Those of us “pacifists” who have gone the conscientious objection route have heard all too much of the familiar question: “What would you do if…?” For those of you who are in the dark, let me reconstruct the argument used to challenge the nonviolence as a viable means of conflict resolution.
The accuser begins by placing you in a hypothetical situation in which you a faced with a choice of killing an aggressor that threatens the life of a loved one. You, the subject, hold the power to decide between one life and another. For example; your grandmother, sister, niece, or mother is held captive, a gun to her head (it seems arrogantly patriarchal that the victim consistently is portrayed by a feminine figure…), and you have the power to prevent the crime. Many accusers also insert the stipulation that death is the only thing that will stay the attackers hand. The great responsibility of choosing the moral necessity of killing the attacker rests upon you. What would you do?
The argument typifies so much of what seems wrong with the Western mindset from an Orthodox point of view. I'm not concerned to analyse the argument and discuss all its flaws -- the original blogger whom I've quoted does that quite well, and also points out some of the flaws in the assumptions on which the argument is based. The main assumption, of course, is that moral principles should always be sacrificed to self-interest. It is the idea of the just war writ small -- the just homicide. And there lies the core of the problem -- Western theology is obsessed with justification: not merely justifying sinners, but justifying war, and homicide. It is the same kind of argument that is used to justify the killing of doctors and nurses at abortion clinics -- think of all the babies one is saving.
The Orthodox understanding is somewhat different. It is not so wedded to sets of moral principles, which one is obliged to apply with instant omniscient wisdom when someone has decided to murder one's grandmother. Christos Yannaras wrote about The freedom of morality, which includes the freedom from the necessity to justify. One may, perhaps, kill the would-be murderer of one's grandmother, and thereby save her. But one would not attempt to justify the deed. No, if one killed such a person, far from attempting to justify it, one would repent, and confess the killing as a sin.
Orthodoxy has had both those who have fought in wars and those who have refused to fight, and honours as saints some among the first and likewise some among the second. In this world, wars happen. But they are never just.