Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Fr Georges Massouh: Holy Wars... Ridiculous!

Arabic original here.

Holy Wars... Ridiculous!

"My kingdom is not of this world" and not "My kingdom is not in this world" was Christ's response to Pilate when he interrogated Him before handing Him over to be crucified. Christ denied that His kingdom was "of" this world-- that is, in the image of this world, in the image of the kingdoms of this world.

Christ did not despair, despite His objectivity, of man's ability to attain perfection. He did not want to completely close the door in man's face. Rather, He wanted him to try to establish a kingdom that would be up to the standards of the Gospel. The "Christian state" in its various forms and identities has failed, from its establishment under Constantine the Great down to our present day. This state failed because it was "of this world"and was unable to be different from what prevailed among the nations. Indeed, with their brutal practices and the atrocities that they committed, Christian kingdoms have perhaps provided the ugliest examples among nations.

Christ realized this before it happened. He realized that nations are not built on sincere intentions, on righteousness and piety, or on lofty teachings. A state in this world means a state of this world. He did not have the slightest doubt that when Christians obtained power, they would be like all people who obtain power. They would be scornful, exploitative, despising the vulnerable. The logic of the state is not the logic of the Gospel. The Gospel calls for tolerance, forgiveness, love, and giving freely. The state calls for punishment, prison, law and taxes...

Christ realized this when He disdained and mocked political authority. On the day when He was crowned as a king, the day of His entrance into Jerusalem, unlike the custom of ancient or modern kings, He rode a donkey. He rode a donkey after having previously fled from the crowd when they wanted to make Him king. His closest disciples, like that crowd, did not understand Christ's logic, since they asked Him who among them would sit at His right and His left in His glory and almost quarreled over this question. They asked for an authority for themselves that they did not receive from Him.

Christ realized this, and nevertheless He called on Christians to be committed to the affairs of the world and of people, to defend values and virtues and proclaim the truth. Christianity, contrary to what some may imagine, is a religion that is not only concerned with spiritual matters but also strives for a better world where peace, justice, love and mercy reign... This requires struggle against evil and sin. Even though historical experience is discouraging in terms of the possibility of this promised, ideal kingdom, its realization is not impossible, even if it is difficult. A church historian once said that Christian emperors ruled more harshly than pagan emperors because a pagan emperor considered himself to be a god among many gods, while a Christian emperor considered himself to be the one God's sole representative on earth.

Christ did not establish a kingdom "of" this world that launches holy wars led by His successors, heirs or followers. There have existed what some consider "Christian" empires, but even apart from their assaults on non-Christians, they committed massacres against Christians opposed to them and their policies. The [Holy] Roman Empire launched Crusades that targeted Eastern Christians alongside Muslims. The Byzantine Empire persecuted Syriacs, Copts and even Chalcedonian Orthodox (during the reign of Heraclius), just as the Byzantines and Bulgars slaughtered each other while both were unquestionably Orthodox and Protestants and Catholics slaughtered each other in Europe... and in the modern era--- and here we have no desire to open old wounds-- we can point to the Christians in Lebanon fighting and slaughtering each other in the name of Christianity...

In reality, today there is no "Christian" state and no "Christian" president or leader in the image and likeness of Christ on the face of the earth. Therefore the wars of this state and this ruler are not in any way "holy". People are free, in matters of politics, to support this or that state in their wars, but not in the name of Christianity or in the name of the Church and not under the pretext of protecting the existence of Christians or under the pretext of defending minorities. The logic of the Church must be other than the logic of this world.


Anonymous said...

Why must a war to protect the existence of Christians or to defend minorities be a 'pretext' for something else?

Jon Andrew said...

Same question as the above.

This whole argument is pretty disingenuous and just false. It basically implies that rulers are never Christian, can never be Christian, and should separate out their 'ruling' lives from their 'Christian' lives. This just sounds like an Arabic rehash of Western, modernistic, Enlightenment thinking here—purely wrong. Both a Catholic and Orthodox traditional understanding, I assert, imply that proper Christian rulers and states rule in accordance with the Church's teachings. If it's otherwise, this guy needs to back up his argument with sources—and an syllogism that follows.

Georgios said...

The argument actually makes perfect sense and is consistent with everything I know about Orthodox Christianity, Arab or otherwise. It has nothing to do with the Enlightenment, which is part of the history of Western Christianity. The previous comments seem to confuse different things and are oblivious to the stark differences between the modern states in which we live and pre-modern rulership.

TO begin with, it must be noted that the concept of "holy war" was an 11th century invention of Anglo-Saxons at a specific historical juncture the result of which was the Crusades (See: John Damon's "Soldier Saints and Holy Warriors: Warfare and Sanctity in the Literature of Early England"). Setting aside this historical novelty and considering Christianity as a whole, especially in the Orthodox tradition, one can see that the relation between Church and war has been consistent both theologically and historically. The majority of so-called "warrior saints" come from the time when Christians were persecuted in the Roman Empire. Their sainthood and veneration stemmed not from their military courage, but the courage to refuse war out of their Christian faith. They were called martyrs not because they died in the battlefield (as modern, secular "martyrs" did), but because they were killed for their faith, for refusing to fight. There were of course saints who were fighting soldiers, but their sainthood, again, was not based on their military courage and skills, but on their faith and steadfastness. Jesus is clearly the exemplary figure for all these saints' lives(check out this page for synoptic reference: https://iconreader.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/the-warrior-saints/. This is what Fr. Massouh is talking about, as I understand it. And it is important to note that this opinion is not limited to the Eastern tradition, St. Augustine's reflections on time and the relation between this world, the church and God's Kingdom are all about stressing that the church is in this world, but is not of this world. God's Kingdom cannot be achieved in this world because it is not of this (fallen) world.

Now, the biggest problem with the previous comments is that they cannot see how the modern state is markedly different from the states, empires and kingdoms we know from the pre-modern world. Yes, Christian rulers ought to live up to their Christianity by living a virtuous life and ruling justly. But in contrast to pre-modern rulership, the modern state is a bureaucratic and military machine whose operations rely not on the virtue of individuals, but on the operations of abstract power. As food for thought, consider for example, how modern warfare is more about the operation of sophisticated weapons than about courage or virtue. American soldiers kill while sitting at an office in Virginia or Nivada. What they kill appears to them as moving dots on the screen, not actual human beings. Russian soldiers kill similar targets in Syria from up in the sky. Even by the medieval standards of "holy war", there is nothing holy about modern warfare, or even heroic. It's just a killing machine.

Georgios said...

Lastly, there is an assumption that Christian existence is threatened. It is not always clear if those who make such claims mean that the existence of certain Christians is threatened, or that of Christianity. If it's about certain Christians, then yes, it is so and it has always been so. There is nothing novel about current circumstances. If it's the latter, then it is purely false. Arab Christians have lived under non-Christian rule far more than they did under Christian rule. They have not collectively perished, even if some of them were occasionally killed. Those who were killed because of their faith share something with the soldier saints described above. If there is a danger to Christianity, it is not Islam, Islamic fundamentalism or even ISIS. It is actually secularism, when Christians loose sight of the next world and think that all that matters is this (fallen) world and their existence in it. We will all die one day. What matters is what happens after death.

If the previous commentators have some reasonable arguments to make, please do make them. Otherwise, please do not dismiss sound Christian reasoning just because you dislike it.

Anonymous said...

I read everything that you wrote and none of it demonstrates how, waging a war to protect the existence of Christians, or to defend minorities, must, ipso facto, be a 'pretext' for something else. It simply doesn't follow.

Georgios said...

The short answer is: because there is no such thing as "holy war" in Orthodoxy. What follows is that when someone attempts to legitimize a war on the grounds that it is "holy" that person must have some other purpose in mind, not Christianity. Does this make it clearer?

Anonymous said...


It does make it clearer. It seems to me that the need for pretexts stems from your view of 'holy war'. You don't appear to realise that other people can sincerely hold an opinion about what constitutes 'holy war' which is different to your own, and which therefore doesn't necessitate pretexts.

You ought to try to understand that it is possible for somebody else to have a different view of what 'holy war' is, to the view that you have. Once you understand that, then you can realise that it is possible for other people to legitimise a war as 'holy', on the basis of their view of what 'holy war' is, without having some ulterior motive outside of the protection of Christians and minorities.

Of course you are free to hold a contrary opinion of 'holy war', but it would be false to impute ulterior motives to others based on that opinion.

Georgios said...


You're missing a crucial point. This is not a matter of personal opinion, but of Christian faith. Christianity is not a liberal democracy where everyone is entitled to their own opinion. There are correct and false arguments. The correctness of an argument rests on its groundedness in the Christian tradition. Of course, I understand that "it is possible for other people to legitimize war as holy". I am just saying that this is wrong by the standard of our Christian tradition. The fact that someone holds a certain belief does not make it a correct belief. It's not about what you think is right or what I think is right, nor about feelings and impulses. So, if you have a Christian argument (i.e. grounded in the Christian tradition) that supports the claim that war can be holy then please make it.

Anonymous said...


Christianity is not an autocracy where Georgios' opinion is the only one that anyone is entitled to hold.

There is nothing wrong with stating that someone is wrong. Of course the 'fact that someone holds a certain belief does not make it a correct belief.'

But, following Fr Massouh, you were saying more than 'this is wrong by the standard of our Christian tradition.'

You were imputing ulterior motives to those who do not believe that it 'is wrong by the standard of our Christian tradition.' They can be wrong without having ulterior motives.

The correctness of an argument is grounded on logic. It is illogical to say: "Because Natalia justifies waging war to protect the existence of Christians and to defend minorities by calling it 'holy war', Natalia's justification must therefore be a pretext for something else."

That is all that I was trying to point out to you.