[W]ithin three centuries of Christianity’s appearance in the world, Christians took over the seat of power and set out on a long journey to effect change in society, creating a Christian civilization in the process. ~ Fr. John McGuckin
In the powerful ending of Schindler’s List, Oskar Schindler, after sacrificing so much of his own wealth and risking his own life to save the lives of some 1,200 Jews in Nazi Germany, says, weeping, “I could have got more out.” He looks around at the possessions he could have sold: “This car … why did I keep this car? Ten more people right there.” “I didn’t do enough,” laments the man who did far more than too many others.
In our exploration of Orthodox social thought in Christian Rome, we cannot neglect the shining example of St. John Chrysostom, who urged his hearers to make such loving humility their lifestyle. “John Chrysostom made himself exquisitely unpopular in Constantinople,” historian Peter Brown records, “by his habit of following with his eyes individual great landowners and courtiers as they strode in and out of the basilica during his sermons, marking them out by such a penetrating and public glance as the actual perpetrators of the sins and social wrongs he was denouncing.” Already by the third century, the Roman elite—not bourgeois entrepreneurs but the inheritors of large estates—had become far more socially distant from the plebs of the cities in attempt to curry imperial favor due to increased taxation for national defense. As patriarch, Chrysostom refused to host lavish banquets for high society, instead dedicating himself and the Church’s resources to serving the common people. Thus, when his piercing gaze and prophetic criticism turned upon the empress Eudoxia herself, motiving the latter to exile him, the people revolted, causing him to be immediately recalled—the first time, at least. The second time rioters burned the cathedral, and Chrysostom died in exile.
A radical conception of stewardship lies at the heart of Chrysostom’s preaching against the “great landowners and courtiers” of his day. To be clear, he never claims that wealth itself is evil. Indeed, he explicitly rejects that perspective: “neither is wealth an evil, but the having made a bad use of wealth….” Indeed, canon 12 of the Council of Sardica in 343, even made provision for bishops to visit and manage estates they owned, in order that from their fruits they may “help the poor” and so that “their private affairs will suffer no loss from their absence.”
Rather, what bothers Chrysostom, and what may be radical even to us today, is the mistaken idea that the more someone gives the greater good they have done. If that were true, then moral worth could be measured in money, and those with the most to give could be the most righteous. But where then would be the virtue of the poor? Where would be the widow’s mite (Mark 12:41-44)? Rather, as St. Symeon the New Theologian put it, echoing Chrysostom seven centuries later, we should all imagine God saying to us, “By what possessions of yours do you claim that you give alms to your brethren, and through them to Me? I have given you all these things, not to you alone, but to all men in common.” Just as in many of our Lord’s parables, we should consider ourselves mere stewards of what ultimately belongs to God, confessing as Jesus bids us, “We are unprofitable servants. We have [only] done what was our duty to do” (Luke 17:10). In so doing, like Schindler we would never believe our service to the needy could be “enough,” instead making such service a way of life.
Based on this teaching, one might expect that a Christian empire must have meant a radical restructuring of the entire economic system of the time. The reality is “yes and no,” but mostly no. Brown records that “many of the regions of the empire of ‘New Rome’ were characterized by marked agrarian growth and by increased commercial interchange,” to the point that historian Evelyn Patlagean notes the medieval Byzantine economy by the eleventh century depended in part upon expansive trade with Italians, Russians, Jews, Muslims, and others.
Moreover, by force of necessity rather than ideal, “the radical change of the later Eastern Christian empire,” writes Fr. John McGuckin, was “from a system of interconnected fortified cities that guaranteed the security of the provincial landowners, to an era when the military cities were much fewer in number and local military units had to be organized and sustained by local landworkers themselves.” Nevertheless, while the social distance between the elite and common people narrowed in the centuries following Chrysostom’s exhortations, all economies of the time remained largely agrarian, lacking anything comparable to the vast division of labor of our modern industrial and post-industrial eras. Long-term, year-over-year economic growth and attendant affluence virtually did not happen anywhere in the ancient and medieval worlds. Subsistence living, fragile to the dangers of plague, draught, and war, remained the prevailing norm.
But that is not the whole story. The best bishops remained “the protector of all those in need,” as St. Justin described them in the second century, first of all through managing a network of alms distribution throughout the empire. For the sake of financial accountability, canon 26 of the Council of Chalcedon even required all bishops to appoint stewards to “manage the church business … so the administration of the church may not be without a witness; and that thus the goods of the church may not be squandered, nor reproach be brought upon the priesthood.”
St. Basil the Great, called such not because of his undeniable theological ability but for his deep and active love for the poor, so faithfully and creatively took up the bishop’s catholic vocation as to found a complex at the gates of Caesarea, known as the Basileiad, caring for the poor, hungry, sick, and dying. This served as the world’s first hospital, serving as a model for generations to come, and providing far more than a passing handout to the needy but fully realizing the teaching of Christ, as Clement of Alexandria put it, to “make a friend. But a friend proves himself such not by one gift, but by long intimacy” (see Luke 16:9). St. Basil, above all, was such a friend to the needy.
This ministry was not something extra or tacked-on to St. Basil’s theological achievements, however. Within both the theory and practice of the Church, we find the beginnings of a new personalistic and humanistic worldview: “Christian humanism,” wrote Fr. Alexander Schmemann, “faith in the whole man and his absolute value, is the final result of the Christological disputes and a genuine discovery of Orthodoxy.” We see this in that most perfect statement of all Orthodox doctrine from St. Gregory the Theologian: “that which [Christ] has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved.” Once again, we arrive at that ancient catholicity of the Church: the whole human person, body and soul, individual and in community, must be cared for and brought into communion with the Body of Christ.
Thus did the catholicity of the Church persist despite the dramatic shift in its social status in Christian Rome. The bishop’s role as “the protector of all those in need” expanded, even in terms of the law. St. Constantine, Fr. Schmemann notes, “granted bishops the judiciary right,” meaning that the ecclesiastical courts of canon law acted as legal alternatives to the civil courts. “In the later Byzantine era,” writes Fr. John McGuckin, “even in the larger cities, episcopal courts came to be preferred by the people to the civil alternative of a hearing before the magistrate, not only because the penalties were less severe for the offenders, but also for their deeper sense of pastoral care.” The existence of canon law alongside Roman civil law made for a more just, pastoral, humane, and merciful society. But civil law had its merits as well.
The emperor St. Justinian brought to completion the work of codifying Roman law, attempted first under Diocletian then again under Theodosius II. Through the Justinian Code, the emperor “was able to ensure that the ancient achievement of the concept of the rule of law”—that all people, including politicians, must be equally subject to just laws—“… was able to pass alive into the ferment of the medieval world” and beyond, McGuckin notes. Justinian’s Institutes, moreover, grounds civil law in the natural law and evaluates its superiority to the juris gentium, the common laws of all nations, by its closer proximity to it.
Furthermore, in St. Justinian’s sixth Novella, he first articulated the Byzantine principle of symphonia to delimit the relationship between Church and state: “If the priesthood is above reproach from any quarter and stands before God with confidence, and if the imperial authority organizes the commonwealth committed to it rightly and fittingly, there will be a balanced harmony to ensure whatever may be of value to the human race.” Given their roles as judges, however, the emperor goes on to stipulate civil requirements for bishops and clergy—what many would consider an overreach of civil power today. That said, while historians disagree on the extent to which the lines between Church and state may have been blurred in Byzantium, simplistic assessments of the Church as wholly beholden to imperial power prove groundless in the light of the far more complex historical record, which includes the prophetic posturing of many bishops and monks (see part 1 of this post).
Symphonia enabled the unique historical harmony between canon and civil law, which McGuckin urges in turn demonstrated that “the Church is fundamentally, essentially committed to the notion of the rule of law.” He continues to elaborate the social implications: “Bound to acknowledge that concept as a fundamental spiritual value, binding together believer and non-believer alike, the Church can never give its assent to random governance, tyranny, or a self-congratulatory governmental system that does not elevate the rights of the needy alongside the privileges of the rich….” For example, canon 75 of the Council of Carthage in 419 even stipulated the emperor’s duty to provide civil defenders for the poor, “chosen under the supervision of the bishops,” to act as intermediaries between them—legal and social case workers, we might say.
McGuckin goes on to insist on the relevance of the underlying ethos and principles of Eastern Roman law for our societies today: “Men and women, of whatever race, or rank, both rich and poor, educated and illiterate, were given equality under the eye of God…. Their lives were raised to infinite value as icons of the divinity, their rights and privileges as the divine icons could never be lost.” I concur that human dignity, the rule of law, and the image of God are fundamental to any Orthodox social ethic, as they underly the Church’s catholicity and the social message of its great preachers and teachers, St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil not least of all. “It is on this basis,” McGuckin goes on, “that Christian civilization was founded, one which remains untarnished in Christian theory today, and which one day may be used once more to rebuild a society’s value system.”
Guided by these principles, hopefully any Orthodox Christians today who aim to “rebuild [our] society’s value system” will bring the best of Byzantium with them. Yet alongside and in dialogue with this civilizational paradigm grew another Christian mode of civilization, service, and enterprise that cannot be neglected in our survey of Church history: monasticism. In my next essay I will venture into the desert to explore what it looks like when the fundamentally ascetic nature of society receives its fullest and most faithful attention.