What is Christian Social Thought?

“Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” Matthew 25:40

Photo by Konstantine Trundayev on Unsplash

In “Yorktown,” the climax to the first half of the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, the victory that marks the end of the American Revolution ends with the refrain “the world turned upside down”—an apt description of the birth of the first modern, liberal, democratic republic that has survived to the present. A decade later, a very different liberal and democratic Revolution in France would upend the established political and social orders all throughout Europe and beyond.

At the same time, beginning with the automation of the textile industry in the second half of the eighteenth century and the publication of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations in 1776, the Industrial Revolution brought about equally radical social and economic change, pushing the poor in the nineteenth century from traditional life in the rural countryside to the promise of urban mass production … and to a reality of hardship that often fell far short of that promise. While in the long run their economic fortunes did improve, it often came at the cost of uprootedness from family, exposure to an abundance of new hazards of factory work, and inadequate, if not entirely absent, social safety nets.

In response, some longed for a return to the ancien régime, the old order of Christian monarchy variously disrupted, transformed, or abandoned in the new age of social change. Others sought the enfranchisement of the working class so that they would have greater self-determination in the new democratic orders. Some worked to organize laborers to negotiate better contracts and working conditions. And some sought a radical, even violent, revolution to further upend the social order in favor of the working poor—the seeds of the communist revolutions that would tragically sweep across Central Asia and Eastern Europe in the twentieth century. While we face additional and unique challenges today, in the last two centuries the world—through revolutions, two World Wars, the collapse of colonial empires, and the fall of the Soviet Union—has indeed “turned upside down.”

The plight of the working poor in the nineteenth century came to be called the “Social Question,” and by the end of that century Christian pastors and intellectuals refused to remain silent or continue to pine away for a bygone social order that could never realistically be recovered in the age of modern democracy, industry, and science. In addition to charitable work throughout the century, the publication of two major works in 1891 marks a significant turn in Christian engagement with this multifaceted problem of the industrial era: Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (literally, “On the New Things”) and the Dutch Neo-Calvinist Abraham Kuyper’s address to the First Christian Social Congress in the Netherlands “The Social Question and the Christian Religion.” 

In the Orthodox world, we see a similar response in Vladimir Soloviev’s 1897 work The Justification of the Good. Furthermore, Fr. Georges Florovsky even noted, “‘Social Christianity’ was the basic and favorite theme of the whole religious thinking in Russia in the course of the last century [i.e., the nineteenth], and the same thought colored also the whole literature of the same period.”

Indeed, an ecumenical movement of “social Christianity” can be observed across the world at this time, variously emphasizing the duty of Christian care for the poor and marginalized, the pluriform nature of social life that cannot be reduced to politics (a lesson we Americans, in the wake of the most contentious presidential election of my lifetime, ought to take to heart), and an insistence that, despite their importance, the material needs of the body ought never to distract us from the spiritual needs of the soul, or vice versa. Salvation of the whole person means that one cannot displace the other. As Soloviev put it, “It is written that man does not live by bread alone, but it is not written that he lives without bread.”

While Christians have concerned themselves with care for the poor and marginalized since the ministry of Christ himself and have since the New Testament developed a body of moral teaching that can be classified as “Christian social thought,” it is the unique application of that teaching to the new challenges of the present that constitutes modern Christian social thought. While, as noted, members of the Orthodox Church contributed to this effort from the beginning, Orthodox reflection on these issues largely collapsed in the wake of the militantly atheist, soviet overthrow of traditionally Orthodox social orders in the twentieth century. 

Pope Leo XIII

Roman Catholics today can boast a vast body of modern Christian social thought spanning more than a century, often promulgated and developed through further papal encyclicals since the time of Leo XIII, in several cases commemorating the anniversary of Rerum Novarum (Quadragesimo Anno in 1931; Mater et Magistra in 1961; Octegesima Adveniens in 1971; and Centesimus Annus in 1991). Various Protestants, too, including Neo-Calvinists building upon the legacy of Kuyper, but also with contributions from other traditions such as the Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer, have continued to develop a nuanced body of moral reflection on modern society to guide their adherents in applying the timeless mandates of the “faith … once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3) to cultures and contexts 2,000 years removed from the first reception of Holy Tradition. 

That we Orthodox believe both Roman Catholics and Protestants to have only retained that faith in a distorted form should not prevent us from inquiring into areas of common cause with them, just as our Lord gave his followers the example of a Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)—a heretic by Jewish standards—as the fulfillment of the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). So, too, if the Church Fathers could find inspiration from pagan philosophers, how much more so ought we to build upon the good efforts of our fellow, albethey heterodox, Christians? Indeed, we cannot identify our own distinctly Orthodox contribution to this necessary and ongoing discussion unless we first familiarize ourselves with the work of other Christian traditions, moral philosophers, social theorists, and even economists.

Doing so has been the major focus of my academic work in the last decade, and I hope that this essay will be the first in a series to facilitate more nuanced and faithful Orthodox reflection on how best to embody that “faith … once for all delivered to the saints,” the Gospel of a kingdom “not of this world” (John 18:36) and yet “for the life of the world” (John 6:51), that we believe to be uniquely preserved in the Orthodox Church today.