Sunday, May 16, 2010

St. John Chrysosthom and Social Justice

It's been awhile since I've written on the blog. That is, of course, May and June for me. Events pile upon events as the school year ends, so most of my energy is spent just trying to keep my head above water. I'm managing that, but this year has been exceptionally busy, so I feel like I'm barely doing that. Still, I have a chance to write today and I'm taking it.

What has moved me to get back in front of the computer is social justice. There have been a number of convergences in my life over the last few weeks which has brought me back to social justice. My wife attended a Justice Camp all last week for her work and came home full of stories. I've been running presentations in my Civics classes about local charities. Then, stir in some St. John Chrysosthom and you'll see where I'm going with this.

Social justice in St. John Chryosthom is hardly a bit leap. He is particularly well known for his uncompromising attitude to the rich and influential members of his flock and his persistent condemnations of luxury and oppressive practices both in Antioch and, later, in Constantinople. No matter the context, St. John was unwilling to compromise in what he perceived as his healing of his rich congregants and, no doubt, this is a large part of the reason why he became so unpopular among the powerful and influential people who dominated the court as well as the ambitious and aggressive individuals which a powerful court will attract. Mind you, implying that the Empress is a Jezebel could hardly have helped St. John's cause.

This passage from Against the Opponents of the Monastic Life should serve as a case in point:

"It is not philosophy, my good man, but the failure to philosophize which destroys and corrupts everything. Who, tell me, really corrupts the present situation: those who live moderately and morally, or those who devise new and illicit modes of luxury? Those who try to possess everything, or those who are satisfied with what they have? Those who have phalanxes of servants and who parade around with a swarm of flatterers and parasites, or those who think that only one servant is enough for them (for I am not treating the height of philosophy, but only what is accessible to most people)? Those who love humanity, who are gentle and who have no need of the honour of the multitude, or those who demand honour from their fellow citizens more than any debt, who cause countless calamities for anyone who does not stand up in respect, greet them first, bow down and act like a slave in their presence? Those who practice obedience, or those who desire political positions and offices and who are willing to do and to suffer everything for this? Those who say that they are better than everyone else and who, therefore, think they can do and say all things, or those who count themselves among the least and who, therefore, reproach the irrational power of passions? Those who live in splendid houses and prepare richly laden tables, or those who desire nothing more than the necessary food and shelter? Those who carve out for themselves thousands of acres of land, or those who think it unnecessary to own even one little plot? Those who compile interest upon interest and pursue the unjust path of all commerce, or those who tear apart those unjust contracts and aid the needy out of their own resources? Those who reflect upon the worthlessness of human nature, or those who do not wish to see this and who with consummate arrogance reject he thought that they are mortal? Those who keep mistresses and wreck other people's marriages, or those who abstain even from their own wives"
I think you see what I mean. Here we have a moral critique of the upper classes of Antioch (in this case--this is an early work, after all) which is bracing applicable to our time. Antioch, after all, was one of the richest cities of the Empire- an imperial capital almost as much as Constantinople had become. It was an important trade center and a major administrative hub for both the civilian and military administration of the East. There were luxurious suburbs like Daphne and, also, I'm sure, slums of aching poverty. The social injustice of Antiochine society (indeed, of Roman) must have been all around St. John and it is part of what provoked him into these kinds of outbursts.

Yet, what would he say to us in the West? We are richer by far than the Romans ever dreamed to be. Even our working poor are rich in comparison with the Romans and, indeed, with the developing world today. There is so much geared towards acquisition and consumerism today that it has become the norm and, I think, we miss the distorted values which feeds into this. Even Christians are, like in St. John's day, infected by this almost compulsive need to succeed in this life and to measure that success by material gain and increases in status. A good dose of St. John reminds us about that compulsion and, hopefully, kicks us back to the weirdness of the consumized world around us.

There is no surprise that, amid the riches of St. John's Antioch, that monasticism flourished nor that there is a move to a 'new monasticism' among younger, committed Christians. This impulse to flee to the desert or to the urban deserts of our day, I think, is an impulse to challenge Christianity as it has grown up in the modern West- rich, privileged and comfortable. This isn't to say that the Christian churches of today or the churches of St. John's day didn't deal with social justice, but rather it is meant to ask whether they or we asked the crucial questions about how we fit into the web of injustice which penetrates into the fabric of our respective societies. And, of course, what are we going to do about that?

St. John's critique resonates even today because we, too, forget the call made by Jesus to be just and help the poor and disadvantaged. We too ignore the call to be content with less, preferring to glut ourselves with the excesses which our time and place afford us.We too ignore the call to deepen our spiritual lives and seek first God's kingdom and our gain last. St. John provides a timely warning for us to repent of our materialism and vainglory because we all know where all this led in the longer term for the Romans. I worry about us in the West because, inevitably, our material prosperity and power will fail and I wonder what we will have left when it does. We have built up a powerful, rich dominion in the West, but it will no more last forever than the Roman Empire did. And what will be left to us when it does?



Jim said...

Hi Phil,

It is good to see you writing again.
Besides we agree on this topic. Our society way over emphasizes the purfuit of wealth and sees it as the perfuit of happiness. It is not the same.

Oh, re: perFuit. It was good enough for Mr. Jefferson writing to George III so it is good enough for me. ;-)

One wonders if we can arrange for one of our idiot TV commentators to read St. John? Nope, probably not.


Phil Snider said...

HI Jim;

Thanks for the good wishes. This year has been tough for extra time, but I do enjoy getting back to blogging.

As for certain television commentators, St. John would wipe the floor with him. No doubt. It would be fun to watch, though.