Friday, October 11, 2013

Uncompromised Christian Economic Principles - Part I

Political economy is not a law unto itself.  It too is subject to the laws of God, and, therefore, to the scrutiny of Christ’s Church.

Eastern Christians, having been purified by their terrible sufferings under the Communist yoke, have acquired a deep wisdom in many areas that we would do well to heed.  The realm of economics is no exception.

Here then are portions of an encyclical of the Russian Orthodox Church published in August of the year 2000 (entitled The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church) that deal specifically with economic matters.  Below one will find the wisdom of the Church on issues affecting labor: creativity, the Sabbath, turning the economy and civilization into idols (such as the American Empire has done), what sort of labor is virtuous and what sort not, the just distribution of material goods, etc. 

The other sections of the encyclical touching on economic life will follow in Part II of this series.

But for now, we present Chapter VI of the encyclical, ‘Labor and Its Fruits’ (accessible at this address:

VI.1. Labor is an organic element of human life. The Book of Genesis says that in the beginning “there was not a man to till the ground” (Gen. 2:5). Having created the Garden of Eden, God put man in it “to till it and to care for it” (Gen. 2:15). Labor is the creative fulfillment of man who was called to be the co-creator and co-worker of the Lord by virtue of his original likeness with God. However, after man fell away from the Creator, the nature of his Labor changed: “In the sweat of your face shall you eat bread, until you return to the ground” (Gen. 3:19). The creative component of labor weakened to become mostly a means of sustenance for fallen man.

VI.2. The Word of God does not only draw people’s attention to the need of daily labor, but also sets a special rhythm for it. The fourth commandment reads: “Remember to keep the Sabbath day holy. Six days shall you labor, and do all your work. But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God: that day you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son, your daughter, your servant your maidservant, your cattle, nor the stranger within your gates” (Ex. 20:8-10). By this commandment of the Creator human labor is compared to the divine creative work of making and creating the universe. Indeed, the commandment to observe the Sabbath is substantiated by the fact that in the creation “God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it, because on that day He rested from all the work which He created and made” (Gen. 2:3). This day should be dedicated to the Lord so that everyday chores may not divert man from the Creator. At the same time, the active manifestations of charity and selfless aid to one’s neighbors- are not violations of the commandment: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath (1~1k. 2:27). In Christian tradition, the first day of the week, the day of the Resurrection of Christ, has been a day of rest since apostolic times.

VI.3. The improvement of the tools and methods of labor, its division into professions and the move to more complex forms contribute to better material living standards. However, people’s enticement with the achievements of civilization moves them away from the Creator and leads to an imaginary triumph of reason that seeks to arrange earthly life without God. The realization of such aspirations in human history has always ended in tragedy.

Holy Scriptures relates that the first builders of earthly civilization were Cain’s successors: Lamech and his children invented and made the first copper and iron tools, movable tents and various musical instruments; they were also the founders of many skills and arts (Gen. 4:22). However, they and many other people with them failed to avoid temptations: “all men lived corrupt lives on earth” (Gen. 6:12). Therefore, the Creator willed that the civilization of Cain be ended with a flood. Among the most vivid biblical images of the failure of fallen humanity “to make a name for itself’ is the construction of the Tower of Babel “whose top may reach to heaven.” The Tower of Babel is presented as a symbol of people joining efforts to achieve an ungodly goal. The Lord punishes arrogant men: by confusing their tongues He makes understanding among them impossible and scatters them throughout the earth.

VI.4. From a Christian perspective, labor in itself is not an absolute value. It is blessed when it represents co-working with the Lord and contributing to the realization of His design for the world and mankind. However, labor is not something pleasing to God if it is intended to serve the ego-centered interests of the individual or human communities, and to meet the sinful needs of the spirit and the flesh.

Holy Scriptures points to two moral motives of labor: work to sustain oneself without being a burden for others, and work to give to the needy. The Apostle writes: “Let him labor, working with his hands that which is good, so he may have to give to him who is in need” (Eph. 4:28). Such labor cultivates the soul and strengthens the body and enables the Christian to express his faith in God-pleasing works of charity and love of his neighbor (Mt. 5:16; James 2:17). Everyone remembers the words of St. Paul: “If any would not work, neither should he eat” (2 Thess. 3:10).

The Fathers and Doctors of the Church continuously stressed the moral meaning of labor. Thus, St. Clement of Alexandria described it as “a school of social justice.” St. Basil the Great argued that “a pious intention should not be a pretext for idleness and evasion from work, but rather an incentive for even more work.” St. John Chrysostom insisted that “not labor, but idleness should be regarded as dishonor.” Monks in many monasteries gave an example of laborious asceticism. Their economic activity was in many ways an example for emulation, while the founders of major monasteries were renowned not only as high spiritual authorities but also great toilers. Well known are such models of zealous work as the Venerable Theodosius of Pechory, Sergius of Radonezh, Cyril of White Lake, Joseph of Volotsk, Nil of Sora and other Russian ascetics.

VI.5. The Church blesses every work aimed to benefit people. At the same time, she does not give preference to any form of human work if it conforms to Christian moral standards. In His parables, our Lord Jesus Christ keeps referring to various professions, without singling out any of them. He speaks of the work of a sower (W. 4:3-9), servants and the ruler of a household (Lk. 12:42-48), a merchant and fishermen (Mt. 13:4548), the householder and laborers of a vineyard (Mt. 20:1-16). Modem times, however, have seen the emergence of a whole industry intended to propagate vice and sin and satisfy such pernicious passions and addictions as drinking, drug-addiction, fornication and adultery. The Church testifies to the sin of being involved in such activities as they corrupt not only workers, but also society as a whole.

VI.6. A worker has the right to use the fruits of his labor: “Who plants a vineyard, and does not eat of its fruits? Who feeds a flock, and does not drink the milk of the flock?... He who plows should plow in hope; and he who threshes in hope should be a partaker of his hope” (I Cor. 9:7, 10). The Church teaches that refusal to pay for honest work is not only a crime against man, but also a sin before God.

Holy Scripture says: “You shall not oppress a hired servant... At his day you shall give him his pay... lest he cry against you to the Lord, and it be sinful to you” (Deut. 24:14-15); “Woe to him... who uses his neighbor’s services without wages, and does not give him anything for his work” (Jer. 22:13); “Indeed, the wages of the laborers who reaped your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth” (James 5:4).

At the same time, by God’s command those who work are ordered to take care of those who for various reasons cannot earn their living, such as the weak, the sick, strangers (refugees), orphans and widows. The worker should share the fruits of his work with them, “that the Lord may bless you in all the work of your hands” (Deut. 24:19-22).

Continuing on earth the service of Christ Who identified Himself with the destitute, the Church always comes out in defense of the voiceless and powerless. Therefore, she calls upon society to ensure the equitable distribution of the fruits of labor, in which the rich support the poor, the healthy the sick, the able-bodied the elderly. The spiritual welfare and survival of society are possible only if the effort to ensure life, health and minimal welfare for all citizens becomes an indisputable priority in distributing material resources.

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