does not take any delight in that – a unique life has been extinguished from this world forever. When we understand this and see the image of God in each person, good or bad, we can begin to understand the problems that come with war and see it for what it truly is – destroying an image of the Living God on a massive scale. In war, one is willfully ripping the breath of life out where God breathed it in.
I want to be clear – I am no pacifist. I think there are times when war is necessary, but these situations are exceedingly rare. What I am saying is that American Christians have been far too willing to pull the proverbial trigger just because someone from the television tells us that there’s a bad man (or a group of bad men) on the loose. We must be much more cautious in our choice to smash an icon of the Source of life. I am nearly 28 years old and this country has been at war for virtually my whole life. For a nation of Christians, why is it that Peace seems to be the exception rather than the rule? Why must an entire nation or group of people be stripped of all recognition as fellow human beings just because a politician says that they are our enemies? It is human nature to help out those in need – we recognize the suffering of fellow persons and help however we can. But when a people are declared to be our enemies, we dehumanize them and strip them of all rights and refuse to respond to their suffering caused by the terrible violence of war. The Iraqis, for example, lost thousands upon thousands of children due to the sanctions put on them by the US government and American policymakers claimed the results were “worth the price”. This isn’t the response of leaders of a Christian nation – it’s the ramblings of a sociopath.
We have to remember that as a nation mostly made up of people who identify themselves as Christians, we must follow the example of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Christ was and is the Prince of Peace, preached a message of non-violence, taught us to love our enemies and said “Blessed are the peacemakers.” The Fathers of the Church taught that promoting peace was a Christian duty, yet in our society we have put our young people in a position where those who feel a calling to serve and sacrifice for others join the military instead of joining charitable, peace-promoting organizations. I cannot help but see a problem with a society where war is the norm and warriors are upheld as the ideal citizen instead of those who sacrifice to serve the poor, the sick, the hungry and cold, and those in prison.
In His ministry in this world, the Word of God conducted a ministry of healing and called His disciples to do likewise. He did not send them to kill the oppressors of the poor – He sent them out to love their neighbors and preach good news to the poor and oppressed… that the Kingdom of God is at hand. As Christians, our first allegiance is not to any authority or entity of this world. Our first loyalty is to the Lord and His Kingdom. Our real citizenship lies in heaven – not the United States. If the United States government engages in an action that would bring unjust harm to our fellow human beings (our neighbors – brothers and sisters in humanity), whom we are called to love, then we must protest US policy. To stand idly by, or worse, to defend, support, or participate in the actions of the government, is to live in disobedience to the commandments of our Lord.
Historically, it should also be pointed out that Ancient Christians were completely committed to pacifism. There was not a coherent just war theory until Augustine of Hippo wrote about it and the emperor Constantine had legalized Christianity (and would later make it the official religion of the Empire). In fact, when a former or current soldier wanted to become a Christian before Constantine, he would have to wait for a significant amount of time (about two years, if I remember correctly) until he could be admitted into the Church. This was not done out of a sense of discrimination. This was done for a very practical, pastoral reason – the soldier was welcome to learn and participate as much as non-members were allowed, but the Church knew it would take time for a soldier’s soul to heal enough to where they could become ready to undergo Baptism and take the Eucharist. War leaves spiritual wounds that take time to heal just as surely as it leaves psychological and physical wounds. The Ancient Church had a very strict code when it came to killing even in war – a former soldier who had been in combat and taken a man’s life could not be ordained.
While these Church canons have changed today, it still speaks to the importance that the Church has always placed on all human life – even an enemy of the State is still a child and icon of God. Indeed, in some cases, an enemy of the State may be serving God by helping to expose abuses and crimes that the State commits on a daily basis. For example, Julian Assange and Bradley Manning may not be Christians, but they have done a great deal of good in this world by exposing corruption and wickedness to everyone in the world with an internet connection. Because of their efforts to promote peace and stand against evil, Christians everywhere – especially in the U.S. – should treat men like Assange and Manning as heroes just as all those who work for justice, peace, and healing should be lauded for their work.
The current state of affairs in American foreign policy is unacceptable. It should be unacceptable by any Christian standard and it is most certainly unacceptable by Orthodox Christian standards. When we understand that each person is an icon of God Himself, we see that God mourns just as much over the death of a young girl in Israel, a boy in Palestine or Pakistan, a businessman in the United States, a student in Iran, and even a man who has darkened his heart to the point where he is ready to become a terrorist operative in Ireland or the Middle East. Each of them, once killed, is an unrepeatable icon of God, broken and taken from this world until the Lord finally, and gloriously, returns. The smashing of icons during the iconoclasm period was deemed heretical by the Church. How much more, then, should Christians be opposed to the destruction of human beings on a massive scale?