Orthodoxy and Torture


I generally try to respond to questions, when asked, though my main guidance in writing is to follow what seems good to me and that which I have some experience in. Therefore the limited range of topics…

However in one of the comments recently, I was asked to consider a post on the Orthodox Church’s view on torture and “enhanced interrogation.” First, let me say that I have never served in the military (my draft number was 2 numbers away from being called up during Vietnam), and have no connections with three-letter agencies other than my faithful contributions to the IRS. But having said all that I will share a brief thought on the subject.

When St. Vladimir was received into the Orthodox faith (around 988 A.D.) along with many of his countrymen. Among the incredible deeds of this sainted king were:

  • the establishment of a tithe to the Church from the holdings of the Prince
  • the abolition of capital punishment in the Russia lands
  • the abolition of torture
  • the establishment of public schools (in the 11th century!)

There were many other marvelous works which he set in motion. The ban on torture was counseled against (even by some of the Greek Bishops) for fear that he would not be able to rule effectively without it.

But St. Vladimir’s instincts were correct and founded upon the Gospel. The Church has always embraced the commandments of Christ, even if the state sometimes finds it necessary (in statecraft, not in the Kingdom of God) to do something other than the commandments of Christ.

It is a sin to kill and even treated as a sin if I inadvertently cause the death of another. Torture is certainly a disobedience to Christ’s commandments to love your neighbor and to love your enemies.

Having said that – the Orthodox Church treats those who have violated these commandments as we treat all who violate God’s commandments – we lead them to repentance and the new life in Christ.

Officially, in the U.S., the Orthodox Church of American has urged abolition of the death penalty. Reader’s on the subject would also be interested in the larger statement of the Basic Social Teaching of the Church put forth by the Moscow Patriarchate. They state:

The death penalty as a special punishment was recognised in the Old Testament. There are no indications to the need to abolish it in the New Testament or in the Tradition or in the historical legacy of the Orthodox Church either. At the same time, the Church has often assumed the duty of interceding before the secular authority for those condemned to death, asking it show mercy for them and commute their punishment. Moreover, under Christian moral influence, the negative attitude to the death penalty has been cultivated in people’s consciousness. Thus, in the period from the mid-18th century to the 1905 Revolution in Russia, it was applied on very rare occasions. For the Orthodox church consciousness, the life of a person does not end with his bodily death, therefore the Church continues her care for those condemned to capital punishment.

The abolition of death penalty would give more opportunities for pastoral work with those who have stumbled and for the latter to repent. It is also evident that punishment by death cannot be reformatory; it also makes misjudgement irreparable and provokes ambiguous feelings among people. Today many states have either abolished the death penalty by law or stopped practicing it. Keeping in mind that mercy toward a fallen man is always more preferable than revenge, the Church welcomes these steps by state authorities. At the same time, she believes that the decision to abolish or not to apply death penalty should be made by society freely, considering the rate of crime and the state of law-enforcement and judiciary, and even more so, the need to protect the life of its well-intentioned members.

The Church of course condemns both euthanasia and abortion as a matter of Church teaching.

But the Church is not merely a collection of more excellent moral discerments. It is the living body of Christ in this world. We should not be surprised that the world will choose to act as it does in violation to Christ’s commandments. The kingdoms of this world always have and always will do so until “the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of Our Lord and His Christ” (Rev. 11:15).

As a citizen in a democracy you may vote for whatever policy a candidate or party advocates, or even work to change such policy. Though politics being as uneven as they are, you will also find (regardless of your political affiliation) Orthodox Christians who vote differently.

What remains unchanged and unchangeable is the Church’s understanding of the faith we have received. If someone participates in a sinful activity, even in obedience to the State, they still need to deal with their sin in the presence of God (generally in confession).

Men should not kill, but they do, and when and if they do, they should turn to Christ asking His mercy. They will find a merciful God. Neither should we cause hurt or harm to others, and if we do we should turn to Christ asking His mercy.

The political agenda of the Church, if there is one, is summarized in the quote I gave from Revelations. But this event is described as an eschatological event and as an intervention by God. If I live long enough to see it, I promise I won’t be blogging.

Pray. Fast. Give alms. Be kind to all around you. Forgive your enemies. Vote if your conscience directs you and never confuse the Kingdom of God with any agenda of a political party. They are not us and we are not them.

I hope this is a helpful reflection on the question that was asked. If it sounded ambiguous on political matters, forgive me. I do not think there is any ambiguity on the Commandments of Christ and His kingdom.  Politics is always ambiguous because their agenda is not the same as the agenda of Christ. They want your votes and they want power.

I have yet to see a saint in the office of the President, much less an Orthodox saint. But I think the actions of St. Vladimir are a good meditation for us all. Imagine making such declarations in the 10th century! It is yet more evidence that the Orthodox faith has not changed. While Vladimir was outlawing torture and capital punishment – Kings of the West were shortly to urge Rome to officially sanction a Crusade. There is no such concept in Orthodoxy. If you’re wearing a cross as an Orthodox Christian, it should be proclaiming that you have willingly embraced the Cross of Christ and are willing to die for the truth of the Gospel – on a daily basis. It does not mean that we have a new symbol enfranchising us to kill others in the name of that symbol.

There are interesting materials for reading on the Orthodox faith and war (with varying perspectives). The web site of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship (which numbers among its members, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Frederica Mathewes-Green, and others) has a good page of references at their web site. The last year or two have seen a number of books on these topics published. The most difficult thing to do, as a believer, is to sort between one’s political loyalties (which are quite high at the moment) and the truth as taught in the Church. Pray, looking for a pure heart as much as possible, read, and pray some more. God will give us grace to know the truth. And when you know the truth, don’t forget to forgive those who don’t. I encourage you to look at these resources. They are doubtless more informed on these matters than this poor, Southern priest.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.






37 responses to “Orthodoxy and Torture”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    The photo is of a painting by Vasnetsov depicting the Baptism of St. Vladimir.

  2. Steve Avatar

    Thank you, father.

  3. Dolly Avatar

    Yes. . .your topics are about as “limited” as the plumbline in our midst. I am thankful to God for your profound “range” that keep resounding in my soul.

  4. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    An Orthodox brother for whom I have tremendous respect recently remarked, “The reason we don’t hug and kiss each other more is because of our fear of death”. We we are truncated in our ability to show simple affection for one another because we fear death, how much more are we willing to do when the possibility of not only our own death but the deaths of scores, thousands or more is quite real?

    The question of what is proper and what is not in order to protect others and ourselves is a profound one. No one should give a glib answer. Clearly the Church proscribes even inadvertent killing for those who are ordained, as Fr. Stephen makes clear. Yet the issue remains. I was privileged to assist my son in his exploration of the subject. He wanted to join the Coast Guard (an effort thwarted by his inability to do push-ups). My wife and I thought it would be a good idea for him to know the Church’s understanding of his choice. The two year effort of research, contemplation and prayer resulted in his essay, The Christian Warrior which can be found here: http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles7/BaumanWarrior.php

    To this day, I find some of his conclusions unsettling but it is impossible for me to dismiss them. The short bibliography is a good place to start for further reading on the subject.

    Lest anyone doubt, torture is not acceptable

  5. Maiden Avatar

    Thanks very much for your thoughtful reply to my question, Father. Very much appreciated!

  6. Death Bredon Avatar

    I agree with the post and the comments.

    It is very easy to understand why someone who sincerely feels threatened by ruthless terrorists that are willing to recruit pregnant women as suicide bombers, or why someone who has lost loved ones to such terrorists would be sorely tempted to use torture if he sincerely believed it would aid in the defeat of such animals. And, I doubt very little that Orthodox Emperors have been provoked (or not) into using torture both before and after Vladimir’s noble declarations. But, that still does not make torture right.

    Indeed, being able to understand the pyschological motives of a torturer, even to feel great sympathy for his situation, does not make his actions just or moral. Indeed, it is often difficult to keep in mind that true justice shall be meted out by Christ on the last day and that vicious terrorists will receive their reward in the end, whether we defeat them or not. Still , we must stive to keep that faith and thus strive to fight just wars (if any) in a just manner, even if gravely provoked to debase or lower ourselves to the level of infidels and heathen.

    Sometimes being a faithful Christian can be very hard.

  7. Fatherstephen Avatar

    I should make it clear that it is not my task to judge another man. If a torturer comes to me for confession, I hear his confession and offer absolution, penance, whatever seems appropriate to the Church. But I do not judge him. That would be a grave sin as a confessor.

    I must always remember that I am only a man. I do not know what I would do in another man’s situation. We pray, “lead us not into temptation.” There are situations in which I do not want to be and pray to be spared.

    If I condemn others I condemn myself.

  8. Seminarian Kyrill Avatar
    Seminarian Kyrill

    Fr Stephen – If I am not mistaken, St Constantine the Great, like St Vladimir, abolished torture in Rome, as part of ending Domitian’s Terror.

  9. Seminarian Kyrill Avatar
    Seminarian Kyrill

    Sorry – that was the Diocletian Persecution, not Domitian.

  10. leitourgia Avatar

    The horrendous torture suffered by so many Orthodox over the centuries should in itself lead us to a position where we can never support its use. For a moving article on such suffering see:


  11. Trevor Avatar

    While I agree with the idea that killing another human is always wrong, and I think it was St. Silouan who said that God never ordains evil means to his desired end, it still seems to me a bit more complicated. As Death Bredon points out, there is the standard response regarding love for neighbor and love for enemies: If I don’t torture this person to get the information I need to stop their co-conspirators, I will let thousands die at their hands. It is therefore my love for those thousands that motivates my action, not hatred toward this one. I’m not sure the argument actually holds up, since we’re back to an ends justifies means kind of reasoning, but it can still seem quite compelling.

    The other issue I’m wondering about, though, is this notion of confession and repentance after killing. Suppose you were an Orthodox military chaplain serving on the front lines. Every day some Orthodox soldier comes to you and confesses killing his enemies instead of loving them. Shouldn’t confession accompany true repentance? Can you really pronounce him forgiven and send him away with a clear conscience, if both you and he know that tomorrow he’s likely to do more of the same? Or do you assign every one of them the same penance of desertion?

    I’m also wondering what we do about all the sainted rulers, who led and fought battles–perhaps defending their people rather than waging a crusade, but killing nonetheless.

  12. […] monk … on torture and the saints at Monastic Mumbling, and from Glory to God for All Things torture and the Eastern […]

  13. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The issue you raise is exactly the one that my son dealt with in his essay. To put it briefly, the conclusion he came to is that for some, killing to protect others can be righteous. The liturgics, the hagiography and the writings of many of the Fathers point to his conclusion that there are times when we have a responsibility to take up arms. In fact, my son believes that due to the high risk to one’s own salvation in such an endeavor it requires a great deal of thought and preparation. He continues to work out his ideas and certainly the writing in his essay is uneven. Key to his entire thesis is that the task of being a warrior is a personal decision within the Church and must be carried out with great restraint and prayer to avoid such acts as torture. The warrior must be willing to disobey even a legal order if it is beyond the bounds of proper conduct or take positive action to protect the “enemy’ if necessary. The Church herself must always do everything she can to create peace and never incite to war in any way. Individuals within the Church may carryout war. Repentance is essential to maintaining a proper balance. One of the reasons we prayer for troops in battle is, in his opinion, to help them conquer the unseen enemies with which they contend as well as the physical ones they face.

    An example that is not in my son’s essay because it is only a remembrance of mine: There was a helicopter commander in the Vietnam War who I saw on television many years after the war. The action he took was about the same time as the My Lai Massacre. He was providing air cover for a troop of U.S. Soldiers. He saw them in the village herding the villagers toward a pit with obvious bad intent. He put his helicopter down between the villagers and the U.S. soldiers and ordered his door gunner to fire on the U.S. soldiers if they did not stop. Fortunately, they stopped. The commander gave them time to regain their senses.

    Certainly, many questions remain. My son’s hope is that we do not shy away from asking them and/or rely on glib formulae such as “war-is-a-necessary-evil”.

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    A brother priest pointed out that he knew of no direct prohibition of the death penalty in Orthodoxy. I have made an emendation to the paragraph referring to it. The resolution of the OCA is not a binding teaching by any means, but something that as a priest in obedience I would take seriously. I hope I have not created any false information. I want to be accurate. I’m grateful for the correction of my brother.

  15. fatherstephen Avatar


    Regardless of one’s political opinions, the taking of a human life is among the earliest prohibitions enjoined on us. If there are circumstances in which we act otherwise, one would hope that thought and prayer preceded it (though in the moment there is time for little) and repentance following (even for a just killing, repentance is important). Your son must be a remarkable young man.

  16. Death Bredon Avatar

    Orthodox history indicates that some wars, the defense of Constantinople from rape, sack and pillage by Infidels, were considered “just” by the Church. The Church even developed rites for blessing the instruments of such defensive wars, and the Theotokos herself was litrugically invoked, depending on translation, as the “Queen of War” or “as Queen of all the battle trophies won.” Justinian even engaged in “aggressive wars” to recover Christian lands that had been unjustly taken by pagans (sort of a Crusade you might say). And, our great Litany still prays for the military.

    Still, I think that after these just wars, the soldiers nevertheless refrained from communion for some period, even though they committed no “voluntary sin.” This exhibits a complex and nuanced approach that the Church has perennially exhibited towards war.

    I think it might be summed up by calling just uses of force (self-defense, defense of others, defensive war, perhaps liberating wars — Augustine of Hippo did seem to do a good job in describing what the Church universal historically considered just war and just means) as an “involuntary sin.”

    Indeed, sometimes, we must do the horrible deeds, even with the Church’s blessing and prayers. But, we bemoan the killing it entails, and still seek a type of penance and absolution after the unpleasant task is done because it must scar our flesh and souls, even though we may have acted with perfect justice. The Church is after all invested with cure of souls.

  17. T Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I agree that killing is a terrible thing and should be avoided at all costs. I was curious if you could give some insight on how God’s order for the nation of Israel to stone certain ones who were caught in various sins and also how at certain points in history God commanded to nation of Israel to enter into war.

    Asking humbly,

  18. fatherstephen Avatar

    The Old Testament is properly read through Christ in the New and not separately, lest a “veil remain on our heart” as we read. The general treatment of such passages by the Fathers was to read them spiritually – such that the destruction of enemies was understood (for us) to be the destruction of our spiritual enemies (the demons), for “we struggle not against flesh and blood but against spiritual wickedness in the heavenly places (Eph.).

    Also such deprecatory prayers as in the psalms, “Blessed is he who dashes your little one’s heads against a stone” if taken literally would be heinous. The fathers read this, again through Christ, as reference to temptations (the little ones being the small temptations) and the rock as Christ.

    The shift in reading the Old Testament apart from the New gets very strong among the Protestants who historicized the reading of Scripture, producing on the one hand either fundamentalism or on the other liberal biblical criticism, neither able to come to a knowledge of the truth.

    Christ said, “You search the Scriptures for in them you think you have eternal life, but these are they that testify of me.”

    Christ is the meaning of the Old Testament and only when read in such a manner (is the Christian claim) can they be rightly read and lead to salvation. Otherwise they might even lead to destruction.

    Their historical misuse by early Protestants in America led to the genocide of native Americans as Biblical interpretation was used to declare America the Promised Land and the Indians as Canaanites and the like.

    When the disciples asked Christ should they call down fire like Elijah (Luke 9:54) he rebuked them and told them “you know not what Spirit you are of.” We cannot read the Old testament and from that try to gain an understanding of Christ (the fathers said the Old Testament was shadow). Instead we start with the new and re-read the Old (the fathers said the new testament was “icon”). The new interprets the Old. Christ is the manifestation of God. No one know the Father except the Son and whomsoever He chooses to reveal Him. Thus we need to learn to read Scripture in a proper manner, lest we create confusion.

    The reading of the OT apart from the New lead to many misunderstandings even in the early Church, one of them Marcionism was declared a heresy. Marcionism is rampant today among many who have not been taught a patristic approach to the Scriptures. They “don’t like” the God of the Old Testament.”

    It’s a good question. I’ll dig through. I think I have an earlier article or two on the subject.

  19. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Fr. Stephen, thank you for the comment on my son. I would say however, that he is just a pretty normal young man who, because of his service in the altar, takes his faith seriously–not unlike your son (they are about the same age). For that I thank God.

    9/11 brought forth in my son a strong desire to protect and defend those who cannot do so for themselves. He is still working out all of that, but he did produce a nuanced approach to the topic at hand that I have grown to believe is throughly in line with the Tradition of the Church. I tried vigorously for two years to disuade him or find good reasons to disagree with him. All my effort produced was a (still) grudging acceptance of what he argues for.

    Most older adults, including me, who read his essay and talk with him are more concerned with the pragmatic reality of how very difficult the task he describes is to fulfill. Yet, is that not true of the Christian life in general? The more I allow my son’s reasoning to sink in, the more I begin to see that he is, in a way, describing the task of a Christian man in the world (there is some applicability to women too, but it is more specifically male). That being said, he would not want me to loose sight of his main point–people in the Church need to understand the issues at hand and prepare themselves appropriately because we live in times where the answers are no longer just theoretical and that we much transcend any political orientation to find the truth in the Church. At the same time we need to understand and accept without condemnation the choices of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

  20. Gina Avatar

    If killing can be condoned in some fashion in order to protect the innocent, can something which harms or threatens harm to the body or mind (ie, torture) be condoned under similar circumstances?

    How are we defining torture? Police routinely use various methods of psychological pressure, if you believe TV cop shows. In the current political debate about such subjects, it seems to me that some people would expand the definition of torture too broadly. It may not mean the same thing as it used to mean.

  21. Fatherstephen Avatar


    Once the lawyers step in justice will be defined out of existence. What are we speaking of in torture? To a degree the Christian heart has to answer that. If someone has to ask the question they probably need to go to confession regardless.

    There are situations that many might do many things, and as I said above, I do not and cannot judge. Before God will all sin and none of us needs to justify our actions but beg His mercy. If the state were asking the question because they wanted to do God’s will they would doubtless come to different conclusions, but those are not the questions the state asks.

    But, God did not make us judges or dividers over the people. The Church exists to reconcile man and God. Before the Light of God the truth of all things will be made known. No definitions will suffice before His throne. Only His mercy which is boundless.

  22. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Gina, all interrogation is coercive. The TV show Mythbusters did an experiment once using a volunteer who knew she could request that the experiment stop at anytime. It was the old “Chinese Water Torture” the drip drip to the head. Even under the most benign conditions, surrounded by friends, it quickly became unbearable for her and it became difficult for her to even make the request that the experiment stop so her friends terminated it anyway because they could see her distress.

    It is ridiculous to insist (as some do) that any interrogation technique that induces fear, discomfort or anger is torture (such as putting a woman in charge of interrogating some Muslim men). Personally the definition I’d use is any act that in and of itself is likely or intended to induce permanent/fatal psychological or physical harm. There are some who are interrogated and “break” who simply because they broke are haunted. To me that does not count.

    Tough questions to consider.

  23. St.SusannatheMartyr Avatar

    “If I condemn others I condemn myself.”

    “Once the lawyers step in justice will be defined out of existence.”

    Apparently we should not condemn others, except lawyers are fair game! As usual! Some of us lawyers are actually interested in justice. And without definitions, there is no law. But we and the law itself are always imperfect instruments of justice. Lord have mercy.

  24. fatherstephen Avatar


    Well, you caught me – indeed condemning myself as I judged another. There must be good lawyers or things would be even more of a mess than we know. I thank God as you seek to do justice – doubtless if you are working in the justice system you would be able to tell both stories of great successes as well as failures in our human system. Forgive me. I should not have said what I did – other than to say (if you start looking for a legal definition when it comes to following God, we never find our way). Governments, I understand, must have definitions and someone must wrestle with how to make the definitions as just as possible.

    But again, forgive! Orthodox lawyers! Thanks be to God!

  25. St.SusannatheMartyr Avatar

    Of course, I forgive you, Father. Yes, I’ve seen both situations of the system achieving justice and of failing miserably. All of it has created in me a gratitude to God for his mercy. And it has made me so grateful to Him that my hope does not need to rest in government, the legal system, legal definitions, the military, or any earthly power. My Hope is the Father, my Refuge is the Son, my Protection is the Holy Spirit: O Holy Trinity, glory to Thee!

  26. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, I respectfully disagree that there are no definitions even when it comes to salvation. The first and most important definition is that we are made in the image an likeness of God, by definition we are made to commune with Him. His love defines us in very strict ways but only the fact that we are defined as human beings enables us to receive His mercy and re-enter the communion for which we were made. Our belief and our actions further define our ability to receive His grace. Judgement requires definitions.

    In earthly law the more clear and percise the definition the easier it is to administer real justice. Much of contrct law is the on going battle to arrive a clear, unambiguous definitions of common occurances. It is much more difficult than one might think.

    I work in insurance and today I was arguing with an insurance company over the meaning of the word household. Their interpretation of the word required them to deny a claim that would be paid if my definition is applied. Their definition is much broader than mine.

    Real holiness lies in the ability to discern the slightest deviation from goodness and reject it. Is discernment not the ability to quickly and easily define what is of the light and what is not?

    Is not Christ’s question “Who do you say that I am” a matter of definition?

    I am probably being tenditious and it may only be a matter of perspective so I’ll shutup.

  27. ochlophobist Avatar

    I tried to write a long point by point response to this thread, which I have much appreciated. In the midst of writing it I realized that I simply don’t have a “position” on these issues any more.

    I grew up in a poor appalachian county and I live in a poor county now. When I was a boy I once saw a boy killed in a fist fight, I saw another permanently maimed in the same, and one of my best buddies killed his brother-in-law with 5 shells of 00 buck after his sister came to the door beaten to a pulp with the drunken brother-in-law following close behind her. I currently work with men with histories of violence and have in the past managed a homeless shelter where those who had offered and received violence laid their heads. My closest brother has done his bit in Iraq and Afghanistan and lost friends in both. My mother, a decorated Navy nurse who served during the Tet invasion in Vietnam, and who must drink a large glass of gin each night in order to find sleep, once told me after the gin that she thinks she has zipped shut over 500 body bags, and had to make triage choices that she is unable to live with. I live in a blue collar neighborhood going bad where an elderly man was recently pistol whipped by a group of young males (who were not caught) and severely hurt, this done while he was mowing the grass in his front yard during the afternoon. Another group of young male renters raise fighting pit bulls a few houses down from us. I carry a gun to work each day, in large part because my boss asks me to and because we have had several violent situations there; we keep guns at the house (primarily for hunting, but they are not all kept just for hunting), but on every occasion when I purchase a gun or ammo I pray to God that I never find myself in a situation where I intentionally or accidentally take a human life, full aware that there are situations in which I would do so. But please do not consider me an example to follow.

    I have a two month old daughter, my second. When I hold her in my arms I am struck with the icon of human weakness that she is. Every human being who is so powerful as to take a human life, or so weak as to have theirs taken, was once in her frame. She must have her mother’s milk, and dry clothes, and touch, and at least something of love if she is to live. Many violent men have only had these things in the sparsest of fashions. Enough of them have told me their stories. What if one of these men whose stories I know came to my house in a violent rage? I know I would not let him hurt my wife and girls, even if I be damned for what I did to stop him. But I would let him kill me if it was just me. When I hear a story now of a coworker’s horrific childhood, having the smallest of Orthodox consciences, I cannot but help to think that in some fashion my own carelessness with regard to the lives of others has caused his pain, or at least been complicit with the cause of his pain. If he needs me as his target, let it be me. It seems to me that, aside from responsibilities for children and those others under our care, this is the Orthodox response to the violent.

    On the matter of torture, or creative coercion, or “the fight against terrorism” in one of our CIA prison cells, or whatever one might want to call it, I am struck by the contrast. The modern state and the modern ideology will take the necessary toll against the one in order to “save” the many. Christ leaves the 99 in order to save the one. Christ knows nothing of what must be done to save the masses. He only saves one person, and one person, and one person, and one person….. The Church is not the aggregate of the saved; it is the communion of those persons being saved. In that sense I might in extreme situations be motivated to use lethal force to save persons whom I know, such as my wife and daughters and coworkers, but I am not so sure about the use of lethal force to save persons “in general.” If we were to follow this intuition we might, rightly or wrongly, act in the immediate defense of persons in harm’s way, but we would not take part in generic violent acts. But as soon as one might begin to settle into such a distinction, one hesitates. Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world, and one easily grows weary of the violence of this world. After the last century, to offer more spilt blood to the earth, under any circumstances, seems the most demonic of redundancies.

    My comment has grown too long again, and go nowhere. Please forgive me.

  28. Eric Avatar

    Dear Fr. Stephen:

    As one who has and continues to carry the sword of the nation, so to speak, and who is even now facing the likely prospect of going overseas in a little over a month, and who is a catechumen of the Church, I have thought a great deal about these things.

    St. John taught us: “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” 1 John 3:15. Shall I judge a soldier when I hate my brother right and left? Merely calling my brother “raca” makes me liable. The fathers said the canons of old were a debarment from the sacrament for three years for the taking of life in battle by a lay soldier . . . somehow this seems emminently appropriate, even if there was no malice in that event.

    I wrote this piece some time ago as some thoughts for what they are worth:


    Here I will only quote Shakespeare’s Henry V, who I think captures an important point:

    “Therefore should every soldier in the wars do as every sick man in his bed- wash every mote out of his conscience; and dying so, death is to him advantage; or not dying, the time was blessedly lost wherein such preparation was gained; and in him that escapes it were not sin to think that, making God so free an offer, He let him outlive that day to see His greatness, and to teach others how they should prepare.”

    Pray for me, a sinner. Pray for the Iraqi and Afghani people, and all who are swept up in wars.

  29. fatherstephen Avatar

    My dear brothers and sisters,

    I knew in taking up this subject the realities that are encountered in talking about such a subject. It is always the problem with canon law (or careful definitions). The wisdom of the Church is full of compassion and forgiveness and cares only for our salvation. It is why I cannot judge another (including lawyers!). The reason is that I’m no different than another, and placed in situations for which I pray to be delivered, I’m sure I would do many things that I believe to be wrong. I do and will pray for the Iraqi and Afgani people and us all, killing each other as we are. Christ is the solution but until we embrace Him it remains a slogan.

    The question isn’t figuring out in discussion who or what is right. What is right is pretty obvious, actually. Of course killing is against the commandments. We all know it, despite the many reasons that most people would do it anyway. The good news is that God, knowing all of this, has not rejected us but has become incarnate among us and entered into the depths of the Hell we have made for ourselves in order to set us free and bring us home to Him. Knowing that – all can and will be well. I give thanks to God and your patience with my writing. May God save us all and have mercy.

  30. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Eric may the blessings of St. George, St. Michael, and St. Menas be with you.

  31. Visibilium Avatar

    There’s a difference between engaging in meritorious acts and engaging in acts that may be the best choice among sorry choices. Unfortunately, the fallen world isn’t always neat and formulaic. Judgment is required, which entails the possibility of error.

    Being a ruler isn’t the same thing as being a priest. A ruler who (1) lets all prisoners go because of the commandment not to judge others and (2) doesn’t use necessary force, including torture and deadly force, to protect innocent life is a fool and deserves to be overthrown. There’s nothing meritorious about permitting evil to prosper.

  32. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes, of course.

  33. T Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you so much for your response to my question this past Friday. I have just now had a chance to read it. It was extremely helpful and most insightful.


  34. Gina Avatar

    I am still struck by the irony that we seem to accept the sometime necessity of killing to protect the innocent, but not actions which stop short of killing and yet may achieve the same end. I admit I’m arguing rhetorically rather than of conviction, and that may be lawyerly of me.

    Michael, you rightly understood me that I referred to those who would argue that coercive tactics short of bodily harm, like having women interrogate Muslim men, or the prosaic “good cop, bad cop,” are on the level of torture. “Water torture” inflicts no lasting bodily harm; it may leave psychological scars, but so might imprisonment. Should we as Christians then advocate emptying the prisons? Perhaps, as we are to visit those in prison, bringing even the criminal light and compassion, the church’s role in saying “no” to torture is to ensure that it remain rare and on a leash.

  35. Vara Avatar

    Dearest Fr Stephen:

    Thw above article seemed unbalanced and lacking in nuance. For example, you gave reference to the “Orthodox Peace Fellowship”, but did not direct your readers to Fr Alexander Webster’s works as well. It can be argued (and I agree with that proposition, by the way) that Fr Alexander (a serving chaplain in the forces) has a better grasp of the problems involved as he deals with them in his daily work as both priest and military officer than the ideological pacifists you mentioned.

    The appearance is given that Christianity is a pacifist religion. It is not. The Decalogue enjoins us, “Do not murder”. It does NOT say, “Do not kill”. In the practise of the Church, many who have borne arms are glorified as saints. St Aleksandr Nevsky, St Dmitri Donskoi, and St Fyodor Ushakov come to mind as illustrations. Killing in the course of a just war is not the same as murder, and we must never fall into this heresy. If Prince Dmitri Pozharsky and Kuzma Minin had not taken arms and fought the Poles, we would be papists today.

    Therefore, the situation is much richer and nuanced than the article and ensuing discussion indicated. For example, my family had many soldiers over the years. Are you denigrating their lives and careers? I hasten to add to add that I think you are not doing so, but the article is so loosely written that it can be interpreted that way.

    Through the prayers of our holy intercessors, St Aleksandr Nevsky, St Dmitri Donskoi, and St Fyodor Ushakov, may God enlighten us all.


  36. fatherstephen Avatar


    Forgive me for any lack of nuance or anything that might seem amiss from the teaching of the Church. You are correct that there are a number of saints who were also warriors at some point in their lives. Although, for instance, with St. Alexander Nevsky – his canonization in the Church was for his holiness of life (he died as a monk) not for his prowess in battle. The earliest icons of St. Alexander always portrayed him as monk. My information is that the icon was changed to be similar to that of St. George and St. Demetrius (mounted on horse as warrior) during the time of Peter the Great.

    The Fathers of the Church, as I have been taught, did not make the distinction in the Decalogue between kill and murder – and “bloodguiltiness” in the Old Testament would not make quite the same distinction.

    Canon Law certainly distinguishes between many kinds of killing. Murder (as in premeditated murder was treated most severely, with epitimias assigned that could prevent one from receiving communion up to the end of life – though still permitted communion on one’s death bed). Other kinds of killing were still treated as somehow being “sin” bearing. Abortion carried an epitimia of 20 years – though it could be shortened by repentance and contrition. Soldiers, who had killed in battle, were still liable to a possible epitimia of 3 years – clearly treated differently than murder – but still not treated as a virtuous act. Confession is not required for virtuous acts – but the taking of a human life – under any circumstance should be brought to confession.

    The Church has not and does not condemn a nation acting in self-defense, but neither did the Orthodox Church ever embrace the notion of a “holy war” as did the Romans or the Muslims. The Emperor at one point approached the Holy Synod of Constantinople seeking to have the Church proclaim that anyone who died in defense of Constantinople against the Turks should be declared a saint. The Holy Synod refused citing the canons of the Church regarding the taking of a human life. This, I believe, was not the Church saying that Constantinople should be left without defense, but neither that the Church could bless the taking of human life as a virtuous act. It was treated far more like a “necessary evil” though they did not use this term, nor do I particularly like it.

    Priests continue to be forbidden to carry arms. To understand this as simply something that applies to priests is to ignore the history of the development of canon law. It is typical of canon law to set an ideal standard as required of priests where it may allow otherwise with laity (an example being one marriage in a lifetime to priests, generally without exception, though laity may be permitted as many as three in certain circumstances within life.

    Though the Orthodox Peace Fellowship was cited by me – I do not think it is correct to describe them as pacifists – they are not strictly so.

    I hold military service in honor, and have many family members and ancestors who have served honorably in their lifetime.

    I have not read Fr. Webster’s work, but I am aware of it and hope to read it at some point. I agree that taking a life in certain circumstances, including some wars, should not be equated with murder – the canons do not do so. But the canons do not ever treat the taking of a human life as of no consequence spiritually.

    I have had opportunity over the years to minister to many soldiers – not necessarily while they are in the military – but certainly in their years after the military. Those who have taken human life, and are spiritually healthy, do not speak of these matters with bragging or boasting, but generally with sorrow and grief – even though the cause may have been just. The Church offers healing and forgiveness (even though the act is not the same as murder – neither is it without consequence – as I have noted).

    The choice is not between “either it is murder or its not a sin” – that, indeed, would lack nuance. Indeed, even the guilt that accompanies the accidental taking of another life (a priest would be disciplined for this innocent accident, for instance) is still in need of healing.

    Orthodoxy is not a legalist approach to God, but rather an approach that seeks to heal the soul of the disease of sin and to unite the soul to Christ. Many things that are not “legally wrong” are still deeply destructive to human life.

    I recall a film I saw some years back in which a man accidentally injures a young girl with his car. She is crippled and in the hospital. The man is exonerated of any charges – the accident was not his fault. Nevertheless he could not sleep, he argued constantly with his wife, his life was falling apart.

    He went to his doctor for help with his sleeping. The doctor listened to his story and asked him if he had considered going to the girl and asking her forgiveness. The man yelled at the doctor, “But I didn’t do anything wrong! Even the police said I was innocent!”

    The doctor replied, “Fine. Then legally you should be able to sleep at night.”

    This is the problem of legal discussions of such things as killing. A legal approach always lacks the nuance of the human heart – the Church’s only concern.

    I agree that without warriors, sometimes Christians might be conquered by non-believers or the heterodox. But sometimes even with warriors the land of the Christians has been so conquered. But the land of the heart is invincible in Christ – and it is this land that I was ordained to guard.

    I was asked by a reader to write a piece on Orthodoxy and torture, which I obliged – probably taking my writing into an area that is better treated in an extended class – where nuance, question and answer can be better served.

    I would note, with care, that heresy is very serious language to use when describing a theological position. I agree, as do the canons, that killing in a just war is not the same as murder, but, as the canons of the Church instruct, it is not the same as an act of virtue, either. There are indeed nuances as you note. But though the canons do not enjoin a pure pacifism, neither do they ever enjoin the taking of a human life. Instead, they offer us the medicine the soul requires whenever a human life has been taken – even accidentally (which would, of course, be the most innocent of all situations).

    Though I am not a military chaplain, I believe what I have shared in this comment is in concert with the canons of the Church and the Orthodox faith as I have received it. As always, I welcome correction if I am wrong.

    Again forgive my failures as a writer. May the memory of your ancestors be eternal!

  37. […] – ochlophobist, in a comment on “Orthodoxy and Torture“ […]

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