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.
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).
Today, it is reasonable to suggest that most people understand that climate change is real and that it is dangerous. Our level of consumption and misuse of the natural world have negatively changed our atmosphere, weather patterns, oceans, environments, and the lives of the creatures within those environments. As Fr. John Chryssavgis reminds us, “We are at a moment of crisis and consequence. The Greek word for crisis (krisis) indicates a sense of responsibility and accountability for the way in which we respond to the unique and universal problems that we have created and face.” Our misuse and abuse of God’s gift threatens all forms of life, including our own. “For the church Fathers, it is clear that insofar as creation is a gift, it is a gift to all creatures in common” (Theokritoff, Climate Crisis and Sustainable Creaturely Care, 356).
With children to grandparents demonstrating on the streets in countries across the world, there is at last an acknowledgment that we can no longer prevaricate or leave promises unfulfilled—the time has come for urgent and decisive action. Many of these people are people of faith and part of our congregations, yet sadly, there is still a gap between the teachings of faith leaders and participation at the local/parish level. Yes, many will know that we should move away from “what we desire to what we need”—to create a lighter footprint on the earth—yet many will not, because little time is given at parish level for them to hear the teachings of our hierarchs or to discuss how to accommodate them. Bishops in every diocese and their priests are, therefore, essential for creating real change in individual behavior because few people read journals of theology or view metropolitan websites.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the enthronement of Patriarch Bartholomew I to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1991. As is well known, Patriarch Bartholomew has been dubbed the “Green Patriarch” for his longstanding commitment to environmental issues. He recently marked the dawn of 2021 by holding the 4th Halki Summit on the environment, from the 26th to the 28th of January of this year. Beginning in 2012, the Halki Summits have been the most recent instantiation of the Patriarch’s commitment to the environment and is part of a long line of ecumenical, interfaith and interdisciplinary conferences he has held on environmental issues since his Patriarchy began. One of the watershed moments that earned Bartholomew his ecological moniker was when he first expressed the idea of ecological sin while delivering a speech in Santa Barbara, California in 1997. He claimed,
For humans to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation… For humans to degrade the integrity of Earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the Earth of its natural forests, or destroying its wetlands… For humans to injure other humans with disease, for humans to contaminate the Earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life, with poisonous substances… These are sins.
(Address at the Environmental Symposium, Saint Barbara Greek Orthodox Church, Santa Barbara, California, November 8, 1997)