The Mathetian Option (Part Two)

The Icon of the Rich Man and Lazarus from Kykkos Monastery, Cyprus
The Icon of the Rich Man and Lazarus from Kykkos Monastery, Cyprus

Mathetes explains to his interlocutor that Christians are to the world what the soul is to the body. They are dispersed throughout the world, and their presence of love towards the world is to its benefit, even if the world hates Christians and wars against them like the passions of the flesh war against the soul. Such martial language connotes a paradox. Christians must simultaneously engage the world around them (an invasion) and be aloof from it (a retreat). A believer plants one foot in Paradise and the other in the here-and-now. This is an attitude that is realistic yet not grounded in fear and a desire for self-preservation. It is a worldview rooted in the teaching of Christ and his apostles, and affirmed by centuries of failed attempts to do otherwise. On one hand, it is important to insulate ourselves and our children from needless temptation; but on the other hand, we mustn’t look askance at our neighbor. We face a different enemy: “[W]e do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph :12).

Our mission to the world is simple: to love all regardless of who or what they identify themselves as. We may rightly ask, What is love? Is it affirmation or acceptance? Is it blind affection? No. Love is selflessness. It is to seek and do what is best for the other, what God would have us do. It is to become a sacrifice for the sake of the other, rooted in an ascetical self-denial. Love is “living and active” (Heb 4:12), just as the Word himself is. The pure breath of love converts foes into friends even when the other insists on remaining an enemy. What Archimandrite Roman Braga discovered in a Romanian gulag was that, even in the mire of sin and death, even when luciferic deeds are perpetrated against you, the beauty of God’s love can illumine all and transform those willing to receive it. A love so great transcends the boundaries of culture and politics, uniting a Christian not only to her neighbors, but to “every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev 5:9). Saint Sophrony of Essex once said, “In the Scriptures, it is often said that Christ died for the whole world; when we limit the person of Christ, when we bring him down to the level of nationalities, we immediately lose everything and fall into darkness” (Words of Life, p. 20). To love as Christ does is to love all without exception—in spite of themselves.

Lest we confuse love for man with love for the works of man, a daily dose of any news outlet is enough to remind us what hell we’ve wrought. Society is certainly sick, and always has been to some degree or another. But opposition to the brokenness of society must never become an excuse for inaction, of cloistering ourselves from those who live in the world. Christians are to maintain a delicate balance between this age and the age to come, to pursue justice now while acknowledging that utopia is not found this side of the judgment. The same God who offers us eternal life also says, “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Is 1:17). How do we maintain this tension between pursuing justice and seeking the kingdom?

The answer differs depending on the circumstances. For the leaders of Israel whom the prophets condemned, their response was to institute justice through their rule. For the persecuted Christians of the early Church, their response was to personally take care of the disenfranchised: the poor, the sick, and the infants left to die. Looking at our own situation—Christians living in a secular democracy—there is no simple solution. Our system allows for, even encourages, social action. And yet such movements are tainted by ideologies (whether conservative or progressive) that run counter to a Christian ethic. Those who begin with ideology and then attempt to reconcile their views with the Church of Christ understand neither Christ nor his Church. The Lord does not conform himself to our worldview, but asks us to conform our worldview to his. Only when we shed ideology can we actively love others without bias. Parties and factions do not comprise society, persons do.

We are also limited by scale: just as we cannot love mankind in general, only a man, we cannot provide for society in general, only the person standing in front of us. So each must carefully discern how to act in ways that help individuals and families. For some, it may be through seeking a more just system in ways that do not contradict an ecclesial ethos. For most, it will be through personal generosity and ministry to those in need. Scarcity is not a problem of economics, it is the outcome of a spiritual affliction. Fear constricts the heart and leads to greed. Selfishness poisons the soul and produces misers. But Christ promises us “life most abundant” (Jn 10:10). The breath of the Spirit unfetters the heart and awakens it to God’s bounty, and so the only appropriate response to so great a gift is absolute generosity. Christians forget to their eternal peril that distributive justice is also a biblical ideal.

(A caveat: whatever method we choose, we must never seek justice through unjust means, which would nullify the good we seek. And most importantly, we must never cease working on our own repentance and inner transformation, lest we contaminate everything we touch.)

If this is how we invade the world, how do we concomitantly retreat from it? Human beings are limited by time and space. Christians can certainly bridge the interval by love (as Father Dumitru Stăniloae explained in his unsurpassed Teologia Dogmatica Ortodoxa), but we cannot overcome embodiment. We are bound to the specific loci in which we live our lives. Hence the parish (and to some extent, the diocese) ought to become the center of our lives. If we are to provide ourselves proper resources for the frontline (both spiritually and physically), we must maintain an internal unity under the guidance of our General and his lieutenants (our clergy). On the ground this looks like many things: the organization of charity for struggling members; the founding of educational co-ops for the youth; the formation of adults through catechism, liturgy, and sacraments; and the financial support of the parish through tithing. When the local Christian community is strong, it can effectively minister to those in the world.

In the age before Constantine, Christians were able to be the salt of the earth without losing their flavor. They lived in close-knit community with one another without closing themselves off from their neighbors. Theirs was truly a way of life, not merely a religion. Their experience of God was meta-physical and meta-political. It was rooted in the ineffable revelation of the infinite, transcendent God who kenotically irrupted into his orderly creation in order to cast out chaos and perfect human nature. He descended so that man, in him, may ascend. We must recapture this orientation. Every thought must be taken captive to obey Christ (2 Cor 2:5).

Becoming his disciple is ever a radical choice in a world filled with egotism, for faith propels us toward the other as we discover a universe in the soul of each person. In self-denial, we open ourselves up to eternity. Indeed, we only discover life once we are willing to lose it. In community we discover the love of the Father. It is for this reason that the Gospel cannot be reconciled with society and its false ideals of pride and power, comfort and pleasure. All of reality must be conformed to—or rather transformed by—the ethics of Paradise. Christianity is not a religion of self-actualization, nor a system of political and socioeconomic standards. It does not exist to affirm and fulfill our personal dreams or desires. Christ has come to save us from ourselves.

See first post here.

(Original post from Fr. Joseph’s blog Prudence and Piety)

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