Today, the Orthodox Church maintains cordial relations with other Christian churches and communities and participates in joint efforts with them to recover the visible unity of all God’s people. While most of the Orthodox faithful perceive the Church’s involvement in this joint quest for unity to be guided by the Holy Spirit, others express fear that the faith of the Church is somehow compromised for the sake of a unity not always grounded in truth. Why has the Orthodox Church decided to be involved in the ecumenical movement? How does this involvement relate to her claim to be the embodiment of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church?
In an encyclical addressed to all Orthodox churches in 1902, the Ecumenical Patriarchate invited the Orthodox churches to move towards more dynamic inner communion, conciliarity, and cooperation to work with other Christian churches and communities towards visible unity. In 1920, the Ecumenical Patriarchate issued a second encyclical addressed to all Christian churches suggesting the formation of a “league of churches” for common witness and action. It stated that the Orthodox Church “holds that rapprochement (προσέγγισις) between the various Christian churches and fellowship (κοινωνία) between them is not excluded by the doctrinal differences which exist between them.” The Ecumenical Patriarchate had hoped that the churches could move towards greater unity if they could overcome their mutual mistrust and bitterness by rekindling and strengthening the evangelical love. This could lead them to see one another not as strangers and foreigners, but as being part of the household of Christ, “fellow heirs, members of the same body and partakers of the promise of God in Christ” (Eph. 3:6). In 1986 the Third Preconciliar Pan-Orthodox conference unequivocally stated that the “Orthodox participation in the ecumenical movement does not run counter to the Orthodox Church’s nature and history. It constitutes the consistent expression of the Apostolic faith within new historical conditions.”
The American people are deeply divided and polarized in their political stances and choices. The divisiveness and polarization in the American political realm have also affected Christian churches and communities even though some of them have chosen not to formally address the challenges that politics raises for the people’s personal and communal lives. The relation of politics and Christian faith is a highly complex issue that deserves careful attention, since Christian faith and politics determine, to a great extent, people’s personal and collective life. As we address religion’s relation with politics, it is imperative to be cautious not to reduce or surrender the one to the other, or vice-versa. Furthermore, because of the complex nature of the relationship between religion and politics, we must resist the temptation to consider our thoughts on this matter as a final prescription for how the religious communities and the Christian churches should identify the root causes of the political challenges and choose the issues that deserve their thoughtful contribution.
In Christian circles, the Church’s witness to the world is often contrasted with her sacred otherworldly tradition. Through political actions and involvement, it is often suggested that the Church skirts from her primary sacred responsibility. She substitutes immanence for transcendence. She replaces the Gospel of love and forgiveness with social reforms, legislative change, political programs, and actions. Thus, by focusing so much on social and political matters, the churches increasingly fail in their sacred mission to unite the world with God. They become inauthentic. If such an attitude prevails, the churches consciously choose to ignore political challenges or be indifferent to violence, injustice, racism, homelessness, violations of human rights, and assaults on human dignity.
On June 4, the leadership of four interfaith organizations—Religions for Peace USA, Parliament of World Religions (PoWR), United Religions Initiative (URI) and the Interfaith Center of New York (ICNY)—issued a statement: “This Perilous Moment: A Statement from Religious Leaders and Communities on the Crisis of Racial Injustice and Inequity and Current Protests.” This statement is important, as Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha’i, Humanists, Indigenous, Jains, Sikhs, Taoists, Unitarian Universalists, Zoroastrians, and many others signed on to the statement and were able to address, in one voice and with a sense of urgency, the systemic evil of racism that plagues our country. Drawing inspiration and empowerment from the spiritual resources of their respective tradition, each faith community is underscoring their commitment to justice, peace, and reconciliation.
The Orthodox Church, as an active member of the Interfaith Organization Religions for Peace USA, is also a partner in this interfaith witness. Her participation in these efforts reflect her ethos as it has been authoritatively expressed in the Great and Holy Council (Crete 2016) to seek inter-religious understanding and co-operation for the advancement of peaceful coexistence and harmonious living. His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, in his address to the Global Peace Conference of Al-Azhar and Muslim Council of Elders (2017), expressed the belief of the Orthodox Church in the need for human solidarity and the commitment of the Orthodox Church in advancing that goal through interfaith collaboration building a culture of justice and peace. He stated that the credibility of religious communities in today’s world depends on whether they are active advocates and guardians of human dignity and freedom of all people. His All-Holiness has suggested that it is only through dialogue and collaboration that faith-based communities, governments, and civil society are able to respond together to the challenge of building a just and peaceful world.