Inequality: Orthodox Christian Responses and Limitations
Equality is a core idea and value of modernity. Yet contemporary societies are marked by multiple forms of inequality, for instance, socioeconomic and gender ones. What is the attitude of the Orthodox Church towards inequality? Do unequal relations exist within the Church too, and if yes, how does it address them?
No doubt, Orthodox churches develop rich and multifaceted philanthropic activities to palliate the consequences of inequalities and also condemn forms of exploitation as violation of the sacredness of the human person. However, I wish to argue that a number of factors do not permit the Church to develop a more activist attitude that would go beyond verbal condemnation and traditional philanthropy.
First, the structural position of the Church in the existing system, particularly in countries where the Church functions as a close ally of the state, makes it objectively difficult for church officials to challenge state policies that produce new or deepen established forms of inequality. The role of the Church in Greece during the period of the serious Greek debt crisis is a case in point: although it criticized neoliberalism, it nevertheless offered crucial support and legitimacy to the political authorities, which imposed austerity measures that increased poverty and inequality (see my article here).
Second, the theological perception of the injustices in the world as a tragic yet expected physical consequence of the fallen state of existence neutralizes activism. Of course, such injustices are being denounced. However, an overemphasis on the Orthodox values of sacrifice and repentance can formulate a practical ethos of passive acceptance of the misfortunes, for instance, as a kind of divine pedagogy necessary for the final salvation, according to the paradigm of the holy passion of Jesus Christ. Seen in this light, the development of activism against inequality may jeopardize salvation itself, as it will entangle the believer and the Church in the “dirty” domain of politics, which is driven by the logic of violence and not of love. The final overcoming of inequalities is thus basically transposed to an outer and otherworldly realm.
Another key factor is a fear of radical changes caused by an essentialist perception of tradition and a mechanistic attachment to an idealized past. From such an attitude two main consequences flow. First, an atrophy of any creative imagination, as one does not dare to think outside of the box, namely outside of what is considered to be sacred tradition. As a result, the Church follows the beaten track of issuing statements of condemnation against excessive inequality or of urging governments for a fairer distribution of burdens, reassuring the faithful that total equality will be achieved in the eschaton. Second, a negation of the idea that there is unequal distribution of power in the Church, for hierarchy and authority are understood and legitimized as modes of pastoral care that reflect the relational structure of the Kingdom of God.
The issue of gender equality in the Church is a prime example in this respect. As is well known, the church administration in Orthodoxy is exclusively male dominated, as women cannot be ordained priests. This institutionalized practice of exclusion is justified with reference to holy tradition and biology: Jesus Christ was born as a man; he chose only men to serve as Apostles; priesthood is not a mere position of employment, but a sacred ministry; women serve in the Church from other positions, without this implying or imposing to them any inferior status; woman’s nature and role are extolled in the Church through the person of Holy Virgin—to mention but a few of such arguments (see here, in Greek).
Even women themselves conform to such traditional gender roles, for they have internalized the idea and belief that everyone (according to his/her specific charisma attributed by God) contributes with a specific role to the common Church life, as is the case with the different organs of the human body. As a priest’s wife has stated: “Priesthood in Orthodoxy is not an ecclesiastical job […] but it is a Mystery institutionalized by Jesus Christ himself and given by Him only to the Apostles and to the continuators of their work, the Men-Clerics.” Although it is argued that this hardly signifies a devaluation of women, it is the man who is considered to be the provider of the “holy-spiritual life,” whereas the woman is the par excellence provider of the “biological life.” As a result, although the woman’s presence and contribution in today’s workplace are acknowledged, the ideal places for her remain the family and the parish, where she can undertake the mission to give birth and to facilitate in philanthropic activities, respectively.
It might be objected that the famous statement of Apostle Paul (“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” Galatians 3:28), is a proof that national, social, and even biological differences lose their meaning and, more importantly, the power to establish inequality. This is because they are being absorbed by the broader category of “Christ,” which provides a common identity, that of the Christian. However, the problems arise when under this perspective the Orthodox believer regards equality as a condition solely within the ecclesiastical realm in abstract theological or eschatological terms. In that case, forms of structural inequality in factual terms that exist not only outside (i.e., in society at large), but also inside the Church walls are left unchallenged.
It is not accidental that Orthodox Christianity has historically not constituted a fertile ground for the development of bottom-up activism, one that would strive for radical changes both within the Church and in the socio-political domain. To illustrate this with some recent examples from two churches, which—aside from important differences—operate with a hierarchical structure. The numerous cases of sexual abuses in the Catholic Church in Germany have triggered a dynamic women’s reform movement known as “Maria 2.0,” which—among other things—strives for women access to “all church functions” (“zu allen Ämtern“) by invoking both human rights as a legal (equal rights) frame and the non-discriminatory message of Jesus Christ (see the theses of the movement and an open letter to Pope Francis). In the case of the Orthodox Church of Greece, the scandals in the church during the 2005 crisis, although they shattered the Greek public opinion, did not lead the faithful to become involved in any reform movement.
Of course, Orthodox Christianity is not homogeneous. Within every Orthodox church there are also clerical and lay actors who critically reflect on traditional beliefs and practices, motivated by a desire to bring the Church and theology into a constructive dialogue with modernity and the secular world—an attitude that in Western Christianity has long ago been developed, albeit not without internal conflicts. A characteristic example is the publication of a new social document entitled “For the Life of the World: Towards a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church,” drafted by an international (mostly US) committee of Orthodox theologians and clergymen under the auspices of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. This document adopts moderately liberal yet critical positions on various contemporary ethical and socio-political issues: for instance, on cultural and social pluralism, human rights, sexuality, debt relief, and wealth distribution (for an analytical presentation, see Makrides 2020). No doubt, this document reflects progressive values of members of the Orthodox Church, who possess high intellectual capital and mainly operate in international multicultural and multi-ethnic environments. However, on the issue of gender equality in the church, even these actors do not move beyond the proposal of the “revitalization” of the historical female order of the deaconesses. The choice of wording in the document (“revitalization,” ‘”renewal”) vividly reveals the difficulty of introducing a new practice in the Orthodox Church that is not grounded in its time-honored tradition. After all, the term “innovation” usually evokes negative connotations among the Orthodox.
To recap, the structural position of the Church in the state as well as the conceptualization of tradition and of the human condition are some of the key factors that influence the degree and extent of the Church’s attitude towards inequality. Put schematically, churches that hold a privileged position in the state (particularly their dominant constituent groups) and those actors who perceive of tradition rather statically and of inequality as an unavoidable feature of the fallen human nature tend to criticize only the most extreme forms of inequality, but without actually challenging the system that produces them. As regards the unequal relations within the ecclesiastical domain itself, they either undermine their importance or totally ignore them. Misrecognition, to use a famous Bourdieuian term, plays here a crucial role.
On the other hand, clerical and lay actors who perceive of tradition in a dynamic way and are active in international multicultural and multi-ethnic environments or, at least, have a contact with such contexts, are more open to reflect critically on the structural causes of inequality and search for contemporary solutions that are inspired by the core beliefs of Orthodoxy. It bears mention that, although they may support more liberal values, they have no problem calling themselves simultaneously “traditionalists” (see here). This self-presentation, apart from demonstrating the problematic character of the absolute liberal/traditionalist dichotomy, may also be a strategy to repel the accusation made by their opponents that they are moving beyond the sacred tradition, accommodating the Church to the secular spirit of the times.
There is no doubt that in their attempt to implement their own vision for the Church, the latter actors develop and promote a public discourse that criticizes the dominant ethno-religious and institutional perception of the Orthodox Church. However, it is doubtful whether their perspective will prevail without a change of the existing social conditions that render various strata of the faithful prone to endorsing the ethno-religious schemata of thought as natural, normal, and legitimate. In any case, it seems quite reasonable to assume that the struggle over competing visions about the position and role of the Church in today’s plural world will be further intensified in the years to come.
Dr. Efstathios Kessareas is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Faculty of Philosophy (Department of Religious Studies – Chair of Orthodox Christianity) of the University of Erfurt. He received his PhD in Sociology from the University of Crete and his Master’s degree in Development and Religious Studies from the University of Leeds. This paper is part of the research project “The Challenge of Worldliness to Contemporary Christianity: Orthodox Christian Perspectives in Dialogue with Western Christianity.”