In a recent piece in the New York Times, Jamelle Bouie writes:
Our society was built on the racial segmentation of personhood. Some people were full humans, guaranteed non-enslavement, secured from expropriation and given the protection of law, and some people – blacks, Natives and other nonwhites – were not. That unequal distribution of personhood was an economic reality as well. It shaped your access to employment and capital; determined whether you would be doomed to the margins of labor or given access to its elevated ranks; marked who might share in the bounty of capitalist production and who would most likely be cast out as disposable. (“Beyond ‘White Fragility’“)
These words are a vivid backdrop for reflecting on the economics of Father Sergius Bulgakov (1871-1944). They provide the social parameters for appreciating the insights of one of the most profound and creative Orthodox theologians of the 20th century. While Bulgakov does not pretend to solve the problem of poverty, he offers a prophetic voice for how the Church can address, in an industrialized context, the social structures that foster it. He extends the work of previous pastor theologians who recognized that social structures perpetuate social and economic disparity.
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.