Is Russia waging an ‘Orthodox jihad’ against the West? John Schindler, a former National Security Agency official and professor at the U.S. Naval War College, thinks so. The war in Ukraine, says Schindler, ‘bears more than a little resemblance to Holy War in a Russian and Orthodox variant.’ He attributes to Moscow, ‘a virulent ideology, and explosive amalgam of xenophobia, Chekism, and militant Orthodoxy which justifies the Kremlin’s actions and explains why the West must be opposed at all costs.’ In a second essay Schindler similarly remarks that, ‘The Kremlin now believes that they [sic] are at war with the United States, an Orthodox Holy War’.
In his blog for The American Conservative, Rod Dreher writes that he finds parts of Schindler’s thesis ‘perceptive’. It isn’t. It reflects a deep misunderstanding of Orthodox theology on the subject of war. Moreover, Schindler cites Ivan Ilyin (whose work I have discussed on this blog here and here) in support of his thesis, calling this ‘holy war’ an example of ‘Ilyinism’. Ilyin’s writings on the subject of violence cannot support that conclusion either.
Holy war has never achieved the same recognition in Orthodox theology as in that of Catholicism. Orthodox theologians have overwhelmingly tended toward the idea that war is sometimes ‘necessary’ as a lesser evil but can never be considered ‘just’. Father Alexander Webster thus notes that, in contrast to Catholicism, which developed a ‘just war theory’, Orthodoxy developed a ‘justifiable war ethic.’ In a study of mediaeval Church documents and Byzantine military manuals, Father Stanley Harakas concluded that, ‘The Eastern Orthodox Patristic tradition rarely praised war and, to my knowledge, never called it “just” or a moral good.’ A meeting of senior Orthodox theologians in Minsk in 1989 issued a statement proclaiming that:
The Orthodox Church unreservedly condemns war as an evil. Yet it also recognizes that in the defence of the innocent and the protection of one’s people from unjust attack, criminal activity, and the overthrowing of oppression, it is sometimes necessary, with reluctance, to resort to arms. In every case, such a decision must be taken with full consciousness of its tragic dimensions. Consequently, the Greek fathers of the Church have never developed a ‘just war theory’, preferring rather to speak of the blessings of and the preference for peace.
Similarly, in 2000 the Jubilee Council of Russian bishops phrased its views on war in terms solely of occasional necessity, saying: ‘While recognizing war as an evil, the Church does not prohibit her children from participating if at stake is the security of their neighbours and the restoration of trampled justice. Then war is to be considered a necessary though undesirable means.’
Whereas the Catholic Church invented the concept of crusades to spread the faith by means of the sword, the Orthodox Church never endorsed a similar idea. Nor did it endorse the belief, supported by Catholicism in the Middle Ages, that death in a holy war leads to the salvation of the soul. In a recent examination of Orthodox writings on the ethics of war, Yuri Stoyanov notes that Byzantine rulers pushed for the acceptance of a holy war doctrine but met resistance from the Church. ‘This sanctification of warfare’, he writes, ‘did not find widespread acceptance among ecclesiastical elites or more generally within the Byzantine ideology of warfare.’ Instead, the Church generally preferred the teachings of St Basil the Great, who refused to recognize killing in war as ‘praiseworthy’ and recommended that those who kill in battle be denied communion for three years. The Eastern Church also differed from the Western one in that it did not permit priests or monks to bear arms. There was no Orthodox equivalent to the ‘warrior monks’ of the Templars, Hospitallers, or Teutonic Knights. Priests who fought in battle were defrocked.
Schindler’s attempt to argue that modern Russia is waging an ‘Orthodox jihad’ thus reveals an unfortunate ignorance of Orthodoxy.
As for Ivan Ilyin, I will examine his writings on the ethics of force in more detail in another post, but for now it is sufficient to point out that although Ilyin was very firm in arguing that it was necessary to wage war against evil, in line with Orthodox theology he made it very clear that it while ‘necessary’ it was not ‘just’. In his essay The Moral Contradiction of War, Ilyin argued that ‘every war without exception is a morally guilty act.’ He developed this theme further in his 1925 book On Resistance to Evil by Force, in which he stressed that the use of force cannot be considered ‘just’, merely ‘an unsinful (!) perpetration of injustice’. Writing to fellow émigré I. Demidov, he wrote, ‘All my research proves that the sword is not “holy” and not “just”.’
Schindler’s effort to enlist Ilyin as evidence of Russian holy war again displays a profound ignorance.
Nowadays, a blend of liberal democracy, free markets, and human rights has replaced Christianity as the ideology of choice in the West, but the belief that it is ‘just’ to wage war to spread this ideology remains strong. There is, however, no such thing as ‘Holy War in a Russian and Orthodox variant.’