Orthodox Social Thought and History

The starting point of the Christian faith, is the acknowledgement of certain historical events, in which God has acted, sovereignly and decisively, for man’s salvation, precisely “in these last days.” ~ Fr. Georges Florovsky

In the film adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo first sees Gandalf riding down the road to the Shire in a carriage loaded with fireworks for his uncle Bilbo’s “eleventy-first” birthday, and he calls out to him, “You’re late!”

“A wizard is never late, Frodo Baggins,” Gandalf reprimands, “nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to.” Unable to keep a straight face, they both crack up laughing.

For Gandalf, the statement may have been a joke, but his larger-than-life stature (literally and figuratively) nevertheless makes the moment memorable for more than its levity. Indeed, Gandalf tirelessly travelled Middle Earth in his quest to defeat Sauron, and Bilbo’s birthday served as convenient cover for serious business. Gandalf’s arrival in the Shire sets in motion all the events that follow—at exactly the right time.

Having surveyed biblical theology in this ongoing series on Orthodox Christian social thought, we cannot just jump to the present or even, say, to Adam Smith. We still must cover 2,000 years of Church history … or we might just say, “history.”

It has been argued that the Hebrew account of creation and the final judgment, combined with the Christian conviction that Jesus Christ came in “the fullness of the time” (Galatians 4:4; cf. Ephesians 1:10) and “in these last days” (Hebrews 1:2), actually created and necessitated the idea of history as we understand it today. At the least, “a historian,” wrote Fr. Georges Florovsky, “precisely as historian … cannot evade the major and crucial challenge of this actual history: ‘Who do men say that I am?’ (Mark 8:28).”

While historians such as Herodotus existed before the Church, there are important differences between ancient pagan and Christian conceptions of history. Not only did many pagans presume that history had no ultimate trajectory and repeated itself in a series of recurring cycles, but according to Jaroslav Pelikan “the historians of classical antiquity … concentrated on contemporary events.” By contrast, “according to Eusebius”—known for his Ecclesiastical History—“the decisive event … had not been in his own lifetime, but had taken place in the life of Jesus Christ.” “The sense of history,” wrote Fr. Alexander Schmemann, “its irreversibility, the unrepeating nature of time, and within this time the uniqueness and unrepeated quality of each event and each person, were all profoundly alien to Hellenic psychology.”

By Pelikan’s account, as “the early generations of Christian believers … carried out the task of finding a language that would not collapse under the weight of what they believed to be the significance of the coming of Jesus, they found it necessary to invent a grammar of history.” Thus, not only did they, in the sense described above, create history as we know it, their theology, too, had to be historically- and biblically-informed in order to best uphold their convictions amidst the pressures of the world around them.

Following their lead, I will continue this series with four essays surveying the historical theology of care for the poor in tandem with the economic history in which it arose, each framed by a biblical motif:

The first essay will feature the Church, the new Israel, in pagan Rome, where the themes of pilgrimage and exile, already present in the New Testament but taken from the Old, shape the Church’s understanding of its position in the sporadically hostile empire.

The second essay will examine the idea of a Christian kingdom, in particular Christian Rome from St. Constantine to the fall of Constantinople, drawing from the time of the prophets in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. What does it mean for a state—or an emperor, for that matter—to be “Christian”? Should bishops be apologists for the crown or prophetic critics, who like Nathan fearlessly rebuke the king for his sins and who like Isaiah advocate for the poor and oppressed?

The third essay will journey into the desert—as did the children of Israel after the Exodus from Egypt—to examine the history of monastic poverty, charity, asceticism, and enterprise. Despite their vows of poverty, monks both East and West often found themselves blushing at the “embarrassment of riches,” sometimes virtuously accumulated and administered but other times viciously gained and selfishly held.

Last, the fourth essay will examine Orthodoxy in Russia and its abnormal relation to empire due to the Westernizing reforms that made the Church a department of state. In the Old Testament (and beyond) the non-Davidic, Hasmonean dynasty of the priestly Maccabees afforded the Jews a time of freedom in the midst of a period otherwise marked by exile and occupation. Similarly, imperial Russia, despite its institutional abnormalities, stands out as an oasis for the Orthodox during a time elsewhere marked by foreign conquerors and dhimmitude, and it will bring us to the Church’s first encounter with the “Social Question” in the nineteenth century that marks the beginning of modern Christian social thought.

I would understand if some readers object to this framing—it omits quite a lot of Orthodox history that deserves greater popular attention. But as we are not writing a new Church history so much as uncovering our historical theology, this must suffice. If these essays inspire others to contribute what they’ve learned to fill those many gaps—such as the Church in Persia, in Arabia, in Ethiopia, in the Balkans, and under the Ottoman Empire—I’ll consider them successful.

In the meantime, we must set the stage. In our look at biblical theology, we caught a glimpse of what Christ’s coming “in the fullness of the time” meant—the messianic expectations of the Jewish people, the development of Greek philosophy, and some of the better conventions of Roman law. We must add to these the socioeconomic context of Church Tradition and Orthodox Christian teachings on wealth, poverty, labor, and charity. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote, “For the Christian mind, history cannot be a mechanical chain of cause and effect, nor can the foundation of the Church in precisely that world and at precisely that moment be simply a matter of chance.”

Yet far from uncritically praising these elements, we must remember that in every case these factors that prepared the way for the Gospel at other times proved violently hostile to the Church. Jesus did not turn out to be the Messiah many Hebrews expected. And the Romans not only carried out his unjust execution at their request, but later, as vividly evidenced by Revelation, Rome joined in persecuting the Church as well.

As for Greek philosophy, though considered useful by St. Paul the Apostle, St. John the Theologian, and many Church Fathers after them, it also lent its hand: During persecutions under the reign of Marcus Aurelius, known for his introspective Stoic Meditations, the Cynic philosopher Crescens denounced St. Justin, resulting in the saint’s martyrdom. Another philosopher, the Epicurean Celsus, wrote the first known comprehensive polemic against Christian teaching. And the Neoplatonist Porphyry wrote a fifteen-book attack on the Christian Scriptures as well. The very intellectual establishment that allowed for the Fathers’ careful articulation of Church dogma sought, in envious self-preservation, to discredit and destroy what Clement of Alexandria believed the “true philosophy”: Christianity.

But what of the Roman economy? This, too, contains both aspects.

Roman society consisted of many degrees of stratification, and a complex web of social relations governed everything. The oldest male of a noble estate acted as paterfamilias, exercising control over all household life … and even death. While from the beginning Roman law required some duties of piety to one’s dependents, patria potestas (“the power of the father”) also gave a paterfamilias extensive authority. At their worst, they viewed their wives (and concubines) as property, divorced freely, abused and sexually assaulted their slaves, aborted and exposed unwanted infants, controlled who and whether their children married, and so on.

Few means of upward mobility existed for those outside of this upper echelon of Roman life. If one were a slave, one could obtain the status of freedman through manumission, but often this involved a debt, formal or informal, to one’s patron for being freed. Thus, many tradesman—at best part of a small middle class—actually worked, in part at least, simply to sustain the lavish lifestyles of their former masters. Through the patronage of a nobleman, a freedman could obtain increased wealth and social status, but even these were often fragile and vulnerable.

For others, whether slave, freedman, or citizen by birth of lesser status, there remained at least one other way to advance: adoption. Sometimes a rich paterfamilias would adopt a son to share a portion of his estate with him—and his social status in the meantime—as an inheritance. This aspect should be familiar to Christians: “when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son … that we might receive the adoption as sons…. Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ” (Galatians 4:4, 5, 7). We gain the status of sonship now. The kingdom of heaven, indeed the entire cosmos, is the “estate” of God that his adoptive sons—all of us, male or female—inherit. Even the metaphor used by St. Paul in this passage, writing to Gentile Christians in Roman Asia Minor, depends on “the fullness of the time.”

The martyrdom of Perpetua, Felicitas, Revocatus, Saturninus and Secundulus, from the Menologion of Basil II (c. 1000 AD)

Yet this, too, became a source of conflict between Church and empire. For one example among many, St. Perpetua, a noblewoman martyred in Carthage on March 7, 203 A.D., while in prison, repeatedly had to refuse her pagan father’s pleas to deny Christ to save her life. In particular, she records in her diary that he begs her, “Give up your resolution; do not destroy us all together; for none of us will speak openly against men again if you suffer aught,” and, more bluntly, “give me not over to the reproach of men.” She recognizes that he said these things “fatherly in his love,” but one cannot miss his concern for his own status. In many cases the Gospel broke the very familial bonds and economic structures considered most essential to social life.

I’ll examine more of these features in the coming essays, going beyond pagan Rome. Not only did Christ come “in the fullness of the time” and “in these last days,” but the time remains full, and our days, too, remain “these last days.” We must take on at least one more biblical role: that of Esther, unexpectedly given the opportunity to be queen of Persia and to intervene to save her people from genocide. “[W]ho knows,” asked her uncle Mordechai, “whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14)

Today we face our own challenges, in a wide variety of contexts, for the sake of the poor, suffering, and marginalized—for both the kingdom of God and the common good. Through Jesus Christ, “the Turning Point of History,” to quote Pelikan, and through the 2,000 years of unique and unrepeatable people, events, societies, economies, and empires since, even today we, too, may be best positioned and equipped “for such a time as this.”

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