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War and Peace, Byzantine style

I was recently reading Stephen Runciman’s magisterial History of the Crusades for a little relaxing summer reading, and I found myself coming across all kinds of fascinating pieces of church history. I was particularly struck by Runciman’s discussion of the difference between attitudes toward war in Western and Eastern Christendom, which offers some very instructive examples for the Church today’s attempts to develop a clear stance on war and violence. We often think as if there were no alternative to either pacifism or our traditional Western Christian attitudes toward war. Pacifists allege that traditional Christian attitudes have welcomed war and violence as a means of accomplishing God’s will—it’s that attitude that leads to things like the Crusades, they allege. And they have a good point—for all the theoretical restraint of the Just War Theory, Western Christianity in practice has had little qualms about going to war, and has often even tried to surround it with an aura of holiness. Advocates of this stance insist that as soon as you start acting like war is a bad thing, then you create a society of weakness that will collapse before the first invader. Runciman’s assessment suggests an alternative, in the practice of Byzantine Christianity.

Its great canonist, Saint Basil, while he realized that the soldier must obey orders, yet maintained that anyone guilty of killing in war should refrain for three years from taking communion as a sign of repentance. This counsel was too strict. The Byzantine soldier was not in fact treated as a murderer. But his profession brought him no glamour. Death in battle was not considered glorious, nor was death in battle against the infidel considered martyrdom; the martyr died armed only with his faith. To fight against the infidel was deplorable though it might at times be unavoidable; to fight against fellow-Christians was doubly bad. Indeed, Byzantine history was remarkably free of wars of aggression. Justinian’s campaigns had been undertaken to liberate Romans from heretic barbarian governors, Basil II’s against the Bulgars to recover imperial provinces and to remove a danger that menaced Constantinople. Peaceful methods were always preferable, even if they involved tortuous diplomacy or the payment of money. To western historians, accustomed to admire martial valour, the actions of many Byzantine statesmen appear cowardly or sly; but the motive was usually a genuine desire to avoid bloodshed. The princess Anna Comnena, one of the most typical of Byzantines, makes it clear in her history that, deep as was her interest in military questions and much as she appreciated her father’s successes in battle, she considered war a shameful thing, a last resort when all else had failed, indeed in itself a confession of failure.


“Deplorable though it might at times be unavoidable”; “a shameful thing, a last resort when all else had failed, indeed in itself a confession of failure”—this sounds exactly right—the painful tension that we must endure in this time between the times, when peace on earth has been declared but not established. This anti-martial culture that the Church in Byzantium fostered is truly remarkable, especially when you consider the history of the Eastern Empire, which was essentially under siege for the entirety of its 1,100-year history, first by the Sassanian Persians, and then by a succession of vicious Islamic invaders. In most societies that are constantly under threat, the culture becomes militarized, so that men of war have the most honored place in society, the primary role in government, the central roles in literature and art, and military concerns come to dominate all other priorities of society (Tolkien insightfully depicts this historical phenomenon in the kingdom of Gondor…Faramir’s lament in The Window on the West is especially interesting). That a nation as perpetually at war as Byzantium resisted this militarization, resisted the temptation to glorify war and the warrior, and resisted it indeed for eleven centuries, is a remarkable testimony to the powerful witness of the Church, and a rebuke to all who doubt that the Church could successfully preach a message of peace. It is also a stinging rebuke of Western Christendom, where despite the lack of many continuing external threats that required defensive war, the culture was very militarized.

Runciman describes the “less enlightened” Western point of view a bit one-sidedly, but his assessment is fair overall:
the military society that had emerged in the West out of the barbarian invasions
inevitably sought to justify its habitual pastime. The code of chivalry that was developing, supported by popular epics, gave prestige to the military hero; and the pacifist acquired a disrepute from which he has never recovered. Against this sentiment the Church could do little. It sought, rather, to direct bellicose energy into paths that would lead to its own advantage. The holy war, that is to say, war in the interests of the Church, became permissible, even desirable.


The experience of Byzantium also refutes the idea that a bias towards peace, that considering war to be “a shameful thing,” will lead to weakness and make a people the prey of the first invader that comes along. Though hating war, the Byzantines defended their people when necessary, and they did so doggedly and tenaciously, lasting longer than any empire in world history. Their eschewal of offensive warfare did not send signals of weakness and invite enemies; on the contrary, it was probably this strategy—of preferring a live-and-let-live policy with their Islamic neighbors, rather than a Crusader strategy—that allowed them to endure so long. All they had to do was weather each wave of invasion for a few years, and soon the Moslems would turn to more interesting pursuits, like fighting one another, and leave the peace-loving Byzantines alone for a hundred years or so. This also suggests an interesting lesson for Christians today who think the only way to deal with Muslims on the other side of the world is to fight them until they submit.

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