The argument is often stated that Orthodoxy does not provide the solutions one might expect for the structuring and organization of life in society; that it is merely “a religion of the hereafter”, with exclusively meta-historical aims, outside of the solid, historical reality – of “here and now”; that it is limited exclusively to the spiritual life, to spirituality, because it is interested only in the soul and not in regulating earthly matters, i.e. in organizing society. Also, it is not seldom that certain “Orthodox” -with an overdose of the “Monophysitic” spirit- assert that Orthodoxy “does not save bodies, but only immortal souls”. This of course betrays latent Platonic or Manichaean and Brahman tendencies.
The fact that such affirmations reveal a “false religion of angels” and a super-eschatological disposition is quite clear. The opposite case, however, also exists; i.e., by resorting to non-Orthodox premises, others promote the Church’s role in the world as being exclusively “social”, with social activism and social offering (activities for the common good); the result being a hyper-historicism, an over-emphasis on the present and entrapment in the mundane – in History. In both cases, it has been overlooked that from the very beginning, the Church made Her appearance as an organized society, a theandric-Theanthropic reality, which, however, provided Her own particular solution to the problems within society. It is this solution for society, as provided by the Church, in the form of Apostolic and Patristic Orthodoxy, that we shall attempt to broadly outline herebelow.
1. The “social problem”: a challenge for the Church
The “social problem” is the most difficult and thorniest problem in every era and every human society. It is the pan-human demand for social justice; for the just distribution of goods; for social equality; for the eradication of any discrimination whatsoever; for an end to one man’s exploitation of (and injustice towards) another. This is not only the demand of man throughout the ages as a member of society, but also the chief reason for the existence of every political system that basically promises to solve the “social problem”. The 20th century specifically has been called the “century of the social problem”, because of the strong conflicts which were and continue to be observed, arising as they do from the antithesis between the rich and the poor, whether in the smaller communities or in society in general. The demand for social justice keeps all of humanity in perpetual uprisings and permanent unrest. Political parties of all shades continually promise social improvements and reforms. This is especially true of socialist parties, where the social problem has taken on a clearly religious (Messianic) hue. It has, in a way, become the “socialist gospel”. They present the solution to the social problem as a form of “salvation”, with the “socialist paradise” eventually prevailing on earth.
The Church could not remain indifferent to the challenges presented by the social problem. Firstly, because the Church is social by Her very nature; there is no such thing as non-social and consequently non-political Orthodoxy. A non-political stand –even for the Church- is impossible. When the Church is indifferent to society, or passively participates in a given political situation, She is without a doubt playing politics. The well-known argument: “We don’t get involved in politics”, does not only cover up political preferences reprehensible for Christians, but also constitutes the most tragic form of “politicalization”; namely, the passive collaboration with the political ideology in power.
There is no such thing as individual Orthodoxy, individual justice, or individual salvation. The Saint (=one who is deified) has a “life and polity” of his own to show, that is, a personal spiritual struggle, but also a personal presence in society. Orthodoxy accepts the whole person, as a psychosomatic unity and a whole, and it saves his whole life – both spiritual and physical-material. And it is for this reason that it acknowledges all of man’s problems, both the spiritual and the mundane. Entrance into the Body of Christ (the Church) is understood in Orthodoxy as enrolment into Her of a man’s WHOLE life, in the society of Grace (cf. “…let us appose ourselves and each other and all of our life unto Christ our God..”). The aim of the Incarnation of God the Logos is the “Christification” and the “Churchification” of our whole life; the sanctification of all our relationships, of our entire “society”: friends, family, economy, science, sex, politics, excluding of course every idea of hierocracy and clericalism in the Church, but secularization as well.
But the Church is interested in society and its problems for another important reason. Because the condemnation of Christianity by the various political ideologies –and especially the socialists– abounds (as we already mentioned) inasmuch as the Church apparently never did, or ever wished to do, anything to solve the social problem; that instead of taking the side of the poor and oppressed, She supposedly became an ally of the powerful, of those who exploit and oppress man. As a matter of fact, socialist ideologies conclude that, by providing mankind with social equality and justice, they will accomplish what Christianity failed to do; namely, to establish the “Kingdom of God” on earth.
A clarification is deemed necessary at this point. The Western concept of “Kingdom of God” is: a city-state of God (cf. St Augustine). In Orthodox Patristic terms, on the other hand, it means the Grace of the Holy Spirit – hence “the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). The petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “…Thy Kingdom come”, is the same as “Thy Grace come” (Didache 16). The Holy Spirit Himself is, in the Church’s language of liturgy and prayer, the “Heavenly King”. On the other hand, it is easy to understand that the “kingdom” or “rule” of God within us also makes our social environment the “Kingdom of Christ”. The difference between the Eastern and the Western spirit is evident, in the designation of their starting point. The West sees (only) the outside – the social reality, whereas Orthodoxy starts from the inside of man, “the inside of the cup….that the outside may also be clean…” (Matth.23:26).
Indeed, accusations often become particularly bold, when they take on a pretentious character, such as: “The Communists picked up where the Christians left off”. (And remarks like these are heard not only in the Capitalist West, but also right here in the East.)
Of course we shall not attempt to apologize for Christianity, nor will we deny that quite often, many “Christians” go along with the powers that perpetuate social inequity and misfortune. But the Christian faith is not responsible for this stance of so-called Christians, and of course neither is Christ. We shall try to clarify this below. But here we must make a necessary clarification: When we say “Christianity”, we mean the Body of Christ; His Church, which is not only the clergy, but also everyone loyal to Christ and united with Him and with each other in the bond of love. The Church in the world is essentially comprised of the Saints (Apostles, martyrs, ascetics, confessors) and all those who strive to become Saints, that is, to remain adamantly faithful to Christ, to His Truth, His Orthodoxy. The Saints never betray: neither Christ nor man. Nor are they indifferent to a man’s material problems. For the Saints, in the “society-communion of the Saints” there is no social problem; being Orthodoxy, it has also provided a permanent solution to the social problem, inasmuch as it offers communion, within which the social problem becomes nonexistent.
2. The social problem: an Orthodox perspective
The social problem is essentially an economic one. It is created by man’s stance in relation to material goods, the means of satisfying his worldly needs. In this context, we could outline these, in two basic groups: natural goods, that is, whatever exists in nature (the entire material creation); and economic goods, the products of man’s labour.
Orthodoxy portrays man at the beginning of History as being in Paradise, in communion with God, which secured a harmonious co-existence (society) with his fellow-man also. The Paradisiac mode of existence consisted in the correct functioning of man’s crucifixional relation towards God on the one hand, and towards his fellow-man and all of creation on the other. The continuous presence of God in man, in man’s heart which has been freed of passions, is the “unceasing remembrance” of God, about which our Fathers have spoken. It guaranteed a genuine communion between God and man, which was lost with the Fall. The heart – the center of the human being – is the place where communion of God and man occurs. It is in the heart that the “nous”, i.e. the faculty of the soul functions; this is something that is not related with the intellect. The nous performs the heart’s praying function – the noetic faculty (cf. noetic prayer), which consists of activating the nous within the heart. The spiritual functioning of the heart ensures the genuineness of one’s crucifixional relationship.
The inertia of the noetic faculty (not of reason) is the essence of man’s Fall. The non-functioning or suboptimal functioning of one’s noetic faculty and its confusion with the function of the brain makes him a slave to anxiety and to his environment, to physicality and materiality. Thus, he “worships creation instead of the Creator”, the immediate result being the dissolution of the genuineness of his relationships: he becomes an individual and non-social; he deifies himself; he idolizes himself; he uses God and his fellow men to secure his personal safety and happiness. Atheism, paganism, idolatry and even natural religion are but a psychological projection of fallen man’s need for security. They are merely forms of utilitarianism, which strives to neutralize existential fears and anxieties. And what we call “culture” in all its facets (religion, art, philosophy, science, law) is really just man’s attempt to transcend his fallen state and thus be saved. We, however, carry our existence under the conditions created by the Fall.
Along with sin, selfishness, self-interest also entered our life; “those accursed words, mine and yours”, said St. John the Chrysostom, the most social of our Saints.
The social problem appeared in History from the moment that man took a stance in relation to material goods; from the minute that he ceased to gaze upon his Maker and Triune God with all his being, and turned his eyes and attention to creation – to the world – and became attached to matter, believing that his salvation depended on it. Man’s withdrawal from God subjugated him to matter. Thus, the prevalent stance of man, who lives in the godlessness of his own autonomy, is his aspiration to acquire as many material things as he can, no longer depending his salvation and security on God, but on creation around him.
Within this tragic alienation, the other –our fellow man- truly becomes our “hell”; which is in fact the central message of modern atheistic philosophy. In our egotistical greed, either we couldn’t care less about our fellow man’s existence, or, we view him as an obstacle that stands in the way of the satisfaction of our insatiability, and we seek to take his portion from the world too, by annihilating him, and to be, if possible, the only one left in creation, so that we might enjoy it alone! It is this tendency that Christ describes in the parable of the foolish rich man (Luke 12: 16-21). The viewing of material goods as individual property is the root of the social problem, of the economic and social inequality that is prevalent in the world. The civilization that we are living in is that of the fallen state, although, on the surface, it may appear to be influenced by the spirit of the Gospel. That is why we live in a society that differs little (if at all!) from a jungle, since one man turns against the other and one nation (group of men) against the other, and we never stop struggling to devour one another, in every aspect of life.
3. An Orthodox perspective of commodities
The man who is regenerated in Christ, having become a “temple of God” through the dwelling of the Holy Spirit within him, has the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16) and hence he sees he world, not with the eyes of fallen man, but in a Holy-Spiritual manner; with eyes that have received “the change that is by God, through the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit-bearing and God-bearing man, the Saint, acquires a new consciousness about himself and the world.
(a) According to the way of thinking that befits the man who is regenerated in Christ, everything that exists in the world – in all of creation – belongs to God its Maker, Who is also its absolute Master. The triune God made the created world out of nothing. Whatever exists around us (except for evil, i.e. sin), is His. Its only natural “owner”, the only one who has a right to that title, is the triune God. His are heaven and earth; both the spiritual and the material. “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof” (Ps.24:1; 1Cor. 10:26). Thus, in the Christian vocabulary, there is no concept of “ownership”, at least not in the way that we normally use this word. And if we accept this reality, we cannot refer to “our” property either; or to something that is “our own”. No man can claim that in this world something actually belongs to him; because, after all, we have all come into this world naked, and naked we shall leave it (Job 1:21).
St. Basil the Great, one of our greatest fathers, who examined the social problem in great depth, in his superb homilies on the subject, says in one of his works: “What we are, is soul and nous (i.e. the spiritual element of our nature), for we were made in the image of our Creator. That which is our own, is our body and its senses. Everything else is whatever is around us; i.e., trades, objects, and the rest of life’s wares” (From “Attend to your self”, 3). True, neither our body nor our spirit is essentially ours, for these too are the work of the triune God. In any event, if we do assume –says St. Basil- that something is ours, it is our body. For with that alone do we enter the world. Everything else is outside of us and foreign to us. It is “around us”; it is our surroundings. So, how can we call it “our own”?
So, we conclude that whatever one might possess or acquire in this world, is not is own. He possesses it, as something that does not truly belong to him, as everything belongs to God. But God, in His infinite love for the world, willed that man become a “steward” of His creations. He assigned to man the allotment and the utilization of His creations. Man thus became a steward within God’s vast “property”; he became its humble administrator.
b) But again, God did not grant the use of His goods to just one or to a few, but to all of humanity. This is clear enough from Gen.1:27f. We see there that God blessed the first human couple, i.e., all of mankind, and He blessed them –so to speak- to fill the earth and become its lords; and He entrusted all of material creation to them.
All of us human beings are born equal to each other, with equal rights in relation to the world and its goods. The miscellaneous discriminations in our life (racial, class, social, economic, etc.) were not made by God; they are the fruits of the Fall – of our sin. Ever since the Fall, one man has been fighting against the other and subjugating him. God “made from one blood every nation of men” (Acts 17:26). Orthodoxy is -by its very nature- anti-feudalistic, if we consider feudalism to be the promoting of “inherited” rights of authority, and the division of people into “nobles” and “vassals”, supposedly according to their nature. However, no-one was born to rule, and no-one was born to be a slave; but rather, each person is born to serve and to minister to the other, and all together to be peers and brothers. Neither despotism (i.e. the “absolutization” of an individual and imposing him on the others), nor the “massing” (i.e. the oppression and stifling of one’s personality) have any place in Christianity. Christianity acknowledges only a society of peers, of equal persons.
c) When God gave Paradise to humanity (to the first human couple), He also gave them the commandment “to till it and preserve it” (Gen.2:15). This means that toiling is the only just method that is recognized by God for acquiring the commodities needed for the preservation and security of our lives. Thus, in order for “our things” to be justly and Christianly acknowledged, we must acquire them justly; and this happens, only when “we toil with our own hands”, as St. Paul said (1 Cor. 4:2). To exemplify this, St. Paul himself, even though he was a leading Apostle and continually on the go, he was never a burden on anyone, but would respond to his critics: “…these hands ministered to my needs, and to those who were with me.” (Acts 20:34) The same St. Paul gave the Church and the world that well-know fundamental principle, which is in force as an inviolable law within the Christian community: “If anyone will not work, let him not eat!” (2 Thess.3:10) Whoever does not want to work, does not have the right (to want) to eat! Special attention, however, must be given here, so that the word of God is not perceived as “whoever does not work” as we usually say (and this is how it had passed into the Soviet texts as a moral principle); but “if anyone WILL NOT work”, (i.e., whoever does NOT WANT to work). One can easily understand the difference.
We conclude, then, that unless the commodities necessary for life are obtained in accordance with God’s will, they will never find justification in Orthodoxy. On this point, the Holy Fathers are categorical. They speak of “avarice”, “injustice”, “grabbing” etc..
We will take a sampling from classical Christian texts. The most powerful text – after the Old Testament prophetic literature – that was ever written about social injustice is Chapter 5 of the Epistle of James, the Brother of the Lord and first Bishop of Jerusalem:
“Come now, you wealthy ones; weep and wail for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Behold: the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields – which you witheld by fraud – cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of Hosts. You have lived on earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts for a day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have killed the righteous man; he cannot resist you.” This text alone is sufficient to prove the error of those who criticize Christianity, that it supposedly does not take a position on the social problem. However, it also indicates the sad state of the Christians who had become a rearguard in society…. Nevertheless, Christianity has been preserved, as we said, in the persons of the Saints of every age. It is the Christianity of the holy Fathers, like St. John the Chrysostom who, in the late 4th century confronted the wealthy “Christians” who were oppressing the poor: “If one examines how the landowners treat the miserable and wretched farmers, he will ascertain that they are more vicious than the very barbarians themselves….. With the sweat and labor of the poor, the wealthy fill their warehouses and wine vats….and to the farmers they toss a meager sum as payment. Every so often, (the wealthy Christians) invent new ways of charging interest, a thing as yet unknown even to the pagans. And all this, at the expense of men, who have to support wife and children, and who produce everything with the sweat of their brow! But the wealthy do not take any of this into consideration!” (PG 58, 591-2) John the Chrysostom didn’t need to become “Marxist”, in order to speak about social justice back then. And we do not need to do something like that now either. It is enough to preserve a genuine Christian identity like Chrysostom did, in order to preserve the genuineness of our existence in society as well. What we need, is to be firmly rooted in our Orthodox tradition.
d) There is however a danger, when examining the viewpoint regarding material goods, which is difficult to discern and therefore very serious. It is not difficult for the Christian to accept that creation is not our own, but that it belongs to God the Creator. The issue becomes much more difficult, however, with the viewpoint regarding economic commodities, that is, those things that we produce with our own labour. This is where most misunderstandings are found, even among Christians; misunderstandings that lead to a regular “social heresy”:
Given that we produce economic commodities with our own hands, or in our factories, we have come to consider them our own. If this belief prevails, it automatically leads to an error that can lead to all manner of exploitation and injustice. Because it is not difficult for one who amasses most of the qualities (abilities) or finds himself in a more advantageous position than the others, to fall victim to a thirst for profit, and, having become dominated by the sinfulness of his nature, to take nothing into account in order to acquire even greater profits. It is not at all curious, that the prominent personages of capitalism sprung from within religious circles in the West, where precisely this mentality was being preached, i.e., the individual’s freedom to profit – to acquire goods on the basis of his abilities – and consequently, to employ any means whatsoever towards this end. There is no wealth, and indeed in the modern sense, that has been acquired without injustice.
Again we shall call on the testimony of St. Jon the Chrysostom: “No, it is not in any way possible to become rich without injustice….” When the case of inherited wealth is brought up, the holy Father responds: “Will anyone disagree that one has become rich by unjust means, if he inherits his father’s fortune? He has inherited the fruits of injustice! For his father certainly was not rich from the time of Adam. Indeed, it is only natural for us to presume that many ancestors existed before him, and that one of them had plundered the goods of others and profited…” (PG 62, 561-2).
The idea that “economic” commodities “belong” to the one who produces them arises from the false notion that intellectual or physical abilities are “our own”, and hence whatever we produce is “our own” as well. But when –Orthodoxically speaking- we say that nothing is ours – that we have nothing that is our own – we are referring to our natural abilities also. Essentially, nothing is our own, since we were created “out of nothing”, from “non-being”, and we exist “by Grace”. Our whole existence depends on the love of the triune God. And the very immortality of the soul, which substantially and decisively differentiates man from animals, is not of our nature; it was given to us by the Triune God as a gift (Gen. 2:7). Likewise the spirit, the mind, brains, the powers of the body and soul, are gifts from God. They are talents that we are called to develop, as God says. We are required to transform them into service for our fellow man, so that they become a means of salvation, not of destruction and death. Indeed, whoever has more, ought to offer more. This is the rule of Christian life, which applies to both material and spiritual gifts alike. (cf. Matth. 25:15 ff).
e) Thus, not even the goods that we earn or produce with our labour belong to us. Their lord and owner is God, to Whom we belong entirely. We are simply managers, stewards. They do not belong to us. They belong to whoever has need of them. Our responsibility – and at the same time honor – is to administer them in the best and –so to speak- in the godliest manner. This is why St. Paul says: “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7); that is, the person who distributes with generosity and joy, without sorrow. There is no greater joy for the Christian than to offer all the spiritual and material goods at his disposal to others who have need of them. The epitome of this virtue is monastic poverty. In Orthodox monasticism, one attains such a degree of freedom, that he keeps nothing for himself. It is then, that he offers himself entirely to God, and is saved. St. Basil accuses as thieves those who keep their excess profits (“over value”); for, he says, “what we store in our warehouse belongs to those who lack it” (PG 31, 277). And Gregory the Theologian will say: “Shame on you, who keep what belongs to others! You ought to imitate God’s impartiality!” (PG 35, 889) And even when we give alms –when we do charity- we ought to be aware that we give nothing of our own. We merely hand out those commodities that God entrusted to us. We give love, from God’s mercy and love. An example of this is what Luke relates in Acts 3:2f.: The Apostles Peter and John were going to the Temple. A lame beggar as usual asked them for alms. But the Apostles had no money to give him. “I have no silver or gold, but I give you what I do have.” And what did he give him? The Grace of Christ. In the name of Christ, he cured him… We put this truth into effect, each time we celebrate the holy Eucharist. We lift up the bread and wine, our Eucharist gifts – which are not ours, but God’s gifts to us. We offer them to our “Great Benefactor” God, and we say to Him: “Thine own of Thine own, do we offer unto Thee”. They are Yours, and to You do we offer them! Not because God needs them, but so that He might transform matter in the Spirit: from perishable into imperishable, from death into life. The Eucharistic use of matter transforms matter into uncreated Grace.
f) In conclusion, on this issue there is a Christian rule which leaves no room for any misinterpretation concerning the commodities that we have in our possession, when justified Christianically. They must be acquired and utilized in accordance with God’s will; that is, in an honorable and just manner. Whatever comes from exploitation and injustice or deceit of any kind cannot be considered worthy in the Christian sense. But even if we have honorably acquired certain commodities, they are only blessed when utilized according to God’s will; that is, not to nurture our own selfishness, but to cater to the needs of our fellow man. This is why God reproached the foolish rich man (Luke 12:20), who had regarded all his wealth – albeit honorably and justly acquired – as being his own.
The ramifications of what we said above appear vividly in our Church’s tradition. Whoever moves in the sphere of patristic ideals, knows that Orthodoxy is revolutionary by nature and incompatible with injustice and oppression. Indeed, it presents a way of life antipodal to the capitalist, urban environment within which we have learned to play the “Christians”, who perhaps even do good deeds with what was unjustly amassed. [Note: St. Neilos the Ascetic says about this: “Merciful is not he who shows mercy to many, but he who cheats no-one”. The two coins offered by the widow in Mark 12:43 are worth more than alms that have come from “unrighteous mammon” (Luke 16:9). But this Orthodox position has its ramifications.]
4. Everything in common!
It is absolutely certain that it will be difficult for the man in our society to believe that this pronouncement is absolutely Christian and Orthodox! Ignorance of our faith due to the absence of any experience of the Christian society – which has been confined to the monasteries, and even then, not to all of them – has weakened our criteria and our reflexes to such a hopeless degree that we are no longer able to discern what is “ours” from what is “foreign”; what is of the Church, from what is not; the truth from falsehood. And yet the above saying is a genuine confession of the Church, which was transformed into action over the course of History. It is the fruit of the very life of the Saints; for Orthodoxy is not limited to mottoes alone. Its word is always based on practice. “I hate words that life contradicts”, says St. Gregory the Theologian. The life of the “deified” – of those truly faithful to Christ’s word – becomes the Church’s perpetual message, but also Her hymn and doxology, as we experience them in our worship.
Behold what we read in one of the earliest Christian texts, written at the beginning of the second century; the “Didache” (=teaching) of the Apostles – so named, not because it was written by the Apostles, but because it expressed the Apostolic spirit, the Apostolic teaching: “Never turn away the needy, SHARE ALL your possessions with your brother (fellow-man), and do not claim that anything (you have) is your own. If you and he are joint participants in things immortal, how much more so, in things that are mortal?” (4,8)
The Didache takes us back to the life of the Christians at the end of the first century; however, this message – as a determining principle of the Christian ethos – is much older. Already in the Acts of the Apostles, Luke the Evangelist, when describing the life of the first Christian community in Jerusalem, informs us that “all who believed were together and had ALL THINGS IN COMMON.” (Acts 2:44). And further down he says again: “Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul and no-one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own (=personal property), but they had EVERYTHING IN COMMON.”(Acts 4:32)
It is thus clear that the first Christian society was founded on the principle of common ownership of goods and property, which is one reason why people looked upon the Church with amazement, because of the love and fraternity that marked Christian life. This is the true (authentic) Christian, social co-existence that is preached by our holy fathers as being the genuine way of Christian living in the world.
But how was this message lived and practiced by the Christians? Does this social principle of the Church have anything in common with known social theories? No, of course not. This demand of the Church hides no proletarian conscience. It is not simply a slogan, or some law that must be enforced. On the contrary, it is the natural offspring of one’s communion with God’s Grace, which enables him to show this love to his fellow men, his brothers. Outside of Christ’s Body, His Grace, and His Sacraments, it is impossible to apply it; and wherever it is heard as a solely social demand, without the Church’s Holy-Spiritual presuppositions, it will remain mere talk – empty and inert.
The message of Acts and the “Didache” is as follows: At some point in time, rich and poor become Christians. They come together, in the new society of Grace, in the Lord’s body, and they continuously receive uncreated Grace, so that over time, they are able to defeat the constraint of Time, death and corruption. God’s Grace is a spiritual shower that unceasingly “irrigates” everyone and everything, without discrimination and exception (Matth. 5:45) From the moment of Baptism, we all – men, women, famous and obscure – become equals in the face of the salvation that is granted by the Triune God (Gal. 3:28). The Holy Spirit distributes His gifts to all, according to the receptiveness of each, without exception (1 Cor.12). Within the Body of Christ, we all become brethren to each other. The power that joins us all together, in the one, unbroken communal unity, is the Grace of God – which is expressed in our life as Love.
However, within the family of the Church we do not have the right to misappropriate the spiritual gifts and regard them as our own. In fact, if we do not activate this immediately – by transforming them into ministering to our brethren – we are burying our gift (the “talent” – Matthew 25, 25). It would be like refusing divine Grace.
Whatever is done with the use of spiritual commodities must also be done with material commodities, which we likewise do not have the right to misappropriate, and regard them as “belonging” to us, because they too are gifts of God’s love – provided of course that we have acquired them in accordance to His will. Thus, a Christian will not seize another’s material property, just as he will never consider seizing his spiritual property. But, regardless whose hands that property is in – whether material or spiritual – it is still COMMON. Without continuously changing proprietor, it belongs to everyone, because in the hour of a brother’s (spiritual or material) need, it will become his also, so that his needs may also be served. This is where the freedom of those who have truly been reborn in the Church can be found – a freedom that culminates in the status of monasticism’s abandonment of all personal properties, along with its willed poverty. In fact, if willed poverty is not a precedent act, communal property cannot be accomplished. From the moment that one dissociates himself from “his” possessions, he becomes truly free; and, from that moment, those possessions essentially remain without a proprietor and become common to all. The willed resignation from every kind of demand pertaining to any kind of commodity is the most basic prerequisite for the Eucharist-style utilization of the world-Creation, within the practice of love and brotherhood.
The manner in which the first Church became an ecclesiastic tradition can be discerned when studying the holy Fathers, for example, the blessed Chrysostom: “…because we have received everything from Christ; even that very existence of ours, and our breath, and the light, and the air. And if He were to deprive us of even one of these commodities, we would immediately be lost and destroyed. In other words, we are merely strangers and passers-by on this earth. As for the terms that we tend to use, such as “mine” and “yours”, these are mere words, which do not correspond to reality; quite simply because, if you were to assert that your house is “your house”, your statement would be a mere expression, because both the air and the earth (=the plot of land) and the other materials are the Creator’s – even you the builder, and all the rest. And if its use belongs to you, yet even that is doubtful, not only because of death, but even before, it is because of the instability in general of the conditions of terrestrial life… If your soul isn’t truly yours, how can money be “yours”? Thus, therefore, if that too (money) is not “ours”, but it belongs to God, we should be spending it for the sake of our fellow-man…. Do not therefore ever insist that “I am spending my money, and I am entertaining myself with my fortune”. You are not entertaining yourself with your fortune, but with commodities that belong to others… They (commodities) become truly “yours”, if you spend them for the sake of others. But if you spend them lavishly on yourself, then “yours” will become another’s…. But if you regard them as common, then they will be both yours and your fellow-man’s, exactly as the sun is, and the air, and the earth, and all the other natural commodities…” (Ε.Π. 61, 86-87)
Thus we can see why Orthodoxy does not need any social revolution to bring about justice. Because the revolution takes place in the hearts of the Saints and is called “purification of the heart from one’s passions”, so that the heart might attain (selfless) love and righteousness. This is Orthodoxy’s revolution in the world. But it is accomplished throughout the course of History, only by those who accept Christ in all His fullness, as “the physician of our souls and bodies”, Who does not “kill and destroy” (John 10:10) like the rulers of the world do, but heals our souls and bodies, and leads us to an inner health (a theoretic mindset) and an external health (a loving society).
5. The solution: the Church
The sociopolitical systems of every era promise solutions to the social problem, as long as these agree with their own principles. This is also true of the two major sociopolitical systems of our own time: urbanism and Marxism. Just like other people, Christians too (Orthodox included) fall victim to the deceptive promises of these systems and they look to them for their social redemption. But the question is: Can a Christian reconcile himself to any human system, and indeed identify himself with it? The answer, naturally, is No. The systems of the world are ideological constructs, human creations that embody the inner world of their creators. At best, they cannot be but imperfect formations with all the weaknesses of fallen man, his passions and his deficiencies. The Christian knows that the solution –salvation- even in the social sphere, has been provided by Christ, and in deed within His Body, the Church. He also knows that it is laxness on the part of Christians that drives people to the sociopolitical systems of the world.
With His Incarnation, Christ did not simply bring to the world a new religion or cult but a new life, a new manner of existence. Christ’s solution for the human drama was not limited to a sublime doctrine, or to providing answers for mankind’s problems. Christ called us to join a new society- the society of His Body, His Church. The purpose of the Church as the Body of Christ was to embrace in Her bosom ALL of humanity; to make the whole world His “Church”. A person’s salvation, and that of humanity as a whole, is possible only within the Church. What Christ offers, then, as a solution to the social drama of human society is not a social system, not even formal commandments and directions, but His own society; a society that is not related to the rest of society of human social systems, because Christ’s Society is not only material but spiritual too; not only earthly but heavenly as well. It is not solely human, but Theanthropic. It is not trapped in the present, within this world, but also extends into eternity. It does not have only earthly and limited aims but eternal and immortal ones. Its aim is not merely to guarantee social justice (assuming that the human systems are incapable of doing this); but rather, in the Church, social justice is one of the means by which we as human beings and as society may be able to live in God’s love, both in this life and in eternity, and ultimately to become participants in the eternal rule (or kingdom, if you will), in eternal salvation – which is an eternal society (i.e. communion) with God – that goes “from glory to glory” in an interminable eternal advance. It is really amazing how, from communion with God (i.e., the indwelling of he Holy Spirit in the heart) one progresses to communion with his brothers, his fellow men; and how, from loving communion with his fellow men he proceeds to eternal communion with God. (This is the meaning of the parable of the Judgment – Matth. 25:31)
But social justice did not remain just an ideal for the Church. It was incarnated into a specific way of life, with absolute consistency. This is displayed by the first organized Church community in Jerusalem. Aside from the various interpretations given to the organization of the first Apostolic community that belong to a broad spectrum of theological presuppositions, we will approach that first organized ecclesiastical society with the guidance of the God-bearing Fathers who saw things from the point of view of their experiences of the vision of God.
Immediately following the Pentecost, and with the communal lifestyle of Christ and His disciples as a precedent, the Church appeared in the world as a new society, as “a world within the world”; a new social dimension within the rest of historical society. Just as Noah’s Ark (Genesis 7), which was a pre-portrayal of the Church, traveled across the world and did not sink together with it, so too the Church, as the Ark of Salvation, travels along the flood of sin and injustice, and yet does not identify with it. Christ replaced the former fallen society with His own society, which continually embraces and saves the world. Just as Christ is the ALL-TRUTH and saves all things, so also His body, the Church, being the fullness of Truth, saves all-inclusively the whole of life, transforming and sanctifying all social structures, in all their breadth and depth, by the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit.
The social character of the Church is first of all revealed in the very names used to indicate Her nature: body, new creation, (new) Israel, holy nation, realm of God, “city” of God, world within the world, community of believers (cf. Acts 2:42), etc., etc. The names for the Church’s clergy also have a societal ring to them: Episkopos: bishop, supervisor; Presbyter: elder; Diakonos: deacon; Cleros: clergy. Although the Apostles and holy fathers attribute an ecclesiastical context to these terms, so as to relieve them of the meanings that they had in the vernacular of the Hellenic city-state, nevertheless, when using them, they expressed the societal reality of the Lord’s body as a Theanthropic and worldly organization composed of members who live in this world. In the words of professor M. Siotes: “The theocratic aspect of the Hellenic city-state serves as a model for the Church of Christ as far as Her worldly and human character are concerned, whereas the “kahal (of) Yahweh” serves as the Church’s model in regard to Her divine character.”
The Church’s societal organization appears together with the “institution” of common ownership of property (Acts 2:42, 44-47, 4:23-37; 5:1f, 6:1f). And what else is this – if not a “political measure” in the Aristotelian sense of the term – except the organizing of common commodities in the service of love? What is significant here, however, is that the Church Herself, using Her own abilities, assumes the task of solving a specific social problem, even if influenced by models outside the Church (eg., Qumran, Roman Collegia). Besides, this was the Church’s job: to take the world unto herself and to transfigure and sanctify it in Christ. The Apostolic Synod (49 A.D.) will in fact establish the institution of “collections”, that is, the collecting of economic aid by the faithful of one community for the sake of the poorer members of another (Gal. 2:20; 1 Cor.16:2f; 2 Cor.9:1f). The purpose of organizing the lives of the faithful along these lines is articulated by St. Paul, when he wrote to the Corinthians that the abundance of the one group should supply the shortage of the others, so that there might be equality (2 Cor. 8:13-14). And with the spread of the institution of common ownership to the other communities as well (1 Cor.11:17 ff), and the institution of the “collections”, a de facto inter-community unity among the Christians was created, such that the entire Church, the world over, would appear as a single commonwealth in Christ; a single worldwide community and society in Christ, not only of a shared faith, but also of a common way of life that manifests itself as love (and charity).
So, the Church did not confine Herself to a discarnate spirituality, but She joined together the spiritual life (ascesis, sacraments, Holy-Spiritual illumination) and social-mundane care, and made them inseparable. The Church’s organization on societal lines exhibits her as a “systematically organized whole”, clearly distinguishable from the world around her. The Church did not mix with the world or identify with it. She remained – and in the persons of her Saints still remains – a self-sufficient society in Christ, not identified with the powers and the groups of the world, but possessing her own Holy-Spiritual way of living, conscious of her uniqueness as a society and of her exclusiveness in offering salvation to the individual and to society.
6. The service of the “Seven”
The Church’s care for society was fully interwoven with the spiritual “growth” of her members. After all, the Church’s offer of salvation on the spiritual as well as the material-mundane level was manifested as “service”. The entire redemptive work of Christ and the Church is one, multi-faceted service. Professor G. Galitis writes that ecclesiastically speaking, we cannot discriminate between spiritual and material service. “It is basically the same act, i.e., taking care of needs: spiritual needs on the one hand, that deal with the salvation of the soul, and material needs on the other hand; ones that deal with the body. Hence they can be classified under the same name of service.”
The pastoral care of the people of God is thus manifested within the Church as “the ministry of the word”, “prayer” and “serving tables” (Acts 6:4). The term “serving tables” stands for the entire range of the Church’s social work. The Apostles, responsible as they were for the life of the whole body, placed daily (continuous, incessant) table service, right next to the performing of the sacraments and preaching. This was a purely mundane and simultaneously civic task that encompassed the church’s overall service to society. This was in agreement with the will of Christ, the “Head” of the Church, Who united divine and human natures within His very Person, therefore, there was no way that He would allow them to be segregated within His social Body – the Church.
Not only, then, did the Apostles not reject or demote the serving of tables, but on the contrary, with a God-inspired delegating of services, they kept for themselves the spiritual-pastoral works and assigned the Church’s worldly chores to others. “The more necessary of what is necessary takes precedence”, Saint John the Chrysostom had said. But this action on the part of the Apostles was an affirmation of the believers’ overall life needs and an attempt to deal with and resolve the “social” problem of the first Christian community.
Thus emerged the “seven” – as Luke called them (Acts 6) – in the life of the Church. At first they were not called “diakonos” (deacon), because every spiritual activity implemented in the Church’s body was called a diakonia (ministry, service). When, later, the term “deacon” was confined to the first degree of holy orders, confusion arose as to the function of the “seven”. Thus, the Synod of Neo-Caesarea (4th century) declared the “seven” to be liturgical deacons. St. John the Chrysostom, on the other hand, provided the true meaning, after first clarifying the obvious confusion concerning the true context of the ecclesiastic titles: “Joint bishops and deacons”…. What was this? Were there several bishops for the same city? No, of course not; that was what they called “presbyter”. This was because at that time, they shared the same title; even the bishop was called “diakonos”… and the presbyters also used to be addressed as bishops and deacons (ministers) of Christ, and bishops were similarly addressed as presbyters.” (PG 62, 183). He also defined the tasks of the “seven”: “We need to know which office they held, and what ordination they had received. Was it that of a deacon? But in fact, this office did not exist in the Church as yet, however the stewardship belonged to the presbyters. Furthermore, no-one was a bishop yet, but there were only the Apostles. Hence the title of deacon or presbyter is neither known nor evident, as far as I can tell.” In other words, they were not deacons or presbyters in the sense of the subsequent use of these terms, but a kind of “overseer” (episkopos) for managing the Church’s material affairs. And this will survive later in the institution of the office of “economos”, i.e. a steward in the monasteries and in the dioceses, which are Orthodoxically regarded as “monasteries within the world”. This same position was held in the 12th century also, by another great commentator of our Church, Ecumenios, Bishop of Trikke: “They ordained those who were elected as deacons, not in the sense of the ones now officiating in the churches, but for distributing the meals to orphans and widows meticulously and not heedlessly.”
It is, however, of the utmost importance that this “civil” service in the Church body, which has been systematically overlooked – mainly from the time the Church entrusted it into the hands of the State – was accredited for all time to divine inspiration during the 5th Ecumenical Synod (692). This Synod in its Canon 16 affirms the Chrysostom’s interpretation as being that of a deified Father. The Synodic Fathers say: “In the course of fittingly harmonizing the ideas of the Fathers with the Apostolic saying, we discovered that their words in this connection did not pertain to the men serving as ministers to the sacraments, but to those who ministered to the needs of the tables…” and then, after quoting the passage from Acts and St. John the Chrysostom’s interpretation, they conclude: “Resting upon these words, therefore, we too proclaim that as regards the aforesaid seven Deacons, they were not selected to minister to the sacraments….. but on the contrary, they were selected to serve the common need of the Christians then gathered together; and that they continue to be an example to us of philanthropy and diligence in regard to the needy.”
The Ecumenical Synod comes along to confirm the true –that is, the sociopolitical – function of the seven deacons. In fact, if one compares the term used to denote their service (ministry – υπουργία) with the title “minister” for the civil servant in the sociopolitical dimension of life, he will draw many important, practical conclusions. This ministry did not disappear from the Church; (see Phil. 1:1, 1 Tim. 3;8-12, etc.) The ‘institution’ underwent various transitions, until it appeared in the term «Bishop (Επίσκοπος), overseer of external affairs» (Eusebius of Caesarea), and was applied to the now Christian Emperor, who together with the entire civil structure of the State assumed –as a function of the State now- the sociopolitical service of the same people that the Clergy (the ‘priesthood’) pastors provided, spiritually. But what is more interesting here is the spirit of the Apostles’ action. Having being enlightened by the Holy Spirit, they dictated that the material as well as the spiritual problems of the people of God should be in the hands of Spirit-bearing persons, who would solve them in a manner indicated by the Holy Spirit, and not by depending on other powers.
The first Church did not only offer a model for the organization of society, but also an example for ‘political philosophy’. This is evident in the Apostles’ action. They did not define the persons, but only the qualifications required of them (Acts 6:3). The selection was made by the people themselves. “They leave the selection in the hands of the very people who will benefit from the leadership of those selected,” says Saint Ecumenios of Trikke (6th century). The seven were elected by those who would be the recipients of their service-ministry. And thus, through the Holy Spirit, the only authentic manner of naming civil ministers or civil leaders of any kind was established: election by the people, by the members.
Hence the Church moulded a specific social reality, which is vividly portrayed in the Book of Acts and in the New Testament in general. And the life in the community of Jerusalem is, according to all the Fathers, the authentic expression of the ethos of the Orthodox Church within History. It provides the measure and the dimensions for Christian living, for Orthodox society, as a society of theosis and the sanctification of life as a whole. The purpose of the Incarnation – which was to “churchify’ every aspect of life, both spiritual and social – is vividly apparent in the Acts of the Apostles and in the Patristic Tradition, which is itself genuinely Apostolic. The ensuing, essentially Protestant, understanding that the Christian can move between two ‘kingdoms’ (Christ’s and Caesar’s) – an idea which in modern times has also seeped into our lives – brought about the separation of religion and society, faith and morality, and has estranged us from our ecclesiastical roots.
7. Does the Church offer a social system?
The question is worded like this: Since Christianity (Orthodoxy) offers its own society to the world, does it also provide a sociopolitical system? Is there a particular Christian ‘system’?
It needs to be made clear that Orthodoxy is neither a system, nor can it ever be imprisoned in the airtight container of any system. Orthodoxy is God’s life in the world, which entered history in the Person of the Logos of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. The life of Orthodoxy is therefore a life in the Spirit, a life of freedom and Grace. The concept of a system is a scholastic one, and it proves how deeply the scholastic influence has affected our theology and life during the last centuries. That is why, during these past few years, there is a major, hope-filled effort to rid our theology and life of scholastic and Western influences. It is however beyond all objection or doubt that regeneration in Christ requires a “Christification” of life in all its dimensions, so that our life might become a Christ-life. This is also the meaning of Paul’s words: “Thus, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it for the glory of God. (1 Cor. 10:31).
Therefore the Christian cannot on one hand be nourished spiritually by Christ (in His faith and worship life) while on the other hand, expect salvation on the social level from the powers of the world, and many times indeed unconsciously become their lackey. How can an Orthodox Christian confess in his worship “One is Holy, One is Lord, Jesus Christ” and then in his sociopolitical life compromise and even identify with the systems of the world? Truly the greatest tragedy of modern Greek society is that we pass our faith through the filters of the political parties. The same can be said for us, that the Venetians had declared during the years of their empire: “Primo Veneziani, e poi Christiani (first Venetians, then Christians)!! First whatever else, and after that, Orthodox! But Orthodoxy as we said requires our WHOLE life. “Let us appose ourselves and each other and ALL our life unto Christ our God”.
Hence it is not curious that the Apostles organized the Church spiritually and socially according to Christ’s revelation. The first Church of Jerusalem appeared in a pagan and Roman environment. That is, in an environment that constituted a secular society, foreign to the will of God, governed and regulated by laws and rules of living –by a system- that man had made, without Christ. The first Church had developed her own way of living, her own way of existing in the world, described vividly and clearly in Acts (see 2:43f, 4:32f)
The deacon Stephen will be accused of attempting to transfuse this new social structure of the Church to his fellow Jews. The accusation was that he wanted to change their “customs” (model of societal life) which, as they claimed, Moses had given them (Acts 6:14)
The first Church left no written ‘system’. But She gave to the world the way of life of the Christians. The spirit of the Apostles is what interests us: their wish, which was that even the sociopolitical life of the believers becomes the life of Christ. The Apostles, guided by the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, marked the framework of the believers’ societal life. On what did they base it? What else but on the word of Christ! Hadn’t He given the Sermon on the Mount? Wasn’t this sermon a revelation of the Church’s ethos, of the Christian way of life? Christ’s Truth provided the conditions for the “churchification” of sociopolitical life as well. Christ did not give a ‘system’; only Grace and Truth which are capable of organizing societal life also, according to the manner of Christ; so that even in the civic and social aspect of our life, we might remain ‘Christ’s’ and not become ‘servants of men’.
But then, isn’t this how the rest of the life of the Church was shaped over the centuries? Take worship for example; it is an essential element of Christian life. From the first rudimentary hymns and the simple forms of the Apostolic era, after a long process, the church ended up with Her subsequent magnificent liturgy. Was this evolution contrary to the Apostolic spirit? The variety of later forms did not alter the essence of Apostolic worship but enriched it and modified it, to meet the later needs of the Christians. But then, weren’t the dogmas and holy canons also formulated over a period of centuries? Can anyone Orthodox argue that these are not in keeping with the faith of the Apostles? The Church throughout all the centuries remained Apostolic, because She is the continuation of the life, the spirit and the will of the Apostles. Better yet, she is the continuation of Christ. She perpetuates His presence in the world.
The same can therefore hold for the social-civic dimension of the life of Orthodox membership. There is no ‘system’ of Christian politics, Christian economy, Christian sociability or ethics. But as a “society of Saints”, that is, in the persons of Her Saints who are deified, the Church possesses the truth of Christ. Hence it is possible to exercise Christian politics, to implement a Christian economy, to organize a Christian society. The agents of Christ’s truth can produce Christian laws and they can secure a Christian education and Christian economic relations. Besides, the Church’s holy canons which were written with the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit do not only deal with worship or Church administration. They clearly possess a sociopolitical character, and they also deal with social issues: the family, education, labor, public life. Thus, they condemn the ‘policy’ of the world: stealing, deception, injustice and exploitation, high interest rates, base profits, and so many other social ills. Our Church’s existing social canons alone are sufficient to mark the framework of sociopolitical life that the believer can realize in the body of the Church, through the grace of the Holy Spirit. This is why it does not seem strange, that in “Byzantium”, the sacred canons were recognized as laws of the State.
The example of the first Christian society of Jerusalem remained for the Church throughout the centuries the model for living, such that all the major Fathers (Basil, Chrysostom, etc.) would always refer the faithful to the Church of Jerusalem, so that they too would live like true Christians. St. John the Chrysostom in fact preached that if the Church (of the 4th century) returned again to the way of life of the first Christians of Jerusalem, She would attract the world’s pagans and atheists to become Her members. He even promised: “If God gives me life, I believe that in no time, I will lead you to this kind of societal lifestyle.” (PG 60, 98)
The communal-coenobitic way of life will, in every century, be the genuine manner of Christian existence in the world. The way of life is preserved to this day in the monastic commune (coenobium) which continues to be the model Christian society and the truest example today of ‘real’ socialism, with its mutual service, lack of possessions and common ownership; the “communism” of love, where everyone works according to his abilities and receives according to his needs . Here, there is no trace of exploitation or injustice, since the aim is not to make a profit, but to serve the brethren. Moreover, there is no discrimination between mental and physical labor, because both can coexist in brotherly collaboration.
Within the monastic commune, which stands as the authentic model of Christian society, the fact is gloriously demonstrated that Christ does not abolish our worldly dimension. He sanctifies it and affirms its worth, as being the life of His own body, freeing it from its bondage to sin. Thus in Orthodoxy, spirituality is differentiated from immaterialism, dualism (i.e. regarding the body as something demonic), inaction, or any other nirvana whatsoever. Its meaning is not exhausted in ‘prayer’ and ‘worship’ alone. Christ united our whole self unto His body, so that our whole life might be transformed into prayer and worship. And this occurs, when we integrate into His truth those aspects of our life that we consider material and mundane. The Orthodox hesychastic tradition, which is Christian spirituality in its authentic form, comes in here too, to provide the correct answer to our problem.
First of all, Hesychasm in the Orthodox sense is not understood as ‘contemplative’ bliss and inertia. Hesychasts are literally drowned in activities; the hesychast strives to transcend exigency and whatever is demonic, and to attain the freedom of grace through being liberated from all passions and through the Holy Spirit’s enlightenment. The purified hesychast no longer lives for himself, but has become all-love. This is evident in the structure of the coenobitic monastery. Here, purely material and mundane activities are not excluded; for here we will find the doctor, the steward (manager of material commodities), the shoemaker, the baker, the tailor, the mule-keeper. In the monastic brotherhood however, all these are not profit-making ‘professions’ but services offered – a profession in the true sense of the word. That is why all these kinds of labour not only aren’t an obstacle to the monks’ incessant prayer, they are themselves transformed into prayer, since, after all, their aim is the functioning of the body of the Church within society. The monk prays even while he works as a shoemaker, a baker or a mule-keeper. Mundane activities are changed spiritually into ‘rational worship’ (Romans 12:1). In the long run, the monastic coenobium shows how civil service can, once again, become a function of the Church.
Romanity lived by this ideal during the years of so-called “Byzantium” as well as during the Turkish occupation. The community system and the cooperatives during the Turkish occupation were based on the example of the Church of Jerusalem, taking into account the analogies. It was through this way of living together in communities that our nation was able to survive that terrible period of subjugation.