Conflicted Hearts: Orthodox Christian ‘Social Justice’ in an Age of Globalization

By: John Couretas

John Couretas

John Couretas

In the opening sermon delivered to an ecumenical gathering last year in Brazil, Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana and All Albania called on the assembly to promote "daring initiatives and just social struggles." The archbishop, a leading expert on Orthodox Christian missionary work, exhorted the 3,800 attendees at the World Council of Churches gathering in Porto Alegre "not to be spectators of divine interventions and actions," but to offer themselves as co-workers with the Lord.

He addressed the rise of economic globalization, describing it as "solely concerned with broadening the market" as it levels cultural diversity. "Woe to us if, in the twenty-first century, we again relinquish the initiative for social justice to others, as we have done in past centuries, while we confine ourselves to our opulent rituals, to our usual alliance with the powerful," the archbishop preached.

The archbishop, in his critique of an ever-more-interdependent global economic system, picked up on themes in his 2003 collection of essays, Facing the WorldOrthodoxbooksonline.com. In that work, he called on Christians to promote a "society of love" in opposition to "a globalization that transforms nations and people into an indistinguishable, homogenized mass, convenient for the economic objectives of an anonymous oligarchy."

The archbishop’s critique of economic globalization fell on receptive ears at the WCC, a Geneva-based organization that, going back to the Cold War years, has long been critical of American military and economic might. At the same time, the archbishop and the WCC delegates who made their way to Porto Alegre on wide-body jets and air-conditioned tourist coaches availed themselves of the fruits of economic globalization — international credit card processing, ATM machines, Internet access, safe immunizations, and high-tech airport security. As they must have done in attending earlier assemblies in Zimbabwe, Sweden, India, Kenya, and Australia.

Of Two Minds About Globalization

This double-minded approach — recoiling from the reality of a powerful global economy while enjoying its many benefits — was evident in the "Pastoral Letter on the Occasion of the Third Christian Millennium" (.pdf file) issued by SCOBA bishops in 2000. In a passage on economics, the statement carefully noted that many Orthodox cultures "suffered terribly" under communism. But then the bishops made a startling assertion:

We acknowledge that our capitalist system is no less predicated on purely materialist principles, which also do not engender faith in God. There is no place in the calculus of our economics to account for the "intangibles" of human existence. Reflect on how the simple accounting phrase "the bottom line" has shaped our whole culture. We use it to force the summarization of an analysis devoid of any externals or irrelevancies to the "heart of the matter." This usually means the monetary outcome.

Maybe the well-meaning SCOBA hierarchs did not intend to level capitalism, or what we might call a free market system, to the same moral ground as communism. Undoubtedly, those who fled or escaped from communist countries during the Cold War — whether they were Cuban or Vietnamese boat people or East Germans risking their necks to scale the Berlin Wall — were in search of exactly those political and economic "intangibles" that were denied them at home. As a system of materialist philosophy, communism reduced the human person to a mere unit of labor — no more or less valuable than a milling machine or a draft animal. Even more, communism sought to purge from society any notion of a higher authority than the state. Under the savagely atheistic systems of communism, more Orthodox Christians were martyred in the twentieth century than in all other centuries combined.

In short, on the matter of economic globalization, Orthodox Christian leaders have been deeply conflicted. And today, as the world knits itself closer together through international trade and Internet-enabled communications, economics are almost always at the root of any discussion of "social justice" — whether the particular issue be health care, labor, the environment or immigration.

In a 2005 book that looks at the Eastern Orthodox response to globalization, authors Alex Agadjanian and Victor Roudometof show that while religion can be "bluntly repulsive and self-protecting" against globalization, it may also become involved in a "complex and painstaking negotiation" with globalization. "Globality is the ‘spirit’ of the age, and nothing can escape its vortex," the authors contend.

Understanding Social Justice Means Understanding Economics

This "painstaking negotiation" with globalization surely ought to include an honest attempt to understand the "spirit of the age" without prejudice. Denunciations of social, political, and economic realities by church leaders are of little use when no effort is made to fairly understand these realities and how they affect the lives of Orthodox Christians in everyday life.

"Economically ignorant moralism is as objectionable as morally callous economism," the post-war German economist Wilhelm Ropke wrote. "Ethics and economics are two equally difficult subjects, and while the former needs discerning and expert reason, the latter cannot do without humane values." Ropke was writing at a time when many in the West were looking to make a moral case for capitalism against the threat of totalitarian, collectivist communism. Making the case, he said, demanded a conception of economic life rooted in mankind’s spiritual and moral existence.

Just as there is no real understanding of many bioethical issues without a general grasp of underlying medical technology, there is no real understanding of "social justice" without an understanding of basic economic principles. These principles explain how Orthodox Christians work, earn, invest, and give to philanthropic causes in a market-oriented economy. Economic questions are at the root of many of the problems that on their face seem to be more about something else — poverty, immigration, the environment, technology, politics, humanitarian assistance. In the environmental area, for example, the current debate on global warming is just as much focused on how to finance the means of slowing the rising temperatures of the earth as it is on root causes. And the question always is: Who will pay?

What, exactly, is social justice? It is an ambiguous concept, loaded with ideological freight. No politically correct person would dare oppose it. To be against "social justice" would be tantamount to opposing "fairness." Today, the term is most often employed by liberal-progressive activists and a "social justice movement" that advances an economic agenda which includes such causes as a "living wage," universal health care and expanded welfare benefits, increased labor union powers, forgiveness of national debts in the developing world, and vastly increased transfers of foreign aid from rich countries to the poor. Because religious conservatives tend toward support for free market economic systems, they have largely shunned the "social justice" agenda and its government-based solutions.

The Orthodox Tradition of Social Witness

Whatever "social justice" could mean in an Orthodox Christian sense, it would have to include the witness of the biblical and patristic moral tradition. Orthodox Christian thinking and preaching about the uses of wealth and the scandal of poverty have a long history in this Tradition, going back to the Apostles and the Church Fathers.

St. John Chrysostom, the great conscience of the Church on these matters, closed his second sermon on Lazarus and the Rich Man, delivered in Antioch in the late fourth century, by imploring his flock to keep one main thing in mind: "I beg you, remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life," he preached. "We do not possess our own wealth but theirs." It should be pointed out that in patristic thinking, the non-negotiable concern for the poor, the sick, and those in prison was frequently balanced with demands for personal responsibility, honest work, and "orderly" social life.

St. John Chrysostom preached in Antioch and Constantinople more than 1,600 years ago. Where is the prophetic voice of the Church today on moral issues in public life? That question has been asked for some time. As one Orthodox writer in the 1960s noted, Roman Catholics and Protestants often viewed the Eastern Church as a place for "wealth of ritual — a mystical, static ‘communion of worship,’ without dynamism, without prophetic breath, without any wish to take part in the reshaping of the social environment in which her faithful live."

This view is of course a caricature of Orthodoxy’s encounter with society, but there is some truth in it. As American society, both secular and religious, continues its own negotiation with globalization, and the entire field of presidential candidates for the 2008 election include "God talk" in their slogans and speeches, the Orthodox are largely absent from the field. To the extent that Orthodox social engagement exists today in the political sphere, it has largely been defaulted to Protestant-dominated, politically progressive ecumenical structures such as the WCC and, in the United States, the National Council of Churches.

The Orthodox tradition of social witness is ripe for renewal and revival. And today there are signs that the Church is beginning to engage important issues such as economic globalization and matters of "social justice" with new thinking and on its own terms.

At its Jubilee Bishop’s Council in Moscow in 2000, the Russian Church published a document on the "social concept" of the faith (Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church), including sections on politics, labor, and property. It showed the Russian bishops beginning to come to terms with a secular, post-communist era and the disastrous effects of the ill-conceived free market economic reforms of the early 1990s. On private property, for example, the bishops affirmed a legitimate right of ownership. "Russian history has shown that the violations of these principles have always resulted in social upheavals and people’s suffering," the bishops said.

Last year, Holy Cross Press published a new collection of essays titled, Christ at Work: Orthodox Christian Perspectives on VocationOrthodoxBooksOnline.com. The essays looked at the concept of a vocation or spiritual calling in one’s everyday life. Looking at one’s work as a way to bring glory to God should not be viewed as an attempt to sanctify success. Rather, this deeper understanding of work shows a healthy respect for the type of worldly employment the vast majority of Orthodox Christians are engaged in. Honest work, after all, gives Orthodox Christians the means to raise and educate their families as they choose, build churches and monasteries, and fund missionary and humanitarian efforts.

"Any profession without a deep sense of commitment and service to others can easily become mere employment," writes Fr. Theodore Stylianopoulos in one of the essays. "On the other hand, any job or employment, conducted from the perspective of leading a life worthy of God, would itself be transformed into a calling, indeed an ongoing sacrament, conducted for the love of God and service of others."

New Thinking on Faith and Economics from the Ecumenical Patriarch

Some of the best new thinking on economic globalization is yet to come. A new book by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, due out in March 2008, tackles the problem head-on with balance and compassion. "The issues of free trade, global commerce, and market growth should be of concern to everybody, not just a few people," Patriarch Bartholomew writes. "Unless that is clearly recognized, there will be a deeper and deepening chasm between the individual and the community, as well as between the rich and the poor."

The patriarch’s new book, entitled Encountering the Mystery — Understanding Orthodox Christianity TodayAmerican Orthodox Institute - www.aoiusa.org, addresses a number of current problems. The patriarch sees how viewpoints on social questions informed by faith are "proving to be the subjects of renewed interest and attention" in politics and policy circles. Yet he provides a caution: It is not social dogma or political ideology that should be at the center of the Christian’s concerns, but the "sacredness of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God." The Church, he says, "is not opposed to an economic progress that serves humanity as a whole."

The patriarch points to the remarkable alleviation of poverty in places like India and China through the opening of markets and international trade. Yet, he is quick to add that "economic and social development must always be tempered and underpinned by moral and social values. Whatever happens in the world, we ought to strive to preserve fundamental cultural values that pertain to humanity without, of course, establishing unnecessary barriers to useful economic progress."

A few points could have been handled more carefully in the book, including the discussion of the "growing gap" between rich and poor. True, yes. But such discussions have become greatly politicized, particularly by populist politicians using class warfare rhetoric. While the earnings gap is real, it is not an indicator of poverty, nor does it take into account real social mobility in market-based economies. The poor are not always poor forever. If any politician or economist is interested in studying the phenomenon of poor or immigrant people rapidly advancing up the economic ladder, he or she would do well to start with the Orthodox Christian experience in places like Canada, Australia, and the United States.

Overall, Encountering the Mystery deserves to be widely read and actively discussed by Orthodox Christians and people of other faith traditions. Economic globalization, after all, is not an unmixed good. It has its drawbacks and its debatable developments, which the patriarch addresses. Not least of these adverse effects is the serious environmental damage that is taking place in newly industrialized countries — particularly India and China.

Yet Patriarch Bartholomew does not see our situation as a bleak one, nor determined by overpowering forces. It is an urgent situation, yes. But he rightly points to the human person at the center of the issue. "We must begin to address serious questions about personal responsibility and accept some blame or ethical liability for the choices we make," he warns.

Finding Our Own Voice

How does Orthodox Christianity begin to find a stronger public voice on social questions? How is the revival of the Church’s authentic "social justice" work to begin? Declaring the Church’s independence from worn-out, politically compromised ecumenical structures such as the WCC would be a positive first step. This separation would not preclude new openings and deeper engagements with other churches and other cultures. Indeed, some of the most important ecumenical outreach in recent years has been bilateral, such as the warming relations between Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics in Europe.

In recent decades, Orthodox leaders have allowed ecumenical bodies to do most of their talking and thinking for them on social questions. Protestant-dominated groups like the WCC and the NCC have evolved into left-leaning political activist organizations for partisan political causes. The spirit of these groups draws heavily on the "Social Gospel" movement of the mainline Protestant churches and the liberal element in Roman Catholicism, which puts worldly programs for perfecting society ahead of personal conversion.

It is strange to consider: Could anyone imagine Orthodox Christian theologians formulating a "social justice" ethic by borrowing heavily from Roman Catholic theology, papal encyclicals, and allusions to the scholastic works of St. Thomas Aquinas? Why, then, would we piggyback an Orthodox social consciousness on a liberal-progressive institution such as the NCC, which is supported by mainline Protestant churches themselves experiencing a long historic decline in membership?

The politicization of Christian dogma in the service of leftist, liberation-theology Christianity and its "social justice" agenda was highlighted in a 2006 report from a conservative watchdog group, the Institute on Religion and Democracy. IRD’s "Strange Yokefellows: The National Council of Churches and its Growing Non-Church Constituency" looked at the "sharp leftward tilt" in NCC advocacy and its growing support from "progressive" secular groups such as the Sierra Club, MoveOn.org, and Ben Cohen’s TrueMajority. The NCC is more financially beholden to the Sierra Club than it is to all of its Eastern and Oriental Orthodox communions combined, IRD concluded.

In July 2005, alarmed by the growing "secular progressive agenda," the self-ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America pulled out of the NCC. Orthodox churches that remain in the NCC and WCC would do well to follow the Antiochians’ lead. By allowing these ecumenical groups to trumpet Orthodox membership in every policy statement and press release, the Orthodox Church not only causes itself to be identified with the partisan, progressive politics and economic programs behind these organizations, it is also tainted by nutty theological improvisations.

Another important reason Orthodox Christians should invite — even demand — a revival of the Church’s social witness today is the spread, along with globalization, of secularism. This is nothing more than a society viewing itself as economically and politically self-sufficient and without need for reference to a moral life in God. To the extent that secularism gathers power, that it becomes the dominant ethic of government and business, it will expand its claims into areas of life that have traditionally been reserved to the individual: religious expression, marriage and family relations, sexuality, and the education of children. The direct threat that secularism poses to faith communities has been clearly discerned by prominent Orthodox Christian bishops in Europe. These bishops have spoken out against, for example, the 2004 campaign to enact a European Union constitution that did not acknowledge Europe’s Christian roots.

What does the Church have in answer to the gathering powers of secularism and a globalization that would inhumanely sweep away religious and cultural diversity? It has a powerful moral tradition, rooted in biblical and patristic sources. Bringing about a revival of this tradition should not only involve the clergy and the theologians, but experts drawn from diverse fields in politics, economics, and the social sciences. And, without question, it needs to seriously engage the laity, whose participation in any revival of Orthodox social witness would begin with a closer relationship to the Gospel. It begins with the person who, transformed by the Gospel, takes that message and that living example of Christian charity to the wider world. "The transformation of the heart can and must lead to the transformation of society," Patriarch Bartholomew tells us. "This, after all, is ultimately the way of encounter."

That’s as good a definition of "social justice" as we are going to find. For Orthodox Christians concerned about an economic globalization that is both humane and leaves room for the "intangibles" of life, that is where it begins — with the transformation of the heart.

John Couretas is executive director of the American Orthodox Institute.

This article originally appeared in AGAIN Vol. 29 #4, Winter 2008, and is copyrighted by Conciliar Press. Learn more about AGAIN online at www.conciliarpress.com.