November 3, 2009

A Changeless Faith for A Changing World: An Address of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew






Center for American Progress and Georgetown University

Gaston Hall of Georgetown University

Washington, DC

(November 3, 2009)

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

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Thank you very much, Professor James J. O'Donnell, Provost of Georgetown University, and John Podesta, President of the Center for American Progress. We are also especially grateful for the students who are present with us today, and for their interest.

Progress is often equated with change. So let us acknowledge this: it may appear strange for a progressive think tank to sponsor a lecture by the leader of a faith that takes pride in how little it has changed in 2,000 years. The fact is that our first instinct in Orthodoxy is to conserve the precious faith that has been handed down to us in an unbroken line from Jesus Christ through the Apostles. In the case of our Ecumenical Patriarchate, the First See of the Orthodox World, it has been handed to us through St. Andrew the Apostle, to whose See we are the 270th successor.

But even though our faith may be 2,000 years old, our thinking is not. True progress is a balance between preserving the essence of a certain way of life and changing things that are not essential. Christianity was born a revolutionary faith – and we have preserved that. In other words, paradoxically, we have succeeded in not changing a faith that is itself dedicated to change.

Let us, as the lawyers would say, make a disclaimer: By calling Christianity revolutionary, and saying it is dedicated to change, we are not siding with Progressives – just as, by conserving it, we are not siding with Conservatives. All political factions believe God is on their side – as Abraham Lincoln said of the Union and Confederacy, “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.”

The only side we take is that of our faith – which today may seem to land us in one political camp, tomorrow another – but in truth we are always and only in one camp, that of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

John Podesta, in his wonderful book, “The Power of Progress,” gives a very lucid account of American progressivism. Its core beliefs are boundless opportunity for all… equal access to education, good jobs, fair pay… and the freedom to pursue one’s dreams. It also encompasses personal and national security… respect for the environment… and harmony among nations.

Although Orthodoxy has never taken up the banner of progressivism per se, we have taken up many causes over the centuries that are progressive by definition – and today we will discuss three of them in particular:

1. Nonviolence;
2. Philanthropy, specifically in the form of healthcare; and
3. Environmentalism.

Let us begin with a Christian concept that has led to some of the most significant changes of the last century that were not delivered at the barrel of a gun – quite the opposite. It is the Christian concept of nonviolence, even and especially in the face of evil.

We said earlier that Christianity is a revolutionary faith. The highest law of all was to love God and one another

Now we all know the political and theological revolution that followed – the Roman Empire eventually adopted Christianity, which spread like a cleansing fire and rose to dominance in Europe, Asia Minor, Northern Africa, and beyond. We do not always pay as much attention to the revolution in thinking that helped achieve this dominance.

In the early years, citizens of Rome saw Christ’s followers persecuted, tortured, brutalized, and murdered in huge numbers, throughout the Empire. In most cases, they did not resist the evil that was done to them – but rather, they went willingly to their painful deaths. Why? Of course they had faith – a giant faith, a faith rarely seen in human history. But many in the pagan world had faith, and yet, when threatened, they resisted. The world had never before seen anything like the willing martyrdom of these early followers of Christ.

The world had never before seen it simply because it was a completely new and radical idea introduced by Jesus and described in Matthew 5 (38-39, 43-44):

“You have heard that it has been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, resist not evil: but whoever smites you on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also…. I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”

Now if that is not a revolutionary concept, we don’t know what is. And the proof lies not only in the rapid spread of Christianity among the Romans who witnessed these martyrs and were awestruck by their example. The proof can be seen in our own time, in the civil rights revolution that in less than 50 years brought America from Bull Connor to Barack Obama. It was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s doctrine of nonviolence in the face of evil that made the movement unstoppable by any human force. It is one of the most powerful ideas known to man – and yet it did not come from man, in fact for human beings it is completely counter-intuitive – our first instinct is to strike back, not turn the other cheek.

We Orthodox Christians will forever hold in our hearts the late Archbishop of America Iakovos of blessed memory, who shared the faith, courage, and humility of those early Christian martyrs and joined hands with Dr. King in Selma, Alabama, in March of 1965. But there is another Orthodox link in this chain...

Dr. King was extremely conversant with Christian theology, and yet at a critical juncture early in the civil rights movement, he began to doubt the power of love to resolve social problems. A chance conversation about Gandhi led King to study the Mahatma’s successful use of nonviolence to gain freedom for India – and that restored Dr. King’s belief that love was powerful enough to gain civil rights for African-Americans.

That story is well-known --- what you may not know is that Gandhi’s inspiration was an Orthodox Christian whose name will be familiar to you – Leo Tolstoy – who in 1893 wrote a seminal book not about Christian ideas, but rather how to put those ideas into practice, especially the ideas expressed in Matthew 5. “The Kingdom of God Is within You” was translated into English in 1894 and the same year a copy came into the possession of a young Hindu lawyer in South Africa. Gandhi found the book “overwhelming” and after launching his campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience in India in 1906, could often be seen carrying Tolstoy’s writings with him into jail. The two men corresponded until Tolstoy’s death in 1910, and in fact the last long letter Tolstoy wrote was to Gandhi.

Tolstoy had his own inspiration not only in the New Testament but also in the works of others who took seriously the injunction of Jesus to “resist not evil,” including the American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and the pacifist Adin Ballou. But it is safe to say that, in the hands of Orthodox Christians such as Tolstoy and Iakovos, the doctrine of nonviolence helped lead to some remarkably progressive achievements.

Let us move on to a topic that is extremely timely – because of the healthcare debate in this country – to healthcare the concept of philanthropy in its most essential meaning, from the Greek, “love of human beings.”

How many people know that the modern hospital originated in the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire?

It is widely acknowledged that the first hospitals were created in Cappadocia, which is now part of Turkey, sometime around 370 A.D. by St. Basil, Bishop of Caesarea. There had been a tradition since Antiquity of maintaining hostels for those without food or shelter, or travelers on a long journey. St. Basil was apparently the first to add doctors and staff to look after the sick.

Later that century, our revered predecessor on the Ecumenical Throne, St. John Chrysostom, opened hospitals in Constantinople, the capital of the Roman Empire. It is important to note that these institutions were funded by the Emperor and by the Church, respectively – in other words, they were public institutions, free of charge and created for the public good.

By the end of the sixth century, hospitals could be found throughout the empire. They were usually maintained by the Church, in keeping with the parable of the Last Judgment in the Gospel of Saint Matthew (25:35-36):

‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.'

Byzantine hospitals began as institutions for the poor, but by the seventh century they began to service the wealthy, including relatives of the royal family.

These were well-organized institutions – doctors made daily rounds of patients, except on Christian holy days… nurses or physicians’ assistants looked after patients’ needs and carried out doctors’ orders… while orderlies carried out the less skilled chores such as cleaning and so on.

At least one Byzantine emperor, Manuel I Commenus, was a trained physician himself. During his reign from 1143 to 1180, he personally treated patients in the Empire’s hospitals.

In summary, it is clear that we owe the Byzantines the development of the modern institutions we call hospitals. But what may be more important, we owe to them the view that every member of society, from the greatest to the least, deserved the best quality healthcare available at the time. This is obviously relevant today, and as the U.S. debates the best way to provide healthcare for its citizens, we hope and pray that the Byzantine-Orthodox approach provides a model worthy of emulation.

Just as every human life is a gift from God, to be treated with love and respect, so is all the rest of Creation – which is why the Orthodox Church has also been a leading voice for healing the environment.

We have followed with great interest and sincere concern, the efforts to curb the destructive effects that human beings have wrought upon the natural world. We view with alarm the dangerous consequences of humanity’s disregard for the survival of God's creation.

Our predecessor, the late Patriarch Dimitrios of blessed memory, invited the whole world to offer, together with the Great Church of Christ, prayers of thanksgiving and supplications for the protection of the gift of creation. Since 1989, every September 1st, the beginning of the ecclesiastical calendar has been designated as a day of prayer for the protection of the environment, throughout the Orthodox world.

It is fair to ask: Beyond any platitudes, what can Orthodox Christianity contribute to the movement to protect the environment? Fortunately, we have a very specific answer: We believe that through our unique liturgical and ascetic ethos, Orthodox spirituality can provide significant moral and ethical direction toward a new awareness about the planet.

Our sin toward the world – the spiritual root of all our pollution – lies in our refusal to view life and the world as a sacrament of thanksgiving, and as a gift of constant communion with God on a global scale.

We believe that our first task is to raise the consciousness of adults who most use the resources and gifts of the planet. Ultimately, it is for our children that we must perceive our every action in the world as having a direct effect upon the future of the environment. At the heart of the relationship between man and environment is the relationship between human beings. As individuals, we live not only in vertical relationships to God, and horizontal relationships to one another, but also in a complex web of relationships that extend throughout our lives, our cultures and the material world.

Human beings and the environment form a seamless garment of existence; a complex fabric that we believe is fashioned by God. As human beings, created “in the image and likeness of God” (Gen. 1:26), we are called to recognize this interdependence between our environment and ourselves. Moreover, human beings participated in Creation by giving names to the things that God created. There is no escaping our responsibility for the environment.

There is also an ascetic element in our responsibility toward God's creation. This asceticism requires voluntary restraint, in order for us to live in harmony with our environment. By reducing consumption – known in Orthodox theology as “encratia” or self-control – we ensure that resources are left for others in the world.

We must challenge ourselves to align our personal and spiritual attitudes with public policy. Encratia frees us of our self-centered neediness, that we may do good works for others. We do this out of a personal love for the natural world around us. We are called to work in humble harmony with creation and not in arrogant supremacy against it. Asceticism provides an example whereby we may live simply.

Asceticism is not a flight from society and the world, but a communal attitude of mind and way of life that leads to the respectful use, and not the abuse of material goods. Excessive consumption issues from our estrangement from self, from land, from life, and from God. Consuming the fruits of the earth unrestrained, we become consumed ourselves, by avarice and greed. Excessive consumption leaves us emptied, out-of-touch with our deepest self. Asceticism is a corrective practice, a vision of repentance. Such a vision can lead us from repentance to return, the return to a world in which we give, as well as take from creation.

We are of the deeply held belief that many human beings have come to behave as materialistic tyrants. Those that tyrannize the earth are themselves, sadly, tyrannized. We have been called by God, to “be fruitful, increase and have dominion in the earth” (Gen 1:28). Dominion is not domination – it is an eschatological sign of the perfect Kingdom of God, where corruption and death are no more.

If human beings treated one another’s personal property the way they sometimes treat their environment, we would view that behavior as anti-social. We would impose the judicial measures necessary to restore wrongly appropriated personal possessions. It is therefore appropriate for us to seek ethical and even legal recourse where possible, in matters of ecological crimes.

It follows that, to commit a crime against the natural world, is a sin. For humans to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation… for humans to degrade the integrity of Earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the Earth of its natural forests, or destroying its wetlands… for humans to injure other humans with disease… for humans to contaminate the Earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life, with poisonous substances… these are sins.

In prayer, we ask for the forgiveness of sins committed both willingly and unwillingly. And it is certainly God’s forgiveness that we must ask, for causing harm to His creation.

Thus we begin the process of healing our worldly environment which was blessed with Beauty and created by God. Then we may also begin to participate responsibly, as persons making informed choices in both the whole of creation, and within our own souls.

It is with that understanding that we have called upon the world's leaders to take action to halt the destructive changes to global climate that are being caused by human activity. This common cause unites all humankind – just as the waters of the world are all united. To save one river is to save all rivers and all oceans. God created heaven and earth as a united whole, and we must take a holistic view of creation. For us in the Patriarchate, “Ecumenical” is more than a name – it is a world-view and way of life.

We hope the three examples we have chosen – a nonviolent pursuit of social change… care for the health and welfare of all in the community… and respect and love for the environment as God’s creation – illustrate some of the ways in which one of the most conservative members of the Christian family has played a role in some very progressive causes.

But we also hope we have made clear that neither these causes, nor the conservative causes we may undertake – none of these things define the Church of God, no matter what any human being may assert. The Church encompasses all of God’s creation – and indeed, that is our key theme for today – we are all connected, and that connection is God.

The Lord fills all of creation with His Divine presence in one continuous connection from the substance of atoms to the Mind of God. Let us work together to renew the harmony between heaven and earth, and transfigure every detail, every particle of life. Let us love one another, and lovingly learn from one another, for the edification of God's people, for the sanctification of God's creation, and for the glorification of God's most holy Name. Amen.