BY MONICA MIKHAIL
“The hungry are perishing, the naked are freezing to death, the debtors are unable to breathe, and will you put off showing mercy until tomorrow?”
– On Social Justice, Saint Basil the Great
The celebration of the Eucharist—union with Christ by partaking in His Body and Blood—was central to the identity of the early Christian community. The Mystery of the Eucharist, which means ‘thanksgiving’ in Greek, extended beyond its immediate celebration and permeated all facets of the early Christian life. The early Christian community attained a deeper understanding of the reality of the world by their continuous participation in the sacramental life of the Church. Through the liturgy of the Eucharist, they were able to see beyond the ephemeral nature of the present world and experience a taste of the everlasting Kingdom. Because the early Christian community centered itself around this mystery, they could not neglect the social injustices within their society. They strived to have their community and society mirror the complete flourishing in the age to come by addressing social needs despite this world’s temporality. They attempted to create an image of the Kingdom here on earth. A new and radical mode of living resulted from this awareness of their unity with Christ and each other through their communal participation in this mystery.
The early Church actively responded to social injustices by taking on the responsibility of affirming the image of God in marginalized individuals who were outcast by the Roman Empire as well as those who suffered from natural disasters. Although early Christians were not to blame for the suffering caused by social, institutionalized, and systematic oppression or the devastation caused by natural disasters, they felt obligated to tend to not only the spiritual, but bodily needs of the people whether or not they were part of the Christian community.
During a period of famine that followed a severe drought, Saint Basil of Caesarea, a 4th century Church Father, delivered a series of homilies that urged the Christian community in Caesarea to sympathize and tend to the desperate situations of their community. He zealously emphasized the ephemerality of this present materialistic world, in an attempt to encourage his congregants not to withhold anything from those who were in need. Because the community was founded upon an interconnectedness that stretches beyond a familial unit, Basil condemned himself and the Christian community of theft if they did not express love and generosity by their actions:
“When someone steals another’s clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.”
For Basil, it was not enough simply to hope and believe in the age to come. The Mystery of the Eucharist had practical implications on the way they conducted their lives in every lived moment. In the same way that early Christians submitted their life to God by partaking of the Eucharist, they were called to submit daily to God by continuously giving from their material wealth that was gifted to them by God for the profit of everyone.
By investing in a life that continues beyond the life on this earth, the early Christian community approached the materiality of the world in a detached manner. They were mere sojourners passing a short while on this earth. Their possessions meant nothing ultimately. Although the Church was not the source of the injustices in their community, they believed those who were wasteful or did not give freely exacerbated the suffering of others. In that sense, they were guilty of theft as well as communing with the dying world as if earthly possessions would not, too, wither away. Failing to display the free and generous love of Christ by giving away what He gave them indicated a lack of hope in God, the Church, and the world to come.
Saint John Chrysostom, a contemporary of Basil, vocalized similar sentiments regarding the Church’s appropriate response to social injustice. John Chrysostom was, however, more explicit in tracing suffering wrought by the state as an institutional manifestation of the people’s spiritual disease. He took a critical spiritual approach to analyzing social phenomena and ascertaining its implications on the Christian community and society at large. John Chrysostom presented practicing social justice as an individual responsibility and liability in regards to communion with the God and the Church. In For the Life of the World, Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann makes this connection more explicit: “For one who thinks food in itself is the source of life, eating is the communion with the dying world, it is communion with death. Food itself is dead, it is life that has died and it must be kept in refrigerators like a corpse.” For early Christians, one either communes with Life or death within the world. Practicing social justice was a literal manifestation of a commitment made to God, the Church and the Life of the world amidst the presence of death.
By participating in the celebration of the Eucharist, the early Christian community was expected to practice social justice and alleviate the suffering of others by practicing sacrificial self-giving. They were encouraged to give, in the words of St. Paul, “beyond their ability,” often out of their own poverty. Neglecting the despair of those inside and outside their Christian community showed an investment in the fading and lackluster world full of empty pleasures. But they were called to another world, and their giving was to be a manifestation of that faith.
The Apostle Paul rebuked the Corinthians for the injustice present in their celebration of the Eucharist. When early Christians congregated together in the same place, commonly known as church, they partook in the mystery and distributed resources amongst each other. However, Paul hears that in the gathering of the Corinthians, not everyone is treated equally so he rebukes them for their un-Christian behavior: “For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing?” By breaking communion with each other through their misconduct, they undermined their union in the body of Christ.
To invest in the world was to divest from God and actively refuse communion with the Church in Him through the Eucharist. The early Christian community invested in God and the life to come by responding to injustices within society by offering their material possessions for the comfort of others. They did so precisely because they knew all too well that this is exactly what Christ has done on their behalf. The early Church valued the poor, encouraged the rich to give and, more importantly, found worth in every individual whether or not they belonged to the Church. They presented a radical way of living by offering witness to the humanity in all people constituted by God while existing in a world that forgot its poor, lowly, and sick. Practicing social justice reached its most complete and perfect form in the celebration of the Eucharist — the celebration of God in Christ giving himself for the wellbeing of the world, and the church followed suit in giving itself for the sake of the world.
- Basil of Caesarea; Schroeder, C. Paul. On Social Justice. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 2009. Print.
- Schmemann, Alexander. For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1973. Print.
- 1 Corinthians 21-22
Monica Mikhail studies English Literature and Integrative Biology at UC Berkeley. She enjoys binge-reading, reveling in the company of others, and investing in short-lasting hobbies.