ADDRESS By His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to the Salvation Army (December 6, 2018)
Beloved Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Having journeyed to your beautiful and hospitable country from the historic See of Constantinople—the headquarters of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the “Mother Church of Christ’s poor”—it is with joy that we accepted the gracious invitation of the esteemed leaders of the Salvation Army to participate in the inauguration of this blessed initiative to provide economic relief for the poor, broken and humbled members of our society. We truly appreciate all of your efforts on behalf of these the least of our brethren, and we wholeheartedly commend you for your selfless dedication and sincere desire to help them.
We find ourselves today serving witness to an exponential increase in the social problem of poverty, and an ensuing, ever-growing and dangerous expansion of the gap between the rich and poor. It is well- known that global poverty cannot be solved by political or social systems. It can only be solved by addressing the roots that perpetually feed it—human avarice and the insatiable desire for greater earthly pleasures, which in and of themselves constitute idolatry! (Col. 3:5)
Indeed, a rich person is not someone who accumulates riches, but rather someone who is content with moderation. A poor person is not someone who has very little, but someone who desires plenty. Saint Basil says, “poor is he, who needs a lot. Voracity makes us believe that we need a lot.” The question is, then, how can the thirst for quick and easy profit, as well as illicit enrichment, be replaced by the ascetic spirit of frugality and moderation?
The Holy Fathers of the one, undivided Church of the first millennium, as true shepherds of the Church, endeavored to provide answers to the great social challenges of their time. Through the special charisma granted to them by God, they ceaselessly preached the Gospel’s word and truth; they possessed a resolute stance that was marked by an expression of true love for their poor, underprivileged and disregarded neighbors.
If the Church Fathers were alive today, there is no doubt that they would vigorously preach about our major social problems, such as poverty, human trafficking, the destruction of the natural environment, terrorism and violence, all of which, in turn, help to intensify the contemporary refugee crisis. Social injustice and the imbalanced distribution of material goods in the world are truly the source of all evil!
Therefore, in an age where the lack of true love is enormous—since so many people believe not in the God of Love but in Mammon—the word of the Church must be directed towards helping humanity find the path of true humanism and social justice. The economic theory of short-term profit and unfair competition must be replaced by the law of love, which “does not seek its own” (1 Cor.13:5) and always gives priority to the value of the human person. Instead of greed and avarice, which constitute the root “of all evil” (1 Tim. 6:10) and are based in unfaithfulness to God and His providence for our world, greater emphasis must be placed on ascetic morale, as it is proclaimed in the Good News of the Gospel.
According to Christian teaching, the ascetic way of life (i.e. to live simply and frugally) is not derived from a Manichaeistic contempt for material goods. On the contrary, it is derived out of respect and love for the creation of God. The effort to live by only what it is necessary and not by luxury or waste is based on two motives:
First, it is based on our love and care for the needs of other people. For example, let us say that you only need a house with three rooms but instead choose live in a house with ten rooms. By doing this, you deprive the homeless from the other seven rooms. “The bread you have in your hands belongs to the hungry; the extra clothes you keep in your closet belong to the naked; the shoes that are rotting in your cupboards belong to the barefooted; the money that you have been amassing belongs to the needy. As you can see, what you do is an injustice to as many people as you can help.”
Second, an ascetic way of life is absolutely necessary for the protection of the environment and the preservation of our sources of energy. If, today, we were to consume all of the earth’s natural resources, then what would be left for the generations of tomorrow?
Furthermore, we would like to add that through an ascetic way of life, our humanity will also be preserved, since we will break away from our egocentric tendencies and, in turn, see to the vital needs of our neighbor and not to our own superfluous desires. Therefore, only an ascetic way of life will help to preserve the natural environment, which is constantly threatened by our selfish greed and thus, in danger of being completely destroyed.
It is a fact that greed, luxury, opulence and avarice are, indeed, incompatible with the teaching of Christ. How can a wealthy Christian justify his wealth when there are so many poor around him? How can we justify the fact that while half of the human population of the earth is starving, a significant amount of the other half is practicing a slimming diet? Saint James, in his Universal Epistle, addresses the hard-hearted and merciless rich—who are indifferent to the plight of millions of poor people suffering from hunger—with the following words: “Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire, and while the crisis is near, you have heaped up treasure.” (James 5:3)
When the day of death arrives—a natural phenomenon that makes no distinction between the wealthy and poor—what will those who, through their personal greed, amassed vast amounts of earthly treasures and distributed nothing to those in need take with them to the afterlife? Absolutely nothing. They will not even be able to take their own body with them, which is the most personal possession of every human being. They will leave it here on earth, and it will become a part of the soil; for, “wealth is not transported with us, nor does it travel on the journey to eternity.”
Christ teaches us that any assistance we give to a neighbor in need is actually assistance to Him. “I affirm to you that inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” (Mt. 25:40) For this reason, seventeen centuries ago, Saint Gregory the Theologian, our blessed predecessor and Archbishop of Constantinople, urged us to apply the virtue of charity as follows:
So for as long as there is time, then,
let us visit Christ;
let us take care of Him;
let us pick Him up and put Him up;
let us honor Him ...
through those who are in need;
through those who are currently in a terrible position;
so that they may welcome us in the heavenly kingdom,
when we leave this world and go to our Lord Jesus Christ.
Poverty would not exist in our world if we followed the teachings of Christ and His Church. Unfortunately, though, poverty does exist, and it will continue to do so as long as we do not understand that material goods are provided by God and are to be shared by everyone. Poverty will continue as long as there is a surplus of wealth and a lack of love. Poverty will still exist as long as the ideal of social equality is not based on the belief that we are all equal before God the Father, and that we are all equal as brothers and sisters. Thus, the things that we have received from God do not only belong to us, but they also belong to all of those around us who are in need. This is the only way for equality to prevail. This is the path that Christ has drawn and, in all certainty, can lead us towards the solution of this social problem.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
We join you today because it is our deep conviction that all people of goodwill, as we proclaimed during the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church in Crete (June 2016), should cooperate in “overcoming hunger and all other forms of deprivation in the world. One such phenomenon in our time—whereby nations operate within a globalized economic system—points to the world’s serious identity crisis, for hunger not only threatens the divine gift of life of whole peoples, but also offends the lofty dignity and sacredness of the human person, while simultaneously offending God. Therefore, if concern over our own sustenance is a material issue, then concern over feeding our neighbor is a spiritual issue (James 2:14-18). Consequently, it is the mission of all Orthodox Churches to exhibit solidarity and administer assistance effectively to those in need.” (The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World, F:5)
Please permit us to underscore, then—with much paternal love to all of you—that our charity should, first and foremost, be addressed to our brothers and sisters in North Korea. Purely for humanitarian reasons alone, we must strive to protect our neighbors and, in particular, the young children in North Korea, who are dying from hunger due to the embargo that has been placed on their country. And so, we call upon the mighty and influential individuals in today’s world—something which we, of course, promise to also raise in our discussions and communications with the political personalities of the Western world—to come up with alternative ways of imposing sanctions for violations of international regulations, so that the deprivation of food, medicines and other primary necessities may be avoided. If peace is, indeed, achieved in the Korean Peninsula—a joyous reality for which we all ceaselessly pray and earnestly desire—but, in the meantime, thousands of innocent victims perish in order to procure it, then, this would be a wounded and blood-soaked peace. Hence, we must proclaim unto the ends of the earth that the protection of human rights in North Korea and, most especially, the rights of children, are a matter of top priority.
Therefore, dearly beloved, in the collection of love, which the Salvation Army organizes every year throughout the world, let each of us “give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or [out] of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Cor. 9:7) “Let brotherly love continue.” (Heb. 13:1) May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the infinite love of the all-merciful God be with you all. Amen.
Thank you for your kind attention.