At a theological conference held recently in Brazil, His Eminence Archbishop Anastasios, Primate of All Albania, challenged the Orthodox participants.
“Woe to us if, in this 21st century, we surrender the initiative for social justice to others, as we have done in past centuries, while we confine ourselves to our opulent rituals, to our usual alliances with the powerful.”
His sober call to the Church to actively engage in the economic, social, and political plight of the human person echoes many passages in both the Old and New Testaments. It was the Prophet Isaiah who wrote, “Learn to do good, seek justice, correct oppression, bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” (Isaiah 1:17)
Matthew’s Gospel lays out Jesus’ own preaching regarding feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, inviting the stranger in, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and those in prison, reminding us that what we do for the least of His brethren, we do for Him. (Matthew 25:37-40)
The Archbishop challenges the Church not to use its beautiful liturgical rituals and cultural or ethnic alliances with those in secular power and to avoid living and doing the Gospel in the public square. To do so, would be to give credence to the typical attitude of some non-Orthodox churches that often caricature Eastern Orthodoxy as a place for a wealth of ritual, a mystical communion of worship without dynamism, without prophetic breath, without any wish to take part in the reshaping of the social environment in which her faithful live. Demetrios Coucouzis would have heartily agreed with the Albanian hierarch.
Living the Faith
An immigrant to the United States, Coucouzis was born on the island of Imvros (Turkey) where, he recalled, he “lived as a third class citizen” under the Turkish yoke and knew the power of a society to oppress and deprive. As God’s providence works, he prospered in his chosen vocation, remained resolute, and achieved notable success. He became a U.S. citizen in 1950, and the world came to know him as His Eminence Archbishop Iakovos, Greek Orthodox Archbishop of the Americas.
History would record him as a true champion of social justice, not only in the Church but in American society. He would write, “Though God may watch man destroy himself, he also has given man free will and the ability to cleanse himself and his world. The church will not be pessimistic, nor sit quietly in its handsome houses of worship while the war rages outside its churches for the body, mind, and soul of man.”
On March 15, 1965, the Archbishop was the only Orthodox hierarch to march and stand in Selma, Alabama, with the pastor and prophet of civil rights, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose holiday we observed this week.
There is much to learn from both pastors about the Church’s call to usher in righteous justice and to see the Church itself as a prophetic voice crying out for the voiceless. When asked why he marched with King, the Archbishop replied, “I decided to join him because I felt this is my time to take revenge against all those who lay on the back of God’s children the heavy yoke of oppression.”
As the Pan-Orthodox Council document that was drafted by the First Hierarchs in 2016 noted, social justice is the God-given right of every person because of their inherent human dignity. Human dignity is permanent, irrevocable, and unambiguous. In effect, we do justice for others because Christian love requires it.
St. Gregory the Theologian calls the human person “…another angel…a king over all that is on the earth….a living being who acquires deification through striving for God.” (Homily 45, On Holy Pascha)
The justice due to human beings must be shown to them regardless of skin color, religion, ethnic or cultural background, or economic status, because the right to justice is not given him by any government, organization, or political leader. Its origin is God Himself who empowers all life and universal creation. Dr. King’s determination regarding social justice was rooted in his deep Christian faith, not his politics.
He phrased it this way—“The God whom we worship is not a weak and incompetent God. He is able to beat back gigantic waves of opposition and to bring low prodigious mountains of evil. The ringing testimony of the Christian faith is that God is able!”
It is God’s justice for which Christian disciples work. And to do that work, we need to be other-directed and not self-absorbed. In a sermon on the story of the Good Samaritan, Dr. King focused with laser-like precision on the truth of the passage. In speaking of the various individuals who saw the wounded man on the roadside, he said, “The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But the Samaritan reversed the question, ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’”
Writing a check or paying the bill was not enough. The Samaritan picked up the wounded man, placed him on his donkey, and brought his broken body to be cared for. One who was despised by the Jews became the instrument of justice and compassion—this over the religious officials who were concerned only with preserving ritual purity. The words of the Apostle James come to mind.
“But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me a faith without deeds, and I will show you a faith that is dead!” (James 2:18)
A dead, unengaged faith is meaningless.
Following the Christian Example
Dr. King’s prophetic call was meant not only for individual Christian believers and others of good will, but for the churches themselves. Not only by prayer and ascetic works, not simply in reflection or in intention, not in withdrawal or isolation. The Gospel is to be lived, done, acted on and broken open to engage the lives of those who have become victims of the many attempts to rob them of their dignity as “sons and daughters of the Most High God.” (2 Corinithans 6:18)
At that march on Selma with Dr. King, Archbishop Iakovos boldly confronted his hearers, saying, “We have fought oppression and repression based on Christian principles for centuries. A Christian must cry out in indignation and action against the persecution of any person, anytime, anywhere.”
St. John Chrysostom even connects social justice with the Divine Liturgy. “If you wish to receive in truth the Body and Blood of Christ given up for us, recognize and receive Christ in the poorest and most rejected of his brethren.”
We do well on the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to recall our summons to engage in the Christian work of social justice. There are many issues that cry out for our involvement and witness of our faith. Be it racism, age discrimination, human trafficking, religious persecution, health care, poverty, discrimination, immigration, the quality of education, gun violence, violence in general, mental or physical ability, housing and a host of others. There are real needs to be met, projects to do, and causes to which we need to lend our voice and risk our active involvement. This witness may cost us and even move us, in the words of Dr. King, to yield to fear and hold back. He wrote, “Cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience alone asks the question, is it right? There comes a time when each of us must take action or a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.”
The greatest weakness we may show in the cause of social justice is to leave the witness and the challenge to someone else. “They will do it.”
Rev. Martin Niemöller, a German clergyman, had enthusiastically welcomed the Third Reich. But a turning point in Niemöller’s political sympathies came with a January 1934 meeting of Adolf Hitler, Niemöller, and two prominent Protestant bishops to discuss state pressures on the churches. At the meeting it became clear that Niemöller’s phone had been tapped by the Gestapo. It was also clear that the Pastors Emergency League (PEL), which Niemöller had helped found, was under close state surveillance.
Following the meeting, Niemöller would come to see the Nazi state as a dictatorship, one which he would oppose. He penned the following: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Whose plight will you lend your voice to? For whom will you speak?
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