As Kermit the Frog sings, “It’s not easy being green.” That’s probably especially true when you’re the spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians. But there’s something about His All Holiness Bartholomew I, Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch, that makes it seem easy.
Last week, after meeting with the President at the White House, he gave a lecture at Georgetown University in which he addressed three “progressive” aspects of Orthodox Christianity: the pursuit of non-violence in social change, care for the health and welfare of everyone in the community, and respect and love for the environment as God’s creation.
Explaining how one of the world’s most conservative religious bodies has played such a significant role in progressive causes, he first made this disclaimer:
“Even though our faith may be 2000 years old, our thinking is not … Christianity was born a revolutionary faith, and we have preserved that. In other words, paradoxically, we have succeeded in not changing the faith that is itself dedicated to change. 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 invoked 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 and tomorrow another– but in truth, we are only and always in one camp, that of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
The Patriarch then proceeded to describe the seldom discussed Orthodox roots of Dr. Martin Luther King’s use of non-violent resistance. Most will recognize that King used Ghandi’s work in India as a model. Yet few know that Ghandi himself was profoundly influenced by Russian Orthodox author Leo Tolstoy, who in 1893 published the Kingdom of God Is Within You, in which he laid out his theory of non-violence. So struck was Ghandi with this work that the two struck up a brief correspondence, which lasted until the author’s death in 1910.
Regarding healthcare for all, Bartholomew noted that the first hospitals were instituted by Saints Basil of Caesarea and John Chrysostom in the Eastern Roman Empire in the 4th century.
“…They were public institutions, free of charge and created for the public good…. 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.”
Nicknamed the “Green Patriarch” by European leaders, His All Holiness has made the Orthodox Church a leading voice in environmentalism. Speaking of creation care, he noted that the ascetic element within Eastern Orthodoxy has long held that our relationship with the natural world must involve a “voluntary restraint”:
“By reducing consumption – known in Orthodox theology as encratia or self-control – we ensure that resources are left for others in the world….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 must challenge ourselves to align our personal and spiritual attitudes with public policy … If human beings treated one another’s personal property the way they sometimes treat the environment, we would view that behavior as antisocial. 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.”
Makes me want to convert.