Orthodoxy and Morality
It seems to me that the Orthodox perspective on moral issues is very different than what we might call the Western perspective, though that doesn’t mean there is no sense of right and wrong. In my understanding of Orthodox morality, what would be called wrong is that which is harmful to ourselves and others, that which keeps us from achieving our highest (God given) potential, and especially that which takes us further from God. I don’t mean this to be a complete statement of Orthodox morality, but a general understanding. Sin is “missing the mark” more than actually doing evil though it could well be evil. Sometimes we miss the mark by a little, sometimes by a lot. God wants us to hit the mark, to do what is right, because it is what is best for us and for all around us, and because it brings us closer to Him.
Several years ago I translated a book for the World Council of Churches about the poor of Europe. The basic thesis of the Dutch author was this: if we are to see the face of Christ in the poor, then clearly there must be two Gospel messages: one for “us” (the wealthy, who are to regard the poor as an earthly manifestation of Christ) and one for “them” (the poor themselves). The author had a whole theology built up around this idea, which was basically liberation theology. It sounded wonderful on the surface: the responsibility of adopting a whole new attitude towards the poor based on the teachings of Christ himself. But slowly it dawned on me how wrong it was.
It’s a very Western, scientific way of looking at things. You categorize the human race into two types. You are either rich or poor. You stand outside yourself and study the world from “out there,” and decide where you fit in. Then you act according to where you think you belong. If you think you are “rich,” then you care for the poor, go to confession and confess your sins of greed, and admit that you have participated in the systematic impoverishment of the world. If you are “poor,” you join with whoever you think are your “poor” brothers and sisters and praise God, secure in the knowledge that Abraham’s bosom is waiting for you.
There are lots of problems with this kind of thinking. First of all, it means the “rich” are robbing the “poor” of knowledge of their own greed, their own participation in the impoverishment of the world and the opportunity to confess their sins and to gain forgiveness. It’s robbing the poor of salvation, and that’s pretty bad. It also means the rich are in charge they decide who is rich and poor, they decide where the fault lies (with them, which they quickly admit to because it means they’re in charge of knowing where the fault lies, and that means they get to hold the reins of power), they decide the poor are not in need of absolution because they haven’t done anything wrong they are Christ among “us”!
And the poor are all the poorer for it.
Another problem is that not all the rich admit to being rich. I’ve heard many rather wealthy people tell me they regarded themselves as “struggling” and not rich at all. They felt no obligation to the poor, only smoldering rage at them for eating up their tax dollars in welfare or foreign aid.
Liberation theology tends to split the world in two along lines that are not at all clear. The standard for deciding who is who is not based on the gospel, it’s based on how you happen to feel about your life. It’s really quite arbitrary and dangerous.
The fact is that I cannot imagine anyone poorer than I am, because “I am poor and lost,” and I cannot imagine anyone richer than I am, because I have been blessed beyond all telling. It’s not up to me to decide who is rich and who is poor. I must struggle to see each person as an icon of Christ, whether it be the priest of my church or the drug addict who hangs out in front of the supermarket, not on the basis of their relative wealth, but on the basis of the truth about human beings.
Perspective of the poor
Thank you, Nancy, for your response. I speak out of relatively little experience with liberation theology. I have come to it open to the positive aspects while being cautious when it uses violence. I gather there is a wide range of liberation theology, from taking up arms to a nonviolent approach.
One of the most important elements in liberation theology is that the perspective of the poor is built in. The poor and the reality of suffering is dealt with, whereas in many other theologies it is ignored. Jon Sobrino proposes that suffering is a primary reality of the world because of the number of suffering poor among us.
Jesus must be our center, our destination, our daily experience, our food, security, shelter, our vision, and the kingdom growing within us. Jesus places the poor and all marginalized peoples in the center with him that they not be forgotten in the Kingdom. As we see Jesus in the poor we are given a corrective lens and a material accountability for the truths we tout.
Isaiah 58 shows the necessity for unity of worship and justice done to the image of God in the poor. Regardless of worship style or denomination, solidarity with the suffering poor is the fire to test, try, refine and make beautifully real our faith. The Word cannot have been made flesh where the poor are still marginalized, objectified, and ignored. Worship cannot be authentic when it has no connection or trajectory towards the streets, sewers, and slums.
In short we cannot be correctly identified as followers of Christ if we do not follow him in his most basic tenants, love of neighbor as ones self. Jesus in the poor becomes the just judge of the authenticity of our Christ likeness.
I think in a similar way the Desert Father’s did theology in the desert in fasting and prayer. It was a theology rooted in the experience of God and the suffering of our flesh.
It seems like the most helpful writing is that which considers us all poor and rich, oppressor and oppressed. It is recognizing the enemy in our own skin.
I do see the scientific materialism appearing and have a generally bad taste in my mouth about that way of seeing the world. I think the Orthodox way of seeing the commingling yet not confusion of persons which gave the groundwork for understanding the Trinity and the Incarnation also is a much richer way of seeing Jesus in the poor. They are icons. They are commingled in the suffering Christ without being confused with Him. Matthew 25 makes more sense. They are not Jesus, but their lives are intimately wrapped up in His. (The Rape of Man and Nature by Phillip Sherrard helped me see this).
I think we have to make the distinction between poverty found in the slums and that poverty found in our nursing homes here in Romania and in our hearts as affluent Westerners. Orthodox theology has a much richer and broader view of salvation than found in the liberation theology you have encountered. I do think though as affluent Westerners part of our “process of being saved” can come in coming into relationship with the poor. In them we see a mirror into our true powerlessness and need before God. I think it is a kind of fasting in which our hearts are prepared to receive a deeper understanding of God’s intimate love for us.
No two-tiered Gospel
I would have to say that I am in agreement with you, Nancy, in rejecting any form of “two-tiered” Gospel, whether it be rich vs. poor, monastic vs. non-monastic, clergy vs. laity, etc. I think the demand of Christ is placed equally upon all of us, that we “take up our cross and follow Him.” But I also think that what it means to take up our cross is highly individual and varies from person to person. It may mean something different for one who is a monastic than for one who has a family. It may mean something different for a clergyman than for a layperson. And it may mean something different for one who is rich than for one who is poor. We all take up our cross and follow Him, but the way in which we do so is as varied as there are people in the world.
I would also have to say that the language of “rich and “poor” is not something invented by liberation theologians: it has clear roots in the Scripture. In the prophetic writings the word “rich” is almost a synonym for the word “evil,” and it is the “anawim,” Yahweh’s “poor ones,” who are regarded as righteous. This concept carries over into the New Testament; we see it in the book of James:
“Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?”
As well as in the Magnificat we sing every Sunday: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Maybe the concept of “preferential option” is a corrective lens, theologically speaking: a way of looking at the world through the eyes of the Kingdom where “many who are first shall be last, and the last first.”
Fr. Paul Schroeder
What’s the big deal?
My initial reaction when I first learned of liberation theology was, “What’s the big deal? That’s just our faith.” The “taking it by force” part of liberation theology didn’t sink in until later.
Sheri San Chirico
Empires rise and fall like billows
Yesterday I was in London walking past the Foreign Office building and thinking that a century ago a third of the land surface of the world, and de facto all of the seas, were ruled from this and a few nearby buildings.
So at that epoch people really did believe “that the Lord of history has laid on the United Kingdom, now and for the foreseeable future, a unique charge with respect to the preservation of world stability and the well-being of mankind.”
We all know what happened next.
Mobile phone story
Here’s a story that was related on another list:
“On Palm Sunday, a year ago, as I was leaving church I got a call on my cell phone that my house was burning to the ground. As it happened at same moment the priest at the church door grabbed my hand for a handshake. In shock I said, ‘My house is burning down.’ He replied, ‘Good for you. God bless you and have a nice day’.”
From the Winter 2004/Theophany issue of In Communion, the quarterly journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. The text is copyrighted by the author and should not be published or reproduced on another web site without the author’s written permission.