It is sincerely worrying that the documented violence against civilians in the current conflict is still being downplayed in Ethiopia or is seen as an unavoidable consequence of war. More disconcertingly, politicians and media spokespeople in Ethiopia often conflate the TPLF with the Tigrayan people as a whole, ignoring the injustices that the Tigrayan people themselves have faced historically, and fail to differentiate between those in power and the ordinary, poor people. During a month-long stay in the capital of Ethiopia in November 2020, we had the opportunity to learn from a number of indigenous Ethiopians that there are many people who actually justified the conflict, on the basis of what they considered to be the historically unjust or criminal activity of the TPLF cadres. Others characteristically stated that innocent civilians perishing in the process of “crushing” the TPLF was an “inevitable evil.” These viewpoints were clearly underpinned by historical grievances, and were seeking some sort of justice, but it was never examined how problematic seeking revenge is, or what justice through offensive wars is from the perspective of the Orthodox Faith (which the majority of the people claim to belong to).
More disconcerting, however, were the responses by some members of the clergy and spokespeople of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church to the conflict. It has become evident that since the outbreak of the conflict, ethnicity became a dividing factor in the Church. This is evidenced in the fact that members of the Church, including priests and deacons - who promised to be peace-lovers and should be prepared to give up their own life to maintain peace among their congregants - did not hesitate to bless the conflict and to condone the military offensive, likewise invoking historical and political grievances and ‘patriotism’ as their justifications. This suggests a distortion of the meaning of the Faith among those who take such stances, hence the need for a reminder here what the Orthodox Faith stands for, in order to address further distortions.
As Christians, we must be against all violations that threaten human life ,and as outsiders it is not our mandate to oppose efforts in Ethiopia to address political corruption and criminal activity, which is after all a sovereign matter. However, as Christian Orthodox believers we cannot possibly condone the justification of using violence to ‘correct’ evil. Our Faith teaches against all violence and asks us not to seek to take revenge for injustices committed against us. While we should not be blind to wrongdoing, and should strive to rectify the wrong and to restore justice in society where it is humanely possible, we are also asked to show mercy where we can and to avoid revenge, seeing in others the image of God, which is sacred. For example, in Romans 12:17 it is written:
Repay no one evil for evil. Have [a] regard for good things in the sight of all men.
In Thessalonians A 5:15, it is also said:
Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.
Our Faith considers God to be the only Judge, Who - being Love Himself and having omniscience - can bring perfect justice in the world in ways that human beings cannot. God is not against humanity using man-made justice systems to protect human life and to promote lawfulness in society, but He does not condone the use of violence among His children for the sake of establishing social justice. The Bible explicitly tells us that we cannot claim to love God if we do not try to love our fellow human beings in practice, and this means, loving even those we consider our enemies. As it is said in Romans 13:8-10:
Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not bear false witness,” “You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.
As flawed human beings with limited knowledge, we cannot predict what consequences our acts will result in, which is why we should abstain from vengeful acts. We may believe that using violence to stop what we perceive as a wrongdoing will bring justice, but the enemy of humanity (the Devil) and his servants will find ways to use the opportunity to foster more evil-doing. In the ongoing conflict in Tigray, there have been federal soldiers using rape systematically, which has caused immeasurable physical, psychological and emotional damage to the victims/survivors and their families. Is this the kind of justice that the people of Ethiopia had imagined or hoped for ? Surely they did not plan this evil; and yet, the support in favour of an offensive war created the opportunity for atrocities to be committed by those who lack a fear of God and who have no hesitation to harm others.
Our Faith teaches us not to seek revenge - ultimately for the sake of our spiritual growth and salvation, which cannot be achieved if we hold grudges in our heart or we arrogantly assume ourselves able to know, like God does, what justice is due to others. The Orthodox Faith aspires to the cultivation of a humble awareness of our own imperfections and limitations as sin-prone human beings and, thus, asks us to show love and understanding for others, just as we want God to understand us and to forgive us for our sins. Again, this is not to suggest that we should not strive towards social justice, which we should, but rather to stress that we should do so with an Orthodox conscience ("phronema") – with compassion and concern for humanity, avoiding the use of violence, by understanding that violence will only beget violence.
Saint John Chrysostom has pertinently written in his “ENCOMIASTIC ESSAY ON THE HOLY MARTYR PHOCAS AND AGAINST HERETICS”:
For such is our war: it does not render the living ones lifeless, but leads the lifeless ones into life, filled with tameness and much leniency.
My habit is to be persecuted and not to persecute; to be fought and to not fight.
Even in the event of defensive wars where citizens are called to pick up arms to protect themselves and their families and homeland from invaders, the Faith neither teaches nor celebrates the use of violence. For example, the Quinisext Council of the Orthodox Church ratified two canons by St Basil the Great, one of which includes rules on excommunication for those who murdered in times of war attacks - even in defence (see ‘Does the Church bless military arms?’ [& here]). In the history of the Orthodox Church, many soldiers of a strong faith chose martyrdom instead of using their military skills to fight (see examples in ‘Does the Church bless military arms?’). These military men are venerated as saints precisely because of having chosen to sacrifice their lives, rather than take the life of another, even that of a non-Christian enemy. These Orthodox believers knew very well that our Faith stands for the sacredness of all life - life that we neither create nor control. Since we do not create life, we have no right to take it. God is the only giver of life and God alone is the One who should take it.
The Faith is clear that we should not seek revenge for injustices we experience. It is understood that if someone treats us unjustly, God will correct the injustice done against us in the most considerate and effective way for our and their salvation. However, if we do commit injustice against someone, this will need to be rectified and be set right, first through our own and even our children’s suffering and pain in order for us to be led to repentance, to be educated and to be humbled, all of which are necessary for our salvation.
The biggest proof against revenge is that our faith was handed down to us by our Lord Jesus Christ, Who willingly chose to die on the cross for the salvation of humanity. Our Lord was betrayed, abused and killed by humans and while He could have stopped the abusers or could have taken revenge if He wished to, He did not. Instead, He chose to accept the injustice, asking His Father in Heaven to forgive His abusers and showed us in practice how to be self-sacrificial and forgiving in the most unjust of circumstances.
Saint John Chrysostom has once again written eloquently about this in his Address to Saint Phocas the Hieromartyr «ENCOMIASTIC ESSAY ON THE HOLY MARTYR PHOCAS AND AGAINST HERETICS»:
Thus had Christ come into the world, not to crucify it, but to be crucified; not to inflict beating, but to suffer beating.
The Lord of the world pleads with the servant of the high priest and receives a blow to the mouth from which that word issued forth which reined in the sea, that word which raised from the dead the fourth-day Lazarus; by which He removed malice; by which He freed from illnesses and sins. That is what is deserving of wonder in the crucified One. That is, when with a lightning strike He could have shaken the earth and shrivelled the servant’s hand, He did none of those things, but instead, He pleads and He wins with His meekness, thus teaching you who are human to never feel indignation.
Through His decision to sacrifice Himself and to return the violence and abuse with a plea for forgiveness for His abusers, Christ manifests the endless Justice of God (DICTIONARY OF BIBLICAL THEOLOGY, pp. 181-184 and 329). The final Justice will be established with the Second Coming of Christ, at which time all who have committed injustices and evil acts against others will be punished as it is due to them. The blood of the apostles, saints and martyrs who have lost their lives by choosing peace over violence - and the current blood-shedding of believers who chose to follow the word of God by showing meekness, love and self-sacrifice - were not in vain, for all Justice will be restored at the Final Judgement.
We do not claim to know anything more than anyone else about the Faith; we are merely echoing what God Himself, His Apostles and His saints taught us directly.
Brothers and sisters, when we breathe our last breath, we shall all be asked by the angels of God to give account of our intentions and deeds on earth. On the basis of what was outlined here, will we be ready to stand confidently in front of God and continue to make a case in favour of the military offensive being supported and justified?
May the Lord enlighten everyone to see the truth, before it is too late. Love is the only way to gaining Eternal Life, whereas where love is distorted by feelings of revenge, self-hurt and hatred, there will be permanent death.
We pray that Eternal Life will be the preferred choice, by showing love for all our brethren - including the people of Tigray who currently need genuine compassion and help.
We would like to end this essay with St Paul’s description of Christian love in Corinthians 13: 1-13 (from ‘THE EASTERN - GREEK ORTHODOX BIBLE: NEW TESTAMENT’):
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For now we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.
And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.