Orthodox Social Thought in Christian Rome, Part 1

Anthony van Dyck | St Ambrose barring Theodosius from Milan Cathedral | NG50 | National Gallery, London

If the centurion Cornelius, having fully become a Christian, remained a warrior … then it is clear that he became a Christian warrior. A collection of such warriors forms a Christian army…. Consequently, if there can be a Christian army, then by the same token and even all the more there can be a Christian state. ~ Vladimir Soloviev

In the seventh Harry Potter book and the first part of its film adaptation, there is a scene where Harry, the young wizard protagonist, attends a wedding. In the previous book and film (spoiler alert!), his mentor Dumbledore, the most powerful wizard in the world, was betrayed and murdered. Harry, an orphan, feels directionless without Dumbledore’s fatherly guidance and unsafe without the reassurance of his presence. Moved by a tribute to Dumbledore in the wizard newspaper The Daily Prophet, Harry happens to meet the column’s author at the reception. What starts as a cordial and complimentary conversation about the deceased elder quickly degenerates when an eavesdropping socialite interjects her own unsolicited commentary.

In the course of their discussion, Harry learns that Dumbledore has a brother; that their family lived in Harry’s birthplace, Godrick’s Hollow; and that they moved there after Dumbledore’s father murdered three muggles (non-magical people). She then asks Harry, bewildered by these and more disenchanting details, “Honestly, my boy, are you sure you knew him at all?” Many a student of history can relate to this sort of demystification of their historical heroes. But just as Harry’s encounter with a truer picture of Dumbledore eventually led him back to a place of respect and admiration for him, so also, if we look to history unafraid of what evils it may contain, we see that the Church has not erred even in its veneration of certain emperors.

We must not conveniently hide behind a naïve dichotomy between the “good” Church and the “evil” state. History complicates such simplistic analyses, and Christians cannot turn a blind eye to history. We may correctly identify any number of public or personal sins of the emperors St. Constantine or St. Theodosius, for example, but the Church still bids us venerate them as saints. So also, simply being a bishop or other clergy does not ipso facto guarantee someone’s sanctity. If we can muster the courage to countenance the messy details of history, where expectations and reality so often clash, we will see how the Church developed new paradigms for social engagement in a Christian empire.

After three centuries of brutal, intermittent persecutions in pagan Rome, the fortunes of the Church suddenly and dramatically changed when the emperor, whom we know as St. Constantine, confessed himself a Christian after a profound conversion due to his vision and victory at the Milvian Bridge. Eusebius of Caesarea relayed the surprise and relief of Christians across the Roman Empire in vivid terms: “finally a bright and splendid day, overshadowed by no cloud, illuminated with beams of heavenly light the churches of Christ throughout the entire world.” He continues, commenting on the declaration of religious liberty proclaimed in 313 in the so-called Edict of Milan: “And not even those without our communion were prevented from sharing in the same blessings, or at least from coming under their influence and enjoying a part of the benefits bestowed upon us by God.”

For a short period of time, this statement held true. Equal religious liberty was all the early apologists asked for the Church—it is a thoroughly Christian ideal—and at first it was all that St. Constantine established. In particular, Milan differed from a previous statement of religious tolerance toward Roman Christians in 311 in one specific way: “And we decree still further in regard to the Christians, that their places, in which they were formerly accustomed to assemble, and concerning which in the former letter [in 311] sent to thy devotedness a different command was given … shall be restored to the said Christians, without demanding money or any other equivalent, with no delay or hesitation.” The Church remembers the Edict of Milan as the moment of its liberation in ancient Rome because it not only acknowledged the right for individuals to be Christian, but it affirmed and restored the property rights, and thus the liberty, of the Church.

However, equal liberty soon turned to unequal privilege that would cast a long shadow over centuries to follow. After the Council of Nicaea in 325, Jaroslav Pelikan notes, St. Constantine “issued an edict against heretics on that basis, forbidding them to gather and confiscating their church buildings and places of assembly. That edict treated Christian dissenters far more harshly than it did pagans….” The Christian state would turn against pagans in time, however, especially during the reign of St. Theodosius the Great, when Christianity first became the official state religion. “It must be frankly admitted,” Fr. Alexander Schmemann urged, “that the Church demanded of the state that it combat paganism and itself denied the principle of toleration.”

“Persecution,” laments Schmemann, “which transformed the schismatics into martyrs, only strengthened them.” Indeed, despite two Ecumenical Councils, Christian Rome in the fourth century became dominated by heretical emperors and bishops: “the condemned Arians not only did not surrender, but by means of very complex intrigues were able to bring the government authorities over to their side.” Arian bishops like Eusebius of Nicomedia acted in a role analogous to court prophets in the Old Testament, advising and influencing the king, turning the machinery of the state used to suppress heresy to persecute the Orthodox instead—a recurring pattern throughout the first millennium.

So bleak did the world seem for the Orthodox after the death of St. Constantine that the tireless efforts of St. Athanasius earned him the Latin appellate Athanasius contra mundum, i.e., “Athanasius against the world.” In his History of the Arians, written against the Arian emperor Constantius, St. Athanasius reasserted the ancient independence of the Church: “where is there a Canon that a Bishop should be appointed from Court?” He continued, “There have been many Councils held heretofore; and many judgments passed by the Church; but the Fathers never sought the consent of the Emperor….” Some might accuse St. Athanasius of exaggerating here, but while it is true that St. Constantine called the Council of Nicaea, no bishop there, many bearing on their bodies the scars of Diocletian’s persecution, would be coerced by an emperor, no matter how Christian.

St. Athanasius then evokes images from the Prophets, adopting a new mode of engagement with the powers of this world: “wherever there is a pious person and a lover of Christ (and there are many such everywhere, as were the prophets and the great Elijah) they hide themselves” from Constantius. Moreover, he chided, “the Emperor … is the patron of the heresy, and wishes to pervert the truth, as Ahab wished to change the vineyard [of Naboth] into a garden of herbs” (see 3 Kingdoms/1 Kings 21). When the emperor fell into heresy, Orthodox bishops and others took on the mantle of Elias and other outcast prophets, calling Christian emperors to repent and reform their faith.

We see this again in the eighth century, with St. John of Damascus’s defense of holy icons. Writing from outside Christian Rome, whose territory by that time had been curtailed by the Arab conquests, he asserted, “It is not for emperors to legislate for the Church.” In the face of the iconoclasm of Leo the Isaurian, the Damascene called the monks and clergy of the Church to resist: “Political good order is the concern of emperors, the ecclesiastical constitution that of pastors and teachers. This is a piratical attack, brothers.” Once again, like St. Athanasius, he evoked imagery from the Prophets to describe the unjust deposition of St. Germanus, patriarch of Constantinople:

Saul tore the garment of Samuel, and what happened? God tore from him his kingdom and gave it to David the most meek. Jezebel persecuted Elias, and the dogs bathed in her blood. Herod did away with John, and he gave up his life eaten of worms. And now the blessed Germanus, radiant in his life and his words, is flogged and sent into exile, and many other bishops and fathers whose names we do not know. Is not this piracy?

We see here an Eastern echo of St. Augustine’s famous question, “Justice being taken away … what are kingdoms but great robberies?” Without a baseline level of due process in society, injustice and tyranny reign.

St. John of Damascus also points us to a positive model of the Christian state and magistrate, however, with his mention of king David. We rightly regard David as a saint, even a prophet, yet the Scriptures do not shy away from recounting his fall into covetousness, adultery, and murder (see 2 Kingdoms/2 Samuel 11-12). No military victory or worldly accomplishment makes him a saint. Indeed, David had so much blood on his hands that the Lord refused to let him build his temple (see 1 Chronicles 22:7-8). Rather, what makes him a saint, a model of repentance, is his prayer, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy …” (Psalm 50[51]:1). David repented when confronted by Nathan, a court prophet who actually acted faithfully before the Lord, proving himself still to be, in the last analysis, “a man after [God’s] own heart” (1 Kingdoms/1 Samuel 13:14).

So also, the Church remembers St. Theodosius the Great, for example, not only for convening the Council of Constantinople, but, when boldly confronted by St. Ambrose in Milan, for famously repenting of the massacre he caused in Thessaloniki: “the ruler of the world stripped of his robe and diadem,” as historian Peter Brown put it, and made to kneel among the penitents. St. Constantine had removed sacrifice and latreia from the cult of the emperor, effectively reducing it to an extravagant fan club. In the humbling of St. Theodosius we see how, indeed, the Christian emperor was no god but a human being as much in need of salvation, and subject to just laws, as anyone else—a positive legacy that persisted for centuries, as even in the late eleventh century, the emperor Alexios I Komnenos and his whole household submitted to public penance.

Thus, while the freedoms of non-Christians faced some unfortunate restrictions in the Christian era of ancient Rome, we nevertheless see some positive social and political fruit of the Church’s liberty as well. The paradigm of the Prophets proved a vivid mode of social engagement when the ruler claims the name of Christian, and though many of us do not live under officially Christian states today, lessons and opportunities remain. As Fr. Georges Florovsky put it, “The state is never very favorable to the criticism coming from the church unless the state itself is avowedly Christian. The same is true of economic society.”

Our societies and parishes include many politicians and businesspeople today. In the person of St. John Chrysostom, we will see in my next essay how even then the response to criticism may not be “very favorable.” Yet with a better understanding of the Roman and Byzantine economy and the development of civil and canon law, we will also see how, when put in context, ancient Christian preaching in that same spirit did not amount to a call for revolution. Rather, it meant a fuller, organic realization of the original catholicity of the Christian communion, which, Schmemann tells us, blossomed into “a special sort of Byzantine humanism” that remains applicable to our very different contexts today.

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