Chapter VI. The Social Problem in the Eastern Orthodox Church
Christianity is essentially a social religion. There is an old Latin saying: unus Christianas nullus Christianus. Nobody can be truly Christian as a solitary and isolated being. Christianity is not primarily a doctrine or a discipline that individuals might adopt for their personal use and guidance. Christianity is exactly a community, i.e., the church. In this respect there is an obvious continuity between the Old and the New dispensations. Christians are «the New Israel.» The whole phraseology of Scripture is highly instructive: the Covenant, the Kingdom, the Church, «a holy Nation, a peculiar People.» The abstract term «Christianity» is obviously of a late date. From the very beginning Christianity was socially minded. The whole fabric of Christian existence is social and corporate. All Christian sacraments are intrinsically «social sacraments,» i.e. sacraments of incorporation. Christian worship is also a corporate worship, «publica et communis oratio,» in the phrase of St. Cyprian. To build up the Church of Christ means, therefore, to build up a new society and, by implication, to re-build human society on a new basis. There was always a strong emphasis on unanimity and life in common. One of the earliest names for Christians was simply «Brethren.» The church was and was to be a creaturely image of the divine pattern. Three Persons, yet One God. Accordingly, in the church, many are to be integrated into one Body.
All this is, of course, the common heritage of the whole church. Yet, probably, this corporate emphasis has been particularly strong in the Eastern tradition and does still constitute the distinctive ethos of the Eastern Orthodox church. It is not _________________
«The Social Problem in the Eastern Orthodox Church» appeared in The Journal of Religious Thought, Vol. VIII, No. 1 (Autumn / Winter, 1950 – 1951), pp. 41 – 51. Reprinted by permission.
to suggest that all social aspirations of Christianity had been really actualized in the empirical life of the Christian East. Ideals are never fully realized; the church is still
in via, and we have to admit the sore failure of the East to become and to stay fully Christian. Yet, ideals must not be overlooked. They are both the guiding principle and the driving power of human life. There was always a clear vision of the corporate nature of Christianity in the East. There is still, as it has been for centuries, a strong social instinct in the Eastern church in spite of all historical involvements and drawbacks. And possibly this is the main contribution which the Eastern church can make to the contemporary conversation on social issues.
The early church was not just a voluntary association for «religious» purposes. It was rather the New Society, even the New Humanity, a polis or politeuma, the true City of God, in the process of construction. And each local community was fully aware of its membership in an inclusive and universal whole. The church was conceived as an independent and self-supporting social order, as a new social dimension, a peculiar systema patridos, as Origen put it. Early Christians felt themselves, in the last resort, quite outside of the existing social order, simply because for them the church was an «order,» an extra-territorial «colony of Heaven» on earth (Phil. 3:20, Moffatt’s translation). Nor was this attitude fully abandoned even later when the empire, as it were, came to terms with the church.
The early Christian attitude was continued in the monastic movement, which grew rapidly precisely in the period of an alleged reconciliation with the world. Of course, monasticism was a complex phenomenon, but its main stream was always socially minded. It was not so much a flight from the world as it was an endeavor to build up a new world on a new basis. A monastery was a community, a «little church» – not only a worshipping community, but a working community as well. Great stress was laid on work, and idleness was regarded as the grievous vice. But it had to be a work for common purpose and benefit. It was true already of the early Pachomian communities in Egypt. St. Pachomius was preaching «the gospel of continued work.» It is well said of him: «The general appearance and life of a Pachomian monastery cannot have been very different from that of a well-regulated college, city, or camp» (Bp. Kirk, The Vision of God). The great legislator of Eastern monasticism, St. Basil of Caesarea in Cappadocia (c. 330 – 379), was deeply concerned with the problem of social reconstruction. He watched with a grave apprehension the process of social disintegration, which was so spectacular in his day. Thus his call to formation of monastic communities was an attempt to rekindle the spirit of mutuality in a world which seemed to have lost any sense of social responsibility and cohesion. In his conception, man was essentially a «gregarious animal» (koinōnikon zōon), «neither savage nor a lover of solitude.» He cannot accomplish his purpose in life, he cannot be truly human, unless he dwells in a community. Monasticism, therefore, was not a higher level of perfection, for the few, but an earnest attempt to give a proper human dimension to man’s life. Christians had to set a model of a new society in order to counterbalance those disintegrating forces which were operative in the decaying world. A true cohesion in society can be achieved only by an identity of purpose, by a subordination of all individual concerns to the common cause and interest. In a sense, it was a Socialist experiment of a peculiar kind, on a voluntary basis. Obedience itself had to be founded on love and mutual affection, on a free realization of brotherly love. The whole emphasis was on the corporate nature of man. Individualism is therefore self-destructive.
As startling as it may appear, the same «coenobitical» pattern was at that time regarded as obligatory for all Christians, «even though they be married.» Could the whole Christian society be built up as a kind of a «monastery»? St. John Chrysostom, the great bishop of the imperial city of Constantinople (c. 350 – 407), did not hesitate to answer this question in the affirmative. It did not mean that all should go into the wilderness. On the contrary, Christians had to rebuild the existing society on a «coenobitical» pattern. Chrysostom was quite certain that all social evils were rooted in the acquisitive appetite of man, in his selfish desire to possess goods for his exclusive benefit. Now, there was but one lawful owner of all goods and possessions in the world, namely, the Lord Almighty. Men are but his ministers and servants, and they have to use God’s gifts solely for God’s purposes, i.e., ultimately for common needs. Chrysostom’s conception of property was strictly functional: possession is justified only by its proper use. To be sure, Chrysostom was not a social or economic reformer, and his practical suggestions may seem rather inconclusive and even naïve. But he was one of the greatest Christian prophets of social equality and justice. There was nothing sentimental in his appeal to charity. Christian charity, in fact, is not just a caritative emotion. Christians should be not just moved by the other people’s suffering, need, and misery. They have to understand that social misery is the continued agony of Christ, suffering still in the person of his members. Chrysostom’s ethical zeal and pathos were rooted in his clear vision of the Body of Christ.
One may contend that in practice very little came out of this vigorous social preaching. But one has to understand that the greatest limitation imposed upon the Christian preaching of social virtue was rooted in the conviction that the church could act only by persuasion, and never by violence and compulsion. Of course, no church could ever stand the temptation to call in the assistance of some worldly power, be it the state or public opinion, or any other form of social pressure. But in no case did the results justify the original break of freedom. The proof is that even now we have not moved very far in the realization of Christian standards. The church is ultimately concerned with the change of human hearts and minds, and not primarily with the change of an external order, as important as all social improvements may be. The early church made an attempt to realize a higher social standard within its own ranks. The success was but relative; the standards themselves had to be lowered. Yet, it was not a reconciliation with the existing injustice; it was rather an acknowledgment of an inherent antinomy. Could the church use, in the human struggle for survival, any other weapon than the word of truth and mercy? In any case, some basic principles were established, and boldly formulated, which are relevant to any historical situation.
It was, first of all, the recognition of an ultimate equality of all men. This egalitarian spirit is deeply implanted in the Eastern Orthodox soul. There is no room for any social or racial discrimination within the body of the Eastern church, in spite of its elaborate hierarchical structure. One can easily detect at the bottom of this feeling precisely the early Christian conception of the church as of an «order» by itself.
Second, it is assumed that the church has to deal primarily with the needy and underprivileged, with all those who are destitute and heavy laden, with the repentant sinners, precisely with the repentant publicans and not with self-righteous Pharisees. The Christ of the Eastern tradition is precisely the humiliated Christ, yet glorified exactly by his humiliation, by condescendence of his compassionate love. This emphasis on an existential compassion in the Eastern tradition sometimes seems exaggerated to Western observers – almost morbid. But it is just an implication of the basic feeling that the church is in the world rather as a hospital for the sick than as a hostel for the perfect. This feeling had always a very immediate impact on the whole social thinking in the East. The main emphasis was on a direct service to the poor and the needy, and not on elaborate schemes for an ideal society. Immediate human relationship is more important than any perfect scheme. The social problem was treated always as an ethical problem; but ethics was founded in dogma, in the dogma of Incarnation and Redemption through the Cross. One finds all these motives strongly stressed both in the popular preaching and, in the traditional devotional texts, read and repeated in all Orthodox churches again and again. On the whole, the church is always with the humble and meek, and not with the mighty and proud. All this might be often neglected but it was never denied, even by those who were practically betraying the tradition.
And third, there is that inherited social instinct which makes of the church rather a spiritual home, than an authoritarian institution. One has to begin with a remote historical background if one wants to grasp the intimate spirit of the Eastern church. One of the most distinctive marks of this church is its «traditionalism.» The term can be easily misunderstood and misinterpreted. In fact, tradition means continuity, and not stagnation. It is not a static principle. The ethos of the Eastern church is still the same as in the early centuries. But is not the existential situation of a Christian ever the same in spite of all radical and drastic changes in his historical situation?
There was no important movement of social Christianity in modern Russia. Yet, the impact of Christian principles on the whole life was not negligible: it was the same traditional emphasis on mercy and compassion and on human dignity which is never destroyed, even by sin or crime. But the greatest contribution to the social problem was made in the field of religious thought. «Social Christianity» was the basic and favorite theme of the whole religious thinking in Russia in the course of the last century, and the same thought colored also the whole literature of the same period. Various writers would insist that the true vocation of Russia was in the field of religion, and precisely in the field of social Christianity. Dostoevsky would go so far as to suggest that the Orthodox church was precisely «our Russian socialism.» He wanted to say that it was the church that could inspire and enforce an ultimate realization of social justice in the spirit of brotherly love and mutuality. For him, Christianity could be fully realized only in the field of social action. All elements were given in the traditional piety: the feeling of common responsibility, the spirit of mutuality, humility, and compassion. «The church as a social ideal»; this was Dostoevsky’s basic idea, as Vladimir Solovyev put it in his admirable addresses on Dostoevsky. The same was Solovyev’s leading vision. The key words were in both cases the same: freedom and brotherhood.
It was the Slavophile school that brought the social aspect of Christianity to the fore in the nineteenth century. The name is misleading. The «slavic idea» was by no means the starting point or the strongest point of this influential movement of ideas. The main point was, however, this: did not the West overemphasize the importance of the individual? and did not the East, and particularly the Slavic East, pay more attention to the social and corporate aspect of human life? There was much of Utopian exaggeration in this historiosophy, and yet this social emphasis was completely justified. And the best spokesmen of the school knew quite well that this Eastern feeling for social and communal values was due, not to the Slavic national character, but precisely to the tradition of the early church. It was one of the greatest leaders of the movement, A. S. Khomyakov (1804 – 1860), who elaborated a theological basis of social Christianity in his brief but inspiring pamphlet: The Church Is One (it has been recently re-published in English translation, London, S.P.C.K., 1948). His main emphasis was again on the spirit of love and freedom that make the church one fellowship knit together by faith and charity. Spiritual fellowship in the church must be inevitably extended to the whole field of social relations. Society itself should be rebuilt as a fellowship. «Our law is not a law of bondage or of hireling service, laboring for wages, but a law of the adoption of sons, and of love which is free. We know that when any one of us falls he falls alone; but no one is saved alone.» It is precisely what St. Basil suggested: nobody can achieve his purpose in solitude and isolation. No true faith is available in isolation, either, since the crucial fact a Christian should believe is precisely the all-embracing love of God in Christ, who is the head of the Body.
The essence of Christianity, therefore, is the free unanimity of many, which integrates them into unity. This short essay of Khomyakov, in fact, meant a radical reorientation of the whole theological and religious thought in Russia. On the one hand, it was a return to the early tradition; on the other, it was a call to practice. Khomyakov’s ideas were the starting point of Solovyev, although later on Solovyev moved in another direction and was seduced by a Romanizing conception of «Christian politics» without, however, abandoning the crucial conception of the church as the social ideal. All his life Solovyev firmly believed in the social mission of Christianity and of the church. Later on, Nicolas Berdyaev wrote a book on Khomyakov in which he stressed the social implications of Khomyakov’s conception of the church. It is interesting to observe that all the three writers just quoted were laymen, yet all of them were loyal, in the main, to Tradition, even if on some particular points they would diverge from it. Their influence, in any case, was not confined to the laity. The whole complex of social problems was brought to the fore by the catastrophe of the Russian Revolution. Historical failures of Christians in the social field must be admitted and recognized. And still the basic conviction remains unshaken: the faith of the church provides a solid ground for social action, and only in the Christian spirit can one expect to build afresh a new order in which both human personality and social order would be secured.
At this point an urgent question imposes: why then was there so little social action in the East and the whole richness of social ideas left without an adequate embodiment? There is no easy answer to this question. One point, however, should be made in advance. The church is never a unique worker in the social field. It may be allowed a free hand in the field of social philanthropy, almost under any regime, except of course totalitarian tyranny. And, in fact, the church was usually the pioneer, even in the organization of medical service. In Russia, in any case, the first hospitals and orphanages were organized by the church, as early as the fifteenth century, if not earlier; and, what is also instructive, precisely in connection with the «coenobitical» monasteries, just as it was in the times of St. Basil and St. Chrysostom. The work was taken over by the state only in the second half of the eighteenth century, but a memory of the past survived in the name of the «God-pleasing institutions,» which was in common use even a century ago. The whole situation changes, however, when we come to the foundations of the social order. Christian and secular criteria do not necessarily coincide, and many conflicts do not admit of an easy solution. The strictures of the early and mediaeval church on usury can be, surely, completely justified from an integral ethical point of view. Yet, economically, they were a serious handicap to progress. The early church was unusually severe on trade in general, and not without reason. There were nevertheless some pertinent reasons on the other side as well. The same is true of the whole industrial (and «capitalistic») development. On many issues a conflict between the Christian and the «national» approaches seem to be unavoidable. What chance has the church to enforce its point of view, except by preaching and admonishing? The state is never very favorable to the criticism coming from the church unless the state itself is avowedly Christian. The same is true of the economic society. The Eastern church, as a rule, was reluctant to interfere in a political manner. Nor should we forget that for several centuries the major churches in the Near East were under Moslem rule and therefore no room was left for any independent social action, except by the way of charity. And when the liberation came in the course of the nineteenth century, the new states were built on a Western, bourgeois pattern and were not ready to follow a Christian lead.
In Russia the field of a prospective influence of the church was similarly narrowed since the state assumed, under a Western influence also, all characteristics of a «Polizei-Staat» and started claiming the supremacy over the church itself. The church was comparatively free only within its own ranks. There was there little room for constructive action, and yet the spirit was alive and the vision of social problems was never obscured. But there was still another major problem: should the church commit itself to any particular social or economic program? Should the church take part in a political struggle? The Eastern answer would be rather in the negative, but by no means will it mean an attitude of indifference.
There is no room for any social action of the churches «behind the Iron Curtain.» Of course, this curtain is made not of iron or any other material stuff, but rather of principles. And the main principle of the new totalitarian regime is precisely the complete separation of the church from the whole field of political, social, and economic activities. The church is compelled to retire into «its own sphere,» which is, in addition, very strictly circumscribed. The only activity permitted is worship. All educational and missionary activities are prohibited, although the actual policy may vary from country to country and from year to year. On the whole, an absolute sovereignty of the state is taken for granted. In these countries there is but one authority, that of the state or of the party.
Now, in principle, the church can find its way under all circumstances and in every concrete situation. The major danger is, however, elsewhere, namely, in a wrong interpretation of the «other-worldly» character of the church. It is very instructive to compare two recent documents emanating from the Orthodox churches, and both more or less of an informal character. The first is a book, recently published on behalf of the «Christian Union of Professional Men of Greece,» Towards a Christian Civilization (Athens, 1950). It is an outspoken and courageous call to Christian action on all fields of civilization. It is an admirable sketch of an active and «guiding» Christianity, and of a «contemporanized» Christianity. Christians have to pass a judgment on all areas of life, and first of all on their own failure to grapple efficiently with a hopeless situation. There is a free and creative spirit breathing through the pages of this book. It is a true call to Christian action. Christians are called; not only authorities or clergy. It is assumed that Christianity has an authority in the social sphere. This manifesto has an informal and private character. It is the voice of Christians, of the body of the church.
The other document comes from the Soviet Union. It is a report on the whole Ecumenical problem, prepared by Fr. Razoumovsky, a priest in Moscow, for the conference of several Orthodox churches in Moscow, which took place in July, 1948. It is included in the minutes of the conference, now published in Russian (Vol. II, Moscow, 1949). We are concerned now with the concluding section of this report. The main point made in the report is an utter separation of the field of the church and the state: «the soul» and «the body.» A phrase of the Oxford report of 1937 is quoted: «For a Christian there is no higher authority than God» and a characteristic qualification is added: «yes, but only in the realm of the soul and spirit, but not in the material sphere, there is a complete sovereignty of the state, responsible before God» (p. 177). It is a strange remark indeed when we recall that the state in question is a Godless state. But the thought is quite clear: Christian principles have no application «in the material sphere.» Moreover, we are informed on the next pages that principles of justice, equality, freedom are not Christian. They belong to an independent secular sphere exempt even from a moral judgment of the church. The church simply has nothing to do with the whole area of social and kindred problems. One particular point is stressed: it is admitted that Christ had sent his apostles «to teach,» but they have to teach «nations» only, not the «rulers» (p. 177). Further, Christ suggested that his followers should avoid an immediate contact with evil. «If social injustice is evil – because the world lies in the evil – it is already a sign that it does not belong to our sphere» (p. 191). This enigmatic phrase has to mean apparently that Christians should not fight evil, but only do good. It is also suggested that social improvements and economic security are of a dubious value from a moral point of view: «would there be any room for the sacrificial love, which is commanded by Christ.» Hence no need to overcome greed or envy (p. 189). The main tenor of the document is obvious: the church retires from the world, in which she has nothing to do; she has no social mission at all and has to avoid any «contact» with the world, because it is «in the evil.» Have we to forget its misery and suffering? No, but all this belongs solely to the competence of the state, and the church resigns its responsibility for «the material sphere.»
Possibly it is just that amount of «religious freedom» which is conceded to churches by an atheistic state and possibly it is in full accordance with the Godless principles. But can the church accept a «reconciliation» or «toleration» at this cost without betraying the gospel of righteousness and its own age-long tradition? Such «otherworldliness» of the church has for it no warrant in the historical experience of the Eastern church. Of course it is not in the tradition of St. Basil and St. Chrysostom. There is no need to add that in fact there is no real separation between the spheres of competence simply because the church in the Soviet Union indulges, time and again, in pronouncements of an openly political or social nature, when, of course, it is invited to do so by the state.
The church is indeed «not of this world,» but it has nevertheless an obvious and important mission «in this world» precisely because it lies «in the evil.» In any case, one cannot avoid at least a diagnosis. It was commonly believed for centuries that the main Christian vocation was precisely an administration of charity and justice. The church was, both in the East and in the West, a supreme teacher of all ethical values. All ethical values of our present civilization can be traced back to Christian sources, and above all back to the gospel of Christ. Again, the church is a society which claims the whole man for God’s service and offers cure and healing to the whole man, and not only to his «soul.» If the church, as an institution, cannot adopt the way of an open social action, Christians cannot dispense with their civic duties for theirs is an enormous contribution to make «in the material sphere,» exactly as Christians.