War and the Gospel

White emigre military analyst Anton Kersnovsky (1907-1944) deplored the Clausewitzian-Leninist conception of total war that would wreak previously unthinkable death and destruction across twentieth-century Europe. Yet like Ivan Ilyin, neither could Kersnovsky abide pacifism and “non-resistance,” which he viewed as just as dangerous a trajectory toward the annihilation of culture. Here are his thoughts on war within the context of the Gospel. Translated by Mark Hackard.

The sixth commandment holds: “Thou shalt not kill.”

The Tolstoyan movement, pacifists “at whatever cost” and certain sects, the Dukhobors, Mennonites, and Molokans, for example, base their teaching of non-resistance to evil upon this commandment and a false interpretation of the Gospel. Through their demoralizing propaganda, followers of all these doctrines inflict enormous harm upon the state, and by their refusal to undergo military service, they create a great temptation.

Official representatives of our theological science apprehended the entire danger of such types of teachings, in part sophisms and in another part not even earning that title, which still act strongly in spite of their low spiritual value. In catechisms both abbreviated and more extensive – particularly in the abbreviated work of Metropolitan Philaret, upon which whole generations were raised – two qualifications were therefore made under the interpretation of the sixth commandment, namely that it is permitted to execute a criminal and kill the enemy in wartime.

These reservations are given, however, in the form of an axiom and without evidence from the Holy Scripture (particularly in Philaret’s Catechisis, itself the most widespread). And this provides the “non-resisters” occasion to assert that they were placed in the text only out of subservience to “the powers that be.” It is said, “Thou shalt not kill,” so that means don’t kill. Any manner of the “conventional” qualifications are powerless to soften the categorical nature of this proscription.

Such an official rendering overly guided by “worldly” considerations (the security of society, state necessity, etc.) contains a vulnerability. And meanwhile, all of these sect-based and other false interpretations will fall away by themselves if our theological authorities would remain on purely spiritual ground in struggling with them.

For this it stands only to propose to the interpreters of the sixth commandment “outside time and space” an examination of the laws of Sinai in the light of historical events of the Old Testament.

This law was given by Jehovah to His chosen people, the Jewish people, and hardly to all humanity. The first four commandments define the relation of a Jew to the God of his fathers, and the last six the relation of one Jew to another. The sixth commandment forbids a Jew to kill another Jew, as the eighth forbids a Jew to steal from his kinsman, and the ninth forbids a Jew to bear false witness against one of his own. In these conditions, the sixth commandment assumes its genuine meaning.

At that time the chosen people was marching against the land of Canaan. It showed itself in all respects to be an army – the Ten Commandments were also the first disciplinary regulations in history. Strong through these commandments, the sons of Israel conquered the Promised Land and gained a firm hold over it, having ruthlessly exterminated other tribes, to whom the sixth commandment did not apply.

The Judge Gideon defeated the Midianites. Samson reasoned with the Philistines not by words, but through a completely different manner of argument. The Psalter smote Goliath, the Maccabee brothers rebelled against their Syrian oppressors… If the sixth commandment applied to foreign tribes, than all of these righteous men, having transgressed it, would have obviously been made sinners. Yet they remained righteous, and the grace of God rested upon all of them.

Christ, teaching of love for one’s neighbor and forgiveness, made it known to his disciples that much blood would still be shed before the coming of the Kingdom of God.

“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword….”(Matthew 10:34).  And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass” (Matthew 24:6, Mark 13:7, Luke 21:9).

We find two examples relating to the problem of military service in the Gospel. When warriors came to John the Baptist and asked him what was required of them to do, he commanded them to “do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:14). Christ hardly called warriors to “turn their swords to plow shares” and abandon military service as an activity unpleasing to God. And to the question of the Pharisees about whether one should pay taxes, He answered: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21, Luke 20:25). And is not the fulfillment of military service – the heaviest of all taxes – rendering what is Caesar’s unto Caesar, what is the Tsar’s unto the Tsar?

The error of the non-resisters to evil consists in the fact that they aim to impart a societal character to Christ’s personal teachings.

Christ taught: “Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also ” (Matthew 5:39-40, Luke 6:29). He thereby defined man’s relation to man. The Son of Man bore the abuses of the scribes and the brutal mob. It stood him only to want, only to think, and fire from Heaven would have turned both the judges and the executioners to ash. This He did not do, having shown the world an unfathomable feat of meekness and mercy.

But Christ bore His scarlet and the crown of thorns as relating to Him personally. And we know that having seen the moneychangers profaning the sacred, the Home of His Father, he fashioned a scourge from rope and drove them out.

The expulsion of the merchants from the Temple sufficiently clearly indicates the entire heresy of the Tolstoyans’ and others’ reference to Christ supposedly preaching non-violent non-resistance to evil. We should not oppose the malices of our neighbor when it concerns us personally. Yet if this neighbor infringes upon higher values, it is our duty to resist him.

At the end of the Last Supper, Christ gives a warning to His disciples:

And He said to them: And he said unto them, When I sent you without purse, and scrip, and shoes, lacked ye any thing? And they said, Nothing. Then said he unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one. For I say unto you, that this that is written must yet be accomplished in me, And he was reckoned among the transgressors: for the things concerning me have an end (Luke 22, 35-37).

One of these swords was that very night drawn by Peter. Christ ordered him to put the sword back in its sheath, “for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Matthew 26:52).

The “contradiction” perceived by certain sophists in the juxtaposition of these two texts disappears if we take into account that Peter drew his sword not in defense of the Teaching, but in defense of the Teacher. Christ did not wish to take this victim. Malch did not attack Peter, but rather Peter struck Malch first with his sword.

Christ hardly said that he who takes the sword will perish from leprosy, an earthquake or fire from heaven. No, those who live by the sword shall die namely by the sword. But in order that they die by the sword, they must be struck down; one must resort to just war. This text, which the non-resisters strive to use as one of the main arguments of their theory, is under attentive examination thus turned against the heresy.

St. Sergius of Radonezh blessed Prince Dmitry Donskoy in his battle with Mamai. And two and a half centuries later, following the example of Oslyabya and Peresvet, the Sergiev monks girded their cassocks with swords, and Patriarch Hermogen called upon the entire Russian land to revolt against the Polish oppressor.

Guided by the example of Christ and the acts of the Fathers of the Church, we should reject the false teaching of non-violent non-resistance as something hideous, anti-Church, and ultimately inhuman.