After the communications breakdown between the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and the Ecumenical Patriarchate (EP) over the status of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, the issue of consensus in the Orthodox Church was of utmost importance. Moscow and Constantinople were questioned on whether they share the same ecclesiology, but the issue of resolving the schism of the Orthodox Church of North Macedonia (Macedonian church) has just arisen, giving new hope for the future.
Orthodox dioceses in North Macedonia were part of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) until 1967. After the Second World War, the SOC was under the communist regime in Yugoslavia, and it could not act freely due to tremendous repression. During that period, the Orthodox dioceses in the territory of today’s North Macedonia unilaterally declared autocephaly from the SOC and started a schism. Because of that schism, the Macedonian church was for decades isolated and outside unity with all Orthodox churches.
With the fifth Halki Summit on the environment scheduled to take place in June 2022, I would like to take the opportunity to reflect upon the ways in which we, as Orthodox Christians, can more fully embrace the ecological message that Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople has repeatedly delivered for more than thirty years. The Patriarch has called upon Orthodox Christians and people of goodwill across the globe to recognize that the environmental catastrophes that we have caused, and continue to perpetuate, are sins and that we ought to be repentant for having committed them by engaging in a transformation of our mindsets and daily lifestyles. Two crucial aspects of our daily behavior that are contributing to environmental destruction, yet which have historically received little attention from Orthodox Christian theologians, are global society’s food cultivation and distribution practices as well as humanity’s current consumption habits.
Reflecting on the ethics of food is of utmost importance, for it ties together the economic and ecological dimensions of our daily lives on both individual and collective levels. Ultimately, our attempts to live the “good life” by pursuing a vision of “prosperity as abundance” have led to our failure to truly achieve a state of flourishing as a global community and has led us to forego our responsibility to care for creation as we attempt to achieve such prosperity through industrial means. We must come to realize that to carry on with business as usual without amending our consumption practices and without altering our food systems is to perpetuate one of the primary sources of ecological harm. As with any authentic repentance (metanoia), an ecological metanoia entails a transformation of each individual’s personal lifestyle, in this case: what we consume, the way we consume, as well as the method and location of our food sourcing. By raising awareness of this aspect of the ecological crisis and by advocating for more sustainable methods of food cultivation, the global Orthodox Christian oecumene can help humanity begin to sincerely repent for its ecological sins by transforming our relationship to our food, our lands, our seas and ultimately to creation itself.
Over the past four years, Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” has become a catch-phrase for a certain kind of conservative Christian community in North America. Many Orthodox churches are striving to carve out a niche within this religious marketplace, promoting the stability of Orthodoxy in contrast to current Western Christian brands. Indeed, such stability is vital to the “BenOp” lifestyle, which envisions Christian village-style communities rooted in family life and communal worship as an antidote to a decadent modern society, unmoored from its traditional roots.
While Dreher does not promote Christian gated communities, encouraging Christians to seek allies in their cause across ideological, denominational, and religious lines, some Orthodox interpreters of his “Benedict Option” are seduced by the latent sectarianism of a BenOp-style “counter-culture” where most of the parishioners live around the corner from the Church, and where all the children attend the same parochial Orthodox school…
I would suggest that this inclination towards communities that distinguish themselves sharply from the rest of society are underwritten by a particular interpretation of the “Neopatristic Synthesis,” a school of theology that has predominated since the middle of the last century. Most often associated with the works of Fr. Georges Florovsky and Vladimir Lossky, the movement sought to free Orthodoxy from the influence of (some would say “captivity to”) Western thought, restoring its identity in the patristic, spiritual, and liturgical heritage of the East.
Human rights are contentious: do they exist? Where are they from? And how do we know which specific rights should count as human rights? Is there an Orthodox case to be made for human rights? Indeed, the continuing COVID-19 pandemic raises the specific question of a right to health and healthcare, as does the current American political debate on capping prices on insulin, a life-saving medication which has been exponentially increasing in price in the last decade.
Any discussion of human rights must begin with what we mean by ‘human,’ and for Christians, the God in whose image we are created. This Creator-given human dignity is the divine stamp of blessing and value upon which rights—existential entitlements—are grounded. As Orthodox theologian Paul Ladouceur has written, “a holistic theology of the divine image, personhood and human rights is entirely consistent with the patristic vision of humanity,” and is a “solid rampart” against all manner of violence against Creation. Even outside of the modern Orthodox world, protestants and Catholics have read the tradition similarly. Prominent Reformed theologian Nicolas Wolterstorff, for example, reads Basil the Great, Ambrose, and John Chrysostom and writes that:
I see no other way to interpret what John [Chrysostom] is doing with his powerful rhetoric, than that he is reminding his audience, rich and poor alike, of the natural rights of the poor…. The recognition of natural rights is unmistakably there: The poor are wronged because they do not have what is theirs by natural right…
(Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2008), 62, cited in Susan R. Holman, “Orthodox Humanitarianisms: Patristic Foundations,” The Review of Faith & International Affairs 14.1 [January 2, 2016])