Fitter, Happier, More Productive…

For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. – Gal. 3:27-28

Who is the Orthodox Church for? Is it Greek for Greeks? Is it Syrian for Syrians or Russian for Russians? This question is raised frequently in the Orthodox blogosphere. Usually as part of a skreed against phyletism which, for those not familiar, is a belief that some particular ethnicity or race within the Church is superior to the others. While phyletism is an ongoing problem in some parts of the Orthodox world despite having been formally condemned, it is mostly a non-issue in America. However, another form of discrimination emanates from within the Orthodox churches here in America and it’s exactly the kind you’d expect to find in the land of prosperity: for the sake of convenience let’s call it “economic phyletism.”

2009 study by the Pew Forum (in easy-to-read graphic form here) revealed that Orthodox Christians are, on the whole, the most affluent Christians in America. According to the data, 41% of Orthodox Christians reported an income of $75,000 or greater; a higher percentage than any other Christian group. While only 20% reported an income of less than $30,000; a smaller percentage than any other Christian group. In other words, Orthodoxy in America has more wealth and less poverty than any other Christian church. This ought to be grist for many questions. The one I’d like to tackle today is, why? Why is Orthodoxy a disproportionately affluent phenomenon here in the United States?

I believe the answer to this question rests largely in history. Unlike most of the rest of the Orthodox world, Orthodox Christianity came to America primarily by means of immigrants hoping to make a better life for themselves and their families. As is common among immigrants, many of these families struggled mightily to overcome hostility, language barriers, and unfamiliarity in order to make a life for themselves here. Not surprisingly, this often led to successive waves of achievement. The children of immigrants worked harder than many of their peers and climbed higher on the socio-economic ladder than their parents, and their children often did the same. The result of this effort to thrive in a new home was a greater than average valuation of success and concentration of wealth in Orthodox Christian communities. Since people naturally gravitate to what they find familiar and comfortable this concentration of success has given birth to a culture of affluence in the Church. I believe this, at least partly, accounts for the low percentage of Orthodox at the bottom of the economic food chain. And I believe it is a problem. What do I mean by a culture of affluence and why is it a problem?

I would identify a culture of affluence by two markers. The first is discretionary income. A culture of affluence is one in which discretionary income, often significant amounts of it, is necessary to participate. The second characteristic is the mimicking of already existing affluent behaviors. Examples would include the importance of being seen in fashionable clothing, expensive dinner meetings, self-congratulatory awards ceremonies, and costly gala banquets. The Orthodox Church has all these things in spades. You don’t have to look far to find announcements like this, Bishop X will be here on Sunday to consecrate our new church. There will be a gala banquet at the Downtown Hilton immediately following. Tickets are $50. Or, We will be celebrating our centennial anniversary next year. Tickets to the banquet are $100. Sometimes the prices go higher. Other areas where the need for discretionary capital is likely to show up are youth or young adult outings, mens group activities, women’s group activities, and pretty much every other category of activity that is done as church aside from the services themselves. These costs associated with participation in the life of the community along with the lavish and self-referential nature of many of the communities activities are characteristic behaviors of the upper classes.

Why do I think this is a problem? First let me clarify: I am not suggesting that wealth is a problem or that wealthy people are a problem. Those blessed with wealth have often been, in turn, a blessing to the Church. What is a problem, a genuine danger to the integrity of the Orthodox Church, is the cancerous growth of division in the parish community. It wouldn’t be the first time such a thing has threatened the Church. Writing to the Corinthians, St. Paul has this to say:

When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not. – I Cor. 11:20-22 (emphasis mine) 

It ought to be obvious to anyone who has experienced or known someone at the bottom of the economy that $50 for dinner with the bishop, $25 per child for youth activities, or $15 for lunch with the men’s group is often competing with new shoes, an oil change, or is simply an impossibility by itself. Yet this is how we operate throughout vast swathes of the Orthodox world. The services are free, more or less, but there’s a significant cost be being “part of the community.” We shouldn’t be surprised then that there aren’t many poor people in our churches. In a “pay-to-play” parish economy those without the ability to play aren’t likely to bother joining up. One significant consequence of this reality is that it virtually guarantees continued exclusion of minority communities that are not affluent such as African American and Latino communities. If we wanted to amend St. Paul’s words to the Galatians above we might say that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female, [there is neither rich nor poor]; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” And yet among us there certainly is a distinction between rich and poor. To quote St. Paul a third time, “my brethren, these things ought not to be.” For too long, we Orthodox have drunk from the waters of American aspiration and a culture of affluence has infected our Church and closed our faith to many who most desperately need the Good News of Jesus Christ. 

Every February my Facebook page will be covered up with pictures of Archbishop Iakovos of blessed memory standing alongside Martin Luther King Jr.. Many Orthdox are justly proud of his witness and share his convictions. In general, we Orthodox in America are quick to decry racism and bigotry of all sorts and we honor the Gospel when we do so. But whenever and wherever we permit a culture of affluence to develop in our communities we betray that same Gospel.  The Church must not be divided on account of money! Our standard of behavior is embodied in the example of the Apostles, the Saints and Christ himself who demonstrated the love of God through humility, simplicity, and selflessness. If we are Christians we must see to it that the quality of our communal life is not defined by income, color, or anything other than Christ-like love.

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Mud That Suffers

Man is earth that suffers… – Epistle of Barnabas 6:9

Christianity has not fared well in the cultural marketplace in recent years. There are many reasons for this. One of them, in my opinion, is that the Church – and here I use that word in a very broad sense to include all who bear the name Christian – has condemned the habits of the world while secretly (well, obviously not that secretly) embodying many of them itself.  Well publicized sex scandals, financial scandals, avarice, pettiness, superficiality, and abuses of all kinds, have, for many, sunk the name Christian in mud. I couldn’t be happier about this. Why you ask? Because until you know what you are you cannot become anything else.

In the story of the Garden of Eden the serpent tempts Eve to eat the fruit God had forbidden by arguing that if she eats the fruit she will become immortal like God. She and Adam are persuaded by this argument and attempt to take for themselves, by their own power and will, what God would have freely given them in due time – a share in His own immortal life. We see the same attitude at the Tower of Babel. The people decide to build a tower to heaven, ostensibly either to make it their home by squatters rights or by conquest. Their actions are rooted in the false, satanic belief that they have power to rival God’s. Instances like these – of mortals trying to assume for themselves divine life and power – could be multiplied. Even in the New Testament Jesus’ disciples suggest calling down fire from heaven on Samaritans who would not receive Jesus. (Lk 9:51-55) For which Jesus himself rebukes them.

These grasping attempts at power are all rooted in the same dark impulse: pride. Pride is the original sin into which all the others – selfishness, vanity, greed, lust, etc., – are bundled. In essence pride is simply the conviction that my worth, importance, and even life itself, emanates from within and belongs to me. It is pride that says My ministry will save the Church or I deserve respect and obedience. It is pride that causes a man to hide his own sins while condemning the same in others. And it is pride that refuses the mercy of humiliation. As long as that pride is lodged within us we can never be sons and daughters of God and co-inheritors with Christ of His Kingdom. It is only when we know what we truly are – mud that suffers – that God can begin to make us into something more. True transformation always begins by rejecting the impulses brought on by pride. To begin anywhere else is simply creating a mask for the ego. But masks are inherently false. Masking pride with other virtues won’t make you a child of God any more than masking your breath with gum will make you not drunk. We must live in the Light as it says in the Gospel of John and that Light is Jesus Christ who humbled himself, even to death on the cross, for our sakes. Embrace the lowliness of mud and let God breathe life into you.