Our Open Letter to the Church: The Humanitarian Crisis at the US-Mexico Border drew a range of mixed reactions from our readers. At one extreme stood the letter’s 115 signatories: an Orthodox bishop, priests, academics, and laity, joined by many clergy and laity representing other Christian traditions.
To this list we gratefully add the names of those very few hierarchs who issued a letter to the White House or a public statement: in alphabetical order, Metropolitan Nicolae (Condrea), Bishop David (Mahaffey), Metropolitan Tikhon (Mollard), Archbishop Lazar (Puhalo), Metropolitan Antony (Scharba), Metropolitan Nathanael (Symeonides), and Archbishop Daniel (Zelinsky). You may find their letters or statements under their names in our Archives by Author with the exception of Archbishop Lazar, whose statement took the form of a letter to the editors.
At the other extreme stood those angered by our letter, who felt that the institutional Orthodox church and even individual Orthodox Christians should play no role in the public life of a pluralistic secular democracy. Orthodox bishops, many of these thought, should restrict themselves to ministering to the spiritual needs of their flocks.
Yet, year after year in our preparation for Great Lent, we are confronted with the Sunday of the Last Judgment. We also have the witness of Mother Maria of Paris, among our most universally beloved of modern Orthodox saints. What do these say to us, both as Church and as individual Orthodox Christians?
In publishing the present article Orthodoxy in Dialogue wishes to raise the following questons:
- Should the Orthodox Church of the 21st century articulate a more robust “social justice doctrine?”
- Given the fundamentally eschatological focus of Orthodox liturgy, theology, and ascetical spirituality, what might an Orthodox social justice doctrine look like? How would it maintain the necessary tension between the present world and the world to come? How does the Orthodox Church avoid becoming little more than just another social justice agency operating under a thin religious veneer?
America is full of churches that sing songs about grace, hope, and love, yet are unwilling to provide those same things to refugees and immigrants. These churches preach about the “good news” and claim to follow the “gospel truth,” but are dismissive of their own involvement in partisan lies, and seem perfectly content supporting blatantly dishonest political leaders. Instead of being an inspiring “light unto the world,” many Christians have propagated fear-mongering rhetoric and participated in racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and bigotry … all while claiming to follow God.
Much of westernized Christianity has turned the concept of worship into a compartmentalized idea — verbally praising God in song, a segmented event that typically occurs at the beginnings and ends of church services.
But if this is truly what we believe worship is, then we’re severely limiting our reverence to God.
And if we’re opposed to helping refugees, immigrants, and the vulnerable while reciting lyrics about being “saved” and “redeemed,” we’re being hypocritically sinful.
The Bible boldly proclaims: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:20).
Jesus once referenced the prophet Isaiah by saying, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.They worship me in vain…” and went on to explain that “the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts — murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.” (Matt. 15:8-9: 18-19).
Singing praises to God while simultaneously turning a deaf ear to those in need around us is sacrilege. We are to selflessly look beyond ourselves and sacrificially love those just as Jesus loves us. Everyone is made in the image of God, and we’re commanded to love God and love our neighbors to the best of our ability.
The Christian faith was never meant to fulfill ethnocentric desires for power and wealth. It was intended to bring hope and salvation to everyone. The book of Isaiah notes the inclusiveness of this idea when it states,“for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” Jesus personified what it meant to lovingly serve everyone — to the point of being crucified on a cross.
While numerous characters in the Bible were distracted by political interests, selfish ambition, and obtaining wealth and power, the person of Christ provided a blueprint for living a holy life. Many of Jesus’ actions — feeding the hungry, helping the sick, defending the oppressed, criticizing religious leaders, chastising political empires, pursuing justice, bridging social and cultural divides, seeking peace, and empowering others — would be considered participating in “social justice” by today’s standards.
More importantly, these acts were — and are — what God calls “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Some have criticized “social justice” as being a substitution for the gospel, but few things are more holy or worshipful than helping others and working towards providing humanity with justice, peace, reconciliation, equity, safety, and empowerment. All people are made in God’s divine image, all are passionately loved by God, and it’s a mandate from God that we love everyone as well.
The Scriptures say very little about what we consider church-service-style-worship in the New Testament, but they do talk about having a right relationship with God, of being filled with the Holy Spirit and exhibiting love, joy, peace, kindness, and self-control. We’re repeatedly instructed on how to act toward others: to love our neighbors, whether they’re American or not, “legal” or not, “Christian” or not.
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus gives a parable that poses this question: “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (Matt. 25: 37-40). Within this context, social justice is about identifying and aiding the vulnerable.
In many ways, participating in social justice more closely resembles the transformative gospel of Jesus than those who are content to sit in pews once a week yet refuse to acknowledge the social injustices around them. Isaiah 1:17 states that we should “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”
This is why Christians should stand up on behalf of those who need an advocate. Christianity was born amid of the world’s mightiest empire, where the riches of Rome provided magnificent architectural wonders and armies that couldn’t be defeated. Meanwhile, away from the marble pillars, underground within the catacombs, carved out of the dirt, a few feet from where the martyrs lay, small rooms of Christ-followers gathered together and dedicated themselves to following Jesus. Regardless of social class, status, or ethnicity, they strived to serve and love the world around them.
So next time you want to “worship” God, instead of simply binge-listening to a Hillsong or Bethel album (not bad in their own right!), try this instead, or as well: Volunteer at a refugee ministry, immigration ministry, or homeless shelter. Find ways to better the lives of the oppressed and downtrodden. Listen to those who are calling out for justice, and learn from them.
As the United States becomes more entrenched in nationalism and extends its military activity around the globe, as systemic inequality further infests our society, may we worship God like the earliest followers of Jesus: Not beholden to a political regime or government, but dedicated to serving the kingdom of God and worshipping the King of kings. This God deserves our allegiance more than any president or country.
God help us.
This essay appeared on July 27, 2018 on Sojourners. Republished in collaboration with the author.
Stephen Mattson holds a BA in Youth Ministry from the Moody Bible Institute. He writes on the intersection of faith, social justice, culture, and current events for Huffington Post, Sojourners, Patheos, and others. His The Great Reckoning: Surviving a Christianity That Looks Nothing Like Christ is scheduled for release by Herald Press in October 2018.
Orthodoxy in Dialogue seeks to promote the free exchange of ideas by offering a wide range of perspectives on an unlimited variety of topics. Our decision to publish implies neither our agreement nor disagreement with an author, in whole or in part.
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