Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Demetrios paid a visit to Coca-Cola world headquarters last week to meet with Muhtar Kent, president and chief executive officer of the company. It is a striking image here: Two hierarchs from the ancient see of Constantinople meeting with the mascot of a company that is the symbol par excellence of economic and cultural globalization.
One of the pleasant surprises in the Patriarch’s book “Encountering the Mystery” was his assertion that “the Orthodox Church is not opposed to an economic progress that serves humanity as a whole.” This is about 180 degrees from what you usually hear from Old World hierarchs, who so often condemn globalization and its chief architect, “the West.” In truth, there’s a bit of that in Bartholomew’s views, but more balance. Unfortunately, like other Orthodox hierarchs, he continues to view economic activity as a zero sum game — whoever gains does so by taking from someone else. There’s no real understanding of how wealth is created or how the market economy, despite its uneven benefits, is the most effective means of eliminating dire poverty. (See “Socialism Kills: The Human Cost of Delayed Economic Reform in India” by Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar at the Cato Institute).
Case in point. In the year 2000, SCOBA issued the A Pastoral Letter on the Occasion of the Third Christian Millennium, a statement which acknowledged how the faithful suffered under communism but, in the next breath, said this:
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.
This is a deplorable bit of moral relativizing, on the economic plane, which trivializes the great catastrophe that afflicted Orthodox Christian churches under the communists, and is blind to the ways that the bishops’ American flock — with its glittering, air-conditioned neo-Byzantine churches dotting the landscape — has flourished in a market economy. This is not incidental to the American Orthodox experience; the vast majority of Orthodox Christians who immigrated to this country did so in pursuit of the “American dream,” another way to say “economic liberty.”
Since the founding of Byzantium, Orthodox cultures have been enthusiastic traders, merchants and producers and continue to be some of the foremost economic globalizers on the world stage. The best example of this, I think, is the dominant role that Greeks have played in commercial shipping, beginning with legendary figures like Niarchos, Onassis and Livanos. These men, operating in a spirit that combined audacity and entrepreneurial smarts, made the vast shipment of goods and raw materials in the post-war period possible. Before the current economic crisis, more than 23 percent of the world’s oil tankers belonged to Greek ship owners, as much as the combined fleets of Japan and the United States. In 2007, Greek ships carried 60 percent of China’s imports of raw materials, including oil and gas, a trade which helped many Greek ship owners become millionaires and billionaires. Today, because of these connections, it’s not uncommon to find Chinese shopkeepers in Greek islands and poor neighborhoods in Athens selling all manner of low-cost goods, especially clothing.
This enthusiastic embrace of trading for profit — to the ends of the known world — has a long history in the Orthodox Christian world. In the Dumbarton Oaks edition of the Economic History of Byzantium, editor Angeliki Laiou observed:
The merchant’s profit was perfectly acceptable in the economic thinking of the Byzantines, with all that such a position implies. Nowhere, for instance, do we find the condemnation of profits deriving from mercantile enterprise as unclean money, as sometimes was the case among theologians in western Europe. If saints’ lives of the middle period are a good guide in this respect, we can say that they do, sometimes, refer to dirty money, that the pious may not touch, but it is not the merchant’s profit that is at issue. Rather, what is unclean is the money made from exactions and from the unjust treatment of the poor …
Laiou adds that the Byzantines, in general, regarded the practice of lending money at interest as acceptable to all except ecclesiastics. Layman had a legitimate right to charge interest on loans. And the merchant’s profit was justified and legitimate. That said, there was an ambivalence about the “art” of making money, which was typical of cultures tied to ancient Greek philosophy and Christianity.
In her excellent book on Byzantium, Judith Herrin observes that Byzantium “inherited from Rome a contempt for trade as an activity not worthy of free men” and the official chroniclers rarely paid much attention to it. This was, of course, a sentiment that survived among the aristocracy in Europe for a very long time. But in actuality, Byzantine trade and merchant activity was immense. It literally provided the fuel that kept the empire going for more than a thousand years.
“Constantinople dominated the naval and land trade routes between north and south, east and west,” Herrin tells us, “and maintained control over lucrative markets frequented by many foreign merchants. In the seventh century, the wealth of the city attracted merchants from all parts of the eastern Mediterranean and even from Gaul.” There were, for example, regulations setting compensation from ship-owners for damages that merchants incurred from losses at sea. You can read accounts, too, about ship owners buying insurance for their vessels from brokers in Byzantine Egypt. Herrin adds:
The Queen of the Cities — the ruling city of Constantine — attracted numerous foreigners who came to buy and sell in its markets, which stimulated the empire’s medieval commercial revival. Its golden and silken products attracted more merchants, its schools attracted more students, its churches, relics and icons attracted more pilgrims, its imperial administration generated more jobs, and its mixed society created more opportunities than any other in the Mediterranean.
This continued throughout the empire, until it fell in 1453, and in all other Orthodox cultures throughout the medieval period and into modern times. Traian Stoianovich’s excellent survey of commerce titled, “The Conquering Balkan Orthodox Merchant,” looks at the period extending roughly from the 14th to the 18th century and the very active trade in Hungary, South Russia, and the eastern Mediterranean. Stoianovich asserts that the liberation of Orthodox lands from a crumbing Ottoman Empire, and the nation building project that followed, could not have happened without the growth of a native merchant or middle class. Who were they?
… the Greek trader of Constantinople, Salonika, and Smyrna, the Greek and Orthodox Albanian merchant, sailor, and shipper of the smaller Aegean islands, the Greek, Vlach, and Macedo-Slav muleteer and forwarding agent of Epirus, Thessaly, and Macedonia, the Serbian pig-merchant of Sumadija, the “Illyrian” muleteer and forwarding agent of Herzegovina and Dalmatia, who set up business in Ragusa (Dubrovnik) or Trieste, the “Rascian” of Pannonia, and the Greek or Bulgarian of the eastern Rhodope. The Balkan Orthodox merchants were Ottoman, Habsburg, and Russian subjects, but their principal business was to bring goods into or out of the Ottoman Empire.