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The Orthodox Peace Fellowship: An Introduction, IC70

The Orthodox Peace Fellowship: A Fellowship of Orthodox Christian Peacemakers.

Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Matthew 5:23-24).

Let us call brothers even those who hate us and forgive all by the Resurrection (Easter verses, Orthodox Liturgy).

FraAngelicoSword-1005x1024 the OPF
“The Capture of Christ,” by Fra. Angelico, c. 1440

The Orthodox Peace Fellowship of the Protection of the Mother of God is an association of Orthodox Christian believers seeking to practice the Christian peacemaking vocation in every area of life, to bear witness to the peace of Christ by applying the principles of the Gospel to situations of division and conflict at every level of human relationship, and to promote prayer and worship, acts of mercy and service, and love for all human beings and for all of creation. We are not a political association and support no political parties, agendas, or candidates, and we promote no ideology other than that we should “repent and believe, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Were we to attempt to formulate an ideology, we could not improve on the beatitudes from the sermon on the mount.

From the earliest days of the Church, followers of Jesus have sought to live out their Christian faith in its fullness, working to build communities of worship, providing for those lacking the necessities of life, loving not only neighbors but enemies, seeking conversion of adversaries rather than victory over them, and practicing repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation as normal virtues of sacramental life.

This has never been easy. Each generation has had to confront the problem of evil and combat its structures and also has had to suffer the tension that exists between membership in the Church and citizenship in a political entity, be that an empire or a nation-state.

Often the teachings of Jesus have been dismissed, even by believers, as too idealistic. Yet every generation, even in the era of Hitler and Stalin, has been blessed with heroic witnesses to membership in “an army that sheds no blood,” as Clement of Alexandria described the Church.

Among the principles that guide us:
  • Aware that each person is made in the image and likeness of God, we seek recovery of a sense of familial connection which, while respecting national identity, transcends every tribal, ethnic, and national boundary. This is the oneness the Church mirrors when it is gathered before the Holy Table.
  • We use our vocation and whatever special gifts and resources God has given us, especially our participation in eucharistic community, as we strive to undertake constructive action on behalf of those who are endangered, from the child in the womb to the aged awaiting death, in every circumstance of life and across all boundaries.
  • We aspire to eliminate violence as a means of conflict resolution, and we promote resolution of conflicts by mediation, negotiation, and other forms of nonviolent action.
  • We pray that, while no one can be certain that he or she will always find a nonviolent response to every crisis that may arise, God will show us in each situation ways of resistance to evil that will not require killing opponents.
  • We offer support to those whose conscience leads them to refuse participation in war and who struggle against evil in non-military ways. We believe conscientious objection to participation in war is consistent with the Gospels and Holy Tradition.
  • We respect those who disagree with us and may choose to serve in their country’s armed forces. We do not promote the naive notion that a nation may be pacifist as a national defense strategy and acknowledge that in our fallen world people often feel compelled to choose collective violence in response to evil. Nevertheless, we find no basis for a Just War theology in Orthodox tradition and, consistent with the earliest teaching of the Church, consider all war sin. Rather than seek to justify war, we are encouraged to exhaust all efforts to seek peace. We believe more wars would be prevented by focusing on doing peace well before war rather than waiting for war to arrive to argue how to do it well.
  • We encourage the compassionate treatment of prisoners and their rehabilitation, with special attention to restitution by wrong-doers to victims of their crimes. We reject the execution of criminals as incompatible with the teachings of Christ.
  • We commit ourselves to pray for all, especially fellow believers, who suffer around the world from all forms of violence, evil, oppression, and injustice that they may be delivered from evil, healed from their wounds, and enabled to find renewed ways to live in peace and safety.
  • We further commit ourselves to prayer for enemies and endeavor to communicate God’s love for them, recognizing our own violence and praying that, through Christ’s saving death on the Cross, we will be reconciled with God and with each other.

Thus we strive to avoid bitterness in dealing with controversy, seeking conversion both of ourselves and our adversary. Aware that we are in need of conversion not only in the way we relate to other people but to the world God has put into our care, we try to change our lives in order to live as priests of God’s world, asking continuously for the Holy Spirit to descend and transfigure the earth. We seek to cooperate with efforts to protect and preserve the environment which do not involve violence, coercive methods of population control, the promotion of particular political agendas, or violations of the sanctity of human life.

Our work includes:

Theological research: Much needs to be done within the Church to better understand ways in which Orthodox Christians should respond to division, conflict, injustice, war, and the relationship of the believer to the state. We encourage research on peace in the Bible, peace in the Liturgy, examples of ways Orthodox people and churches have responded to war from ancient to modern times, and the collection of relevant quotations and stories from the Fathers and the saints. One significant result of this effort is the book, For the Peace from Above: an Orthodox Resource book on War, Peace, and Nationalism, edited by Hildo Bos and Jim Forest and published by Syndesmos, the international association of Orthodox youth. The full text of this reference book is also on the OPF web site.

Publication: Our quarterly journal, In Communion, not only provides its readers with helpful essays and news but serves as a forum for dialogue. The main articles from past issues of In Communion plus many other resources are made available via our web site: www.incommunion.org. OPF members are also invited to take part in the OPF List, a news and discussion forum.

Practical assistance in conflict areas: As one of our members, a priest in the Republic of Georgia, points out: “Activity of the OPF is of particular importance in those Orthodox countries going through war and the horror of national conflict. The OPF can help Orthodox people to practice peace and tolerance and to show that war and national conflict are satanic traps.”

Structure: The Orthodox Peace Fellowship has members in North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Its international secretariat is in The Netherlands. Decisions are made by the OPF secretaries and officers in consultation with each other, with counsel from members and the Fellowship’s Board of Advisors. Our largest branch at present is in North America. There are occasional meetings and conferences in the United States and Canada as well as in Europe. We encourage the formation of local and national chapters.

A description of our vocation:

We are faithful sons and daughters of the Church, not the Church’s rescue committee. Fr. John Meyendorff once said to a member of a schismatic Orthodox group, “We do not save the Church. The Church saves us.” Our modest task is not to invent anything or announce a new theology or reorganize the Church but simply to reopen forgotten or neglected Church teachings regarding day-to-day life in a world in which enmity is always a problem, in which millions suffer from hunger, thirst, and homelessness, and in which war is rarely not occurring somewhere on our small planet.

The Church has preserved the Liturgy down through the centuries. It has preserved the Bible and the Creed. It has preserved the writings of the Church Fathers and the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils. It has developed and maintained a calendar of sacred time. But it has been somewhat less attentive to calling us to account for the teaching it has preserved. Over the centuries, when state and faith were in conflict, we have more often been obedient citizens than obedient Christians.

We believe in a hierarchy of identities. We are not first people of a certain country, then Orthodox Christians. It is the other way around. We are first Orthodox Christians, then people of a particular state, national, or tribal affiliation. We renounce none of these identities nor do we ignore any of their obligations, but when the requirements of one identity clash with another, we are required to know which comes first.

We try to remind ourselves and our neighbors that there is no such thing as a good or holy war––that it defames God and the Gospel to use adjectives associated with sanctity and heaven in that most hellish of all activities, the organized killing of human beings and the destruction of the environment upon which all life depends. Every possible effort must be made to avoid war, but not by cowardly avoidance or failure to recognize evil for what it is and to resist it. Chamberlain was not a peacemaker. Those who fail to see and resist evil are its accomplices. Yet we believe that prayer and fasting are also weapons of struggle, that there is such a thing as spiritual combat, and that what we seek is not the killing of evil people—such a task would require a holocaust that would destroy the human race—but their conversion, which is also our conversion, for the line dividing good from evil runs not between people or classes but, as Solzhenitsyn reminds us, right through each and every human heart.

We are people attempting, with God’s help, to love our enemies as Christ commands his followers to do. This is not a sentimental undertaking but a soul-saving quest to be liberated from enmity. In the seventh century, St. Maximus the Confessor put it in these words: “‘But I say to you,’ the Lord says, ‘love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who persecute you.’ Why did he command these things? So that he might free you from hatred, sadness, anger, and grudges, and might grant you the greatest possession of all, perfect love, which is impossible to possess except by the one who loves all equally in imitation of God.”

Our concern about the sanctity of human life is not limited to war. We seek to protect the lives of the unborn—not by denouncing women who feel they have no other choice, but to help them bring their children safely into this world and to do whatever is in our power to make the world more welcoming. With the same motives, we do not regard euthanasia as an acceptable solution for those whose illnesses seem to be incurable or who are severely handicapped. We do whatever we can in support of hospices for the dying, including effective pain relief for those who are suffering. At the same time we oppose taking extraordinary measures to prolong life when in the natural order a person is beyond hope of recovery.

Our view of peace is not borrowed from secular ideologies or political movements. It is not based on the life of Gandhi or Martin Luther King or any of the heroes of nonviolence, even though we greatly admire such people and learn from them. It comes from the Gospel. We understand peace both through the words of Jesus and through his actions. We experience peace in the Liturgy and the eucharistic mystery and try to bring it with us when we return to ordinary life. Day by day we discover peace as the mystery of healing—within ourselves and between each other—the healing that comes from forgiveness, repentance, and love.

Peacemaking is not an idea or principle. It is how we live. It is Christ’s life in us. It is less a refusal to do terrible things to others than doing those things which communicate the love and mercy of God.

We have heard it many times, but let us never stop remembering what Jesus teaches us about the Last Judgement: What we do to the least person we do to him. May God preserve us from harming the least person. May God give us the love which empowers us to be merciful to the least person.

Peacemakers are not rare. We find them everywhere: the parent sorting out a dispute within his or her family, the parish council member finding a solution to a conflict that might tear a parish to shreds, the priest hearing confessions who helps a penitent experience God’s mercy, the missionary who helps awaken faith in another and points the way to baptism, the volunteer who lives a life of hospitality in a neighborhood others avoid, the driver who responds to dangerous actions on the highway with a prayer rather than a gesture of hatred. We could spend the rest of our lives noting acts of peacemaking.

Our fellowship exists to give witness that peacemaking is something absolutely ordinary. It is an integral part of everyday life. It has to do with how we pray, for whom we pray, how we listen, how we speak, what we do with our anger and frustration, our willingness to forgive, and our attempts to serve as a bridge between those who hate each other.

May God give us strength to persevere in being instruments of the divine mercy.

Must I be a pacifist to join the Orthodox Peace Fellowship?

No. Pacifism is not a Christian ideology. The term was coined in the late 19th century as a political philosophy and has since been used to describe a wide variety of philosophical and political attitudes toward various forms of violence at different levels of relationship from personal to international. The Gospel of Jesus Christ predates and excludes all political ideologies even while many are influenced by Christian teaching. Pacifism as is generally understood is a Western idea formed in a Christian civilizational milieu and often bears marks of Christian virtue but does not capture or fully reflect the ethos of the Gospel peacemaking vocation. But in its most simple definition, “the belief that all conflict should be resolved peacefully,” pacifism is a great idea! The OPF does not reject the idea but does not endorse pacifism in any form. Some OPF members are pacifists; some are not. Instead, we simply look to Christ and our Orthodox faith and tradition for guidance in becoming fully Christian peacemakers.

The aspiration to eliminate violence as a means of conflict resolution is something all sane people have in common, yet few would say that they would never use violent methods to protect the innocent. All we can do is attempt to find ways of responding to injustice that are consistent with the Gospel. Clearly nonviolent methods are to be preferred to violent.

Peacemaking is not something optional for Christians. A major element of Christ’s teaching is his call to become peacemakers. They are among the blessed and are witnesses to the Kingdom of God. To be a peacemaker, Christ says, is to be a child of God. In the years of Christ’s life described in the Gospel, one of the most notable aspects is that he killed no one but healed many. He is not a warrior king. Caesar rides a horse while Christ enters Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. Even when he clears the Temple of people who have made a place of worship into a place of commerce, he does so using nothing more than a whip of cords, not a weapon that can cause injuries; the only life endangered by his action was his own. His final instruction to Peter before his crucifixion is, “Put away your sword, for whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword.” Saying that, he healed the wound Peter had inflicted on one of the men arresting him.

In the chapters prior to the story of Jesus and his disciples in the garden, Matthew records Jesus describing in several narratives what life on earth would be like, what the Kingdom of God is like, about the end and his return, and the final judgement. Then after the Last Supper came the Garden, where Peter, thinking he had finally put all the pieces together, drew his sword. After telling him to put it away, Jesus said a remarkable thing that is frequently left out in telling this story but when taken in full context, frames Jesus words about living and dying by the sword. Jesus asked Peter “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?”

When we consider the choice Jesus faced in the garden, we see it was not either swallow hard or chicken out, but was rather a choice between implementing God’s way of salvation or…what would the other choice have been? The alternative had to include slaughtering his enemies! The plan Satan offered Jesus in the desert involved glory, bounty, and bloodshed; surely the world’s template for victory remained an option for Jesus here. Indeed, it seems we too face the legitimate option of violence in dealing with our enemies. Jesus seems to have said not that we have no right to choose, but rather “How will scripture be fulfilled if you do it your way?”

And then, on the cross, far from calling down his Father’s vengeance on those who participated in his execution, Jesus appeals for mercy: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” Again and again, throughout his earthly life Christ gives his followers a witness of making peace and restoring communion through forgiveness, love, mercy, and sacrifice.

There is quite a lot on the Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site that helps clarify what Christian peacemaking involves and its implications in one’s own life. Visit us at www.incommunion.org for resources that include past essays from the journal, membership options, and new postings.

Becoming a member:

The Orthodox Peace Fellowship links Orthodox Christians from different traditions and is not under the sponsorship of any jurisdiction. Membership is open to those who embrace the principles of the OPF and that the OPF is rooted in the Orthodox Church and Tradition. Those who wish to receive our journal but not to become members may specify so when they pay the annual donation amount. The annual donation for members and donors is $35, 35 euros, or 25 pounds sterling. Anyone may donate to receive In Communion.

A Sermon From Moscow: A Parish Priest Speaks to His Flock

by Fr. Alexander Borisov

Dear friends, our short summer is over. It was, as our poet Alexander Pushkin put it, “a parody of southern winters.” On the whole, the weather wasn’t bad: we had it hot and we had it raining. Now it is getting cold. Fall and winter lie ahead with the liturgical year and the school year starting at the same time. During the summer not only our regular work, but also the church activities slowed down. Now we have to catch up and to get into the rhythm of the congregational and spiritual life.

In fact, the current situation offers us plenty of new—or rather recurring— challenges. The whole situation around the Pussy Riot affair, with all of its absurdity and shame, is telling. It reveals the moral state of our society, both of the church and the world. We are seeing a horrible polarity of viewpoints—from harsh, Soviet-Stalinist mythologies to extreme permissiveness. We have clearly seen who we are. We have seen that religiosity coexists with intolerance, reverencing church sanctuaries while hating those of unpopular views.

But didn’t our Lord Jesus Christ say about Himself: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6)? Then in order to live like Christians don’t we need to reflect which of our Lord’s precepts applies to these particular challenges?

There are many relevant passages in the Gospel. Take the episode where Jesus and his disciples on their way to Jerusalem were not accepted in a Samaritan village. “And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them even as Elias did?’ But he turned and rebuked them and he said, ‘You do not know what manner of spirit you are of, for the Son of Man came not to destroy men’s lives but to save them.’ And they went on to another village” (Luke 9:54-56).

It seems even his closest disciples were ready to release their “righteous” wrath. They even found a precedent worthy of imitation: “even as Elias did.” But Jesus “rebuked them, and said, ‘You know not what manner of spirit ye are of.’”

We Christians possess a great source of wisdom. Why guess how to act in this or that case if we have a clear word from the Gospel? Follow it, and you will never regret. The Gospel may not give a direct answer to every question important to us, but in this case, there is plenty of advice, more than we will ever need.

But when we yield to our sinful passions, especially when political factors get involved, our reaction becomes inadequate, resulting in absurd and tangled consequences.

It would have been enough to reprimand the girls and to let them go, as Deacon Andrey Kuraev suggested, or at most to sentence them to 15 days of imprisonment. Instead we have a grand trial. The scale of the prosecution and the sentence are clearly out of proportion to the persons and their mis-behavior, with the sentence turning stupid young hooligans into “heroines of our time.”

I recall an episode from the early years of Ivan Bunin, the Nobel Prize laureate in litera-ture. He was eating in a restaurant with some friends. Suddenly Vladimir Mayakovsky, then a young radical poet, appeared. He took Bunin’s glass, started drinking from it and then began eating from his plate. Bunin watched him without saying a word. Finally Mayakovsky asked “Why don’t you react?” Ivan Bunin quietly answered “It would do you too much honor.” This seems to be applicable to the current scandal.

Certainly, every Christian should have his or her own moral stand on these events and on personal moral standards. But obviously we should not be carried away by endless disputes and discussions on the Internet and in the media.

Soon after the Pussy Riot sentencing, there was a scandal in a Moscow café called Mu-Mu. A group of “Orthodox zealots” saw a girl with words from the Pussy Riot “punk prayer” on her T-shirt. They demanded that she remove the shirt. Apparently, the severe condemnation by the state court provided some people with a license to attack anyone who finds the sentence unjust or simply thinks differently.

An annual liturgy is held for the homeless at Sts. Cosmas and Damian, which includes a commemoration of those who have died on the streets of Moscow during the winter.
An annual liturgy is held for the homeless at Sts. Cosmas and Damian, which includes a commemoration of those who have died on the streets of Moscow during the winter.

As a protest against the harsh sentence, some people—fortunately, not many— expressed their intention to leave the Russian Orthodox Church. Yes, in some difficult situations we may have a temptation to leave and “slam the door.” I think, though, that radical decisions such as “I’ll leave the Church” are the result of spiritual immaturity. In such cases, I strongly recommend that parishioners read the book The Church of the Faithful by Sergey Fudel. It has been recently published with an excellent preface by Archpriest Nikolay Balashov.

This book discusses the same issues as we face today, but it gives the answers based on the experience of the Russian Church history of the first half of the twentieth century, specifically of the “renovationist” schism that occurred within the Church in the twenties. Sergey Fudel was the son of Joseph Fudel, a famous Moscow priest who was dean of the Byturka prison church. The views of Sergey Fudel were born in suffering, in far harsher conditions than the present ones. He was arrested several times, exiled, and persecuted. In his book, he argued that even the errors made by the hierarchy cannot be an excuse for a split within a church.

Recently there was yet another reaction to the Pussy Riot trial. In some areas of Russia, some people have cut down Orthodox crosses erected in public places. (The three condemned girls, I must note, have publicly protested against these acts.) Some lawmakers immediately proposed severe punishment for such actions. However I doubt that these legislative proposals, if adopted, would add sympathy to the Church and to us Christians.

Something similar took place in Crimea in the early nineteen-nineties. The authorities in Crimea did not respond to this—Christians just erected new crosses. Soon the malefactors stopped cutting them down and Orthodoxy was only strengthened. Striving to severely punish offenders is completely opposite to St. Paul’s advice in his epistles. As he wrote:  “See that none of you repays evil for evil” (I Thess. 5:15), and “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom 12:19–21).

I’d like to finish this long epistle on a lyrical note. Our wonderful poet and bard Bulat Okudzhava speaks about dignity as an important aspect of human spirit:

Human dignity is a mysterious instrument:

Created for ages but lost in a moment.

Attacked by the noise of bellows, bombing, or babbling

It’s easily dried out or blasted down at the root.

So don’t waste yourself, brother, damn the vain chase

Or you’ll lose your primeval beauty and forsake your divine face.

Why risk all for nothing? Have you no higher cares?

So get up and go, a servant, climbing only upstairs.  IC

In Communion thanks Anna Kurt for her translation of Fr. Borisov’s sermon.

Fr. Borisov is the rector of the Church of Sts. Cosmas and Damian at Shubino in Moscow. Fr. Borisov is in the spiritual lineage of Fr. Alexander Men. His church is active in youth work, social services, and ministries to the poor and homeless. He has instituted an encompassing catechetical ministry in the belief that the path out of despair—the chief sin responsible for 98% of Russia’s problems, according to Fr. Borisov—is a firm grounding in the truths of the Church and the Gospel, the only path that will lead the Russian Church away from ignorance, superstition, xenophobia, Nationalism, and fundamentalism.

  ❖  Summer Issue / IC 65 / 2012

 

Then and Now: Confessions of an Outreach Worker

Then, when I saw a homeless person, I saw the dishevelment, shuffling, and shopping cart. Now I see a person with a story. Not likely a happy story, but there might be some joy in it. Maybe grace.

Then I saw filth, poor hygiene, beards and thought, go to a shelter. Now I know that the street is safer for some people, and there are not enough beds to go around for the rest.

Then I noticed the skin sores and rashes, hacking coughs, missing teeth. Now I see the bigger problems: the Astructure resistance” keeping a person away from services; the bad receptions at health clinics; the perfunctory dismissals for inability to pay; the lack of dental providers even for those with benefits.

Then I saw the blank stares and the Aoff in their own world” look and thought mental illness. Now I know that it might be a sane defense against the constant stares and comments of others.

Then I thought, get a job. Now I know the devastation of untreated mental illness and substance abuse, the consequences of severe child abuse, the effects of 35 years in jail. I know that the simple lack of a shower and clean clothes can cost a person their job.

Then I asked, Why doesn’t someone solve this problem? Now I ask B what is your name? Do you have somewhere safe to sleep? Are you warm enough? Do you want to talk?

Corporatism or Commonweal?

by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo

This is the rule of the most perfect Christianity, its most exact definition, its highest point, namely, the seeking of the common good, for nothing can so make a person an imitator of Christ as caring for his neighbors.

St. John Chrysostom

The concept of the “common good” has fallen out of favor in recent years. Over the past two decades, it has become increasingly common to dismiss the notion that we all share an interest in the broader community, that society is more than simply a collection of individuals pursuing their individual material self-interest.

In Socrates’ Apology, he tells a story that illustrates the tension between corporatism and commonweal. Zeus, Socrates relates, decided to help mankind create a human society. He sent Hermes to distribute the necessary technical and managerial skill to certain people. The result was a society based on self-interest and expertise. Such a society was centrifugal and fragmented. As the philosopher John Ralston-Saul observed, Zeus had created a society based on the corporatist model, with economic and social structures based on professional self-interest. People were defined by what they did. In more contemporary terms, this would be the corporatism of consumer capitalism, also based on self-interest and self-centeredness: defining people by what and how much they consume.

Zeus sees his error and decides to remedy it by having Hermes distribute social reverence (aidos) and right-mindedness (diki) to each person. Social reverence signifies a sense of “community,” a shared awareness, a shared knowledge of selfconstraint and belonging. Right-mindedness relates to a sense of social justice, integrity, freedom, and social order: a shared sense of responsibility. This is what we refer to as “commonweal.” It defines people simply as “fellow human beings,” as members of a community that we call “humanity.”

Corporatism, a fundamental aspect of our modern consumerist economic system, is inimical to Christianity and a violation of God’s Law. (See, for example, Deuteronomy 24:19-21)

Corporatism reorganizes society with the reduction of the individual to the status of consumer. To consume is regarded as patriotic while to consume in excess raises’s one’s social status. This new economic world order presents us with intense moral and ethical contradictions, arguing that greed, self-gratification, and excess consumption are simply aspects of human nature. This argument, taken from the doctrines of Social Darwinism, is certainly questionable. As Linda McQuaig observed in her essay, “Lost in the Global Shopping Mall”:

The rapaciousness of certain business leaders has been much in the spotlight…. Even conservative pundits appear shaken by the astounding greed and dishonesty at the heart of … corporate culture. Still, some shrug it off as simple human nature, saying that we are inherently a competitive, acquisitive species, naturally inclined to push our own self-interest as far as we possibly can. But is this the whole picture? Is our society really nothing more than a loose collection of shoppers, graspers and self-absorbed swindlers? Perhaps we are in danger of becoming such a culture, but it is important to remember that culture itself is a learned set of rules.”

At this point we may examine the corporatization of morality and, to some extent, of the Christian Church.

The concept of commonweal the common good is fundamental to authentic Christianity. A clear and profound doctrine of commonweal permeates the Old Testament. It is made law in the book of Deuteronomy and constantly enjoined by the Holy Prophets.

Jesus Christ reaffirms this “law of commonweal” with his two great moral imperatives, (“love your neighbor as yourself” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”). Christ makes the love of neighbor  together with unconditional love of God the very foundation and essence of the Law and the Prophets. The fulfillment of such a moral imperative certainly requires a direct encounter and interaction with culture and society.

Unfortunately, this is an encounter that has been either abandoned, corporatized or reduced to outbursts of moralism by many Christian bodies.

Contrary to this trend, the Christian community must address society and interact in the shaping of our culture. However, this interaction must consist of something more than merely scolding politicians and demanding the law enforce on all citizens the sort of behavior we consider to be correct. We must avoid the inner contradictions of moralism and address the whole scope of true morality.

Morality or Moralism? How can Christians consider it to be an authentic expression of morality to oppose the killing of unborn children while ignoring the killing of children who are already born? Is it truly moral to protect the lives of unborn children but ignore or trivialize the fact that they will have to grow up in a world where, because of our own excess, they may not have sufficient food and many of the necessary natural resources will have been squandered and climate change will have made their lives precarious and uncertain? Is it actually moral to demand that governments enforce the sort of correct personal behavior that our own ideologies demand while turning consumer capitalism into a religious doctrine that cannot be subjected to critique and criticism?

One fatal flaw in the preaching of Christianity that has had negative effects in North America is the failure to distinguish between morality and moralism. From an authentic Christian point of view, true morality has to do not only with salvation but with every aspect of our inter-human relations; it is not simply a system of correct behavior.

True morality is not a system of law which, if obeyed, makes one a moral person. It is necessary to have such laws for the sake of society, but that has little to do with the change of a person’s heart and an inner transformation into the image of Christ’s love. Morality is not a form of bondage but a path of liberation. When we speak of “the law of God,” we are not speaking of an ordinary, worldly notion of “law.” God’s law is not given to repress us but to protect us.

If we are driving along a dangerous highway and the signs warn us to slow down because there is a dangerous curve in the road, that is a “law.” The speed limit is set by law. If we disregard that law and crash over a cliff because we are driving too fast, we do not claim that the government punished us by making us crash. On the contrary, the government tried to save us from serious injury or death by making that law.

This is precisely the meaning of the “law of God,” of our system of morality. God has revealed to us a manner of life that can keep us from much pain and suffering and from many disasters. He has called upon us to realize that his law is a law of love, and that we should obey it out of love and trust in him, not from fear of punishment. Moreover, such true morality constrains us to imitate God’s love in our dealings with the world. This is the essence of true morality.

We cannot equate morality with behavior that is acceptable to a given society, because often a society accepts behavior that we know is contrary not only to our salvation but is also inimical with the concept of commonweal. If we preach only a legal morality that does not encompass the moral imperatives of Jesus Christ then we are mere moralists. Moralism is cold, unforgiving, full of hatred, and spiritually destructive. It is self-centered, and it deforms the idea of morality for the advantage of one or another class in society to the detriment of others.

When we speak of true morality, we are not referring to simple obedience to a system of law but a free accord with a system of spiritual healing. The authentic Christian spiritual life really does provide us with the means for moral healing, but even among our own people, we see so many who never experience such healing. This is because they encounter only moralism: “Obey this law or God will do something bad to you.”

Moralism does not take into account what is necessary to actually heal a person and deliver them from the bondage of their inner suffering so they can lead a moral life; it thinks only about condemnation and punishment. But let us indicate how these ideas have a direct bearing on our subject.

Our modern consumerism inclines a society not only to excess but also to self-centeredness and indifference. One can opt to blame such attitudes on Satan, but when one does, let him remember that the power of Satan in our lives can be defeated only by means of unselfish love, by adopting a sincere sense of commonweal to love your neighbor as yourself in place of a desensitized self-interest. There is no such thing as Christian morality without an inner struggle toward unselfish love, self-constraint, and a sincere concern for the welfare not only of those around us but even for future generations.

Moralism condemns, usually with arrogant self-righteousness, while a spirit of true Christian morality seeks one’s own moral healing and the moral healing of those around us so they might be liberated from bondage. This is the concept of morality that can keep us alive spiritually in our consumerist and secular culture; this is the image of morality that will attract others to Christ and to authentic faith, a concept that can help form in us a truly Christian sense of commonweal.

The Corporatization of Morality: The corporatization of morality may be a product of radical individualism. It arises almost automatically when Christianity is transformed from a living faith into an ideology informed by such categories as liberal, conservative, leftist, right wing, and so forth. Morality then becomes corporatized into various categories of correct behavior, defined by an essentially political mindset of one or another religio-political ideology.

This narrows the concepts, so clearly stated in the Old Testament, down to horror at those things condemned with little regard for those things enjoined: social justice, non-condescending care for the poor and all those in need, and a powerful sense of mutual responsibility for the common good of the nation, of all the inhabitants of that nation.

In the Old Testament law, there are clearly ecological provisions for the care and nurturing of the land: a Sabbath for the agricultural land is just as much a part of the Law as a Sabbath for man (Leviticus 25:4-6). This care of the land, which must be cherished and nurtured, is surely as much a moral law as any in the Old Testament. Just as surely, it shows a deep concern for the common good of the whole population which must be fed from that land. This concern so obviously extends to future generations.

Organizing and spending large sums of money to protest and lobby against certain forms of personal behavior may be useful, but there is an inner contradiction that is inexcusable when the same organizers refuse to condemn corporate immorality or organize and finance lobbying about environmental issues that relate to the very survival of whole populations and the health, welfare, and survival of future generations. The destruction of the environment is every bit as immoral and kills just as many children as abortion. Any truly Christian concept of morality will encompass corporate and environmental immorality with the same fervor that it addresses personal morality.

We may have a “fallen human nature,” but it is clear that humankind is essentially good and, as the image and likeness of God, has an innate inclination toward virtue. We will all live in the new world order of consumer capitalism and secularism. We will all partake of the benefits of consumer capitalism and enjoy its positive aspect.

But as Christians, we will also have to face the moral challenges of its negative side. It is urgent for us, as moral human beings, to recognize that future generations will pay a terrible price for the excess and overindulgence of our era. We cannot separate spirituality from moral responsibility and here, consumerism poses yet another challenge.

Since consumerism thrives on over-consumption, not only must products not be durable, as we mentioned before, but they should not be reasonably “upgradable” either. Computers, for example, are discarded and replaced regularly. People are shocked to learn that, in our monastery print shop, we are still using a computer that we purchased in 1988, yet it is perfectly adequate for our typesetting needs. Let us look at the moral tragedy of this problem.

In Canada alone, 140,000 tons of computer equipment, cell phones, and other types of electronic equipment are discarded into waste disposal yards every year. That is the weight of about 28,000 fully-grown adult African elephants. This results in 4,750 tons of lead, 4.5 tons of cadmium, and 1.1 tons of mercury being leached into the water system and food chain every year.

These toxic heavy metals are already creating havoc on people’s health and causing a loss of drinking water reserves. Future generations will pay a devastating price for all this. Whether we care enough to do something about it or to resist this aspect of consumerism is a moral issue. It is also a barometer of our spirituality.

Yet we need not succumb to what Jürgen Habermas calls “personality systems without any aspiration to subjective truth nor secure processes for communal interpretation.” This is why it is so important for us to consider the role authentic Christian morality can play in this unfolding drama of our present era. We cannot have such a role if we opt out of the political dialogue and refuse to engage culture and interact with the society around us in a creative and healing way.

Archbishop Lazar Puhalo is abbot of the Monastery of All Saints of North America in Deroche, British Columbia, Canada, and leads the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in Canada

Winter 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 52

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Building The New City: St. Basil’s Social Vision

by Fr. Paul Schroeder

In St. Gregory the Theologian’s funeral oration for St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory describes the legacy of St. Basil’s philanthropic endeavors in this way: “Go forth a little way from the city, and behold the New City, the storehouse of piety, the common treasury of the wealthy … where disease is regarded in a religious light, and disaster is thought a blessing, and sympathy is put to the test.”

St. Gregory is referring to the Basiliad, the great philanthropic foundation established by St. Basil where the poor, the diseased, orphans and the aged could receive food, shelter, and medical care free of charge from monks and nuns who lived out their monastic vocation through a life of service, working with physicians and other lay people. The New City was in many ways the culmination of St. Basil’s social vision, the fruit of a lifetime of effort to develop a more just and humane social order within the region of Caesarea, where he grew up and later served as a priest and a bishop.

The story of Basil’s life centers around two profound shifts. The first, a spiritual awakening so decisive as to be called a conversion, occurred shortly after he completed his studies at the great university at Athens. As a result of this experience, Basil chose to be baptized, a decision that in his day was often postponed until late in life. He then sold his inheritance, distributed the funds to the poor, and embarked upon a journey to see the monastic communities that were flourishing throughout Palestine, Syria, and Egypt.

These communities were founded upon the principle of communal monasticism, a life in which everything B meals, goods, prayer – was shared in common. Basil returned to Caesarea and, in a remote area of the family estate, established a monastic community based upon the cenobitic model. The second great turning in his life took place six years later. Prompted by a deep sense of responsibility for the good order of the Church and of society, Basil elected to leave the monastery he had founded and to be ordained a priest and take up parish ministry in Caesarea.

These two turnings – Basil’s decision to pursue a monastic vocation and his subsequent decision to leave the monastery and return to the world B may be said to comprise the polarity of Basil’s vision, the axis upon which his worldview turns. Throughout his ministry, he remained committed to the ideal of a community of shared life and resources, as exemplified by cenobitic monasticism. But he was equally determined that this ideal not be limited to the monasteries, but should rather be brought to bear upon the greater society. Basil envisioned an engaged monasticism, urban rather than rural, and dedicated to service to the poor as an essential aspect of monastic practice. His inspiration, as expressed in the New City, was to bring together the involuntary poor and the voluntary poor ( monastics) in order to create a new kind of community.

Basil’s vision is radical because it represents both a reform of monasticism, calling monks and nuns to return to the world and embrace its cares and sorrows as their own, and a reform of society, advocating the creation of a social order based upon simplicity and sharing rather than competition and private ownership.

Within a few years of Basil’s ordination to the priesthood, a catastrophe struck Caesarea and the surrounding area. Rivers and springs dried up and crops failed, resulting in an acute food shortage throughout the region. It was in this context that Basil preached a series of sermons on the subjects of wealth and poverty, mercy and justice, including the homilies known as To the Rich, I Will Tear Down my Barns, and In Time of Famine and Drought. These homilies may be said to constitute the foundation of the New City, the fundamental basis of Basil’s social vision.

In order to understand Basil’s social vision and his approach to matters of wealth and poverty, it is instructive to begin by examining his interpretation of the account concerning the rich young ruler and comparing his interpretation with that of some other early Christian commentators. How to understand Christ’s injunction to the young man, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me,” was a subject of considerable discussion in the early Church.

One interpretive approach to the passage that proved highly influential in subsequent Christian thought was proposed in the early third century by St. Clement of Alexandria. In his oration Who is the Rich Man that Will Be Saved?, Clement focuses upon the young man’s unhealthy attachment to worldly goods. According to Clement, Christ is not asking the young man to literally dispense with his possessions, but rather to become a free person by breaking his attachment to them, since the person who is concerned about acquiring or keeping wealth is not truly free. As Clement says, “Christ does not, as some conceive off-hand, bid him throw away the substance he possessed, and abandon his property; but rather bids him banish from his soul his notions about wealth, his excitement and morbid feeling about it, the anxieties, which are the thorns of existence, which choke the seed of life.” Clement concludes that the Lord’s command aims at “the stripping off of the passions from the soul itself and from the disposition, and the cutting up by the roots and casting out of what is alien to the mind.”

In the latter third and early fourth centuries, another reading of the commandment came to great prominence in the Church with the rise of the monastic movement. In contrast with Clement’s approach, monastic literature of this period tends to emphasize the need to make a decisive break with the world by fully renouncing and giving away one’s possessions. According to the Life of St. Anthony, written by St. Athanasios, this is precisely what Anthony did after hearing the story of the rich young ruler being read in the church: “Anthony, as though God had put him in mind of the Saints, and the passage had been read on his account, went out immediately from the church, and gave the possessions of his forefathers to the villagers, so that they should no longer be a burden upon himself and his sister.”

The thrust of the monastic approach as exemplified by St. Anthony is not the aid that is rendered to the poor by gifting one’s possessions to them, but rather the need to rid oneself of the burden of worldly possessions. In fact, “the poor” as they are referenced in the monastic writings of this period are nearly always the anonymous poor; that is, they remain nameless and faceless, little more than a cipher, a receptacle for discarded possessions.

The tension between these two interpretive constructs – the more figurative approach of St. Clement vs the more literal approach of the monastic movement – was ultimately resolved within the Church by making a distinction between those who live out their Christian vocation “in the world” as opposed to those who live as monks and nuns. The former are enjoined not to become overly attached to their material possessions, while the latter fulfill the commandment in its literal sense, which is regarded as the way to perfection. This two-tiered approach to the commandment is eventually codified in the formal distinction between “precepts” and “evangelical counsels” found in Western scholastic theology, while in the East it is expressed through the notion of the Aangelic life” in the context of “monastic perfection.”

For all their differences, both approaches are united in addressing the spiritual condition of the young man in almost exclusively individual terms; both understand the root problem as residing in his relationship to wealth and worldly goods per se. When we turn to Basil’s interpretation of this passage, therefore, it is significant to note that Basil understands the spiritual malady of the rich young ruler not as over-attachment to worldly things, but rather as a violation of the commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In other words, Basil interprets this story in primarily social rather than individual terms. As he says with regard to the rich young ruler in his treatise To the Rich:

It is evident that you are far from fulfilling the commandment, and that you bear false witness within your own soul that you have loved your neighbor as yourself. For if what you say is true, that you have kept from your youth the commandment of love and have given to everyone the same as to yourself, then how did you come by this abundance of wealth? Care for the needy requires the expenditure of wealth: when all share alike, disbursing their possessions among themselves, they each receive a small portion for their individual needs. Thus, those who love their neighbor as themselves possess nothing more than their neighbor; yet surely, you seem to have great possessions! How else can this be, but that you have preferred your own enjoyment to the consolation of the many? For the more you abound in wealth, the more you lack in love.

The commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself,” which Basil describes as Athe mother of the commandments,” is thus the basis for Basil’s understanding of Christ’s injunction to the rich young ruler. The focus is not on the individual’s relationship to wealth and possessions, but rather on the fact that having great wealth while others lack daily necessities constitutes a violation of the law of love.

For this reason, Basil explicitly rejects any attempt to formulate a two-tiered approach to the commandment. In Basil’s view, “sell your possessions and give to the poor” is an expression of the law of love, and is therefore equally applicable to all, both monastics and non-monastics. As he states in To the Rich,

Was the command found in the Gospel, AIf you wish to be perfect, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor,” not written for the married? After seeking the blessing of children from the Lord, and being found worthy to become parents, did you at once add the following, AGive me children, that I might disobey Your commandments; give me children, that I might not attain the Kingdom of Heaven”?

Moreover, in contrast with the “anonymous poor” found throughout much of the monastic literature, Basil’s homilies are characterized by a deliberate attempt to humanize and personalize the plight of the poor. Basil brings his powerful gift of rhetoric to bear in order show us the face of our neighbor: the emaciated face of the starving person who has gone blind as a result of malnutrition, the agonized face of a parent forced to sell a child into slavery in order to save the rest of the family from starvation. Basil is determined that the faces of our suffering brothers and sisters should not be ignored or remain hidden from us.

If the commandment to sell one’s possessions and give to the poor is an expression of the law of love and thus binding upon all, then the question may be asked, “How is this commandment to be lived out in practical terms?” We may answer by saying that the first characteristic of the New City, the new community envisioned by Basil, is what might be called the ethic of sustainability. In essence, this means that the law of love requires us to adopt a way of life that is supportable across the entire population. Basil’s social vision is characterized by a commitment to simplicity as a means to ensuring this sustainable way of life for everyone.

Basil states that the fair distribution of resources requires that each person take a “small portion” so that there might be enough for all. He emphasizes simplicity in food, dress, and housing as a way of being that allows for resources to be fairly distributed. With regard to housing, he emphasizes that Awalls whether great or small serve the same purpose.” With reference to interior furnishings he asks the rhetorical question, “What better service do silver encrusted tables and chairs or ivory inlaid beds and couches provide than their simpler counterparts?” Concerning food and clothing, he says, “Two lengths of cloth are sufficient for a coat, and a single garment fulfills every need with regard to clothing … A single loaf of bread is enough to fill your stomach.” He harshly criticizes the wealthy of his day for their excessive consumption -sumptuous meals, lavish dress, large and ornately decorated houses B which he sees as directly linked to the plight of the poor.

As he says in To the Rich, “You gorgeously array your walls, but do not clothe your fellow human being; you adorn horses, but turn away from the shameful plight of your brother or sister; you allow grain to rot in your barns, but do not feed those who are starving; you hide gold in the earth, but ignore the oppressed!”

Like St. John Chrysostom and many other Fathers of the Church, believes that God has provided enough food, land, and usable materials to satisfy the needs of all. These resources, however, are limited commodities, and must therefore be shared out equitably. When some people use or hoard excessive amounts of resources, there will necessarily be less for others to use. As he says in the homily, I Will Tear Down my Barns, “If we all took only what was necessary to satisfy our own needs, giving the rest to those who lack, no one would be rich and no one would be poor.”

The corollary to Basil’s teaching with regard to the ethic of sustainability is what might be called the “distributive mandate.” The content of the distributive mandate is that whatever one has that is “extra,” over and above one’s actual needs, should be given to those who have less. Basil describes this process with a beautiful Greek word, ƒπαvισo v, which literally means “to restore the balance.” The distributive mandate is essentially a responsibility to observe the commandment of love by sharing with others. In one of his most often quoted passages, Basil says, “The bread you are holding back is for the hungry, the clothes you keep put away are for the naked, the shoes that are rotting away with disuse are for those who have none, the silver you keep buried in the earth is for the needy.”

Yet the apparent simplicity of the distributive mandate is complicated by the human tendency to adjust the definition of “need” to fit one’s current level of income. Those who have more tend to use more. Basil treats this subject in I Will Tear Down my Barns, which takes as its point of departure the parable of Christ regarding the foolish rich man who said to himself that he would tear down his barns and build larger ones to store his goods. In Basil’s treatment of the passage, “tearing down one’s barns” becomes a metaphor for describing an expanding baseline of need. For Basil, the “barn” represents our definition of need, what we think we need to live. Thus, “tearing down one’s barns” means redefining our needs based upon a change in our circumstances.

In effect Basil says that if we never have any extra to share, this is due to the fact that whenever we find ourselves in possession of a surplus, we immediately adjust our definition of need to fit the new situation. While the foolish rich man in the parable only thought to tear down his barns one time, we are constantly tearing down our mental barns in order to build larger ones, only to tear these down and build them up again:

(You say) AI will pull down my barns and build larger ones.” But if you fill these larger ones, what do you intend to do next? Will you tear them down yet again only to build them up once more? What could be more ridiculous than this incessant toil, laboring to build and then laboring to tear down again?

Basil shares with St. John Chrysostom and other Fathers of the Church the notion that those who possess great resources but refuse to help others are guilty of a kind of theft. “Is not the person who strips another of clothing called a thief?” Basil asks. “And those who do not clothe the naked when they have the power to do so, should they not be called the same?”

Basil goes even further than this. According to him, those who refuse to share with others in time of urgent need, when starvation and disease pose an immanent threat to human life, may be accounted guilty not only of theft, but even of murder. As he writes in the homily, In Time of Famine and Drought, “Whoever has the ability to remedy the suffering of others, but chooses rather to withhold aid out of selfish motives, may properly be judged the equivalent of a murderer.” The distributive mandate may thus be summarized in these words from I Will Tear Down my Barns: “You are guilty of injustice towards as many as you might have aided, and did not.”

Throughout Basil’s homilies on social themes, one of the most commonly repeated words is the Greek adjective κoιvός, meaning “shared” or “common.” Basil uses this word repeatedly to underscore what is for him a basic premise: that the world was created for the common benefit of all, and given by God to humanity for their shared use. He especially delights in using nature images to illustrate this point; for example, in his homily In Time of Famine and Drought, Basil says:

The animals use in common the plants that grow naturally from the earth. Flocks of sheep graze together upon one and the same hillside, herds of horses feed upon the same plain, and all living creatures permit each other to satisfy their need for food. But we hoard that which is common, and keep for ourselves what belongs to many others.

As may be noted from this passage, Basil regards the selfishness of human behavior as a kind of anomaly within creation. Although competition within and among species is a normal part of the natural order, only humans compete in such a way as to take more than they actually need or can possibly use, while depriving others of what is necessary for their survival. The world was created by God in order to be shared; for this reason, Basil says that private ownership of resources meant to be held in common distorts our relationships to each other and to the world.

As he says in I Will Tear Down my Barns, responding to an imaginary interlocutor who has just asked why it is unjust to keep what is “one’s own:”

Tell me, what is your own? What did you bring into this life? From where did you receive it? It is as if someone were to take the first seat in the theater, then bar everyone else from attending, so that one person alone enjoys what is offered for the benefit of all in common – this is what the rich do. They seize common goods before others have the opportunity, then claim them as their own by right of preemption.

Basil describes those who live by the rule of competition and private ownership as άκoιvώvητoι, meaning “unsocial” or “unsociable.” Basil says of the foolish rich man who tore down his barns that God was “inviting his soul to a more social and civilized demeanor.” According to Basil, God is calling every person to become a social human being, one who understands his or her social obligations and lives in proper relation to his or her neighbor. Sociability is not seen as merely a virtuous quality, but rather as a conversion to a new way of being in the world and this being made fit to live in the New City.

* * *

 

Fr. Paul Schroeder is the senior priest at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Portland Oregon, and is the translator of a forthcoming book, St. Basil the Great: On Social Justice. His essay is an abridged section of a paper delivered by Fr. Paul at the Clergy Laity Congress that met in Nashville, Tennessee in July 2006.

Fall 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 51

Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker

Saint Nicholas wrote no books nor have any of his sermons or letters survived, but few saints have been the object of such universal affection. He is the patron of prisoners, seafarers and orphans.

Born in Asia Minor about 280, he was the only child of wealthy parents who arranged for their son to receive a Christian education from his uncle, the bishop of Patara. Taking literally the words of the Gospel, when his parents died, he distributed their property to the poor, keeping nothing for himself. Though drawn to monastic life, he felt led by God=s will to serve as a priest in the world. After his ordination, he was chosen as archbishop of Myra. During the persecutions of Diocletian and Maximian at the end of the third century, Nicholas was among the many thousands imprisoned and tortured.

Over the centuries, Nicholas=s life was embroidered with many legends, yet there are several stories about him which seem solidly historical. One of these relates how, while Nicholas was visiting a remote part of his diocese, several citizens from Myra came to him with urgent news: the ruler of the city, Eustathios, had condemned three innocent men to death. Nicholas set out immediately for home. Reaching the city outskirts, he asked those he met on the road if they had news of the prisoners. Informed that their execution was to be carried out that morning, he hurried to the executioner’s field where he found the three men kneeling with their arms bound, awaiting the fatal blow. Nicholas passed through the surrounding crowd, took the sword from the executioner’s hands and threw it to the ground, then ordered that the condemned men be freed. His authority was such that the executioner left his sword where it fell. Eustathios later confessed his sin. Nicholas absolved him, but only after the ruler had undergone a period of repentance.

Nicholas was one of the bishops participating in the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea in 325 where, according to legend, he was so angered by the heretic Arius, who denied that Jesus was the Son of God, that he struck him on the face. For his violent act, he was briefly excluded from the Council.

Tireless in his care of people in trouble or need, he was regarded as a saint even during his lifetime. At times, it is said, his face shone like the sun.

He died on December 6, 343 and was buried in Myra’s cathedral. In the eleventh century, his relics were brought to Bari, Italy, where they remain.

Fall 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 51

St. John Chrysostom, Almsgiving, and Persons with Disability

by Ephrem Gall

St. John Chrysostom, having sought the face of God through the strictest forms of asceticism in the mountains near Antioch, only to find his health fail in the process, returned to the city. He rose through the deaconate of service to the poor to the priesthood, where his gift for preaching made him “the right hand man” of the archbishop. His faith and talents were noticed. Eventually he was chosen for the archbishop’s throne in Constantinople.

Among the vices which he encountered in the capital, St. John found that the many destitute persons of the city were being neglected or altogether ignored. He responded by delivering sermons that to this day remain among the most powerful expositions of the Christian faith. One of his major themes was the challenge to recognize Christ in the poor.

Many were brought to repentance, but St. John also made many powerful enemies, including the Empress. Eventually he was sent into exile. His fragile health failed on the way to a remote place of banishment. His life in this world ended on September 14, 407.

St. John usually worked his way through a book of Holy Scripture from beginning to end. In the latter part of each homily, he would apply the Scriptural content to an aspect of contemporary life. Two of his major subjects were, negatively, denunciations of time wasted on entertainment, especially the theater, which some preferred to Church services, and, positively, the encouragement of almsgiving, not only in the monetary sense, but the gift of time and attention to those in need.

It’s not difficult to relate his exhortations to those tempted by the allurements of popular culture. As to the other matter, the poor are still very much with us. So let us pay attention to his words on almsgiving.

While many of St. John’s exhortations encourage giving money to the destitute, one also finds passages in his sermons that bring out the deeper aspects of almsgiving, involving a more comprehensive approach to the support of those with special needs, such as persons with developmental disabilities.

Commenting on the text in First Corinthians: “Not many mighty, not many noble are chosen. Rather, God chose the foolish things of the world, that he might put to shame them that are wise,” St. John says, “Persons of great insignificance are chosen to pull down boasting.” He warns the self-confident that it is faith that saves, not one’s reasoning ability. In fact, lines of reasoning can lead one into subtle traps away from God. “The Faith, received with trust, is a sure foundation. As the Lord says, we must become like a child.” And so the “insignificant,” simpler people are not objects of pity, but the bearers of a frame of mind that is essential for all of us to acquire.

As Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). St. John comments that jostling for position, vanity, and ambition are foreign to a childlike disposition. Children are generally uncomplicated and humble, and eager to be taught. St. John says the Lord means by “children” grown men and women who are “simple and lowly, and abject and contemptible in the judgment of the common sort.”

Those of us who work in group homes and other settings with persons having developmental disabilities can attest to the way that the simple, straightforward, and trustingly appreciative character of these people brings us down to earth. While there are irritations involved, in the end we receive, within ourselves, more than we give. Simply the words, “Good night, I love you,” repeated night after night, water a seed within our souls.

Persons with developmental disabilities typically exemplify, into their adult years, the childlike qualities Jesus calls for. They are icons by which these qualities may be learned. But often their simplicity is despised in the community, for cleverness serves to advance selfish ambitions that retain a fierce grip on the heart unless the cross and the Kingdom are seized “with violence.” Persons with developmental disabilities thus often suffer neglect to the detriment of their sense of belonging and their development, or socialization, and those who ignore and neglect them, unless they repent, face the judgment of God.

St. Paul, speaking of roles in the Body of Christ, writes, “The parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Cor. 12:22). In a homily on that text, St. John asks, “What in the body is more insignificant than a hair?” Yet the removal of eyelashes or eyebrows not only endangers the eyes, but endangers their function. Showing greater honor is urged toward weaker members, St. John says, so “that they might not meet with less care.” The result is “equal sympathy.” But these dynamics do not operate automatically; effort is needed.

The gifts of the Spirit listed in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 are a non-exhaustive list that shows the dimensions of almsgiving. St. John asks, in homily 32 on 1 Corinthians, “What is, ‘helps?’ … To support the weak … this too is a gift of God.” Helping, he says, must flow from real sympathy, which leads to a bond of charity and a thorough, mutual fervency between helper and helped, resulting in friendship.

Friendship Community residents in Millersville, Pennsylvania

Money sent to pan-Orthodox ministries is certainly almsgiving, but it cannot take the place of face-to-face involvement in one’s family, parish, and community. “By developing such bonds of hand and heart,” St. John says, “one becomes “a loving and merciful soul, a fountain for all his brethren’s needs.”

Day-to-day life and friendship with persons with developmental disabilities has its moments of mutual fervency and celebration – birthday parties are major events – as well as its stresses, but these stresses can ultimately be related to the Cross, through which “joy comes into all the world.”

The efforts that are made in a group home to honor all the successes which our friends with disabilities struggle to achieve in daily living provide a premonition of the disproportionate “eternal weight of glory” our Lord has promised to His faithful strugglers. In saying “Well done!” to the proper setting of a dinner table, we see the great Banquet of God coming into view. Frequent, sincere commendations of our friends as well as asking their forgiveness when we have misunderstood them have been key elements to the maintenance of our mutual fervency.

In the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, St. John identifies the dealers of oil as the poor, and the oil is alms. He warns against wasting goods for “luxury and vainglory. For before Christ’s judgment seat you will have need of much oil … Let us contribute wealth, diligence, protection, and all things for our neighbor’s advantage. Nothing pleases God so much as to live for the common good.”

St. John refers to the parable of the sheep and the goats before Christ’s glorious throne of judgment (Matt. 25) as “this most delightful portion of Scripture, unto which we do not cease continually revolving.” He asks why brethren would be called “least,” and responds that “the lowly, the poor, and the outcast” are the sort that the Lord most greatly desires to “invite to brotherhood.” The Lord’s way of valuing people is contrary to what is typical in human society.

In his homily on St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, St. John Chrysostom asks whether his hearers would rather take part in a sumptuous banquet with the rich and famous or enjoy a simple meal with the poor and those with disabilities. He gives his reasons for choosing the latter. I encourage you to find and read that homily in its entirety, to discover his entire answer and to enjoy a full meal of St. John’s golden words. (“Chrysostom” means golden-mouthed.)

Almsgiving affects one’s personal transformation as well. St. John says, “There is no sin, which alms cannot cleanse; it is a medicine adapted to every wound.” Genuine, sympathetic almsgiving heals the giver as well as the receiver. He also says, “Let us hold fast to Mercy: she is the teacher of that higher Wisdom.”

He explains that habitual attention to suffering leads to being able to bear slights, and finally, to the love of enemies. “Let us learn to feel for the ills our neighbors suffer, and we shall learn to endure the ills they inflict.” Contributing to the full socialization of others, including persons with developmental disabilities, leads to one’s own transformation into the likeness of the Lord Jesus. (Homilies 14 and 25 on the Acts of the Apostles)

St. John Chrysostom exhorts us all:

If you ever wish to associate with someone, make sure that you do not give your attention to those who enjoy health and wealth and fame as the world sees it, but take care of those in affliction, in critical circumstances, who are utterly deserted and enjoy no consolation. Put a high value on associating with these, for from them you shall receive much profit, and you will do all for the glory of God. God Himself has said: I am the father of orphans and the protector of widows [Ps. 67:6]. (Baptismal Instructions, 6.12; Paulist Press, 1963)

There is much in St. John Chrysostom’s words for us to reflect upon. He expresses an Orthodox Christianity that is robust and compassionate. A fuller study of his exhortations reveals a standard of personal commitment, relinquishment, and community that has monastic roots. Yet, while he could be thunderous in his denunciations, he often gently gave suggestions on how to approximate the narrow way he held high, such as recommending a simple, no-frills lifestyle focused on generosity, and the monastic life for those who are able to accept that calling. Much more could be said on his practical exhortations to married couples and families. See St. John Chrysostom on Marriage and Family Life (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press).

We are all disabled in some way, by sin and in our weaknesses, which mercifully drive us from narcissism to community. And we all have a special intelligence given to us by God to contribute to the community. As we discern our communion in the Body of Christ, let us remember this aspect as well.

Ephrem and his wife Margaret are house parents of a Friendship Community group home for persons with developmental disabilities in Millersville, Pennsylvania. They are also members of St. John Chrysostom Orthodox Church in York, where they were chrismated in 2000. Ephrem has written a thesis for the Antiochian House of Studies, “St. John Chrysostom and the Socialization of Persons with Developmental Disabilities,” which is available on the “About” section of the web log “Arms Open Wide: Orthodox Christian Disability Resources” (http://armsopenwide.wordpress.com). A good resource on St. John Chrysostom’s life and writings is found online at www.chrysostom.org/life.html.

From the Fall 2007 issue of In Communion / IC 47

St. John Chrysostom and the Problem of Wealth

by John D. Jones

Wealth … is like a snake; it will twist around the hand and bite unless one knows how to use it properly.

– Clement of Alexandria, “The Instructor,” 3.6.34

In our social, political, and religious discourse, we tend to focus on poverty as a problem to be solved, but for St. John Chrysostom, poverty as such is not the problem, but rather how we acquire and use wealth, the ideologies and practices that shape economic exchanges, and the ways in which “the love of money” pervades and poisons human personal and social relations and, most of all, our relation with God.

In one of his frequent appeals to the wealthy to give to Christ in the person of the poor, Chrysostom remarks that he makes his exhortations,

not so much because of anxiety for the poor but because I care for your souls. For they [the poor] will have some comfort, if not from you, yet from some other quarter; or even if they be not comforted, but perish by hunger, the harm to them will be no great matter. In what way did poverty and wasting by hunger injure Lazarus? But none can rescue you from hell, if you obtain not the help of the poor. 1

 

At first glance, it appears that Chrysostom is not really interested in alleviating poverty, but rather in using the poor as a means to secure the salvation of the wealthy. Indeed, the last sentence might be taken to justify allowing the continued existence of extreme poverty as a necessary means for the salvation of the wealthy.

Consider Chrysostom’s claim that Lazarus was not injured by his poverty. This is an instance of his more general claim that no one is injured in respect of virtue by suffering injustice or wrongdoing. Given that our final end is to obtain “everlasting and pure blessings in Christ Jesus our Lord,” our proper human virtue consists in “carefulness in holding right doctrine and a righteous life” or “in being vigilant and sober in the Lord.” In the ancient philosophical tradition, the specific virtues or excellences (aretai) of something are those characteristics that it requires in order to live or function well. Drawing upon a variety of examples found in Holy Scripture (e.g., Job or the three children thrown into the furnace), Chrysostom argues that none of them was injured, in respect of virtue and attaining their final end, by any of the things that they suffered – indeed, the adverse things they suffered only strengthened their virtue and deepened their bonds to God.

Although Chrysostom frequently praises poverty and criticizes wealth, in his view neither is good nor evil in itself. In his Homilies on the Statues, he praises Abraham for his proper use of wealth. Chrysostom, moreover, does not view poverty as uniformly good since it can produce despondency in the poor. Although he often portrays the poor in ways that emphasize the dire conditions to which they were subjected, he does not romanticize them. So in contrast to Lazarus, he writes that the poor “generally speaking, are filled with envy and ill-will when they see wealthy people even if they have adequate food and other people are providing for them.” Nevertheless, Chrysostom has little sympathy with those who wanted to lay the blame for poverty entirely on the poor and, thus, excuse themselves from showing mercy, from providing assistance to the poor, or from moderating their acquisitiveness.

Chrysostom, however, wrote that many people, regardless of social and economic status, engaged in exploiting others who are weaker than they. That is, while Chrysostom’s remarks on covetousness or the love of money most frequently targeted the wealthy, he believed that this sort of love was rampant throughout society. So, in discussing the vice of covetousness, he remarks:

Let us therefore, both poor and rich, cease from taking the property of others. For my present discourse is not only to the rich, but to the poor also. For they too rob those who are poorer than themselves. And artisans who are better off, and more powerful, outsell the poorer and more distressed, tradesmen outsell tradesmen, and so all who are engaged in the market-place. So that I wish from every side to take away injustice. 2

Chrysostom recognized that, insofar as people love money, “all things become money,” “everything is reckoned in terms of it,” and economic gain becomes the criterion for action. “Should it be military service, should it be marriage, should it be a trade, should it be what you will that any man takes in hand, [the lover of money] does not undertake anything until he see these riches are coming in rapidly upon him” (Homilies on Matthew, 90.3).

Put in more modern terms: the love of money leads to the commodification of all goods, services, and people such that economic gain drives all transactions and interactions with others.

Because the love of money poisons human relations and the ways in which we acquire and use wealth, Chrysostom questioned the legitimacy of acquiring wealth, whether for security, status, family, almsgiving, etc. Moreover, he frequently raised questions as to the manner in which wealth was acquired. He argued, for example, that inherited wealth often rested on unjust acquisition or theft.

Indeed, despite his claim that wealth in itself is neither good nor evil, at times he seems to view the notion of honest wealth as a virtual oxymoron. More importantly, since all things belong primarily to God, theft consists not simply in taking what belongs to the poor but in failing to render assistance to them and depriving them of the material goods that they need in order to live. He also took note of how people pursued wealth to escape poverty while remaining indifferent to the ways in such pursuit might drive others into poverty.

And what is the specious plea of the many [for loving wealth]? I have children, one says, and I am afraid lest I myself be reduced to the extremity of hunger and want, lest I should stand in need of others. I am ashamed to beg. For that reason therefore do you cause others to beg? I cannot, you say, endure hunger. For that reason do you expose others to hunger? Do you know what a dreadful thing it is to beg, how dreadful to be perishing by hunger? Spare also your brethren! Are you ashamed, tell me, to be hungry, and are you not ashamed to rob? Are you afraid to perish by hunger, and not afraid to destroy others? And yet to be hungry is neither a disgrace nor a crime; but to cast others into such a state brings not only disgrace, but extreme punishment.3

Throughout his writings, in exhorting people patiently to care for the poor, Chrysostom raised significant questions about the ways in which people acquired wealth, the dubious ends for which wealth was used, and the distribution of wealth and other economic means within his society. He explicitly rejected the idea that we can give alms without regard to how our wealth has been acquired. In his Homilies on John, he writes: “By almsgiving, I do not include what is maintained by injustice, for this is not almsgiving, but savageness and inhumanity. What profits it to strip one man and clothe another?” In other words, we cannot seriously appropriate Chrysostom’s teachings about wealth and poverty for ourselves without raising critical questions about how we acquire and use wealth in the face of widespread poverty and suffering.

Yet, these sorts of questions and concerns may seem moot given Chrysostom’s own view that voluntary poverty – poverty undertaken out of love for Christ – is desirable and his constant admonition to the poor patiently to bear their poverty. After all, if the poor are patiently to bear their poverty and poverty itself is not to be feared but even embraced, then why should we be concerned with the alleviation of poverty even when it arises through injustice? Yet consider this passage:

The multitude…imagine that there are many different things which ruin our virtue: some say it is poverty, others bodily disease, others loss of property… Some bewail and lament the inmates of the prison…others those who have been deprived of their freedom, others those who have been seized and made captives by enemies…but no one mourns those who are living in wickedness: on the contrary, which is worse than all, they often congratulate them, a practice which is the cause of all manner of evils. 4

For Chrysostom, it is precisely those who “live in wickedness” that we should mourn, since those who commit injustice are harmed by themselves rather than those who are subjected to injustice and suffering.

Hence, despite the fact that each of us should patiently endure the unjust suffering to which we might be subjected, we cannot be indifferent to acts of injustice. Indeed, with due regard for our own sinfulness, we must seek to correct injustice and evil primarily for the sake of those who inflict it since, in Chrysostom’s view, it is the perpetrators rather than the victims who are harmed.

Thus, given Chrysostom’s views about the evils caused by love of wealth and the apparently great difficulty of obtaining and using it justly and virtuously, it is not surprising that, in continually admonishing people to obtain and use wealth properly, he can say that he is less concerned with the poor as such than the wealthy or, for that matter, anyone who acquires and uses wealth improperly.

Note, however, that Chrysostom was not indifferent to the terrible sufferings and humiliations that the poor endure. While he exhorted people patiently to bear their own poverty and suffering, while he commended the life of voluntary poverty, he also encouraged the citizens in Antioch (as we see in his Homilies on Acts) to share their belonging in order to eliminate poverty. Indeed, in his Homily on Almsgiving, he tells his listeners to “correct poverty and do away with hunger.”

But from the standpoint of our proper virtue – the one thing that really matters – the love of money poses a far more serious problem to humans than being subjected to poverty.

The following text illustrates the profound extent of this problem:

How long shall we love riches? For I shall not cease exclaiming against them: for they are the cause of all evils. How long do we not get our fill of this insatiable desire? What is the good of gold? I am astonished at the thing! There is some enchantment in the business, that gold and silver should be so highly valued among us. For our own souls indeed we have no regard, but those lifeless images engross much attention. Whence is it that this disease has invaded the world? Who shall be able to effect its destruction? What reason can cut off this evil beast, and destroy it with utter destruction? The desire is deep sown in the minds of men, even of those who seem to be religious. 5

Chrysostom’s critique here is obviously not directed simply at those who love gold and silver but to those for whom, in loving money, “money becomes everything.” Suppose, however, we substitute commodities for money. Given powerful messages in consumer societies that happiness, security and self-worth lie in consumption; that we should buy whatever we desire; and that, because our desire for things is unlimited, we can in principle never attain “self-sufficiency” (autarkeia), it is not hard to see how deep seated the problem of the love of money is in our society.

We may disagree with the particular analyses and solutions that Chrysostom offers, but as Fr. Georges Florovsky rightly observes:

[Chrysostom] had to face the life in great and overcrowded cites … He simply could not evade social problems without detaching Christianity from life … In his sermons we find, first of all, a penetrating analysis of the social situation. He finds too much injustice, coldness, indifference and suffering in the society of his day. And he sees well to what extent it is connected with the acquisitive character of [his society].

Even if we correctly grant, with Fr. Florovsky, that Chrysostom was not primarily a social reformer, nevertheless, we cannot follow Chrysostom’s teachings about wealth and poverty and remain unwilling to critique and change the social relations, institutional structures, and ideologies that undergird our acquisition and use of wealth; and to challenge the widespread belief that people are poor simply because of their alleged behaviors and attitudes.

For Chrysostom, our primary task is not simply to establish new modes of economic exchange and social relations. Our primary task is neither reducible to, nor understandable within, purely secularized approaches to social reform. For this task is grounded in metanoia (repentance) – “the complete change and renewal of heart and mind: from the heart and mind of sin to ‘the mind of Christ’.” This requires a spiritual transformation of our relationships with one another in an imitation of Christ that is made possible by our cooperation with divine grace.

Chrysostom notes that “the rule of the most perfect Christian life is seeking those things that are for the common advantage…. For nothing can so make a man an imitator of Christ as caring for his neighbor.” In particular, almsgiving is not simply a means by which wealthy people give money to the poor. He exhorts everyone to give alms. No one, he often says, is so poor that they cannot imitate the poor widow who gave two mites. Even if they have not a single penny, they can always provide a cup of water to a stranger, comfort others, or in some way show mercy and kindness to others.

First in Antioch and then in Constantinople, Chrysostom sought to establish a community in which people mutually cared for one another. Such a community is grounded in a gift economy – that is, in intentions and actions that have a fundamentally Eucharistic nature to them. In giving alms to Christ in the person of the poor (more broadly, in rendering assistance to all of those in need), we effectively offer a sacrifice on the altar, the body of Christ, that is the poor person.

Having said “The first and great commandment is ‘You shall love the Lord your God,'” he added “and the second … is like it. ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” And see how with nearly the same excellence he also requires this. For as concerning God, he said “With all your heart”: so concerning your neighbor, ‘as yourself’ is the same as ‘with all your heart.” If this commandment were duly observed there would be neither slave nor free, neither ruler nor ruled…. There would be no poverty, no unbounded wealth if there were love, but only the good parts that come from each. From the one we should reap its abundance, and from the other its freedom from care and should neither have to undergo the anxieties of riches nor the dread of poverty. 6

In this way, our actions are a way of giving thanks to Christ for the love he showed to us in his passion and resurrection. In this self-sacrificial love or, better, co-suffering love, we take up the Cross and follow Christ. In so doing, we obtain Christ’s loving kindness towards us. That is, through our actions we communicate to others the loving kindness that Christ has shown to us. In this way, we imitate Christ and become in some way like Christ.

For Chrysostom the real solution to the problems posed by wealth lies precisely in this sort of love writ large in community. Noting that for Christ “the sign of perfect love for him is the love of one’s neighbors,” Chrysostom offers this remarkable observation:

Dr. John D. Jones is Professor of Philosophy at Marquette University. One of his research areas is poverty and social marginalization. He is currently working on a book on philosophical and theological issues pertaining to poverty. He is a member of SS. Cyril and Methodius Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is also participating in the local Late Vocations Program of the Orthodox Church in America with the intention of seeking ordination to the deaconate. The complete text of this article, with notes and a reading list, will also appear in a forthcoming issue of the Marquette journal, Philosophy and Theology.

1. “Homilies on John” 37.3; Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers [NPNF] XIV:147

2. “Homilies on I Thess.” 10 (NPNF XIII:504).

3. “Homilies on 1 Thess.” 10 (NPNF XIII:502)

4. “No One Harms Himself” 2 (NPNF: IX:294)

5. “Homilies on 1 Thess.” 10 (NPNF XIII:502)

6. “Homilies on 1 Cor.” 32.11 (NPNF XII: 263)

Confronting Poverty and Stigmatization: An Orthodox Perspective

by John D. Jones

Would you see His altar? … This altar is composed of the very members of Christ, and the body of the Lord becomes an altar. This altar is more venerable even than the one which we now use. For it is … but a stone by nature; but become holy because it receives Christ’s Body: but that is holy because it is itself Christ’s Body … [which] you may see lying everywhere, in the alleys and in the market places, and you may sacrifice upon it anytime… When then you see a poor believer, believe that you are beholding an altar. When you see this one as a beggar, do not only refrain from insulting him, but actually give him honor, and if you witness someone else insulting him, stop him; prevent it.

— St. John Chrysostom

Given the wide range of religious and socio-economic meanings of “poverty,” Christian discourse about poverty is inevitably complex. Christian responses to socio-economic poverty are generally framed in terms of almsgiving and providing material assistance to those who are poor.

For Orthodox Christians, concerns about poverty are ordered toward our deification or participation in the life of the Trinity. While utterly dependent upon God’s grace, this participation also requires our cooperation grounded in a recognition of all humans as icons of Christ. So, St. Maria Skobtsova insisted that charitable activities be guided by the conviction that each person “is God’s image and likeness, the temple of the Holy Spirit, the incorruptible icon of God.” Her insistence on the “dignity” of the poor is important given the widespread denigration and stigmatization of the poor.

Joel Handler observes that in the United States “Moral degradation of the poor is used as a negative symbol to reinforce the work ethic.” Moreover, in many societies, the poor often complain about the humiliation, shame and denigration to which they are subjected.

I want to focus on the stigmatization of the poor, and on stigmatization in general, as the starting point for considering an Orthodox Christian engagement with poverty. Stigmatization itself need not be associated with poverty in its social and economic sense; but it also constitutes its own form of poverty since those who are stigmatized are imputed to be impoverished or fundamentally defective as persons. Although not labeled as such, the discussion of stigmatization is central to St. Gregory the Theologian’s Oration 14, “On the Love of the Poor.”

For St. Gregory, “charity (agap) [is] the first and greatest of the Commandments … and its most vital part … is love of the poor (philoptchia)” (sec. 5). He identifies leprosy as the most extreme form of poverty (ptcheia). Indeed, among the poor, lepers experience the worst suffering since “most people cannot stand to be near them, or even to look at them, but avoid them, are nauseated by them, and regard them as abominations so to speak. This is heavier for them to bear than their ailment when they perceive that they are hated because of their misfortune (sec. 9).” These lepers are not just subjected to “economic” poverty, but a poverty constituted by a radical marginalization from their social world that is grounded in their stigmatization.

In Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck vividly illustrates the underlying logic of stigmatization through a conversation between two gas station attendants who have just sold fuel to the Joads.

“Jesus, what a hard looking outfit!” “Them Okies? They’re all hard-lookin.” “Jesus, I’d hate to start out in a jalopy like that.” “Well, you and me got sense. Them goddamn Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain’t human. A human being wouldn’t live like they do. A human being couldn’t stand it to be so dirty and miserable. They ain’t a hell of a lot better than gorillas.”

The “Okies” for these two attendants, like lepers for those who stigmatize them, “are more like animals than humans.” This is the classic, core formulation of all stigmatization.

Stigmatization is different from stereotyping or making hasty generalizations about the members of a group. It is also different from what social psychologists call “marking” or taking note of a condition, such as blindness or tuberculosis, that we judge may be an obstacle in some determinate situation. We do this in making special accommodations for a blind person to participate in some activity or provide appropriate quarantine for someone with tuberculosis. “Marking” is a legitimate and regular part of our daily activities although we may not always be correct in marking individuals: e.g., we may mistakenly make unneeded accommodations for a blind person.

Stigmatization is qualitatively different from both stereotyping and “marking”:

It is the dramatic essence of the stigmatizing process that a label marking the deviant status is applied and this marking process typically has devastating consequences for emotions, thought, and behavior…In the classic case, the mark or sign of deviance imitates a drastic inference process that engulfs impressions of the deviant target person and sets up barriers to interaction and intimacy.

(E. Jones, Social Stigma, pp. 4-6)

Stigmatization arises when people are so overwhelmed by encountering certain conditions that they are repelled by those who are subjected to them. An acquaintance of mine, who could not bear to be near people in wheelchairs, once remarked, “I’d rather be dead than confined to a wheelchair.” People stigmatize various conditions because they are taken to be fundamentally imperiling and “death-dealing.” That is, such people believe that to be exposed to these conditions — or, e.g., in racism, to the “bearers” of these conditions — would irrevocably ruin their lives and strip them of significance. As “dirty” — physically, morally, existentially and symbolically — the stigmatized provoke reactions of fear, disgust and loathing, and thus are seen as fundamentally dangerous. So, they merit rejection and marginalization. Whether or not stigmatized people are economically poor, they are imputed to be “poor” or fundamentally defective as persons since they are viewed solely in terms of the stigmatized conditions. When socially legitimated, stigmatization often results in banishment or “ghettoization.” Stigmatization, then, does not consist simply in disliking people, not wanting to be around them, or even in morally censuring them for their actions. Stigmatization amounts to a kind of hatred of others that effectively seeks to dehumanize and marginalize them.

The issue for those who stigmatize people is not those people but themselves, or more precisely their embodied condition as free human beings. In his essay, Anti-Semite and Jew, Jean Paul Sartre astutely observed that:

the anti-Semite…is a man who is afraid. Not of the Jews, to be sure, but of himself … In espousing anti-Semitism, he does not simply adopt an opinion, he chooses himself as a person… The Jew only serves him as a pretext, elsewhere his counterpart will make use of the Negro… The existence of the Jew merely permits the anti-Semite to stifle his anxieties at their inception… Anti-Semitism, in short, is fear of the human condition.

St. Gregory, indirectly at least, provides a clue to what is at issue in confronting leprosy. First (sec. 10), he gives a graphic description of the plight of lepers and the manner in which people flee from them:

There lies before our eyes a dreadful and pathetic sight…human beings alive yet dead, disfigured in almost every part of their bodies, barely recognizable for who they once were or where they came from…even the most kind and considerate person shows no feeling for them… we actually believe that avoiding these people assures the safety of our own bodies.

Prior to this, he had taken note of his own ambivalence toward his own body. The entire text in context is quite long, but I want to present the salient parts. In sec. 4, St. Gregory observes that

activity [praxis] is beautiful because it welcomes Christ and serves [therapeuousa] him, and confirms the power of love through good works.

Noting that “Of all things, nothing so serves (therapeuetai) God as mercy because no other thing is more proper to God” (sec. 5), he then continues:

We must, then, open our hearts to all the poor [or]… those in distress from whatever cause … particularly those wasted with the sacred disease that devours their flesh and bones …who are betrayed by this wretched, vile, and faithless body.

Then follows a digression about his relation to his body:

How I came to be joined to it, I do not know; nor how I am the image of God and concocted of clay at the same time; this body…that I both cherish as a fellow-servant and evade as my enemy… If I struggle to suppress it, I lose the helper I need to achieve my noble aims, knowing that it is through my actions (praxen) that I am to ascend to God.

He then concludes:

We must, my brothers … care for (therapeuteon) the body as being our kinsman and fellow-servant.

Christ-Breadlines

Why must one care for (therapeuteon) the body? Because if it is “suppressed” we each lose the “co-worker” needed to perform acts of mercy by which we “serve (therapeuousa) God.” Indeed, if the body “wastes away” through the assaults of leprosy, poverty and other like “afflictions,” our very freedom to engage in the world in meaningful ways is threatened. So, “we actually believe that avoiding these people [lepers] assures the safety of our own bodies” — but not just our bodies, rather, our very existence in the world.

Confronted by the suffering, disfigurement, and rejection suffered by lepers and the poorest of the poor (ptchoi) generally — real threats and assaults on human beings to be sure — and overwhelmed by these conditions, those who stigmatize these people are overwhelmed by their own vulnerability to these conditions. To deflect their anxiety and to assure their own existential safety, they interpret those subjected to these conditions as fundamentally defective and, thus, as deserving their fate. They are taken to be accursed and abandoned by God. Theologically expressed, this sort of stigmatization is driven at bottom by an anxiety about one’s own possible abandonment by God.

What lurks unthematized in the hearts of those who are engulfed by the conditions, and thus the people, they stigmatize is a truncated version of Ps. 21:

  • subjected to these conditions, one will be abandoned by God — “My God, my God” (v.1) you shall indeed forsake me;
  • in the face of exhausting suffering — since “I [will be] poured out like water, and scattered [will be] all my bones; my heart [will] become like wax, melting in the midst of my bowels” (v. 16);
  • denigration and rejection — “As for me, I [will become] a worm, and not a man: a reproach of men, and the outcast of the people” (v. 6);
  • yet bereft of the possibility of transfiguration and resurrection. For it is promised that “the Lord will not set as naught nor abhor the supplication of the poor …but the poor shall eat and be satisfied” (vv. 24, 26).

Since people who stigmatize others are not fundamentally afraid of them, but anxiety ridden about themselves, they fail to see, not just others, but also themselves as icons of Christ. We can only find Christ in others or ourselves insofar as we are embodied and, thus, in the midst of suffering, pain, and denigration. After all, Christ became poor for our sakes; he took on all of our weaknesses, infirmities and suffering — actual and possible — in order to sanctify, heal, and restore us to life. Yet insofar as stigmatization is grounded in an anxiety over abandonment by God, then in stigmatizing others we effectively repudiate Christ’s promise that he will be with us always (Matt. 28:30). In stigmatizing others, then, we effectively circumscribe God’s healing power both for ourselves and for those who are stigmatized.

Moreover, charitable actions towards the poor may not counter, and may even mask, stigmatization. St. Gregory of Nyssa writes:

Let no one say that some place far away from our life is perfectly sufficient and send them off to some frontier, supplying them with food. For a plan of this sort displays neither mercy nor sympathy but is designed, in the guise of goodwill, to banish these people utterly from our life. Are we not willing to shelter pigs and dogs under our roof?… Will we disparage our own kind and race as baser than the animals? Let these things not be — no, my brothers! Resolve that this inhumanity will not triumph.

As socially sanctioned, such inhumanity and stigmatization form the “ideological” basis for oppressive and marginalizing social structures. The Theologian gives a powerful description of marginalization in “On the Love of the Poor.”

They are driven away from cities, they are driven away from homes … even…from water itself. They wander about night and day, helpless…To them a kind benefactor is…anyone who has not cruelly sent them away.

This marginalization indicates the failure, not just of individuals, but of a community to establish structures and policies that provide even minimal recognition, mercy and justice to people. It has often been a feature of the social policy toward the poor in capitalism: when society became construed as “a collection of independent, atomized individuals all pursuing their private interests and ordering their relations with each other by means of formal, explicit contracts,” paupers became viewed as “useless, shameless drones in the context of the new values of individualism and self-reliance” (F. Allan Hanson).

An Orthodox Christian response to stigmatization remains incomplete if it fails to seek to root out the forms of stigmatization that lurk inside and drive social policies. As Fr. Boris Bobrinksoy wrote,

There is, in the ultimate reality of things, no nonspiritual life that is closed off to the Holy Spirit… We chase him from public life by a Machiavellian form of separation between our private lives — pious and good — and the domains of politics …culture and work, where everything is allowed. All these domains of human work depend upon the creative work of man, seized, modeled and inspired by the Spirit of God.”

Note that individuals can stigmatize themselves particularly in response to external stigmatization: e.g., men who became acculturated to Skid Row or people who are severely sexually abused. Such people often act masochistically: they affirm their imputed worthlessness by seeking out punishment — abuse, humiliation and situations of self-defeat — that confirms it. The patient suffering of evil for Christ’s sake as well as the recognition of our own wretchedness before God in prayer and confession are a central part of Orthodox spirituality. Neither serve to legitimate self-stigmatization or its patient endurance but essentially protest against it, since both, grounded in the springtime of Great Lent, must take place in light of our faith and hope in the Resurrection. As Fr. Boris Bobrinskoy wrote of Job:

The merciless friends of Job consoled him with this logic: “You suffer; you are punished because you have sinned against God; repent before God.” With all his being, Job refused to surrender to such exhortations and did not admit his guilt. He appealed to God, in the certainty of seeing the Redeemer with the eyes of his flesh. God sided with him…Job’s refusal of unjust suffering still resonates in all human sufferings.

In The Hungry are Dying, Susan Holman notes that in the ancient world, litourgiai referred to “public service performed by private citizens at their own expense.” St. John Chrysostom and the Cappadocian fathers deliberately brought the poor into these liturgies and “extended” the Divine Liturgy into the alleys and market places, engaging it with the civic liturgies of public life. So, he identified the poor as an Altar — the Body of Christ — thereby powerfully repudiating their denigration. “When you see [a poor believer who is] a beggar, do not only refrain from insulting him, but actually give him honor, and if you witness someone else insulting him, stop him; prevent it.”

Stigmatization is a particularly difficult “hardness of heart” to expose and challenge. For example, people engaged in stigmatization are often unmoved by rational appeals to the “self-evident truth” “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Many racists cheerfully subscribe to this truth and yet hold tenaciously to their racism.

In the end, the most powerful negation of stigmatization is our direct engagement with those who are stigmatized in which we discover and respond to life — Christ in the person of the poor — rather than death. St. John Chrysostom’s identification of the poor as the Altar of Christ requires us to that engagement. For we do not partake of the mysteries of the Eucharist at a distance; we must come forward and make physical contact with them. So, too often in the profaned world in which we live, it is there in the “alleys” — marginalized social worlds — that we find the Altar of Christ in the poor and are bid to render hospitality.

Thus ought we ever to exercise hospitality by our own personal exertions, that we may be sanctified, and our hands be blessed. And if you give to the poor, disdain not yourself to give it, for it is not to the poor that it is given, but to Christ; and who is so wretched, as to disdain to stretch out his own hand to Christ? This is hospitality, this is truly to do it for God’s sake.

(St. John Chrysostom)

Dr. John D. Jones is Professor of Philosophy at Marquette University. One of his research areas is poverty and social marginalization. He is currently working on a book on philosophical and theological issues pertaining to poverty. He also does research in Neoplatonism, Byzantine and Medieval Philosophy focusing on (Pseudo)-Dionysius Areopagite. He is a member of SS. Cyril and Methodius Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is also participating in his local OCA Late Vocations Program with the intention of seeking ordination to the Holy Diaconate. A more complete version of his essay, including notes, is located in the Resources section of the OPF website. The wood engarving, “Christ of the Breadlines,” is by Fritz Eichenberg.

Confronting Poverty and Stigmatization: An Eastern Orthodox Perspective

John D. Jones [1]

Department of Philosophy, Marquette University

Would you see His altar also?…This altar is composed of the very members of Christ, and the body of the Lord becomes an altar. This altar is more venerable even than the one which we now use. For it is …but a stone by nature; but become holy because it receives Christ’s Body: but that altar is holy because it is itself Christ’s Body….[which] you may see lying everywhere, in the alleys and in the market places, and you may sacrifice upon it anytime…When then you see a poor believer, believe that you are beholding an altar. When you see this one as a beggar, do not only refrain from insulting him, but actually give him honor, and if you witness someone else insulting him, stop him; prevent it.[2]

[Vagrants are the] “vast heap of social refuse – the mere human street sweepings – the great living mixen that is destined, as soon as spring returns, to be strewn far and near over the land, and serve as manure for the future crime crop of the country.”[3]

The ‘problem of poverty’ has been, and is today, defined primarily in terms of the moral values of work. Those who fail to support themselves or their families through work…without a socially approved excuse at a socially approved job…are defined as deviant….Moral degradation of the poor is used as a negative symbol to reinforce the work ethic. [4]

In developing a Christian, and in particular an Orthodox Christian, engagement with or response to poverty, one might expect to begin with poverty in its ordinary sense as an economic category.[5] Naturally, one would try to clarify what is meant by poverty: no small task given conflicting conceptual models of poverty such as inequality, absolute deprivation, relative deprivation, lack of money, etc. Moreover, to complicate matters, some notions of economic poverty can be analogically extended to other forms of deprivation so that we can talk about social or political poverty.[6] One would, of course, consider the teachings of Christ, Holy Scripture, and the Fathers concerning poverty and, hence, one would be lead to the broader issue of our relations to wealth among ourselves and with reference to God. In so doing, we would expand the notion of poverty to characterize both our general ontological dependence upon God and our nature as corrupted by sin. One would also develop a variety of spiritual or religious conceptions of poverty – poverty of spirit, renunciation of possessions, etc. – that bear more or less analogous notions to everyday conceptions of poverty. Moreover, one would at some point have to deal with a fundamental Christian ambivalence toward everyday life: an engagement with everyday life in which poverty is an evil and an ascetic renunciation of this life in which poverty is a good.[7]

In the Orthodox Christian faith, all such concerns are ordered toward our participation in the life of the Trinity, that is, the transfiguration and deification of human life both now and in the next life. To be sure, this transfiguration and deification is utterly dependent on God’s grace; but it also requires our cooperation (synergy) grounded in a recognition of all humans as icons of Christ.[8] Accordingly, we are led to consider the special manner in which Christ is present in the poor. So St. Maria Skobtsova “told her collaborators that all their charitable activities should be guided by the conviction that the human person ‘is God’s image and likeness, the temple of the Holy Spirit, the incorruptible icon of God.'”[9] This insistence on what is often called the ‘dignity’ of the poor is important given the widespread human tendency to denigrate and stigmatize the poor. Joel Handler has shown quite decisively how American public policy toward the poor is driven by the invidious distinction between the ‘reputable’ and ‘disreputable’ poor.[10] A cross-cultural study of poverty by Deepa Narayan showed widespread complaints by the poor concerning the humiliation, shame and denigration to which they are subjected, even by those who ostensibly acted to help them.[11]

It is this matter – the stigmatization of poverty and stigmatization in general – that I want to make a starting point for considering an Orthodox Christian engagement with poverty. The stigmatization of poverty is closely connected with the psycho-social dynamics of stigmatization in general.[12] While stigmatization itself is not necessarily associated with poverty in its social/economic sense, it constitutes its own form of poverty since, as we shall see, those who are stigmatized are imputed to be impoverished, that is, fundamentally defective, as persons. The stigmatization of economically poor people as such exacerbates and intensifies the suffering to which they are subjected. The stigmatization of economically poor people on account of conditions conceptually unrelated to poverty – such as mental illness, AIDS, addiction, or physical disability – likewise intensify and exacerbate their suffering as poor. Conversely, protest against the unjust evil that stigmatization imposes on people who might not be not poor also, and for the same reasons, entails protest against the stigmatization of the poor.

Stigmatization raises a host of existential and spiritual issues not just about the poor but about those who stigmatize them. Although not labeled as such, the discussion of this stigma is central to St. Gregory (Nazianzus) the Theologian’s Oration 14, “On the Love of the Poor.”[13] It also plays a central role in St. Gregory of Nyssa’s sermon, “On the Saying, ‘Whoever Has Done It to One of These Has Done It to Me.'”[14]

The oration “On the Love of the Poor” begins with a review of various Christian virtues and concludes that of all the virtues,

following Paul and Christ himself, we must regard charity (agap) as the first and greatest of the Commandments, since it is the sum of the Law and the prophets; and its most vital (kratiston) part I find is love of the poor (philoptchia), along with compassion and sympathy for our fellow man. (sec. 5)[15]

St. Gregory then delineates various forms of poverty (ptcheia) with leprosy specified as its most extreme form. In delineating the suffering that accompanies these various forms of poverty, he notes the worst is experienced by the lepers, a condition such “that most people cannot stand to be near them, or even to look at them, but avoid them, are nauseated by them, and regard them as abominations so to speak. This is heavier for them to bear than their ailment when they perceive that they are hated because of their misfortune (sec. 9).” The ‘poverty’ to which the lepers are subjected is not simply ‘economic.’ It is constituted by a radical disaffiliation and marginalization from their social world that is grounded in their denigration and stigmatization.[16]

A particularly vivid passage from John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath illustrates the underlying logic of stigmatization. What follows is the conversation between two gas station attendants who have just sold fuel to the Joads after their entry into California:

“Jesus, what a hard looking outfit!” “Them Okies? They’re all hard-lookin.” “Jesus, I’d hate to start out in a jalopy like that.” “Well, you and me got sense. Them goddamn Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain’t human. A human being wouldn’t live like they do. A human being couldn’t stand it to be so dirty and miserable. They ain’t a hell of a lot better than gorillas.”[17]

In brief, the ‘Okies’ for these two attendants, like lepers for those who stigmatize them, ‘are more like animals than humans.’ This formulation constitutes the core of stigmatization: to see this, one need only consider the language and visceral reactions of racists, xenophobes, and misogynists among others.

Stigmatization, it should be noted, is not simply a matter of stereotyping. The latter essentially consists of hasty generalizations about the members of a group. Stereotypes need not be negative and typically they are not accompanied by the hostile, visceral rejection that is connected with stigmatization. Nor is stigmatization a matter of ‘marking.'[18] In this latter case, we take note of a condition such as blindness, tuberculoses, or poverty, which we judge may be an obstacle in some determinate situation. We do this when we make special accommodations for a blind person to participate in some activity, to provide appropriate quarantine for someone with tuberculosis, etc. We legitimately engage in ‘marking’ as a part of our daily activities. We may not always be correct in marking individuals – we may mistakenly make unneeded accommodations for a blind person – but we certainly do not denigrate people simply in ‘marking’ them.

Stigmatization is qualitatively different from both stereotyping and ‘marking’:

It is the dramatic essence of the stigmatizing process that a label marking the deviant status is applied and this marking process typically has devastating consequences for emotions, thought, and behavior. Many words have been applied to the resulting status of the deviant person. He or she is flawed, blemished, discredited, spoiled or stigmatized. In the classic case, the mark or sign of deviance imitates a drastic inference process that engulfs impressions of the deviant target person and sets up barriers to interaction and intimacy.[19]

Stigmatization arises when people are so ‘overwhelmed’ by encountering certain conditions, that they are repelled by those who are subjected to those conditions.[20] An acquaintance of mine who could not bear to be near people in wheelchairs betrayed his underlying anxiety by remarking, “I’d rather be dead than confined to a wheelchair.” We stigmatize various conditions because they fundamentally imperil us. We take them to be death-dealing.[21] We believe that to be subjected to these conditions would irrevocably ruin our lives and strip them of significance. To be subjected to them would involve being subjected to a ‘living death’: for those who stigmatize lepers or the poor, it would be better to be dead than to be a leper or poor. When stigmatized, then, people are defined or reified in terms of imputed death-dealing conditions. As ‘dirty’ – physically, morally, existentially and symbolically – the stigmatized provoke reactions of fear, disgust and loathing from those who stigmatize them.[22] The stigmatized then become experienced as fundamentally dangerous and deviant, and thus to be rejected and marginalized. From the standpoint of those engaged in stigmatization, the stigmatized cease to be fully human but, in the extreme, rather ‘more like animals than people’ and, thus, to be banished, or ‘quarantined’ and controlled. Whether or not stigmatized people are economically poor,[23] they are imputed to be ‘poor’ – that is, fundamentally defective – as persons. When socially legitimated, stigmatization often results in banishment or ‘ghettoization’ of those who are stigmatized. Stigmatization, then, does not consist simply in disliking people, not wanting to be around them, or even in morally censuring them for their actions. Stigmatization amounts to a kind of hatred of others[24] that effectively seeks to dehumanize and marginalize them.

The issue for those who stigmatize others is not other people, it is themselves or more precisely their embodied condition as free human beings. Jean Paul Sartre gives a remarkable analysis of this in his essay on anti-Semitism:

We are now in a position to understand the anti-Semite. He is a man who is afraid. Not of the Jews, to be sure, but of himself, of his own consciousness, of his liberty, of his instincts, of his responsibilities…of everything except the Jews….In espousing anti-Semitism, he does not simply adopt an opinion, he chooses himself as a person….The Jew only serves him as a pretext, elsewhere his counterpart will make use of the Negro, or the man of yellow skin. The existence of the Jew merely permits the anti-Semite to stifle his anxieties at their inception…Anti-Semitism, in short is fear of the human condition. The anti-Semite is a man who wishes to be a pitiless stone, a furious torment, a devastating thunderbolt – anything except a man.[25]

Let me return to St. Gregory’s oration since he, indirectly at least, provides a clue to what is at issue in confronting leprosy. First (sec. 10), there is his graphic description of the plight of lepers and the manner in which people flee from them:

There lies before our eyes a dreadful and pathetic sight; one that no one would believe who has not seen it: human beings alive yet dead, disfigured in almost every part of their bodies, barely recognizable for who they once were or where they came from…mutilated, stripped of their possessions, their families, their friends, their very bodies…even the most kind and considerate person shows no feeling for them. And on this account alone we have lost sight of the fact that we are flesh and compassed in a lowly body, and we are so derelict in our obligation to look after our fellow man that we actually believe that avoiding these people assures the safety of our own bodies.[26]

Prior to this, however, St. Gregory had detoured into an apparent digression about his own ambivalence toward his own body. The entire text in context is quite long, but I want to present the salient parts. In sec. 4, St. Gregory completes his enumeration of various virtues in this way:

beautiful is contemplation (theoria), as likewise beautiful is activity (praxis); the one… conducts our mind upward to what is akin to it, the other because it welcomes Christ and serves (therapeuousa) him, and confirms the power of love through good works.

After noting the primacy of charity and of love for the poor among the virtues and also that “Of all things, nothing so serves (therapeuetai) God as mercy because no other thing is more proper to God” (sec. 5), he then continues (sec. 6):

We must, then, open our hearts to all the poor and to all those who are in distress from whatever cause, for the commandment enjoins us “to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15)…particularly to those wasted with the sacred disease[27] that devours their flesh and bones and marrow clear through – as threatened to some[28] – and betrayed by this wretched, vile, and faithless body.

He immediately follows this with a digression, which continues through sec. 7, about his relation to his body:

How I came to be joined to it, I do not know; nor how I am the image of God and concocted of clay at the same time, this body…that I both cherish as a fellow-servant and evade as my enemy…If I struggle to suppress it, I lose the helper I need to achieve my noble aims, knowing as I do why I was created and that it is through my actions (praxen) that I am to ascend to God…(sec. 7) I show it consideration as a co-worker but I do not know how to suppress its insurgency nor how I can help falling away from God when [it] drags me down.

He then concludes (sec. 8):

But now, though confronted with the suffering of others, I have been dwelling on the infirmity of my own flesh. We must, my brothers, as I started to say, care for (therapeuteon) it as being our kinsman and fellow-servant. For, even if I have denounced it as my enemy for the distress it causes, still, I also embrace it as a friend because of him who joined us together.

Why does St. Gregory exhort himself and others to care for (therapeuteon) the body? If it is ‘suppressed’ or ‘wasted away,’ we each lose the co-worker we need to perform acts of mercy by which we “serve (therapeuousa) God,” “confirm the power of love through good works,” and “ascend to God.” But more generally, if the body ‘wastes away,’ we are cutoff from activity (praxis) in the world. The assaults on the body in leprosy, poverty and other like ‘afflictions’ thereby threatens our very freedom to engage in the world in meaningful ways. So, “we actually believe that avoiding these people assures the safety of our own bodies” – but not just our bodies, rather, our very existence in the world.

Confronted by the suffering, disfigurement, impotence, and rejection suffered by lepers and the poorest of the poor (ptchoi) generally – real threats and assaults on human beings to be sure – and overwhelmed by these conditions, those who stigmatize these people are overwhelmed in anxiety by their own vulnerability to this condition as something death-dealing that will radically strip life of its meaning – a ‘living death.'[29] To deflect their anxiety and to assure their own safety, they interpret those actually subjected to these conditions as deserving their fate through some fundamental defect as humans, that is, they are taken to be accursed and abandoned by God. What drives this sort of stigmatization, theologically expressed, is at bottom an anxiety about one’s own possible abandonment by God.

What lurks unthematized in the hearts of those who are ‘engulfed’ by the conditions, and thus the people, they stigmatize is a truncated version of Ps. 21 (LXX):

subjected to these conditions, one will be abandoned by God – “My God, my God” (v.1) you shall indeed forsake me;

in the face of exhausting suffering – since “I [will be] poured out like water, and scattered [will be] all my bones; my heart [will] become like wax, melting in the midst of my bowels” (v. 16);

denigration and rejection – “As for me, I [will become] a worm, and not a man: a reproach of men, and the outcast of the people” (v. 6);

yet bereft of the possibility of transfiguration and resurrection. For it is promised that “the Lord will not set as naught nor abhor the supplication of the poor …but the poor shall eat and be satisfied” (vv. 24, 26).

Certainly, those who stigmatize the poor fail to see them in the image and likeness, and more concretely, as an icon of Christ. As icons of Christ, we cannot find Christ in others or ourselves apart from or in spite of our embodiment, but only as embodied and, thus, in the midst of suffering, pain and denigration. But since, to follow Sartre, those who stigmatize the poor or anyone else are not fundamentally afraid of them, but anxiety ridden about themselves, such people do not just fail to see others as icons of Christ, they fail to see themselves as icons of Christ. After all, Christ became poor for our sakes: that is, took on all of our weaknesses, infirmities and suffering – actual and possible – in order to sanctify, heal and restore us to life. Yet insofar as stigmatization is grounded in an anxiety over abandonment by God, then in stigmatizing others we effectively repudiate Christ’s promise that he will be with us always (Matt. 28:30) both in respect to ourselves as vulnerable to the conditions we stigmatize and, thus, in respect to those who are actually subjected to those conditions. In stigmatizing others, then, we effectively circumscribe God’s healing power both for ourselves – since we would rather be dead than subjected to these conditions – and for those who are stigmatized, since they are imputed to be more like animals than humans and to be accursed of God.

Note also that individuals can stigmatize themselves particularly in response to stigmatization imposed by others. Howard Bahr offered this poignant description of the effects of denigration on those who lived in and were acculturated to Skid Row:

The defectiveness of the skid row man stems from his occupying several stigmatized statuses at once….To begin with there is a physical, visible basis for antipathy toward the skid row man. He is defective physically: the scarred face, the toothless mouth, the missing limbs, the strange actions of the psychotic or mental incompetent….Then there are the stigmatizing aspects of his character: the past of drunkenness, arrests and prison and the long periods of institutional living. Over everything else is the imputed alcoholism, the addiction which makes him a man out of control, perhaps not a man at all.

His defectiveness and powerlessness combine with his other negative characteristics real or imagined and predefine him to involvement in a vicious cycle of negative encounters which serve to bind him to skid row, lower his self-esteem and make a social fact out of what was at first social definition…that he is hopeless and unsalvageable.[30]

Self-stigmatization is essentially masochistic in character: viewing themselves as worthless and hopeless, people who stigmatize themselves affirm their worthlessness by seeking out punishment – abuse, humiliation and situations of self-defeat – that confirms their worthlessness. The patient suffering of evil for Christ’s sake as well as the recognition of our own wretchedness before God in prayer and confession are, of course, a central part of Orthodox spirituality. But both, grounded in the springtime of Great Lent, must take place in light of our faith and hope in the Resurrection: that is, our capacity to be deified and to participate in a whole and complete manner in the life of the Trinity. Neither patient suffering for Christ nor the recognition of our own wretchedness in repentance serve to legitimate self-stigmatization or its patient endurance but, as grounded in faith and hope, essentially protest against it. Surely, the protests that SS. Gregory and Gregory of Nyssa repeatedly lodge against the denigration of the poor[31] extends to those, who in stigmatizing themselves, view themselves as unsalvageable by God.[32] As Fr. Boris Bobrinskoy wrote about Job:

The merciless friends of Job consoled him with this logic: “You suffer; you are punished because you have sinned against God; repent before God.” With all his being, Job refused to surrender to such exhortations and did not admit his guilt. He appealed to God, in the certainty of seeing the Redeemer with the eyes of his flesh. God sided with him…Job’s refusal of unjust suffering still resonates in all human sufferings.[33]

It must be noted that charitable actions towards the poor do not necessarily counter, and may even mask, stigmatization. For, apart from the lived recognition of the other as an icon of Christ, what is given in aid to the poor is negated if we continue to exclude the poor from our world. As St. Gregory of Nyssa writes:

Let no one say that some place far away from our life is perfectly sufficient and send them off to some frontier, supplying them with food. For a plan of this sort displays neither mercy nor sympathy but is designed, in the guise of goodwill, to banish these people utterly from our life. Are we not willing to shelter pigs and dogs under our roof?… Will we disparage our own kind and race as baser than the animals? Let these things not be – no, my brothers! Resolve that this inhumanity will not triumph.[34]

This inhumanity is not simply a matter of some individuals stigmatizing others. Patterns of stigmatization are often socially sanctioned; stigmas form the ‘ideological’ basis for the oppressive and marginalizing social structures that are instituted to exclude stigmatized groups from full social life. St. Gregory gives a powerful description of this marginalization in sec. 12 of “On the Love of the Poor.”

They are driven away from cities, they are driven away from homes, from the market place, from public gatherings, from the streets, from festivities, from drinking parties, even…from water itself. They wander about night and day, helpless, naked, homeless, exposing their sores for all to see…To them a kind benefactor is not someone who has supplied their need but anyone who has not cruelly sent them away.[35]

The marginalization, here, is obviously not due just to the ‘inhuman’ actions that some individuals perpetrate on others; it indicates the failure of a community to establish structures and policies that provide even minimal recognition, mercy and justice to people. So too, as noted earlier, various scholars have argued that the American welfare system arises out of and often seeks to maintain the invidious distinction between the reputable (or deserving) poor and the disreputable (or undeserving poor). That is not too surprising since the denigration of the poor has been a feature of our economy since the origins of capitalism: when society became construed as “a collection of independent, atomized individuals all pursuing their private interests and ordering their relations with each other by means of formal, explicit contracts,” paupers became viewed as “useless, shameless drones in the context of the new values of individualism and self-reliance.”[36]

An Christian, an Orthodox Christian, response to denigration and stigmatization remains fundamentally incomplete if it fails to identify, to protest against, and to seek to root out the forms of denigration and stigmatization that lurk inside and drive social policies. As Fr. Boris Bobrinksoy wrote,

There is, in the ultimate reality of things, no nonspiritual life that is closed off to the Holy Spirit…The world that is called profane is in reality a profaned world and man is responsible for that. We have expelled God from this world: we do it every day. We chase him from public life by a Machiavellian form of separation between our private lives – pious and good – and the domains of politics, commerce, science, technology, love, culture and work, where everything is allowed. All these domains of human work depend upon the creative work of man, seized, modeled, and inspired by the Spirit of God.”[37]

Susan Holman notes that litourgiai in the ancient pre-Christian world referred to “public service performed by private citizens at their own expense.”[38] The poor, whether intentionally or not, were excluded from these liturgies. St. John Chrysostom, and the Cappadocian fathers, brought the poor and marginalized into these liturgies and ‘extended’ the sacred liturgy into the alleys and market places. In this way, they engaged the Divine Liturgy with the civic liturgies of public life.[39] It is in this context that St. John Chrysostom identifies the poor as an Altar – the Body and Blood of Christ. It is particularly important to note that while he makes this identification for the sake of encouraging charitable action toward the poor, the identification also has a powerful ‘legitimating function.’ “The poor become the liturgical image for these most holy elements in all of Christian worship: the altar and body of Christ.”[40] As Christ’s Altar, the poor are not to be despised but honored; conversely, if implicitly, those who despise the poor, thereby despise Christ.

Because the source of the anxiety that underlies stigmatization often remains unthematized and, thus, likely denied by those who engage in it, it is a particularly difficult ‘hardness of heart’ to expose and challenge. Indeed, some of the responses designed to motivate charity toward the poor are likely to misfire in their practical efficacy. First, one might appeal to the dignity of the poor: that we all share a common humanity.[41] But so far as this appeal is made simply to reason, it misfires since, even though true, what drives stigmatization is not mistaken reasoning but profound anxiety. One need simply consider the many racists in our society who were unmoved by appeals to the “self-evident truth” “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” because they cheerfully subscribed to this truth and yet held tenaciously to their racism.[42]

Second, one can appeal to Christ’s command that we are to give to the “least of our brethren.” Yet as St. Gregory of Nyssa observed, providing assistance to people in a way that banishes them from our presence still allows the inhumanity of the denigration to persist. Third, one can strengthen the appeal to charity through the analysis and condemnation of greed and miserliness. But it is not clear, e.g., that the gas station attendants in the Grapes of Wrath are either greedy or miserly. Certainly, the denigration of the poor and lepers has not been confined to those who are either greedy or misers.

In the end, the most powerful negation of stigmatization is our direct engagement with those who are stigmatized[43] in which we discover and respond to life – Christ in the person of the poor – rather than death. Indeed, St. John Chrysostom’s identification of the poor as the Altar of Christ urges and, for him, requires us to enter into that engagement. For we do not partake of the mysteries of the Eucharist at a distance; we must come forward and make physical contact with them.[44] So, too often in the profaned world in which we live, it is there in the “alleys” – marginalized social worlds – that we find the Altar of Christ in the poor and are bid to render hospitality.

Thus ought we ever to exercise hospitality by our own personal exertions, that we may be sanctified, and our hands be blessed. And if you give to the poor, disdain not yourself to give it, for it is not to the poor that it is given, but to Christ; and who is so wretched, as to disdain to stretch out his own hand to Christ? This is hospitality, this is truly to do it for God’s sake.[45]

Dr. John D. Jones

Professor, Department of Philosophy

Marquette University

P.O Box 1881

Milwaukee, WI 53201-1881

(414) 288-5938

(414) 288-3010 (FAX)

Web page: http://academic.mu.edu/phil/jonesj/

Footnotes

1 A version of this paper was read at the Society for Orthodox Philosophy in America, Holy Archangels Monastery, Kendalia, Texas, February 24-26, 2006. This is the first part of a more comprehensive treatment of an Orthodox response to Poverty. The notes, designed for the conference presentation, are still a bit more sparse than if they were composed for publication.

2 St. John Chrysostom, “Homily 20,3 on 2 Corinthians 10:15.”

3 From Henry Mayhew, London Labor and the London Poor, about vagrants in 19th c. England. Quoted in Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Idea of Poverty:, England in the Early Industrial Age (New York: Vintage Books, 1983): 340.

4 Joel F.Handler and Yeheskel Hasenfeld, The Moral Construction of Poverty: Welfare Reform in America (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1991): 17-18.

5 One could suggest that in fact the starting point for Orthodox Christians would be the teachings of the Church. But even if we begin here, we have to have some idea of what is meant by poverty and, in the case, of everyday poverty, that takes us outside the realm of religious discourse per se into other types of discourse.

6 See, St. Gregory the Theologian, “On the Love of the Poor,” sec. 6 (Oratio 14 (=De pauperum amore) PG 35:857-909) for multiples sense of ptchoi. See, Susan Holman, The Hungry are Dying (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001): 5 for the distinction between ptchos and pens. The former connotes more extreme poverty and social disaffiliation; the latter, less extreme poverty with greater social affiliation.

7 While this ambivalence is ultimately central to understanding this matter, dealing with it is well beyond the scope of the present paper. However, Verna Harrison, “Poverty, Social Involvement, and the Life in Christ according to Saint Gregory the Theologian,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 39.2(1994): 162 makes the following observation that should be borne in mind in connection with our reading below of the Oration “On the Love the Poor”: “For the Theologian, there is an inner spiritual connection between asceticism and charity. Philoptchia [love of the poor] can mean compassion for the needy, but it can also mean a love for poverty which leads one to renounce one’s own possessions. In both cases, one is drawn toward the condition of poverty because Christ is present and manifest in it.” (See sec. 19 of this Oration.).

8 And of the Trinity? One finds Orthodox thinkers such as Archbishop Kallistos (Ware), Sr. Nonna (Harrison) and Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) who seek to understanding human community in light of the communion (koinonia) of the Trinity. On the other hand, there are others, who resist this sort of interpretation., e.g., Fr. John Behr and Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos). This matter is exceptionally complex in part because it is very difficult to relate modern concepts of the person to the patristic use of ‘person’ with reference to the hypostases of the Trinity. An inquiry into this matter is well beyond the scope of the paper. For some literature see, John Zizioulas, Being as Communion (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1985); “The Church as Communion,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 38.1(1994):3-16; John Behr, “The Trinitarian Being of the Church,” SVTQ 48.1(2003):67-88; Nonna Harrison, “Human Community as an Image of the Holy Trinity,” SVTQ 46.4(2002):347-64 (qv. ftns. 17-18 for relevant articles by Archbishop Kallistos), and Hierotheos Vlachos, The Person in the Orthodox Tradition, selections on-line at http://www.pelagia.org/htm/b23.en.the_person_in_the_orthodox_tradition.00.htm (see, Chapter IV.7).

9 Verna Harrison, “Poverty in the Orthodox Tradition,” SVTQ 34.1(1990):15.

10 See ftn. 3 above. For two excellent histories of social welfare policy in America see Michael B. Katz, The Undeserving Poor :From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare (New York: Pantheon Books, 1989) and In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America (New York: Basic Books, 1986).

11 Deepa Naraya, Raj Patel, et. al., Can Anyone Hear Us? Voices from 47 Countries (Poverty Group, PREM, World Bank, 1999): 54-56, 76-78. This volume is part of a three part series, Voices of the Poor. All of the material from these volumes can be viewed on-line at: http://www1.worldbank.org/prem/poverty/voices/reports.htm.

12 There is an immense literature on stigmatization. Perhaps the best and most comprehensive treatment, in my view, is Edward. Jones, Amerigo Farinia, et. al., Social Stigma: The Psychology of Marked Relationships (San Francisco: WW Freeman and Co., 1984). This book has an extensive bibliography.

13 I am using the translation, slightly modified, by Martha Vinson in St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Select Orations (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2003): 39-71. I shall refer simply to the sections of the Oration in referencing it. All references to St. Gregory in this paper are to this oration. For the purposes of this paper, I will simply refer to St. Gregory the Theologian as St. Gregory in contrast to St. Gregory of Nyssa.

14 In illud: Quatenus uni ex his fecistis mihi fecistis (or, De pauperibus amandis 2) in Gregorii Nysseni Opera (Leiden, E.J. Brill, 1967-): 9,1:111-27 (PG 46.471-90). I will follow the translation by Holman in The Hungry are Dying (pp. 199-206). I will cite this sermon by column number in PG 46 and page number in Holman, e.g., PG 472(HD p. 199). All references to St. Gregory of Nyssa in this paper are to this sermon.

15 Verna Harrison, “Poverty, Social Involvement, and the Life in Christ according to Saint Gregory the Theologian,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 39.2(1994): 151-164 , esp, 155ff., gives a fine discussion of this Oration in light of the theme of philoptchia as well as its connection with Oration 19.

16 As to the universality of the stigmatization of leprosy see Liora Navon, “Beggars, Metaphors, and Stigma: A Missing Link in the Social History of Leprosy,” Social History of Medicine 11(1998): 89-105. Based upon a study of leprosy in Thailand, she noted that there was an ambivalent reaction toward leprosy among the Thai people. The most hostile reaction was directed towards beggars who had the disease (pp. 96-7), but evidently there were lepers that were cared for by family members, largely out of public view, as well as individuals with milder forms of the disease that were not denigrated or excluded from society (p. 84). She argues that the extremely negative portraits of lepers and the concomitant accounts of hostility towards them were focused on beggars with the disease and, thus, led to exaggerated accounts of leprosy as universally stigmatized in Thailand. She also notes (p. 89) that only about 30% of the untreated cases of leprosy develop the sorts of severe effects like those portrayed, e.g., by SS. Gregory or Gregory of Nyssa. The article raises some interesting questions about the empirical legitimacy of using leprosy per se as a universal metaphor for denigration. Whether her investigations in Thailand have cross-cultural validity is an open question but it does, as she notes, highlight “the need to better understand the sources, severity, and persistency of leprosy stigma” (p. 92). Cf. Holman, p. 158. Of course, the condemnations of the treatment of lepers by both Gregories does not depend whether all lepers in their society were universally denigrated although, it should be noted, they never cite examples of lepers with relatively mild forms of the disease who were viewed less harshly.

17 Grapes of Wrath (New York: Penguin Books, 1977): 301.

18 For the distinction between stigmatization and marking and an excellent general discussion of stigmatization as a response to ‘impression engulfment’ see E. Jones, Social Stigma, pp. :4-8.

19 E. Jones, Social Stigma, p.4-6.

20 It should be clear, I hope, that ‘those who stigmatize others’ represents an social-existential ‘type’ and that I am providing a phenomenological description of that type. No inference is made, or should be drawn, about whether this type applies to specific individuals or groups. Such application is obviously an empirical matter.

21 See especially, E. Jones, pp, 82-89 for this and for the ‘symbolic’ nature of the peril.

22 See, e.g., Frantz Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1967):109-117 as well as Stig Hornshj-Mller, “On Der Ewige Jude” at http://www.holocaust-history.org/der-ewige-jude/. Der Ewige Jude was an infamous Nazi propaganda file that “depicts the Jews of Poland as corrupt, filthy, lazy, ugly, and perverse: they are an alien people which have taken over the world through their control of banking and commerce, yet which still live like animals.” The film generated “shouts of disgust and loathing” by Hitler and the Nazis who first viewed it.

23 So, the stigmatized historically have included those who are blind, physically disabled, severe stammerers, members of ethic out-groups (Jones, Social Stigma, p. 5). Of course, the bases for stigmatizations vary from culture to culture; so too, people may not be stigmatized by everyone in a particular social group.

24 See St. Gregory’s remark, quoted above, that ‘being hated for their misfortune’ is what is hardest to bear for lepers.

25 Anti-Semite and Jew, Trans. George Becker (New York: Schocken Books, 1948):53-54.

26 See, St. Gregory of Nyssa, PG 477-476(HD pp. 201-202) for even a more horrific portrait of lepers which, it must be acknowledged, comes very close to the kind of language that might be used by those who stigmatize them: e.g., they ‘have none of the appearances of a man, nor those of a beast” and “rather than men, theirs is a lamentable wreckage.” It is only St. Gregory of Nyssa’s constant stress on the full humanity of lepers as images of God that prevents these portraits from legitimating denigration of them. In addition to a ‘natural loathing’ for such conditions, which St. Gregory of Nyssa acknowledges (PG 488(HD p. 205), one might expect the avoidance of lepers to be justified because of fear of contagion. There is scholarly debate about whether leprosy is contagious and, if so, to what degree. But both St. Gregory (sec. 27) and St. Gregory of Nyssa (PG 484-488(HD p. 205) thought the fear of contagion misplaced; neither thought it justified the denigration and avoidance of lepers. See also, Holman, pp. 156-60.

27 “Sacred disease” was usually reserved for epilepsy. Holman, p. 161, notes that St. Gregory applied it to leprosy in order to “evoke the biblical image of the sacred beggar, Lazarus.”

28 See Ps. 38.3 (LXX 37.4) and 102.3-5 (LXX 104.4-6) as well as Numb. 12.10 where God afflicts Miriam with leprosy. St. Gregory, it should be noted, explicitly distances himself from the idea that every affliction is from God as a form of punishment (secs. 30-31).

29 It should be noted, though, that the threat can also take the form of an imputed daemonic presence which an embodied condition is imputed to convey. White racists are not likely threatened by blacks because they fear becoming black. They are threatened by an imputed daemonic, irrational presence that the bodies of blacks is taken to represent and which racists can avoid only by a marginalization of blacks that is justified by dehumanizing them. A similar analysis would apply to misogynists.

30 Howard M. Bahr, Skid Row: An Introduction to Disaffiliation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973): 120-21 and 15 respectively.

31 See St. Gregory, secs. 10, 14, and 15 and St. Gregory of Nyssa, PG 473-476 (HD p. 201), 476(HD p. 203), 480(HD p. 203).

32 Rollo May relates an account of his therapeutic work with a young woman who had been prostituted by her parents, but who was unable to feel any anger toward them. The woman’s response was essentially masochistic in character. Seeing herself as nothing but a servant in which she had no rights against others, she became “indentured a priori.” May was unable to lodge her from this self-degradation until he expressed, in a spontaneous and uncalculated manner, his own anger about what had been done to her (Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence (New York: Norton Publishing Co., 1972): 85-6.

33 Compassion of the Father, Trans. Anthony Gythiel (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003): 53.

34 St. Gregory of Nyssa, PG 480(HD p. 203).

35 To be sure, St. Gregory of Nyssa points to a minimal level of community among the lepers (PG 477(HD 202)) but this hardly constitutes what would be regarded as a ‘social world’ or an ensemble of institutional and other structures that allows for meaningful engagement in the world. Indeed, the “existential death” imputed by stigmatization carries with it a “social death” – a loss of social world – imposed by marginalizing social actions and structures. See the reference to Bahr above.

36 F. Allan Hanson, “How Poverty Lost Its Meaning,” The Cato Journal 17(1997)2 on-line at http://www.cato.org/pubs/journal/cj17n2-5.html. This sort of view persists in the welfare-state in more modern notions of the ‘culture of poverty’ and the ‘underclass.’

37 Bobrinskoy, p. 28.

38 Holman, The Hungry are Dying, p. 21

39 Ibid., pp. 60-62.

40 Ibid., p. 62.

41 See, e.g., “On the Love of the Poor” sec. 14. See also Harrison, “Poverty, Social Involvement…” p, 158 for a discussion of the various senses of the “unity of human nature” in this section. See also, St. Gregory of Nyssa, PG 480(HD p. 203).

42 See, Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks, p. 119-20 for a variation on this theme.

43 As to how efficacious direct contact may be for reducing stigma see, e.g., Gregory M. Herek and John P. Capitanio, “AIDS Stigma and Contact With Persons With AIDS: Effects of Direct and Vicarious Contact,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 27.1(1997): 1-36 for a nuanced discussion of this matter in relation to AIDS patients. The authors also note that “A large body of empirical research has shown that contact can indeed reduce prejudice when it is sustained and intimate between individuals of equal status who share important goals and are supported by the institution within which it occurs” (p. 2).

44 So, Holman, pp. 161-62, notes that for SS. John Chrysostom, Gregory, and Gregory of Nyssa “lepers once set apart for their pollution, become a symbol of all that is ‘set apart’ for God… the ill beggars lying on the ground are holy coins that ‘bear the countenance of our Saviour’…They ought to be touched physically without repulsion.”

45 St. John Chrysostom, “Homily 14 on 1 Timothy 5:9.” The context makes clear that alms are given to Christ as found in the poor, not Christ instead of the poor. (PG 62, 573).

Copyright 2006 by the author; all rights reserved

Placed on the web site of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship March 2006.