When discerning how to approach wealth and commerce, American Orthodox Christians have their work cut out for them. Should we embrace the “Protestant work ethic” of righteous enterprise? Or does the Apostolic witness shun “filthy lucre,” instead favoring a communitarian path? We need more than simplistic answers. The “one thing needful” is Christ Himself, Who reveals to us our vocation to serve God.
Thus, we cannot discover what we should do with our possessions without knowing who we are: Persons created in God’s image, called to communion with our Creator. In regard to the resources of the earth, we fulfill this calling through stewardship, as in Jesus’s “Parable of the Talents” (Matthew 25:14-30). Three stewards are entrusted with a sum of gold they must invest, becoming bountiful on behalf of their master. By gratefully receiving all things, fruitfully increasing them, and lovingly offering them back to our Creator, we bring God’s grace to all human affairs. But when we hoard what we are given, like the bad steward in the parable, we deprive the world of the blessings God intended for it.
When God gave man “dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Genesis 1:26), it was not an invitation to subjugation but an offer of partnership. Whatever portion of the world we possess—materially or otherwise—are the talents God has given us.
On September 1, Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew issued a joint statement in commemoration of the ecclesiastical Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. As has become typical, this statement expressed concern for the well-being of the poorest of the poor while simultaneously overlooking the primary means by which their poverty has been and is being alleviated: development through industrialization and liberalization.
The hierarchs warn, “The human environment and the natural environment are deteriorating together, and this deterioration of the planet weighs upon the most vulnerable of its people. The impact of climate change affects, first and foremost, those who live in poverty in every corner of the globe.” Indeed, if trends continue, many project that climate change could increase the spread of disease, famine, water contamination, and so on in the developing world, which is currently most vulnerable to such dangers.
While a leader in environmental theology, the Orthodox Tradition lags behind others when it comes to modern social and economic thought. Economic science has been by and large ignored, if not dismissed, in official and unofficial statements, revealing a troubling disregard for the dignity of this science and a troubling willingness to speak about important issues of social justice without making an effort to gain the necessary preliminary competence needed to do so intelligently and effectively. It betrays a disappointingly unscientific posture toward questions of social morality and a closed stance toward economic insights in particular.