Equality is a core idea and value of modernity. Yet contemporary societies are marked by multiple forms of inequality, for instance, socioeconomic and gender ones. What is the attitude of the Orthodox Church towards inequality? Do unequal relations exist within the Church too, and if yes, how does it address them?
No doubt, Orthodox churches develop rich and multifaceted philanthropic activities to palliate the consequences of inequalities and also condemn forms of exploitation as violation of the sacredness of the human person. However, I wish to argue that a number of factors do not permit the Church to develop a more activist attitude that would go beyond verbal condemnation and traditional philanthropy.
First, the structural position of the Church in the existing system, particularly in countries where the Church functions as a close ally of the state, makes it objectively difficult for church officials to challenge state policies that produce new or deepen established forms of inequality. The role of the Church in Greece during the period of the serious Greek debt crisis is a case in point: although it criticized neoliberalism, it nevertheless offered crucial support and legitimacy to the political authorities, which imposed austerity measures that increased poverty and inequality (see my article here).
It is time for Eastern rite Catholics and Orthodox Christians in the United States to join hands and fight against casteism. Members of the community must support initiatives to make caste a protected category at schools, colleges, and universities as well as in the workplace. Likewise members of the community must unmask the false message that to stand up against casteism is Hinduphobic. Standing up to casteism is a human rights issue, plain and simple—one that cuts across all religions including Christianity.
Contrary to popular belief, caste is not solely tied to the Hindu religion but functions across religions. In fact, casteism, defined as “adherence to a caste system,” has been perpetrated by dominant-caste Christians for centuries and is embedded in Eastern Rite Catholic and Orthodox Indian Christian traditions and practices.
Casteism is a form of decent-based discrimination. Descent based simply means that an individual is born into a certain group, and therefore it matters profoundly who one’s parents and ancestors are. For Americans unfamiliar with caste, it can be helpful to think in terms of racism as a parallel construct.
This essay was first published in Greek at Polymeros kai Polytropos, the blog of the Volos Academy for Theological Studies.
In our time, racism has many faces. Sometimes it manifests itself in a more visible way and other times in an invisible way. Whether it is racism of gender, race, religion or social class, of ethnic origin or sexual orientation, it is certain that the enemy is always the other. It does not matter if the other amounts to whole nations, social groups, or individuals, the other in this case becomes the “red cloth” of a blind ideology, which does not define people as unique and irreplaceable persons in the image of the Triune God, but primarily based on certain natural characteristics.
This is, one might say, the very source of racism and the rejection of otherness. Hostility towards the other, or rather hatred for the different is what defines our identity. This counterpoint is the cornerstone on which all kinds of ideological or religious justifications for discrimination between people are based. Not only each of us, but also entire nations form their collective identity in an oppositional way, in the name of a national, political, cultural, economic, but also religious superiority over others.
In his preface to the social ethics document “For the Life of the World,” Archbishop Elpidophoros of America invited the Orthodox faithful, as well as Christians of other denominations and all people of good will, to engage with the text and enter into a discourse about it. In response to this invitation, the author, a member of the Roman Catholic Church, has thoroughly analyzed the text, written in the spirit of the Orthodox tradition of Christianity, and appreciated its significance.
The social ethics document was intended to continue the engagement with the modern world begun by the Holy and Great Synod of Crete in 2016. In view of new questions and challenges, additional efforts were needed to provide forward-looking impulses for the church and its faithful. A comparison with the synod documents shows that the social-ethical document contributes a significant facet to this. Documents of social-ethical content published earlier by the Russian Orthodox Church were included in the study in order to be able to answer the question of continuities or new accents. Access to the world of thought and to the understanding of the social-ethical document is opened not least by the manifold contributions and publications of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and many Orthodox theologians. It was neither intended nor possible within the framework of this study to attempt to fully cover the diversity of positions and statements of Orthodox theology on the broad spectrum of topics covered by the document. The inclusion of a selection of contributions by hierarchs and theologians rather served the goal of approaching the text in the horizon to which it belongs, namely that of Orthodoxy. In doing so, it has become apparent that “For the Life of the World” has been consistently drawn from specific aspects of modern Orthodox theology developed over decades.