In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
At one time or another, you’ve probably heard someone try to make the argument that the Scriptures teach that Christian participation in war or military service is contrary to the Gospel, or that the death penalty is contrary to what the Scriptures teach. You might even have heard some Orthodox Christians that have made this claim about the Orthodox tradition. Last week we talked about what the sixth commandment means, but this Sunday I want to talk about what it does not mean. First of all, let’s talk about the Old Testament, because that’s where the ten commandments come from. People take the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” and they say, “Well, it says, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ so that means any killing is therefore forbidden,” but as we talked about last Sunday, the Hebrew word there suggests a distinction between what’s commanded that we not do there and other things like the death penalty or participation in military service.
The very first commandment that we find in the Old Testament about murder, that tells us not to murder, is Genesis 9:6: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood shall by man his blood be shed, for in the image of God made he man.” Well, in this very commandment it says you shall not shed another man’s blood, but it says if you do, then by man, by other people, your blood will be shed. So obviously it would be a contradiction if there were no distinction between murder and capital punishment or military service. Also there are numerous crimes immediately following the ten commandments for which God says the person should be put to death if they violate those commandments. God also commanded the Israelites to wage wars and to kill. When one points this out, of course, one of the responses that you often hear is, “Well, that’s in the Old Testament. We’re Christians so we just go by the New Testament.” But wait a minute: you quoted the sixth commandment, and that’s in the Old Testament, so why did you quote it? But they quote it nevertheless, even though it’s in the Old Testament, but they want to pick and choose.
But it’s not arbitrary what use we make of the Old Testament, because what the Fathers say is that there is a moral law that we find in the Old Testament that is not contradicted in the New Testament; as a matter of fact, it’s enhanced and clarified, but in the Old Testament you also have ceremonial laws and other things that are unique to the period of the Old Testament which we no longer go by, but which we nevertheless can learn things from.
But let’s talk about what the New Testament teaches. Christ mentions the death penalty in Matthew 15:3-6. He says:
Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? For God commanded, saying, “Honor thy father and mother,” and “he that curseth father and mother, let him be put to death.” But ye say, “Whosoever shall say to his father or mother, ‘It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me,’ and honor not his father or his mother, he shall be free,” thus you have made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition.
Christ didn’t say, “Of course, we don’t believe in the death penalty any more,” or he didn’t say that in the Old Testament it was said that you should put people to death but in the New Testament I’m telling you not to do that. Also, when Christ was crucified in the Gospel of Luke 23:40-41, we hear the words of the wise thief, speaking to the thief that mocked Christ, “Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we, indeed, justly, for we received the due reward of our deeds, but this Man hath done nothing amiss.” So the wise thief is saying, “We deserve what we’re getting,” and they were getting the death penalty. But he was saying Christ didn’t deserve it. Christ suffered for us on our behalf, innocently.
Also, when St. John the Baptist was preaching the kingdom of God was at hand and people needed to repent, soldiers came to him and it says in Luke 3:14 that they asked him, “What shall we do?” and it says that he said to them, “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely and be content with your wages.” He didn’t say, “Lay down your arms, quit the army. You can’t do that and be a believer.” Also, St. Paul says this about the purpose of civil authority; he says:
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore, whosoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves, for rulers are not a terror to good works but for evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same, for he is God’s minister for you. But if you do evil, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain, for he is God’s minister and avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’s sake.
And when he’s talking about the government being God’s minister, he’s talking about the pagan Roman government which at various times was persecuting the Church. So if he says this about a pagan governor, it’s all the more true of those that are believers. But when he says that the rulers “bear not the sword in vain,” what does that mean? Well, you don’t bear a sword so that you can just look nice or for show; in those days, the sword was used for either threatening someone with death or actually inflicting it.
But then people will ask, “Didn’t Christ say, ‘Turn the other cheek?’ ” Well, yes, he did. In Matthew 5:38-39, he says, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say unto you that you resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” One thing that should be pointed out is in the Old Testament when it says that you shall take an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life, that was actually calling on people to be more restrained than what they had been, because the practice was, if you poke out my eye, I’m going to cut your head off. It was not proportional retribution, and he was saying you won’t retaliate against someone or punish someone beyond what they did to you. But Christ is saying that we, in our interactions with other people, should turn the other cheek.
But there are also other commandments in Scripture that we have to keep in mind because the Scripture doesn’t contradict itself. In Psalm 81 (in the Septuagint), verses 3-4, it says, “Defend the poor and the fatherless. Do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy; rid them out of the hand of the wicked.” And in Isaiah 1:17, it says, “Learn to do good, seek justice, rebuke the oppressor, defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.” When it talks about ridding the helpless out of the hand of the wicked, very often the wicked are not easily going to let the helpless out of their hands, so force is often necessary to protect the helpless.
So how do we balance these two commandments? Well, St. Cyril—he and his brother were the enlighteners of the Slavs—based this very question in a conversation that he had with Muslim scholars, and they asked him, “Your God is Christ. He commanded you to pray for your enemies, to do good those who hate and persecute you, and to offer the other cheek to those who hit you, but what do you actually do? If anyone offends you, you sharpen your sword, you go into battle and kill. Why do you not obey your Christ?” Having heard this, St. Cyril asked his fellow polemicists, “If there are two commandments written in one law, who will be the respecter: the one who obeys only one commandment or the one who obeys both?” And the Muslims said, “Well, obviously the one who obeys both.”
So St. Cyril continued, “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 that he give his life for his friends. That is why we generously endure offenses 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 fellow 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 and their hands. They safeguard the sovereign, in whose sacred person they respect the image of the rule of the heavenly King. They safeguard their land, because with its fall, the home authority would inevitably fall, too, and evangelical faith would be shaken. These are precious pledges for which soldiers should fight to the last, and if they give their lives in battlefield, the Church will include them in the community of the holy martyrs and call them intercessors before God.”
Today we celebrate the memory of all the saints of Russia, and in just the history of the Russian Church, there are numerous examples that illustrate the point that I’m making. St. Vladimir the Great was a pagan warlord or ruler who was a very violent man, but when he converted to Christianity, he radically changed. One of the things that he did in his zeal as a new convert was that he abolished the death penalty, and this is often referenced as proof that the Church is opposed to the death penalty, but what’s not usually mentioned is that it was the Church itself which appealed to have the death penalty reinstated, because in those days when you didn’t have high-security prisons to keep people who were murderers, you basically had the choice of either killing someone or turning them loose. And the Church pointed out that you can’t have these people going around killing and robbing people; it’s your responsibility as a ruler to protect the people from these kind of villains.
Then St. Vladimir’s sons, Ss. Boris and Gleb, are also cited as examples of pacifism, because they had a brother who, after St. Vladimir reposed, decided that he wanted to rule alone, so he plotted to kill Ss. Boris and Gleb, and they were aware of this plot. Both of them chose to not resist and to give up their lives rather than to have a civil war in the kingdom, and for that they were glorified as saints. But also, in the Life of St. Alexander Nevsky, we have Ss. Boris and Gleb making another appearance. In the kontakion of St. Alexander Nevsky, it says:
As thy kinsmen, Boris and Gleb, appeared to thee, bringing thee help from heaven, when thou didst battle against Velgar the Swede and his warriors, so now, O blessed Alexander, come to the aid of thy kinsfolk and contend thou against those who wage war against us.
This reference is an incident from the life of St. Alexander where there was a miraculous omen, which was at the dawn of July 15, which happens to be, according to the Church calendar, the feast of St. Alexander the Great, although I don’t believe he’d been formally glorified by that time, but that was his feast day, the day of his repose. It says that the warrior Philip saw a boat, and on it were the holy martyrs Boris and Gleb in royal, purple attire. Boris said, “Brother Gleb, let us help our kinsman, Alexander,” and when the warrior reported this vision to Prince St. Alexander, he commanded that no one should speak about the miracle and, emboldened by this, he urged the army to fight valiantly against the Swedes, and he won.
And the Church glorified St. Alexander Nevsky as a saint, because he was a pious ruler who did what he needed to do to protect the faith and his people. Had St. Alexander Nevsky decided not to resist the invasion of enemies and to allow his country to be overrun, it would not have been a praiseworthy act, as it was in the case of Ss. Boris and Gleb, but it would have been a dereliction of his duty as a Christian ruler. So he had every responsibility to wage that war.
Also, St. Sergius of Radonezh famously blessed St. Dmitry Donskoy to fight the Tartars, and even sent two of his monks with the army to go fight, one of them being St. Alexander Peresvet, who apparently had been a warrior prior to becoming a monk, and he must have had such a reputation that he was chosen to be the champion, because in those days sometimes a battle would be decided by each army picking one champion each, and they would let them fight in single combat, and that combat would decide the battle. So St. Alexander Peresvet, in his monastic robes, mounted his horse and he went to battle with the Tartar champion at the opening of the Battle of Kulikovo, and he killed his opponent, although he later died of wounds that he endured during that same fight, but he remained on his horse, but the Tartars didn’t honor their agreement to let that battle decide the fate of the armies. Then the battle commenced, but St. Dmitry Donskoy prevailed through the prayers of St. Sergius, and the Russian nation was delivered from the yoke of the pagan Tartars.
We can also talk about what the canons of the Church teach. Very often, St. Basil the Great’s canon, Canon 13, is cited. It says, “Our fathers did not consider murders committed in the course of wars to be classifiable as murders at all, on the score, it seems to me, of allowing a pardon of 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.” So the fact that there is this advice from St. Basil—not a decree, but advice—that it might be good if they didn’t commune for three years, people will say, “See, the Church doesn’t approve of what these soldiers did.” But one has to keep in mind that the purpose of the canons is for spiritual healing. It also should be noted that if you read through the canons of St. Basil, you see a lot more serious penances than that. I mean, that’s a relatively light penance for any of the things that he mentions. In this case he’s only making a recommendation.
But his intention there was to allow these men who had endured warfare a time to heal spiritually. We know in our own time that we see soldiers that come back from battle, and they’re very troubled by what they experienced. And in our day, most killing that takes place in warfare is at a pretty good distance, whereas in the days of St. Basil the Great, most of the killing that happened in warfare happened hand to hand, so they were looking their enemies in the eye when they slew them. So you can imagine that there was some need for them to have some time to recover spiritually, because although they were doing the thing that they needed to do, nevertheless, taking a life is a serious thing, and it was something that they needed to deal with, spiritually.
But another canon—both of these canons actually were approved by the Sixth and Seventh Ecumenical Councils—but another canon, from St. Athanasius the Great, says this:
It is not permissible to murder anyone, yet in war it is praiseworthy and lawful to slay the adversaries. Thus at any rate those who have distinguished themselves in war are entitled to and are accorded great honors and columns are erected in memory of them, reciting their exploits. So that the same matter in some respect and at some time or other is not permitted, but in some other respect and at some other time, when there is a good occasion for it, may be allowed and permitted.
So it simply cannot be said that the Scriptures oppose Christian participation in the military or in law enforcement or that the Scriptures oppose capital punishment; neither can we say that the Orthodox traditions or the canons of the Church are opposed to them. Now, there are arguments that can be made against the death penalty, and many people make them and many people whom I respect. For example, you can make the argument that in our day, we have maximum-security prisons. It’s not difficult to keep people in prison, and by keeping them in prison we allow them more time to repent. And also the death penalty is ridiculously expensive to actually get through the courts because of our legal system, so it makes a lot more sense to give people life imprisonment. I mean, that’s an argument, and I don’t… I can’t say that as an Orthodox Christian that’s an unchristian argument to make. It’s a question of wisdom, because we are in a different situation than they were at the time of St. Basil or at the time of St. Vladimir or what have you. But you just can’t say that the Church teaches this.
You can’t say that the tradition of the Church demands that you agree with me on this particular position, because opposite arguments can be made. Dostoyevsky radically changed spiritually because he had the death penalty, not imposed, but he received a death sentence, and he was in a wagon being led to his death, he thought, and he pondered the meaning of life—you’ll read this in his novels—and yet at the last moment a pardon came from the czar and his sentence was commuted, and eventually after spending a few years in prison he was released. He had been a radical who was involved in some sort of radical movement, and that was the reason he was arrested in the first place. But this changed his life, because he had to face the death penalty, and I think it’s probably more likely that the average prisoner is going to repent if he knows that, next month, on such-and-such day at such-and-such hour, he’s going to be put to death, as opposed to just living in the general prison population and trying to survive.
But those are all questions of opinion, and my opinion is my opinion, your opinion—you can disagree. That’s not a problem, but the point that I’m making is that it’s not contrary to the teachings of the Church.
On the question of Christian participation in the military, the Church is very clear on this that it’s not something that we can oppose. There are too many warrior saints on the calendar of the Church for it to possibly be argued that we’re opposed to these things. And, as a matter of fact, I would argue that someone who’s a total pacifist is actually taking a morally untenable position, because if I’m going to refuse to defend those around me, and I see someone who’s innocent who’s being killed and I’m going to refuse to lift my hand to defend them, or if I’m going to refuse to call 911 so that someone with a gun can show up and try to stop what’s going on, then I’m not doing what the Scriptures say when they say, “Deliver the weak out of the hand of the wicked.” And if you’re going to call a policeman to go do that, it’s morally not any different than if you did it yourself, because you’re asking someone else to do it, and we shouldn’t ask someone else to do anything that we find morally objectionable.
Now, I should also say that this does not mean that you have to be in favor of any given war. There are many wars that are fought for very bad reasons, and I think that our country would be a lot better off if we were a lot less quick to use military force, but nevertheless that force is needed in some cases, and we as Christians should not be opposed to our own people participating in that. As the holy prophet and king, Solomon, wrote, “There is a time to kill and a time to heal, and there is a time for war and there is a time for peace.” So we should ask God to give us the wisdom and the grace to know what he would have us to do in any given circumstance, because in some cases it may be pleasing to him for us to turn the other cheek, but in other cases it may be the pleasing thing for him for us to take the sword and defend the weak. Amen.