Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

On the blasphemy of prayer for victory in war

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 15, 2022

In today’s news we learn that Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill has presented a Marian icon to the director of Russia’s National Guard, hoping this will bring about a quick victory in the war against Ukraine. During the presentation ceremony, the National Guard commander referred to the Ukrainians as “Nazis”, asserting that the war is taking longer than it should because the Ukrainians are “hiding behind civilians, the elderly, and children.”

Kirill, as the Russian Orthodox Patriarch in Moscow, naturally finds himself in a difficult position. In addition to utterly opposing the separation of many Ukrainians from the Moscow Patriarchy, Kirill must get along with the Putin regime. His reluctance to condemn the invasion, and his increasing willingness to approve it in limited ways, has now become clear. Kirill would prefer that all peoples who are “traditionally” Russian should be part of Russia again, and loyal to the Russian Orthodox Patriarch. It is not impossible to understand this viewpoint, of course, but as the Eastern Orthodox Archbishop of Cyprus, Chrysostomos II, put it: “The Russians first make their cross and then they kill.”

But it is not just the Russians. Most of us do exactly the same thing.

Invoking God

In almost every war down through history, Christians on both sides have assumed their cause was just and prayed to Christ, Mary and the saints for victory. This is often scandalous, especially if one’s army is involved in an invasion, but it is not surprising. The worst reason for it, and also the most common one, is misplaced patriotism—the insistence that “we” must surely be in the right. But people in a particular nation are also typically insulated from reality by constant reports of the injustice of both the goals and the tactics of the “enemy”. It is both factually difficult and personally uncongenial to recognize when one’s own “side” is in the wrong, and to speak frankly against that wrong.

When the “English” fought the “French” in the medieval period, there were Catholic priests invoking God for victory on both sides, with each side operating on the largely unexamined assumption that its cause was just—and not only just, but proportionate to the death and destruction required to “prove it”. Many Catholic Americans today still justify the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, despite the fact that the use of atomic bombs on civilian populations is intrinsically immoral (which means that, like direct abortion, it cannot be justified based on the “good it is sure to do” in the long run). All of us, to one degree or another, tend to regard our own governments as more righteous than those of any nations in opposition, and we naturally value the lives of “our own” over the lives of “the enemy”.

We really do want “our side” to win, and for this reason we find objectivity almost impossible. This is understandable even when it is inexcusable. Add to this the intense confusion of conflict between nations, and our own human tendency to frame our prayers on a scale of desire rather than of virtue, and it should not surprise us that even otherwise decent Christian people pray for victory, no matter which side they are on. At the same time, those of us who sit on the sidelines cannot afford to be self-satisfied. Tensions between nations and peoples that go back generations or even centuries typically provide arguments and abuses sufficient to make a case for the justice of either side, which is why when I commented on the Russian attack on Ukraine on March 4th, I kept stressing that, “It is extraordinarily difficult to justify an offensive war”.

Victory tends to be self-justifying

Unfortunately, most people on the winning side regard military victory as self-justifying. If they do not believe in Providence, of course they prefer victory. And if they do believe in Providence, they generally prefer whatever reading of the meaning of Providence is most favorable to themselves.

But of course the victory of one nation over another tells us absolutely nothing about God’s active will. All we know is that He has at least permitted this conquest so that some good can be realized from it. But that good could be simply a greater recognition of sinfulness and dependence on God on the part of those who, in worldly terms, have lost. Indeed, we see this explicitly and with some frequency in God’s dealings with the Jews in the Old Testament. In the period leading up to, during, and immediately following the Babylonian Exile, the Lord more or less continuously shuffles the political deck, producing outcomes advantageous to one nation after another—all part of His Divine Plan (as evidenced by the prophets).

The only thing that Christians typically know about this is negative: The worldly success of any nation or person, regardless of the cause, may NOT be attributed to God’s being more pleased with that nation or person than with others. In the same way, it is never safe to pray for victory over another person or nation on the assumption that God favors our cause. But it is always safe and right to pray for the safety of those we love and for Divine help in every aspect of our undertakings—first and foremost that we will seek the right things in the right way. In exactly the same way, we must pray to be free of self-interest and self-deception, and these prayers must be especially heartfelt in politics and war.

Unfortunately, it is far more frequent in human affairs that victory in anything and everything is taken as a sign of justification. This cruel deception arises from the hubris which is so much a part of our fallen nature. To the contrary, as soon as our victory in anything—love, position, wealth, politics, war—is regarded as a justification of our rectitude (that is, a proof of our worthiness), exactly then does a worldly blessing become our spiritual downfall. The only thing we can be sure of when we end up “on top” is that God has given us an opportunity to do more publicly visible good than we could have done before. Taken in any other spirit, victory becomes (at best) a farce.

Data at a discount

Few people ever know the real reasons behind any offensive war. Prudence demands that we discount the alleged reasons by about 90 percent, even if we have no evidence that they are false. We must also remember the famous quip about lies, damned lies, and statistics. Unless we maintain a healthy skepticism, we will be in the position of believing that everything the United States did for the American Indians was for their own good, that slave traders then and now have have been dedicated to providing positive alternatives—and that Vladimir Putin simply cherishes the reunion of his beloved Russian people.

On very rare occasions, an offensive military action may be justified to put a stop to an extraordinarily grave evil. But even this is vanishingly rare because of the overwhelming likelihood of doing more harm to the innocent than they are already suffering. In any case, the correct default position was best described by the Apostle James in the fourth chapter of his New Testament letter. Asking “What causes wars?”, he answered this way: “Is it not your passions that are at war in your members? You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war.”

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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