Michael Plekon

The images most closely associated with Eastern Orthodox Christianity as well as its history do not immediately suggest either a tradition of social-political criticism and analysis or radical stances toward social justice. If anything, certain aspects of the Orthodox tradition, such as the former unity of church and state and the transcendent orientation of the Orthodox liturgy, among other things, seem to suggest at best an obsession with stability and order. At the worst, the Orthodox past might appear to contain a hyper-conservative bias. This can sometimes manifest itself as a negative vision of society and culture, of things material and human; in Max Weber's terms, an "other-worldly" or ascetic stance.

However, things are seldom what they seem, and such is very much the case for the social and political vision of the Orthodox Church and its thinkers in the modern era. The same holds true, surprisingly, for the earlier periods in which the church appears to have been either an extension of the Byzantine or Russian imperial court or the popular cult of an ethnic group. Even in the patristic era of the fourth to the ninth centuries one finds the striking personalities and radical social justice perspectives of John Chrysostom and Basil the Great, two of the greatest of the Greek fathers. With them we find perhaps the first overriding theme of the social and political thought of the Eastern church. Along with the transcendently beautiful character of liturgy in the Orthodox East, its social and political vision is a most particular, concrete, and realist one, namely an authentic concern for the material realities of this world, of flesh and blood human beings and their life. In the fiery homilies of John Chrysostom as patriarch of the greatest city of the Christian East, the gap between the affluence of Constantinople's elites and the poverty of many of its citizens is provocatively underscored. The rich who neglect their suffering brothers and sisters will experience the pain of the rich man Dives in hell, the one who failed to show mercy to the poor man Lazarus. In perhaps his most riveting words, John Chrysostom also observes that, having received in holy communion the body and blood of Christ from an altar of gold (that of the Hagia Sophia, the "Great Church" of Constantinople), one then must celebrate the "sacrament of the brother and sister," seeing Christ and serving him on the altar always before us, that of the neighbor (Chrysostom 1856, 1994; Evdokimov 2001: 82-7).

Here we find a second feature of social and political thought in the church of the East: the consistent attention to the human individual, a radicalpersonalism. One thinks of the Dostoevskian character who loves humanity but cannot stand the wretch in front of him. While profoundly sensitive to the communal and social nature of human life, the vision of the Eastern church cannot mistake an abstraction for the concrete person.

Basil goes as far and further: the ornaments, extra clothes, and shoes sitting in our closets are what we have taken, robbed from the poor. The Basiliade, an institutional complex of social services for widows, orphans, the chronically ill, the dying, and the poor was the result of Basil's preaching and pastoral activity as Bishop of Caesarea in the Asia Minor province of Cappadocia. The greatest teachers of the Eastern church pay close attention to the institutions and processes of society. There is an authentic structural and material awareness and concern in their thinking: a third characteristic of their vision.

In these Eastern fathers - who are, of course, teachers of the universal church - we also find the fourth salient feature of the social and political teaching of the Eastern church, namely its constant eschatological reference. When asked what was the social position and program of the Orthodox Church, the eccentric yet brilliant Russian philosopher Nicolas Fyodorov replied: "The Holy Trinity" (Nicholl 1997: 67-118). All too often we take "eschatology" to mean just the end, the "last things." For the Eastern church it bears the more ancient Gospel meaning of the kingdom of God being present among us. Thus, Fyodorov meant that the Trinity's communion of love is powerful and present, here and now. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit's communion of love is the image for each person and for the world. Justice in this world must always be measured against that of God and his kingdom. And here too we find the fifth dominant character, implied by the previous four, that our life in history and society, in our families, in learning and science, government and business, must be constantly transformed in light of the Gospel.

The thinking - and, moreover, the lives - of the three contemporary Orthodox thinkers we will profile here as examples of the social and political thought of the modern Eastern church resonate with the earlier fathers and express the same qualities just described. Here lies the root of the loyalty to the "truth" of socialistic reform and organization, the significance of social, political and economic changes for flesh and blood individuals, that is the hallmark of the political economist and sociologist-become-theologian Fr. Sergius Bulgakov (1877-1944). Yet from here also stemmed his profound rejection of the inhumanity and impersonalism of ideological Marxism. Dominating his vision is the Incarnation and its implications for human life: a vision of the actions of God who has entered time, space and human flesh, always breathing new life, creat ing new possibilities for the transformation of the world and the human heart.

We will also find a similar vision in the life and work of the lay theologian Paul Evdokimov (1901-70). After graduate studies in theology and philosophy and raising a family, he spent over a decade in the service of the suffering and outcast of society. He served as administrator of ecumenically funded hostels for the marginalized. In his writing, he underscored the radical, "absurd" love of God for humanity, God's "kenotic" or self-emptying compassion - a central theme in Russian theology and spirituality over the centuries.

Finally, I will highlight the discovery by Mother Maria Skobtsova (1891-1945) of the indivisibility of love of God and of the neighbor, her emphasis on the radicalism of Christ's second commandment of love and its rule or principle for life: love is not diminished by giving to others, it is enhanced. Mother Maria's bishop said that her monastic life would be located in the world, in the desert of the human heart, and she put her radical vision into practice in Paris, where she served in several hostels for feeding and sheltering the poor and suffering.

My selection of these three figures by no means indicates that no others in the Eastern church were interested in the social and political realities of human life. For example, training as a canonist, a historian, and a scriptural and liturgical scholar gave Fr. Nicolas Afanasiev (1963, 1975, 1992; Nichols 1989) a unique perspective on the church's relationship to politics and society. Most frequently he was a perceptive critic of the church's tendencies toward authoritarianism and cooptation by the state. Metropolitan John Zizioulas (1985) has contributed discerning ideas to our understanding of the relationship between the individual and the community, to the theology of personhood within the world, society and the church. Likewise, Frs. Stanley Harakas (1999) and John Breck (1999) have pursued many of the ethical questions of our time, from abortion and capital punishment to cloning and euthanasia and other controversial issues in bioethics. Vigen Guroian (1994, 2001) has also raised the questions of how the Incarnation leaves its imprint on all we do, from our use of the environment, the natural world around us, to the treatment of the chronically ill and the dying. The late Frs. Alexander Schmemann (1973, 1979, 2000) and John Meyendorff (1978, 1987a, 1987b) also provided general perspectives on the encounter of the church and each Christian with the complexities of life in modern society. Yet the focus here on the three mentioned - Sergius Bulgakov, Paul Evdokimov, and Maria Skobtsova - is no disservice to these others, for in fact all are connected both directly and indirectly, and these three offer perhaps the most radical and insightful approaches in the Eastern church tradition to the challenge of life in our age.

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