“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil ….” Ephesians 6:12
Early October I was reminded of this text when several normally reliable news sources reported that the Russian Orthodox Church had declared Russia’s airstrikes on Islamic State to be a holy war. Vsevolod Chaplin, an archpriest, literally said, “The fight with terrorism is a holy battle and today our country is perhaps the most active force in the world fighting it… This decision corresponds with international law”. Although it may be true that under international law Russia’s rights to intervene in Syria are not less than those of the United States or Turkey, or any other country, what was striking in this statement was the use of the term “holy war”. It was more than a simple justification.
Now this sanctioning of warfare and civil war by the church is not new, as is shown for instance by the equally nationalistic Ukrainian orthodox church, by the violence in Northern Ireland not so long ago, and so on. But it does raise the question if such a thing as holy war actually exists or can ever be justified. War might be justified if it is primarily an act of self-defence. But few people (Christians or otherwise) will approve of military action purely for the sake of territorial gain.
Therefore some sort of threat must be either present or suggested. The actual danger of terrorism is vastly exaggerated. 90% of its victims is Muslim, and the annual number of deaths by firearms in the US is a thousand times greater. Every death is one too many, but we have lost sight of all proportions. Meanwhile anti-terrorism has become a billion dollar industry, that delivers hardly any results, but swallows up valuable tax money that could have been spent on fighting the causes of extremism, namely poverty, lack of education, discrimination and economic exploitation.
The question is what all this means to the church. Is the church itself threatened by terrorism? This is the case with Christians in Syria, but we don’t hear them talking about holy war. The Church as a whole is facing other and greater threats, such as secularization, internal divisions, scandals and conflicts of interest.
I have come to the conclusion that the term “holy war” is wholly inappropriate. But that does not mean that those clever enough to avoid that term are in safe waters. There is so much subtle aggression and manipulation taking place. At least the Russian Orthodox Church is honest about what they preach. Other Christian leaders make a false distinction between the “inherently violent nature” of Islam and the “rationality and benevolence” of Judaism and Christianity. Often no distinction is made between the religions themselves and the abuse of those religions for political purposes.
On his visit to the Middle East in September, pope Francis defended the cause of persecuted Christians. But by speaking of a Third World War he may only have encouraged all sides in the conflict to increase their stakes. Was this call for the defence of Syrian Christians a call for a Holy War without using the term? Actually, Syria and Iraq were not waiting for more rhetoric or weapons. Of course they need our help, but not of the sort that caused the problems in the first place, namely attempts to overthrow regimes which we do not understand.
So our real struggle is not with a bunch of terrorists. It is with the easy solutions that are always offered by arrogant rulers, with “the spiritual forces of evil” that tempt us to use violence as a first and natural response, with beliefs like “the end justifies the means”, so that war becomes as holy or even holier than diplomacy. Reason and emotions are both easily fooled. We are constantly tricked into polarisation, if not personally then by proxy via the way our taxes are spent.
Some of you, when reading this, will call me naïve. Diplomacy, peace-making and non-violence will never work. That may be true, but then please explain to me how the church can get rid of its already widespread reputation of being as bad or even worse than the secular world, a cause of conflict instead of a solution, if not by rediscovering a profound respect for all life and all creation, and by once again putting the message of Christ firmly in the centre. Yes, we need more holiness, but not of the kind that is really a disguise for superiority, vanity, prejudice, impatience, negligence and denial.
“Give peace in our time, O Lord. Because there is none other that fighteth for us, but only thou, O God. O God, make clean our hearts within us. And take not thy Holy Spirit from us.”