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To Konrad Raiser's Presentation
"Violence and Religion in Pluralistic Societies"

Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology
October 4, 2002

Stanley Samuel Harakas


I am honored to have been selected by the organizing committee of this important conference, to respond to the presentation of Dr. Raiser, the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches. Beyond that, however, I was not given any course of action to follow, so the comments I am about to give are my own personal understandings and responses, conditioned by my identity as a Greek Orthodox Priest, a Professor of Orthodox Christian Ethics for almost thirty years, and an author of several studies in the area war and peace.

I am confident, however, that I express the sentiments of the participants in this conference, of gratitude and appreciation for the presence of Dr. Raiser among us, for the thoughtfulness, insightfulness and perhaps even provocative nature of his presentation, "Violence and Religion in Pluralistic Societies." So, Dr. Raiser, on behalf of our participants, I express the thanks of all for your carefully argued and presented reflections on a serious issue of concern to all reflecting minds, and as a challenge to those of us who are Orthodox Christians, seeking to understand the place and role of Orthodox Christianity in a changing and evolving pluralistic world.

I propose to begin by summarizing the main points of Dr. Raiser's presentation as I have understood them and the thrust of the whole argument. I will follow this with some considerations of the approaches and issues raised from my understanding of the Orthodox Christian tradition regarding both cultural and social pluralism an the one hand and violence, on the other. I will conclude with a brief effort at a constructive theological position from an Orthodox theological perspective regarding the issue of violence and religion in pluralistic societies. Needless to say, in order to fit into both my role as respondent and the time frame allotted to us this evening, my comments will be briefly suggestive rather than detailed and exhaustive.


In the context of the World Council of Churches Assembly in December of 1998 in Harare, Zimbabwe the Assembly declared the period 2001-2010 as an "Ecumenical Decade to Overcome Violence," a formulation that is pregnant with implications. Dr. Raiser begins by seeking a rationale for thinking about religion and violence. He emphasizes from the beginning, and repeats in other sections of the presentation that religion is frequently co-opted by conflicting parties to their own ends, and specifically, to validate violence. Dr. Raiser holds that few examine the interconnection between religion and violence in an objective way and, particularly, as this is being shaped by the increasing reality of our existence as a global village.

The paper then seeks to place the issue of violence in the framework of religion in general. It is asserted that all religions at their core proclaim and espouse the opposite of violence as a norm. The values of peace, harmony and right relationships are common to them. But, this also implies the need for religions to address the issue of violence and what is required to "overcome it." Speaking about human nature in general, he argues that there are tendencies both toward violence against others, as well as tendencies toward unity and harmony, and that in the case of the latter religions contribute to efforts to "limit the resort to violence." Using psychological, anthropological and philosophical sources, he perceives the ways in which the stories of religions contribute to the justification of the use of violence and its control, for example, in the wide-spread religious practice of "scapegoating." Thus, group violence is channeled toward a victim, whose victimization reduces the violence directed toward others. Religion thus "contains" violence by channeling it so that the larger Society can live in peace. It is claimed that even in a secular social order, this dynamic is maintained and that religion continues to be used in this fashion in order to sustain a modicum order in the face of the potential descent into chaos, faced constantly in human existence. Religion, consequently, is systemically connected with both violence and its containment.

Dr. Raiser then illustrates this connection between religion and violence in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Both the terrorists and the public voice of the United States resort to religiously framed blaming or uscape-goating." Both claim that the other is the summation of all evils and, as he says "religious symbolism and religious sentiments are being invoked and mobilized to legitimize and sanction the use of destructive force and violence."

The same dynamic is at work in more limited spheres. Conflicts regarding space such as present day Kosovo, ethnic conflicts such as the situation in Bosnia, claims of national sovereignty such as the identity of Ukraine as a sovereign nation appropriate religious identity and language to make their case, while often such appeals also legitimate the use of violence. Where in the past this process was generally religiously controlled, since the emergence of the secular state in the West, where the power for decision-making is vested in secular authority, conflict has been provoked between more traditionally religiously based cultures and western secularism. Nevertheless, it is held, that in both cases, religion is used to legitimate violence.

Turning to Christianity, Dr. Raiser raises the issue of the use of violence in the Old Testament in the name of God and at His order, beginning with the story of Cain and Able. The solution described is the giving of law, notably the Decalogue to restrain violence and the deceit, greed, selfishness and lust that can lead to it. Divinely appealed to violence is found in the Psalms directed against oppressors. So, if the Old Testament is read on the same level as the New, the ambiguity of violence is maintained. But, Dr. Raiser notes that there is something new in the teaching of Jesus. The dynamic of not returning evil for evil, is also a repudiation of the dynamic of violence. Christ's death and resurrection is seen as repudiating the traditional role of religion in channeling violence to the scapegoat, because of Christ's resurrection. Raiser asserts, that Christ as Suffering Servant is "God's way to unmask the logic of violence and its sacrificial legitimization..., thus (breaking) the cycle of violence and death." He continues, "Thus the link between religion and violence, the possibility of religious legitimation of violence, is abolished."

Dr. Raiser then repeats the received tradition that the early non-violent Church switched its role to the legitimating violence with its establishment in the fourth century, and that "the persecuted church of the first centuries became itself an agent of persecution." He holds that the "myth of redemptive violence," with its scapegoating is still functioning in the present. His alternative goes beyond efforts at peacemaking, conflict resolution, and justice promoting efforts, to virtual pacifism. The "Ecumenical Decade to Overcome Violence" is understood as an effort to foster discussion and study leading to a praxis of non-violence.

His 'appeal is that religions cease allowing themselves to be co-opted by the forces of violence, of whatever nature, but rather to contribute to the ethos of world-community. He calls for a struggle against the "spirit, logic and praxis of violence," transforming its dynamic through a "moral and spiritual struggle" for more peaceful methods of conflict resolution.


A major concern in the discussion of violence is the fluidity of meanings attributed to the term. Over the years, both within the WCC effort and outside it, the word is used to describe many different realities. The first definition of "Violence" in my Webster's Collegiate Dictionary is: "An exertion of force so as to injure or abuse." So, if this is taken as the fundamental meaning of the word, then, the critical question is what is meant by '.exertion of force." I think that most people interpret this to refer to physical force, a punch in the face, tripping a person, a shot from a gun, or rape -all intended to harm or injure another. The term has been extended to cover words, emotions and sensibilities.

But people also recognize that force may be used as well, not to harm or injure, but simply to accomplish things, such as the thrust of a rocket, or the explosions within the workings of the internal combustion engine. And, it can shown that the force which is inherent in the maintenance of civil order is used by governments of whatever form, to counter chaos, maintain order, and paradoxically, to "keep the peace."

We see this clearly in the Scriptures. There is a tendency in some quarters, to read the Old Testament as if it has the same level of authority in dealing with the New. I don't think that this is the method generally practiced in the Eastern Orthodox tradition of biblical hermeneutics. The Old Testament passages dealing with God and Israelite military efforts do not create as much of problem for reflection on violence since these are seen as an early stage in the. history of salvation, now transcended by the New Covenant. Hence, the patristic exegesis tended to allegorize, or personalize these conflicts in terms of the soul's spiritual struggle against sin and evil.

It is clear that Jesus' teaching of non-violence, e.g., not returning evil for evil and further, returning good for evil, is a powerful and necessary way for the vicious cycle of evil in response to evil, to be broken and even reversed. It is also clear that Jesus' teaching is cast primarily in categories of interpersonal relations. It is however, not correct to call these injunctions the exclusive New Testament teaching. Long before the Emperor Constantine, the Edict of Milan, the establishment of Christianity by Emperor Theodosios, the theocracies of Byzantium and the Holy Roman Empire, the New Testament itself recognized the need and necessity of the use of force to maintain order, and yes, even to use force to injure and abuse those who did harm to others. No matter how much there might be a desire to explain away the teaching, it is part of the revelatory tradition of the New Testament Scriptures. The passage is illuminating for our discussion and needs to be read in its entirety and in its context to ascertain its significance for our discussion of violence and religion in pluralistic societies.

In no less than the Epistle of Paul to the Romans in chapter 13, verses 1-7, we read, precisely about the legitimacy of the exercise of violence against those who do evil. "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due" (Rom. 13: 1 - 7).

As we all know, this passage has provoked much discussion and has been interpreted in multiple ways to justify almost every kind of Christian theory regarding the state. My purpose in mentioning it here is not to enter into those debates, but rather to show that the New Testament is far from uniform in addressing the question of violence, whether authorized or not. I think that my point will be made clearer if we note that this passage immediately follows in Paul's course of thought in Romans something much more reminiscent of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount pronouncements. In Romans 12:19 through 21, just prior to the passage quoted above, Paul teaches, "If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." No, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Romans 12:19-21).

The juxtaposition of these two sentiments seems to be contradictory. Rather, however, it is just one more example of the paradox of truth so often present in Christian teaching. At its heart is the recognition that evil, violence and disorder are endemic to our human condition and our social, economic, political, national and international existence. To say, from whatever vantage point, that human beings are imbued with tendencies to violence and to counter this with assertions that human beings are also capable of gentleness, generosity and compassion in community, doesn't replace the former by the [after. It simply says that the human condition is a paradox of conflicting forces. In the fallen condition of humanity, self-determination remains, and that means we are capable of practically anything -atrocious violence and compassionate caring. This paradox is built into phrases such as "war on terrorism," the "decade to overcome violence," and calls to "combat racism." They appeal to the element of conflict, struggle and strife. It is easy for this to be turned into a dualistic frame of mind. But that is precisely what does not happen in the Scriptures and in the subsequent intellectual history of the Church.

The tension is maintained without reductionism, and there is an acceptance of the unfortunate and difficult need for violence against the forces of violence, while at the same time recognizing that this is far from the will of God and the values of the Kingdom of God.

When this is discussed on the level of war, there are three major stances. Pacifism's total rejection of war appeals to the highest values of peace, yet opens the potential for unopposed violence. The Just War tradition, through its argued conditions leading to justifiable war, turns the horrors endemic to war into moral virtues and goods. I hold that neither of these positions reflects the authentic Orthodox tradition regarding war. I have characterized the Orthodox position as elevating peace to a superior virtue, and the waging of some wars at best as a "necessary evil." Sometimes the violence of war may serve to protect the innocent and limit the destructive consequences of aggression. We are dealing here with a paradoxical affirmation of the higher value of just peace that sometimes requires participation in some uses of force that are violent in order to contain violence.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Church has frequently been co-opted to support wars and violence in ways that do it no honor. Yet, I think that it is also too easy to ignore the truth that the Church has sought frequently to stand at the side of its people in times of oppression, injustice, attack and subjugation. While appealing to peace, reconciliation, justice and simple human compassion, it has stood together with its people in their suffering and defeat. In my understanding, the argument presented by scholars that attributes to religion a universal "scapegoating function," allowing religion to be co-opted by others has an element of "question-begging" -its conclusion is fore-ordained by its assumptions. Its assumptions include the post-enlightenment sharp division between secular power and religion. In earlier times and in some places to this day, the civil and the religious existence of a people or nation are not so sharply divided. It is not so much a question of co-opting as a corporate responsibility for the whole of the people. The consciousness is not so much one of either-or, as it is one of "both-and."

The mind struggles to hold these things together. But when we consider that no person ever achieves the "telos" of divinization, and that all are in the process of spiritual growth and sanctification and are at different levels; when we recognize that what may be difficult but possible on the personal sphere in terms of returning good for evil, becomes increasingly difficult and problematic in expanding spheres of social organization, then we comprehend its complexity. Realizing "Kingdom values," then becomes perhaps impossible in the largest social sphere of international relations without the potential, at least, for the use of violent force. In such situations the paradox becomes ever too real.


I think that an honest theological approach to the New Testament paradox, must of necessity, also be paradoxical. We cannot reduce the one side of the equation to the whole. But we can acknowledge that there are higher and more imperative values and lesser and minimum, though empirically essential values, requiring resort, at times, to necessary evils.

Nevertheless, the Church's task is to do everything in its power to minimize, and make unnecessary the resort to violence, coercion, the .'use of the sword," or the unnecessary use of "necessary evil." Once Jesus made use of a paradoxical phrase that is pertinent to our conversation. In the Gospel of Luke there is this dominical saying: "The law and the prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and every one enters it violently" (Luke 16:16). In the Gospel of Matthew a parallel, though slightly different logion declares, "From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force" (Matthew 11: 12).

Both are understood in the framework of the Gospel of Jesus Christ by St. Cyril of the Alexandria in his Commentary on the Gospel of St Luke. He writes,

Whosoever, therefore, is a hearer and [over of the sacred message takes it by force; by which is meant, that he uses all his earnestness and all his strength in his desire to enter within the hope. For, as He says in another place, "The kingdom of heaven is taken by violence and the violent seize upon it. (Astoria, L.I.C., NY: Studion Publishers, 1983, p. 448. Trans. R. Payne Smith).

In the ascetical tradition of the Orthodox Church, this spiritual violence, ("bia") is the "effort required by our own choice and will to opt for the good, in the face of the temptation to do otherwise." (Harakas, Toward Transfigured Life: The Theoria of Orthodox Christian Ethics, Minneapolis: Light & Life Publishing Co., 1983, p. 258). What is true of the "agona" and "askesis" the struggle and spiritual exercise needed for personal growth toward "theosis," i.e., striving for God-likeness, is equally true in the struggle and effort required to reduce destructive violence in the world.

From this reality comes the ethical imperative. Wherever possible, and even when it appears to be an impossible task, the Church's effort must be to foster the peace that arises from justice and not injustice, the minimizing of inhuman practices of violence wherever possible, the overcoming of conflict with reconciliation and dialogue, the forming of personalities, of communities, of nations and peoples with the spiritual mindset that hammers swords into plowshares. But it cannot do so with a spirit of naivet6 that does not recognize the alternative need for some agencies in society to have the power and resources to subdue what is corrupting and destructive.

I am struck by the paradoxical wisdom of the Orthodox Church in the prayer at the end of the Divine Liturgy, still referred to as the "Prayer Behind the Ambon." The Priest prays in part, "Grant peace to Your world, to Your Churches, to the clergy, to our civil authorities, to the armed forces, and to all Your people." It affirms the need and place of "civil authorities," and of "the armed forces." But what it prays for is that they be exercise their roles not in violence or in war, but "in peace."

It also means that in a very religiously, ethnically, politically, economically, socially, racially, and internationally pluralistically and fragmented ' world, the Orthodox Church must constantly exercise its own forces, its own "bia" in its own way, everywhere to limit and reduce unjust violence, the victimization of the innocent, and the inhumanity of war.

It is not without significance that just recently, an effort was made by the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas, to affirm positively the value and importance of peace. In a SCOBA encyclical dated September 20, 2002, the Orthodox Bishops in America endorsed the United Nations sponsored International Day of Peace this year. I conclude these comments with a portion of that encyclical, because I think that through it, the positive struggle against unjust violence is emphasized.

"Throughout the world, Orthodox Christians pray daily for peace. These prayers are at the heart of Orthodox worship. The Great Litany, sometimes called the 'Litany of Peace,' is insistent on the centrality of peace. 'In peace let us pray to the Lord,' 'For the peace from above and for the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord,' For the peace in the whole world, for the welfare of the holy churches of God, and for the union of all, let us pray to the Lord."' Prayer is never an isolated action or orientation. As we pray, so we believe. As we pray, so we act. Orthodox Christians seek peace and pursue it in prayer, in faith and in action."

Amen. So be it.