THE EXPERIENCE OF THE ORTHODOX CHURCH IN MISSION DEVELOPMENT
The Orthodox Symbol of Faith, the Nicene Creed. includes a reason for our Lord's Incarnation: "for us men and for our salvation". It is an interesting fact that the New Testament gives at least twenty different reasons for the Incarnation. Although I have not reviewed these texts systematically for some years, going over them makes an interesting and spiritually profitable study. Here for example are several of them, of which all but one are taken from the Gospels:
To save His people from their sins (Matt 1:21).
To save that which was lost ( Matt 18:11).
To baptize with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8).
To preach (Mark 1:38).
To call sinners to repentance (Mark 2:17).
To serve and to give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
That we should be saved from our enemies (Luke 1:71)
To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death (Luke 1:79)
To send fire on the earth (Luke 12:49).
To give the right to become children of God (John 1:12).
To give His flesh for the life of the world (John 6:51).
To give abundant life (John 10:10).
To die for the ungodly (Rom 5:6).
Now I think I am right in saying that if a student of the Bible were carefully to analyze every reason for the Incarnation cited in the New Testament, not one of them would be found to refer to man's physical well-being. Their import is spiritual, not physical.
Does this mean that Almighty God is indifferent to man's physical welfare? The answer, an obvious one, is found written on almost every page of the Gospels. Our Lord's divine compassion never failed to reach out to every human need. Nowhere is there a case of a sick person applying to our Lord for healing and being refused. During the days of our Lord's Incarnation (or specifically, during the three years of His ministry), no cry of human pain ever went up to Him unanswered. On more than one occasion, He did not wait to be asked. On encountering the widow of Nain on her way to bury her son, our Lord's instinctive response was to raise the young man from the dead.
Of all our Lord's many miracles, only one is related in all four Gospels: the multiplying of the loaves and the fishes. Although many of the Fathers have noted parallels between this miracle and the Eucharist, there is no doubt that His purpose in working the miracle was purely humanitarian — “He was moved with compassion for them” (Matt 14:14). In other words He was deeply sensitive to the needs of hungry people. Although we cannot. be quite sure, there is evidence in the Gospels that our Lord multiplied food on more than one occasion.
The need for a holistic Christian mission is spelt out very clearly by the Apostle James: What does it profit, my brethren. if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace. Be warmed and filled," but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what. does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead … for as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also (James 2:14-17, 20). The Apostle Paul also commented tersely, “the love of Christ constrains us” (2 Cor 5:14). This was not written in the context of meeting the material needs of others, but there can be no doubt that St. Paul had such concerns. In 1 Cor 16 we read of his concern for the needy saints in Jerusalem, and of his instructions to the Christians of Corinth to take collections for the succor of their brethren in Jerusalem.
Orthodoxy has always had a deep concern for the physical well-being or her children. One of the most winsome of her saints was a Patriarch of Alexandria, known as John the Merciful, who died in 619. John devoted all the wealth of his patriarchal See to those whom he called “my brethren the poor." When his own resources failed, he appealed to others. “He used to say,” a contemporary recorded, “that if without ill-will, a man were to strip the rich right down to their shirts in order to give to the poor, he would do no wrong.” He also declared that for the rich to indulge themselves in needless luxury is nothing less than robbing the poor.
One of the greatest saints of modern times, St. John of Kronstadt, was no less devoted to works of mercy and had words of admonition and counsel for those who were irritated by the attentions of beggars: "Beggars are pursuing you daily; this means that God's mercy constantly pursues you. Who then will flee from God's mercy?"
There have been a few “golden ages” of history. One of them was Kievan Russia in the aftermath of the conversion to Orthodoxy Prince Vladimir, under whom Russia was converted, was deeply conscious of the Christian law of mercy. The death penalty was abolished, together with mutilation and torture. Vladimir regularly distributed food to the poor and instituted “ social services" for the relief of the sick and the poor which had few parallels until modern times.
Vladimir's piety and Christian mercy reappeared in two of his younger sons, Boris and Gleb. When Vladimir died in 1015, his eldest son Svyatopolk decided to annex the principalities which were the patrimonies of Boris and Gleb. Although they could have resisted, they chose not to do so, taking literally the command of the Gospel not to resist evil. Boris and Gleb resolved that if blood was to be shed, it must be their own, and they were indeed murdered by agents of their wicked older brother. Although not strictly martyrs for the faith, Boris and Gleb were canonized and given the special title of “Passion Bearers”. It was felt that by their innocent and unresisting deaths, they had shared in the passion of Christ.
One of Prince Vladimir's successors, Prince Vladimir Monomachos (reigned 1113-25) was motivated by the same Christ like spirit. In his Testament he admonished his sons, “Above all things, forget not the poor, and support them to the extent of your means. Give to the orphan, protect the widow, and permit the mighty to destroy no man.”
The doctrine of “the separation of Church and State” which is enshrined in the Constitution, of the United States is altogether alien to the spirit of Orthodoxy. Our Lord founded a Church, which is His body. The role of the Church, of course, is to evangelize the world but an important aspect of this task is to transform the world through the transformation of individual men and women. Lawmakers who are themselves truly Christian will not enact unjust and unholy laws. The Byzantine Empire, which lasted for more than a thousand years, held that it was the earthly icon of the heavenly Jerusalem. The first of the Emperors of Byzantium was Constantine the Great (288-337). From 312 he was undisputed Emperor and the following year he legalized Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. Until the end of his life he systematically favored Christianity, discouraged paganism and did all he could to direct the Empire according to Christian principles, as he understood them. This precedent. was followed by all his successors until the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453.
In Byzantium, Church and State were a unity and any suggestion that they should be “separated” according to the pattern of the American Republic would have seemed incomprehensible. Since the Empire was the icon of the heavenly Jerusalem, the Emperor was the earthly icon of the God of heaven. He was expected to be a righteous man and to rule his domains with the righteousness of Christ. The history of Byzantium reveals that many emperors fell far short of the high ideal. This was lamentable, but the ideal was nevertheless enshrined in the warp and woof of the long-enduring Byzantine Empire.
The spiritual successor of Byzantium after its fall to the Turks was Russia. Even the symbols of Byzantium were taken over, notably the two-headed eagle which has been re-adopted as an official symbol by the post-communist Russian Federation. But more important was the philosophy of righteousness, the idea of a nation-state directed and controlled by the principles of the Gospels. As with Byzantium, the practice all-too often fell short of the principle; but it is not without reason, that the realm of the Tsars came to be known as "Holy Russia.''
Where is all this leading for Orthodoxy today? The Church must have concern for every aspect of the lives of' her children and most especially is this true of the Third World context. The Gospel is for the poor, and in the Third World poverty is the lot of the overwhelming majority. This question of “the poor" needs to be carefully considered since it has often been misrepresented. In June 1980 a study group at an ecumenical congress in Pattaya, India. Pointed out something which is often overlooked:
The poor refers to the manual worker who struggles to survive on a day to day basis, the destitute cowering as a beggar; the one reduced to meekness, the one brought low … those weak and tired from heavy burdens, the leper and very often “the common people” … the majority of references indicate that the poor are the mercilessly oppressed, the powerless, the destitute, the downtrodden…it had been the rich who had accommodated to the religious and social demands of the Greek and Roman overlords. The poor tended to remain faithful to God. Some rich actually became poor because of their faithfulness. So the poor and the faithful became the same. There is no indication in this use (of “poor in spirit” in Matt 5:3) economic realities were excluded."
The significant point here is that the traditional evangelical spiritualization of texts about the poor in Scripture that make them refer to all people in their spiritual poverty towards God was rejected. It came to be seen that such spiritualization was not merely incorrect. It actually further oppressed the poor by removing from them the very stress of the Scriptures that indicated God's bias towards them.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and all Africa, under the leadership of its present Pope and Patriarch, Petros VII, which covers the whole of the African continent through the local bishops, is contributing very substantially in education, health and social welfare. The Patriarch himself (who served for many years on the African mission field) initiates and undertakes all the programmes pertaining to these projects. Developments are hampered by financial and other constraints, but every effort is being made to lay a secure foundation and to ensure a systematic programme for bettering the life of our brothers and sisters throughout the African continent. By the help of God, we are confident that we shall finally be able to bring our plans to fruition.
To win people to the faith and to build churches is good, but the good will be greatly — I almost feel tempted to say fatally — vitiated if the people are malnourished and desperate. "The love of Christ constrains us." It was for this reason that when I was a bishop in Kenya the Orthodox Church considered it essential to match the spiritual development, which was remarkable, with a parallel infrastructure of hospitals, clinics, schools and day nurseries. Wherever they may occur, poverty, sickness and ignorance are a blight in which the Gospel can never readily flourish. Moreover, the blight, tends to be self-perpetuating. A man with a minimal education, or none, can only expect the lowliest of unskilled jobs. With this sort of livelihood his diet and that of his family is bound to be deficient and all will tie more prone to sickness. Literate men can seek better jobs than their illiterate brethren or can be more readily trained for skilled or semi-skilled work.
In First World countries the State undertakes the responsibility for educating its citizens and providing a health and welfare infrastructure, including unemployment insurance. In the Third World, such amenities are often very basic and inadequate, or do not exist at all. If the Church is to do justice to its people it has no choice but to step in and do all it possibly can to meet their essential needs.
Literacy also has its spiritual dimension. There can be no doubt that not being able to read and write is a serious disadvantage in anyone’s Christian life. A hundred years ago this opinion would not have been widely accepted. Until well into this century, Russia, the most Orthodox country in the world, was stilt largely illiterate while illiteracy was also rife in many other parts, of the world. I would not, of course, wish to suggest that an illiterate person cannot be a good Orthodox or a good Christian. But I would certainly assert that he would be a more effective Christian if he was literate. To the illiterate, the Bible must remain a closed book. Orthodoxy has always encouraged her children to read and study the Word of God. "Divine Scripture," wrote St Nicodemus the Hagiorite, ''is the Divine Science that makes us more educated than all the Philosophers, more wise than all the moralists and Political theorists; and it alone transforms us from carnal, natural and wretched into holy, spiritual and blessed.” A number of other saints have made similar pronouncements.
In conclusion it must be pointed out that holistic Christianity is rooted and grounded in the Orthodox teaching of the all-embracing character of the atonement. Our bodies are redeemed no less than our souls arid for this reason the true missionary must not fail to minister to the whole man.