Pastoral Guidance for Civic Engagement

by Rev. Dr. Nektarios Eric Morrow

The Good Samaritan

It should go without saying that the current COVID-19 crisis combined with challenging social issues and a contentious political environment is a time for prayerful and meaningful pastoral guidance. We have seen many of our Orthodox hierarchs, leaders, and theologians engage with the challenging issues of our time, both with sincere and substantive reflection as well as guidance from the foundation of our faith in God and our calling to be witnesses of the Gospel.

One timely example has been the publication of For the Life of the World: Toward a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church. Within this document is the reminder that as Christians we are called to be engaged with the world in which we live—to be aware of the needs of those around us, to act in love with sacrifice, and to demonstrate the power of grace through our faith in God. Addressing engagement with some of the greatest needs in our world the authors state:

…It is impossible for the Church truly to follow Christ or to make him present to the world if it fails to place this absolute concern for the poor and disadvantaged at the very center of its moral, religious and spiritual life. The pursuit of social justice and civil equity—provision for the poor and shelter for the homeless, protection for the weak, welcome for the displaced, and assistance for the disabled—is not merely an ethos the Church recommends for the sake of a comfortable conscience, but is a necessary means of salvation, the indispensable path to union with God in Christ. [33]

In addition to acknowledging the mission and ministry directed by our Lord, the document also addresses other means of engagement in our contemporary world. These include the ideal of the Apostolic Church as a divinely ordained model for all human political and social arrangements [6]; that Orthodox Christians who enjoy the advantages of living in countries which have established and uphold civil order, freedom, human rights, and democracy should support these values, and “work for the preservation and extension of democratic institutions and customs within the legal, cultural, and economic frameworks of their respective societies” [10]; that “Christians may and often must participate in the political life of the societies in which they live, but must do so always in service to the justice and mercy of God’s kingdom” [9]; and that “Orthodox Christians must recognize that a language of common social accord, one that insists upon the inviolability of human dignity and freedom, is needed for the preservation and promotion of a just society” [12]. In demonstrating God’s love through our communion with Christ and one another, it is our vocation “not merely to accept—but rather to bless, elevate, and transfigure—this world, so that its intrinsic goodness may be revealed even amidst its fallenness” [4].

We are in the midst of a very challenging environment in which people need direct pastoral guidance in connecting values from the foundation of our faith and our participation in the Eucharistic community to the values that are critical to a thriving society. This is not a call for direct engagement by the Church in the political process, although there are times when the Church has a prophetic role in confronting the ideas, attitudes and structures that devalue life and human potential. Emphasis here is on a vital pastoral ministry that guides the attitudes and actions of Orthodox Christians as they engage individually with governance, policy, and politics: a ministry through preaching, teaching and by example that demonstrates how we as Christians should be engaged with the serious and challenging issues that are before government officials and political leaders—a ministry that connects our faith in Christ, rooted in love and communion with Him, to our manner of engagement in a very polarized and contentious political environment. Making this connection through pastoral ministry moves us closer to understanding and applying an Orthodox Christian social ethos in our contemporary world.              

The need for more focused and applicable pastoral guidance has become very apparent in the current environment. It has also prompted deep reflection on my part  through work over the past few years with the American Democracy Project. This project, sponsored by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, is focused on civic learning and democratic engagement in higher education. It includes many and diverse voices directed at developing pedagogical guidance and tools to help younger generations engage with governance and politics and understand the value of a thriving democracy while envisioning what this can and should be in the future. The seminal document Higher Education’s Role in Enacting a Thriving Democracy states:

In these challenging times for U.S. democracy, when the only sentiments that seem to unite people across party lines are feelings of powerlessness and alienation, higher education must lift up the visionary elements of its civic learning and democratic engagement work and give them renewed creative attention. With new clarity about our highest aspirations, we must develop strategies that can empower everyone as co-creators and co-producers of the thriving democracy we hope to enact and support through our work.

One of the main strategies for this work is the focus on a set of interrelated values: dignity, humanity, decency, honesty, curiosity, imagination, wisdom, courage, community, participation, stewardship, resourcefulness, and hope [9].

This list of values-values that can be a part of a “language of common social accord”—values that have clear biblical and theological foundations and that can be explained both in terms of our faith and in terms of civic engagement—is one example of how we can direct the pastoral, didactic, and homiletical ministries of the Church to a substantive understanding of the relationship of faith to life and offer a witness of how our communion with God guides us in our engagement within a challenging political environment and with critical issues in which government has a substantial role.

As Orthodox Christians, our social ethos has to be relevant to life and experience, especially in the most challenging of times. Our engagement with the world and with governance and politics must be guided and shaped first and foremost by our faith and the attitudes and actions that follow the example of Christ, not by the forces of socialization or rigid adherence to political ideologies. From our great treasure of wisdom and truth we can encourage an environment that engages others in dialog and action from values that are essential in navigating rapid change and complex issues for the health and stability of our society. In making this a focus of pastoral ministry, we are not only guiding people in applying their faith to promote the common good in a very diverse society, but we are also helping others actualize an Orthodox social ethos for the life of the world.

Rev. Dr. Nektarios Eric Morrow is Dean of the College of Liberal and Fine Arts at Tarleton State University in Texas and serves in the Metropolis of Denver of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.