The Orthodox Value of Justice
We are born into an imperfect world, and being such, we become plagued with all that comes with it. As Baltimore and Missouri erupted in riots, as ISIS continues to terrorize the Levant region, as Boko Haram continues its kidnappings; we find ourselves seeking answers, hope, and resolution. As Orthodox Christians, we have our Faith to guide us, but we are sometimes in conflict with our more basic human desires, among them revenge. In stories about ISIS and the Genocide, we see comment threads praying to God for swift justice; some advocate the spilling of blood as payment for spilt blood.
These conflicts within ourselves are natural. If they weren’t, there would have been no need for God to send us His only Son. These conflicts are why we have our Faith. As Christ said, “Those who are well have no need for a physician, but those who are sick. I have come not to call the righteous but the sinners” (Mark 2:17).
So what does our Faith tell us? What answers does it provide for us in these times of unrest?
It teaches us that revenge is neither Christian nor justice. There are examples that can be found in Scripture, and there are examples that can be found in the history of the Orthodox Church. When I wrote the news for OCN’s This Week in Orthodoxy, we touched on the Orthodox Church’s role in the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, how Archbishop Iakovos of the Americas marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma.
We look back at the heroic Orthodox Christians of World War II who sacrificed their own lives to shield the Jewish community from the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust. An Orthodox commitment to justice is not just a 20th Century fad.
Recently, I came across a letter written by Ecumenical Patriarch Joachim II (1860 – 1863; 1873-1878) which adds to the Orthodox Church’s long-standing commitment to justice. When Patriarch Joachim penned this letter in 1862, it was in the midst of the American Civil War. For seventy-four years, the issue of slavery in America had been postponed and compromised upon, all with the political hopes of preserving the newly conceived Union. Yet, political expediency left the moral implications of the slave system unanswered and, like the unrecognized genocides we so often write about, eventually these implications demanded an answer.
Patriarch Jaochim’s letter was a direct answer to the slave system and was published in the Anatolian Star, where fifty years later justice would be tested with the genocide. He wrote:
The United States of America, after many years of union and peace, … , are separated into two hostile camps…. The Northern States, guided by true reason and evangelical principles, persistently seek the abolition of slavery of the blacks…. (but) if we cast a careful eye upon the wonderful events of this age, we shall be inclined to believe that those who contend so nobly for the most unquestionable and human rights, will, God helping them, reach the object of their desires.
In short, the Patriarch was stating that slavery is Anti-Christian and the pursuit of justice is a Christian cause. Justice seeks to create harmony from chaos, balance from imbalance, and should be blind to positions of authority, subjugation, color, or creed. Injustice can come in any form, whether social, economic, legal, political, and some would even contend environmental. We too often forget that all aspects of our society are run by people, and people are fallible. That is why we have ideals, standards that are set and that we strive to achieve. In the United States, the standards of justice and equality can be found in our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution and the courts that help us understand how the Constitution applies to modern times. In the European Union, those ideals are enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights.
The principal of justice is not exclusive to one country, one ethnicity, or one culture. It is a universal principal and an Orthodox one.
As Christians, we are followers of the New Covenant which was sealed with the crucifixion and resurrection. We have our own set of ideals; a charter. We are asked to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. When someone does us harm, we are told to dismiss an ‘eye for an eye’ and instead ‘turn the other cheek.’ Christ tells us that the least we do unto our brethren, we do unto God. In other words, we have the free will to shape our world as we see fit. This is not only a profound democratic principal in civil society, but an ultimate gift from God. We have been handed a guidebook on how to carry out His will and, with it, the ability to shape our environment. In Eastern philosophy, this is the equivalent of “being the change we seek in the world.”
Judgement is God’s and God’s alone; we can find peace in that statement. We are all sinners, and we all strive to better ourselves, and because of this, we are in no position to “cast stones” at others. What we can do is reflect on our shortcomings, both individually and as a society, and seek changes. This can be done by exercising our Christian love and understanding that the long thread of justice which stiches the tapestry of Orthodox Christianity together still must be sewed.
The needle that guides us is the Gospel; whether through Christ’s word, handed down to us by the Disciples, the spoken words of our thinkers, or the living examples of those like Patriarch Joachim II and Archbishop Iakovos. All their hands, at one point or another, have graced this tapestry and left their stitch, and they ask us to continue the work.
We must be a peaceful voice for justice, and remember that with our faith we can move the mountains of injustice, in all its forms and in all the places it may exist. Revenge is not Christian.
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