The Church and Social Issues

Dedicated to our young people in light of upcoming initiatives and ministries within the Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain.

His Eminence, our Archbishop Nikitas, recently announced new initiatives centred on matters of social justice, including tackling human slavery and trafficking, as well as on supporting deprived and oppressed communities. Why should the Church be involved with such issues? To what extent should the Church be reaching out to the wider society and involving Herself with matters of injustice and discrimination?

One of the most significant passages within the Holy Gospel, referring to judgement and salvation, offers us a very clear answer:

‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me…as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ (Matt 25:31-46) Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, as the head (Col 1:18) of His Church on earth, thus makes it abundantly clear; a relationship with Him is only attainable through our love for the ‘least’ of our fellows.

The great theologian, monastic and philanthropist, Saint Basil the Great expresses the responsibility we carry and the example we should set as Christians, in order to serve those in need. He boldly writes:

‘When someone steals another’s clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor…You showed no mercy; it will not be shown to you. You opened not your house; you will be expelled from the Kingdom. You gave not your bread; you will not receive eternal life.’

As blunt as it may seem to us, St Basil reflects the teaching of the Gospel, that the prerequisite for eternal life in Christ is the way in which we share His love with the rest of the world. It is not only a reminder to us as individuals, but to all members of Christ’s body on earth. Our participation in, and partaking of, Holy Communion, in the prayerful and ascetic life of the Church is indeed essential. However, the common cup, this ‘feast of love’ as it was known in the ancient Church, has an all-important social dimension and implementation. Our worship is reflected in our actions and in our example within society. The outreach of the Church bears witness to the renewal, the transformation and the healing offered by Christ to the entire world, not ‘meant to judge and condemn the world (Jn 3:17; 12:47), but rather to offer to the world the guidance of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God—namely, the hope and assurance that evil, no matter its form, does not have the last word in history and must not be allowed to dictate its course.’ (Holy and Great Council, 2016)

Where do we begin in offering examples of the implementation of Christ’s justice and the cultivation of this spirit of reconciliation and brotherhood throughout the history of our Orthodox Church? Perhaps Archbishop Iakovos marching alongside Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, or the heroic faithful of World War II who sacrificed their lives to shield the Jewish community. We could also read Ecumenical Patriarch Joachim II’s letter of 1862, during the American civil war, as a direct message against the slave system: ‘We shall be inclined to believe that those who contend so nobly for the most unquestionable and human rights, will, with God’s help, reach the object of their desires.’ Particularly within the context of the Interfaith movement, our current Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has played a significant role in the field of social justice, encouraging the Church, along with all religious communities to ‘respond to the needs of the world’s poor as well as to vulnerable and marginalised people.’

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, as the source and definition of love itself (1 Jn 4:8) Christ cares, and gives His life, for every human person. He does however go out His way, in particular, to help and prove the value and worth of those alienated, mistreated, misrepresented and those facing injustice. By seeing the image of God in all peoples and in all of creation we share and cultivate the ethos of our Mother Church and fulfill Christ’s commandments. It is often a sin to remain silent in the face of evil, hatred and injustice. ‘The Orthodox Church’s efforts to confront destitution and social injustice are an expression of her faith and the service to the Lord, Who identifies Himself with every person and especially with those in need.’ (H&G Council, 2016) Our participation in such acts and expressions of God’s love in the world is, as St John Chrysostom writes ‘what makes us (hu)man.’ Somehow by giving our energy, time, talents and resources we appreciate, share and partake in Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross for our sake.

As H.A.H, our Ecumenical Patriarch states, ‘the victory of the Resurrection must be experienced as a victory of life, of brotherhood, of the future, of hope…’ Dear friends, once the circumstances allow us to safely do so, let us answer to this calling of Christ, and of our local Archdiocese, to enrich and cultivate our faith in the crucified (Matt 27) Risen and Transfigured (Matt 17:1-8) Lord, by prayerfully and joyfully reaching out to those who are in need of the warmth, the forgiveness and the transforming presence of God.