Orthodox Social Thought: A Primer

by Nicholas Sooy

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Two Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Reince Priebus and George Gigicos, are in high ranking positions in the Trump administration, meaning that Orthodox Social Thought (OST) is as relevant now as it has ever been. I offer here a brief look at OST with special attention to issues relevant to American political discourse.

The most authoritative contemporary conciliar source for OST is the Mission document from the 2016 council in Crete. This document was crafted by the 14 autocephalous churches prior to the council, and though not all were present to approve its final form, none of the non-attending churches critiqued the substance of the document. The second source is the Basis of the Social Concept (BSC), which is less authoritative, and has only been adopted by the Russian Church. I will also reference Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s views where possible.

Torture and Capital Punishment:

The Orthodox Church condemns both torture and capital punishment. (BSC §IX) St. Vladimir, for example, was among the first in the world to outlaw both.

Abortion and the Family:

The Orthodox Church condemns abortion, and views the family as a privileged institution in society. The Orthodox Church generally has supported laws that promote the flourishing of families, especially child-bearing families. For example, Russian law gives 140 days of paid maternity leave at 100% pay.

Environment:

“The ecological crisis, which is connected to climate change and global warming, makes it incumbent upon the Church to do everything within her spiritual power to protect God’s creation from the consequences of human greed.” (Mission §F.10)

EP Bartholomew is noted as a leader in the environmental movement.

Health and Welfare:

The Church views healthcare as a right “accessible to all” and prioritizes need over “market relations.” (BSC §XI.3) Hospitals are a Byzantine Christian invention, which developed alongside a robust public welfare system for the poor. By the late Byzantine era these were state run, and doctors were forbidden to accept payment for services.

To quote EP Bartholomew, “[A]s the U.S. debates the best way to provide healthcare for its citizens, we hope and pray that the Byzantine-Orthodox approach provides a model worthy of emulation.”

Race and Immigration:

To quote Met. Ierotheos Vlahos, “the Council of 1872 in Constantinople condemned racialism and nationalism as a heresy,” and a few years ago, an American white nationalist was excommunicated for this heresy.

“The Orthodox Church rejects discrimination,” based upon “skin color, religion, race, sex, ethnicity, and language.” (Mission §E.2) The Church endorses “social justice” and “solidarity.” (Mission §§C.1, F, BSC VI.4) Perhaps the most notable manifestation of these principles in American society was the participation of Archbishop Iakovos in the Civil Rights movement, marching alongside Martin Luther King Jr.

The Orthodox Church has a legacy of welcoming strangers. In the Byzantine Empire, alongside hospitals there existed ‘xenons,’ which were public hospices for strangers, foreigners, and refugees who had no place to go. The fathers repeatedly recommend ‘philoxenia,’ (hospitality, love of stranger), the opposite of xenophobia.

In America, Orthodox Christians are relatively recent immigrants, with most coming in the 20th century. As such, American Orthodox Christians have been fairly pro-immigrant.  St. Alexis Toth, for example, spoke out against “the ‘nativists’, who are always ready to look for means to injure people” and those who “lobbied in the Congress to pass a law against further immigration.”

Orthodox Churches in America have been very active in aiding with the resettlement of refugees, and the global Church likewise calls for the support of refugees:

“We call on the civil authorities, the Orthodox faithful and the other citizens of the countries in which they have sought refuge and continue to seek refuge to accord them every possible assistance, even from out of their own insufficiency.” (Encyclical of the Council)

Economics and Labor:

The Orthodox Church is quite critical of income inequality. As EP Bartholomew says, “we must seek new and fairer economic systems.” Economic inequality is blamed on human sinfulness as manifested in modern consumer capitalism, the globalization of finance, the accumulation of debt, financial speculation and usury, and the power of corporations.

In response to this, OST supports the broad distribution of goods, and “the struggle for the emancipation of labor,” to quote St. Maria Skobtsova. Many 20th century saints supported the labor movement and unionization, including St. Alexander of New York, St. John of Chicago, St. Tikhon of Moscow, St. Philosoph Ornatskii, and St. Alexis Toth.

The Church confesses a symbiotic relationship between the rights of labor and the welfare of the poor, supporting initiatives to create robust public welfare systems, as existed in the Byzantine empire, while also reforming the global financial system that has led to the ”gap between rich and poor” and “the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few.” (Mission §F.4)

“[T]he Church…calls upon society to ensure the equitable distribution of the fruits of labour, in which the rich support the poor… The spiritual welfare and survival of society are possible only if the effort to ensure life, health and minimal welfare for all citizens becomes an indisputable priority in distributing the material resources.” (BSC §VI.6)

War and Peace:

“The Church of Christ condemns war” as well as “[t]he amassing not only of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, but of all kinds of weapons.” (Mission §D.1)

There is no just war tradition in the Church. Instead, the Church recommends “dialogue,” “solidarity,” and peaceful international cooperation. (Mission §§D&F) The EP emphasizes the tactics of mass nonviolence as inherently Christian.

Conclusion

By necessity this list is partial and incomplete, and one cannot lift detailed policy from theological statements. Nonetheless, this brief examination does reveal the mind of the Church on a variety of relevant topics. As Metropolitan Anthony Bloom said, “We should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.” Likewise, the Church should encourage Mr. Priebus and Mr. Gigicos to govern in such a way that OST could be reconstructed from their actions.

Nicholas Sooy is a doctoral student in the philosophy department at Fordham University.