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Peace, Economic Injustice and the Orthodox Church

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Fr. Emmanuel Clapsis

International Ecumenical Peace Convocation
Kingston, Jamaica
May 18-24, 2011
Plenary Presentation on Peace in the Marketplace

The peacemaking vocation of the church is a dynamic process of a never-ending personal and communal transformation that reflects the human and fallible struggle to participate in God’s Trinitarian life. St. Nicholas Cabasilas epigrammatically summarizes the Orthodox view on peacemaking: “Christians, as disciples of Christ, who made all things for peace, are to be ‘craftsmen of peace.’ They are called a peaceable race since ‘nothing is more characteristic of a Christian than to be a worker for peace.” In being “craftsmen of peace” the Orthodox churches unite themselves in prayer, vision, and action with all those Christians who pray that God’s Kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven. The aspiration to live in peace and justice unite Christians with people of living faiths and ideologies in a shared vision, hope, and actions for less violence, injustice, and oppression. An effective intervention in situations of conflict, injustice and oppression requires the churches not to ignore what is possible to learn from advances in political sciences and economics as well as from successful economic and political  policies and practices that aim to transform conflicts into life opportunities.

In addressing the root causes of injustice and violence in the marketplace, the Orthodox Churches recognize the autonomy of the inherent rationality of the market and leave the development of economic theories and policies to those who understand its dynamics better. The Churches, however, critique economic theories and practices based on their performance and their effects upon the people. Their criticism contributes towards a revisionary logic of the market that favors economic practices that generate greater opportunities for a more equitable and just distribution of power and resources.

Today, one-and-a-half billion people live in areas affected by instability, conflict or large-scale, organized criminal violence. The causes of conflict arise from economic, political and security dynamics. Political exclusion and inequality affecting regional, religious, or ethnic groups are associated with higher risks of civil war, while inequality between richer and poorer households is closely associated with higher risks of violence. The disparity between the rich and poor between and within nations is increasing. Unemployment is on the rise, pushing more and more people into poverty, malnutrition, poor health, depression, violence, insecurity, fear, and desperation. There are nearly one billion undernourished people on our planet and this number is increasing by 68 people every minute; that is more than one every second. The human cost of violence cannot be ignored by anyone who considers all human beings to be icons of God.

The economic and monetary crisis that leads to an increased disparity between rich and poor is understood mostly by the Orthodox Churches to be primarily a ‘spiritual’ and/or cultural crisis. It is attributed to unrestrained individualism that leads to an excessive desire for wealth and to consumerism. Individualism and consumerism have disconnected people from loving God and their neighbor, thus preventing them from reflecting in their lives God’s love for all creation.

St. John Chrysostom, a notable preacher of the undivided Church, stated that not to be an advocate of the poor would be “the worst inhumanity.”[1] Being the advocate of the poor leads him to refute point by point all the arguments by which the affluent justified the marginalization of the poor and their indifference towards them. Christ in a privileged manner is identified with the poor. The poor are not the spectacle of human misery and suffering that evokes compassion or disgust, but they are the icons of Christ, the presence of Christ in the broken world. This is their dignity! If you refuse to give bread to the poor, you ignore Christ who desires to be fed:  “You eat in excess; Christ eats not even what he needs… At the moment, you have taken possession of the resources that belong to Christ and you consume them aimlessly.”[2] The poor for St. John Chrysostom are the liturgical images of the most holy elements in all of Christian worship: the altar and the body of Christ. [3]

The Orthodox Churches advocate a culture of compassion in which people share their material resources with those in need. Charity and compassion are not virtues to be practiced just by those who have the material resources and means. They are virtues that promote the communal love that Christians should have for all human beings. Every human being, regardless of whether he or she is rich or poor must be charitable and compassionate to those lacking the basic material resources for sustenance.[4] St. Basil exhorts the poor to share even the minimal goods that they may have.[5] Almsgiving leads people to God and grants to all the necessary resources for sustenance and development of their human potential. However, a voluntary sharing of resources in the present world is not enough. Building a culture of peace demands global and local institutional changes and new economic practices that address at more fundamental level the root causes of poverty. It calls for a fusion of the Christian culture of compassion with the knowledge that we have acquired through experience and the advances of social science about the structural sources of poverty and its multifaceted aspects that urgently need to be addressed through reflective concerted actions.

In an increasingly fragmented world, the Orthodox churches acknowledge and defend the dignity of every human being and cultivate human solidarity. In addressing violence in the marketplace, even if people accept in their hearts the virtues of justice and peace, the market operates with its own autonomous logic and economic practices. It is guided by the belief that there can be a ‘total free market’ in which unregulated competing economic relationships of individuals in pursuit of their economic gains can lead to optimum good. It advocates that free markets without government ‘interference’ would be the most efficient and socially optimal allocation of resources. Many economists and institutions of global development agencies embrace economic globalization as indisputable reality and suggest that there is no alternative to this. They assume that Neoliberalism contributes to the prosperity and the equitable development of all nations. Unfortunately though, its economic practices have not been designed to meet the immediate needs of the world’s poor people. Global inequalities between nations and within nations are widening. Joseph Stiglitz, former World Bank Chief Economist (1997-2000) and Nobel Laureate in Economics notes that economic globalization in its current form risks exacerbating poverty and increasing violence if not checked, because it is impossible to separate economic issues from social and political issues.

The Orthodox Churches are not in a position to suggest concrete alternatives to economic globalization, nor do they intend to endorse or reject complex economic policies and practices that regulate the global economy. Yet, based on the eschatological orientation of the Christian gospel, Orthodoxy believes that all political and economic theories and practices are subject to criticism and modification aimed to overcoming those aspects of them that generate violence and injustice. The logic of the market must not only seek the maximization of profits favoring and serving only those who have economic capital and power. Economic practices must ensure just and sustainable development for all people. We cannot talk about a really free economy without entering into particular judgments about what kinds of exchange are conducive to the flourishing of life and what kinds are not. The Churches are led by their faith to take an active role in fostering economic practices that reflect God’s peace and justice. These economic practices integrate in their logic those elements of social life that promote a culture of compassion that unites all human beings in peace and justice. Indispensable aspects of this culture are: respect for the dignity and the rights of all human beings; equitable socio-economic relationships; broad participation in economic and political decision-making; and just sharing of resources and power.

Once, we put human faces to all those millions of people who suffer the consequences of an inequitable distribution of power and resources, it becomes evident that it is an indispensable aspect of the church’s mission to the world to be involved through prayers and thoughtful actions in noble  efforts to eradicate poverty and injustice.

 


[1] John Chrysostom, Homily 10 on Almsgiving, 10. 1 in The Fathers of the Church, vol. 96 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1998), p. 131. This sermon was delivered when Chrysostom passed through the marketplace during wintertime, and he saw the poor and the beggars uncared for and wasting away.

[2] John Chrysostom, Homily XLVIII on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, PG 58.493

[3] "Do you wish to see His altar (θυσιαστήριον) too?.. This altar is composed of the very members of Christ, and the body of the Lord becomes an altar…venerable because it is itself Christ's body…This altar you can see lying everywhere, in the alleys and in the agoras and you can sacrifice upon it anytime… invoke the Spirit not with words, but with deeds” in Epistulam 2 ad Corinthios, Homilia 20:3

[4] Ibid. 10. 13: “Even if you are ten thousand times poor, you are not poorer than that widow who emptied herself of all her property (Lk 21.2-4). Even if you are ten thousand times a beggar, you are not more of a beggar than the woman of Sidon who had only a handful of flour, yet was not prevented from extending hospitality to the Prophet Elijah. Although she saw a chorus of children surrounding her and famine pressing upon her, and nothing else remaining in reserve, she received the prophet with great readiness. “

[5] Basil, Tempore Famis et Citatis, PG 31.320-321.

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