An important issue that all Christians must contemplate at some point is the issue of violence as it relates to self-defense, warfare, and understanding our history and current events.
Externally, for one who has but a rudimentary knowledge of Christianity, be he a new convert or else a critic and detractor, might mistakenly conclude that Christian precepts require pacifism from Christians. After all, isn’t the Sixth Commandment “Thou shalt not kill?” And didn’t Christ Himself preach to love your enemies, and to “turn the other check?” The answer to all of these questions is “not exactly, bucko.” The Sixth Commandment is “Thou shalt not commit murder,” and murder is not the same thing as killing. And to love an enemy does not mean that you allow that enemy to be victorious over you.
In that case what is murder? If it is not the same thing as killing, and if there is such a thing as killing that is not murder, does that mean that fighting, lamentable even to the point of taking someone’s life, can – depending on the circumstances – be permissible for Orthodox Christians? Yes. Take a look around you the next time that you are in church. Do you see that icon of St. George and the Archangel Michael? In the allegorical legend from which Saint George’s dragon is derived, and mentioned above this dragon feeds on virgins, one of whom Saint George saves. I don’t believe there have ever been actual biological dragons on this earth, but what the dragon represents is a satanic inclination that is as present, in 2020 as ever before. Make no mistake: virgins are being sacrificed. Child sex trafficking is a multi-billion-dollar industry. Read that last sentence again. I hope you agree with me that something ought to be done about this, and I hope you realize that doing something implies force in the form of arrests, handcuffing, the pursuit and forced detainment in case of resistance, and ultimately prosecution and conviction, all of which is violent by nature. Police work involves martial arts and the use of a variety of weapons.
Yes, I know, says the pacifist, but that’s a symbolic dragon which represents evil, and the Archangel Michael’s sword is symbolic of his position as leader of the heavenly hosts as stated in Revelation. That’s all true, my pacifist friend, but the use of arms by Christian saints is not only romantic and imaginary. Keep looking, and you will see the frescos of Saints Demetrios, the two Theodores, Saint Nikita, Saint Alexander Nevsky, and the list goes on and on my friend. Why, in many icons of Saint Eugene the new martyr he is shown with a gun, which is good and appropriate, because he was a soldier. And if you are a Christian of another persuasion, you are not off the hook either. Look in your Bibles. Have you read about the works of the Mighty King David? Sampson? Gideon? Joshua? That particular list is very long as well.
And so we see, it does not take an extensive investigation to discover some of the countless historical, hagiographical, and scriptural examples of fighters who were revered and held as models and exemplars of holy Christian lives. So what about turning the other cheek? That verse is about seeking peace among peers and loved ones rather than vengeance or gratification through retaliation. Pride, revenge, and personal gain, are the motivations of a murderer. To kill from these motivations is murder. We turn our cheeks by forgiving people who insult and slander us. This does not mean that we have to willingly comply with people who seek to harm us. We have a duty in fact, to protect ourselves and our families, and those who cannot protect themselves. I feel inclined at this time to mention the sex trafficking of minors again.
Saint Cyril the Enlightener of the Slavs explains that the scriptural verse concerning the turning of one’s cheek refers primarily to the bearing of insults without an impetus for “getting even”. He says; “We bear the insults that our enemies cast at us individually and why we pray to God for them.” As individuals we bear insults, gossip, rudeness, unfair treatment etc with a mind to forgive and to make peace without retaliation. Saint Cyril is explicit in clarifying that this goes for individuals. He recognizes the importance of keeping others safe, and the frank reality that there are times when this can only be done by force. The saint continues, “However, as a society, we defend one another and lay down our lives, so that the enemy would not enslave our brethren, would not enslave their souls with their bodies, and would not destroy them in both body and soul.”
It is little wonder that Russian Orthodox Christian men so frequently exhibit a simultaneous devotion and zeal for their Christian faith, coupled with a familiarity and comfort with martial arts and self-defense. This is St. Cyril’s legacy. Hundreds of years later, Saint Sergious of Radonezh famously blessed the acclaimed Russian warrior Dimitry Donskoy before a decisive battle against the invading Tatars, and Alexander Nevsky the Prince of Novgorod was himself both a saint and warrior. It should be clear from these examples that an orthodox Christian is to understand that the use of force can be appropriate depending on the circumstance.
Saint Athanasius says that, “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.”
Ok. Ben, the pacifist apologist, draws his final trump card: Well what about loving your enemies? Isn’t that what a Christian is supposed to do? Yes. Nobody stops a school shooter, or any mass shooter for that matter, because they hate the perpetrator. The reason you stop a bad man with a gun is because you love the people he is trying to kill. And the most effective, and safest way to stop a bad man with a gun is the intervention of a good man with a gun
By the time the gun is drawn, the enemy has already gone too far in their downward spiral of rebellion against God, and against existence itself. People pushed to the extremes of nihilism wish they had never been born. If you want to love an enemy, reach out to the emotionally aggressive. Befriend the antisocial. Human beings are capable of both immeasurable good and incomprehensible evil, but nobody is born a monster. It is possible to help these people before they become so nihilistic as to commit atrocities, but even Christ Himself was explicit in detailing that a sufficiently far gone offender can only be taken in hand by a mighty hand, stating in Luke 17 that anyone who would “cause one of these little ones to fall into sin” – I feel inclined yet again to mention the problem of child sex trafficking, and how a Christian should feel about it – would be better off “thrown into the sea with a millstone hung around your neck.” From the mouth of The Christ, The God Man Himself.
If these words surprise you, recall that Christ befriended many wayward souls, even thieves and prostitutes, in an attempt to steer them in the right direction before it was too late. Nobody becomes that perverted and evil without leaning into it deliberately for a long time. A Christian can and should love an individual, and befriend him to help him avoid losing his soul, and you can take measures to stop disturbed souls from becoming violent actors.
But I still have not answered the question of large-scale conflicts. The bottom line is that it is not virtuous to lay down and allow an invading force or an aggressive enemy to have his way with the innocent people under your charge. Even the arguably most violent and destructive act in history, the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki, was a less damaging and more merciful choice compared to the alternative, which was endless war with a people willing to fight to their last woman and child. A Christian soldier in a combat situation is motivated to protect those put at risk by a threat. His motivation is not in the destruction of an enemy as such.
I do not believe it is just or appropriate to call it “violence” when a person regrettably is obligated to fight, and yes, at rare times even to kill, as the only method of keeping himself and others safe from an agitating threat. There is no virtue in giving over innocent children to exploitation, or in surrendering law and order and prosperity to the threats we face today, namely Marxist agitators and revolutionaries – or, for the last time today, child sex traffickers.