Humanitarianism and Orthodoxy – a theological reflection

The Problem: the world (and humanity) groans in agony

It’s a hard world.  It chews people up, divides them, deprives them, hurts them, and does its best to take away their hope.  It does its best to demean and dehumanize them.  We have all seen this and we are here because we want to do a better job helping all the world’s casualties, victims, and collaborators. 

One of the problems is that it has done a number on us, as well; and this hampers our ability to help in ways both obvious and subtle.  We ourselves are both victims of and collaborators with the world; we ourselves need healing and the ability to absolve and distance ourselves from evil.  This is not easy, but by the grace of God, bringing comfort and succor to others works all sides of the problem.  

Let me explain by going to the beginning.  Literally.

Right now, to paraphrase the Apostle Paul, the world “groans in agony” (Romans 8:22) and is so much the realm of the Evil One and has been so perverted by the effects of sin that Christ Himself, along with the Apostle Paul and St. John the Theologian, use “the world” (gr. kosmos) as a stand in for wickedness (e.g. St John 12:31; Ephesians 2:2; 1 John 2:15) and all those who yoke themselves to it.  But this was not always the case. 

One of the fundamental truths taught in Genesis 1 is that creation was “very good” in the beginning and that humanity was created as its “very good” steward.  As its steward, made in the image of God, humanity was given both power and responsibility.  The power was that creation was blessed by its presence and attention; the responsibility was to care for it as God Himself did and does.  The world was designed to respond to humanity, and humanity was designed to be an ontological blessing to the world.  But we failed in our responsibility; we decided to represent ourselves rather than God and we fell from grace.  Our ability to bless the world was compromised; it still responded to us, but we were as much a curse as a blessing.  Genesis 3:17-19 describes how we became a curse to the world, it would offer up brambles and we would have to work hard for every scrap of bread.  The miracle of new life itself would be accomplished only with pain. 

It is the accumulation of such curses both intentional and unintentional that makes the world “groan in agony” and look forward to a better time.  And please note that  humanity is itself a part of the kosmos; we do not just hurt the world when we sin, we further damage humanity itself.  The results of this downward spiral are obvious to everyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. 

Please do not misunderstand; it is not that all people mean to damage the world and cause harm to others.  It seems to me that most people are just trying to do the best they can given their circumstances and their understanding of those circumstances.  But the fact of Genesis 3 cannot be ignored: even when we do something that seems good, there are consequences – what economists and political scientists call “negative externalities” – that cause harm.  Every action is a compromise.  Every thing we do is bound up in sin; nothing we do is perfect in every consequence.  Everything misses the mark one way or another.

If I am exaggerating, it isn’t by much.  I can only think of a handful of things we can do in this world that do not bring up spiritual or material brambles along with the good fruit we desire.   To paraphrase Romans 7:18; we have the will to do good within us, but we just cannot get it done.  The Apostle Paul is mainly speaking about the way imperfect understanding and “the flesh” hamper our efforts, but even a perfect intellect would find it nigh impossible to do unmitigated good without remaking the world (which is the end plan of The Perfect Intellect, the Logos)!

The Solution: The Messiah and the Mystery of Theophany

This is the dilemma that post-Genesis 3 humanity is stuck in.  Humanity has been damaged and dehumanized, but when we try to fix this condition – or even ameliorate its most severe effects, we are hindered by our own compromised humanity.  It is impossible to “lift oneself up by one’s bootstraps” (except, perhaps, in the short term).

The Old Testament diagnoses this problem, then offers the coming of God the Messiah as the remedy.  He would be the one that would bring life to the cursed “desert lands” and healing to the wounded. 

For instance, in Isaiah (35:4-10; KJV) we read:

Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear not: behold, your God will come with vengeance, even God with a recompence; He will come and save you.

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped.

Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing: for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert.

And the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water: in the habitation of dragons, where each lay, shall be grass with reeds and rushes.

And an highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called ‘The way of holiness’; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it shall be for those: the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein.

No lion shall be there, nor any ravenous beast shall go up thereon, it shall not be found there; but the redeemed shall walk there:

And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Jesus Christ is the “New Adam”, the “New Human” (if I may be so bold), the one who has the effect on creation that the old Adam perverted; but who has it in infinite abundance.  Grace flows from Him as from a fountain; His “Living Water” nourishes and blesses everyone and everything in His presence.  When we put away the “old man” in favor of the new, when we “put on Christ” – through Baptism and every other Mystery of the Church – we are restoring our own relationship with creation and our ability to minister to one another.  The implications for humanitarian work are amazing. 

But wait, there’s more!  Adding the theology of the Church as Christ’s Body

In seminary, it’s hard to teach everything at once, so we end up segmenting and systematizing theology.  When we teach the above at St. Sophia’s we call it the “Spirituality of Theophany.”  The Psalms and hymns of Theophany describe how evil and corruption flee from the presence of Christ in the water, and how He blesses the water and imbues it with grace (e.g. “The Jordan turned back!” Psalm 113/4:3).

But despite how we teach it, the mystery of Theophany cannot really be separated from everything else that is good and true.  When we see and celebrate the “Spirituality of Theophany” along with the “Spirituality of the Church”, the ramifications for our ministry of healing become especially strong.

When we study the Old Testament and scholarship of it, we see that there is a close association between the Messiah and Israel.  While this can lead to disagreements between scholars and theologians about whether a given piece of scripture is prophetically treating the Messiah or Israel – as when we interpret the beautiful “suffering servant” references of Isaiah 52-54 – it obscures a more fundamental reality: the Messiah and His people Israel are meant to be together.  This reality is perfectly realized in the relationship between Jesus the Messiah (the Christ) and His Body, the Church.  This corporate reality means that it isn’t just that every human has the opportunity to restore his and her relationship with others and with creation, but that this opportunity is offered for the restoration of the human race.  To put it another way, Christ the “New Adam” is not just the “New Human”, but the head of the restored and grace-filled “New Humanity”. 

Implications for Humanitarian Work

There is a common adage that you cannot offer others something you yourself do not have.   Of course it is true that we must have resources and skills if we hope to food, clothe, and train others; but there is a more fundamental truth here: we must become human if we – individually and collectively – are to help restore the broken humanity of others.  The New Adam is the one who is truly dignified, and it is in Him and through Him that the dignity of others can most fully be realized.  So how do we do that?  How do we join the Body of the New Adam?  My plan here is to leave aside the formal requirements – the things that are most commonly dealt with in catechisms and parish life – in favor of the work we must do and with which this colloquium is most concerned. 

To be Human, We Must Help Those in Need

Jesus Christ summed up the requirements of the good life as one given over to the love of God and the love of neighbor (e.g. St. Matthew 22:36-40).  He spells out the love of neighbor, not just in the parable of the Good Samaritan, but in His comparison of the life and rewards of the good vs. the evil servant (St. Matthew25:31-46).  We are required to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit those in prison, and so on.  It is through this kind of kenotic service that we become more human. 

Do you see the wonderful economics of this?  We become more human – more like the New Adam – as we heal and help others.  Nor does the dynamic stop there: those who are touched by the healing grace of the New Adam are then called and expected to join Him in bringing comfort and healing to others.  Instead of the downward spiral of the fall, we have the opportunity to participate in an upward one that sweeps of all of creation in its motion.  This movement is not perfectly realized here and now – although we have all experienced its miraculous first fruits – but certainly will be in the age to come.

To be Human Means Dealing Directly with Others

When we try to distill the salvific work of Christ to a set of transactions we miss out on the reality of His work.  For instance, some make the case that the essence of the economy of salvation is to be found in His blameless offering on the Cross; others would add the necessity of the Resurrection, others would focus attention on the very act of His taking flesh.  But salvation – that is to say the raising up of fallen humanity to the status of heirs of God’s kingdom – is a holistic act and we lack the ability to understand it in its fullness, much less the ability to play intellectual Jenga with all its parts.  For instance, it is silly to imagine Jesus Christ living in isolation from His people.  It was love that drove Him to empty Himself for us, and that love assumes and requires personal interaction.  His healing ministry was not in the community of others and in intimate contact with them.  Even the supposed exception of those done at a distance were done with in the presence of intercessors and as part of a community (see St. John 4:46-54) who were intimately connected with those healed.   Face to face conversations, sharing food at the same table, and providing a comforting touch and healing ministrations with our own hands is so much more powerful than doing it through more sterile intermediaries. 

To be Human is to Work towards the Restoration of Unity

Humanity is meant to have a corporate identity.  The Messiah provides the way to restore the unity that was fractured in the garden and institutionalized at the destruction of the Tower of Babel when we were divided into nations.  Through Him, all can be gathered into a single people with Him as their head.  As Saints Peter and Paul (echoing Deuteronomy 10:17) put it; “God is not a respecter of persons.” (e.g. Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11) There are two implications that I would like to cover, both witnessed to by Christ’s ministry and the ministry of His Apostles. 

 The first implication I would like to cover is that we are required to help the broken person God puts in our path, even if he is not like us.  Again the Good Samaritan provides a starting point: we do not only help people like us (or people from whom we expect to receive reward), but even those our culture teaches we should ignore or despise.  Christ is very straightforward with this, even associating it with the way it helps restore our own humanity:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.  But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;  That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for He maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.  For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?  And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?  Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.  (St. Matthew 5:43-48)

The command to love our enemies is a difficult one.  I will deal with one of its more subtle challenges later [below].  However, the challenge is clear: we to help those in need, period.  What does the Logos have in common with us?  And yet He makes every sacrifice so that we might be healed.

The second implication is that, we should work together to bring healing to our neighbor; not just with those who look or talk like us, but with everyone who desires to serve.  At times, this can seem even more difficult than loving our enemies; after all, it is one thing to help someone and quite another to work with him.  This kind of action often has great potential for “unintended consequences”, and so that must be weighed out (see, for example, St. Matthew 10 when Jesus tells His disciples to be careful of the allies they make and to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves”). 

The mutual work that we propose to encourage with this symposium carries little danger and many compelling benefits; most notably, we witness to the unity God desires, we grow in the unity God desires, and we do the kind of work God requires more effectively.  

Being Human Means Loving Your Enemy

This is hard when your enemy is causing obvious harm to the people you are trying to serve.  I talked about this earlier in the context of helping those outside our groups, but I want to treat a subtler dimension of this. One of my most interesting jobs for the intelligence community was diagnosing why we missed 9/11 and then committed the opposite error with WMD in Iraq.  It seems that we – individually and collectively – are set up for failure when it comes to understanding and forecasting political and military events.  Unfortunately, we don’t suddenly find rationality when the domain changes to moral decision-making.  This makes it hard to live the life Christ called us to. 

When you love someone, you are longsuffering towards their actions and charitable towards their intentions.  In our fallenness, we are not wired to be empathetic towards our enemies; we are continually tempted to dehumanize and demonize them.  Moreover, our selection of “enemies” is not just – or even primarily – driven by events; it, like much of our moral decision-making, is often visceral and pre-cognitive, with what scientists call the “slow” or “system two” (to use Kahneman’s terminology) along to provide post-hoc arguments for why these people are our enemies.  Moreover, this process is done in such a way that we actually believe our identification of our enemies was driven entirely by reason.  The ability to create avatars – or icons – of people within our minds (and to love them in our hearts even when apart) is one of our greatest gifts; it allows us to work well with and serve others by giving us the ability to anticipate their concerns and needs.  But how we use that gift is important.  Too often, we use it to stage puppet shows in our imaginations with the people our instincts have designated as enemies serving as the evil villains.  We don’t just replay what they have done wrong in the past, we create new scenarios to further justify our malice.  This is what we call “forecasting.”

I am not so naïve to believe that there are no dangerous people with wicked intentions in the world; of course there are.  But motives are funny things; we consistently overestimate their roles in other people’s actions (while underplaying the role of circumstance and misinformation) while doing the opposite for ourselves and our (instinctively-selected) allies.  Moreover, it is next to impossible to get the kind of objective data that would allow us to make rational decisions about who is really responsible for a given action and why.  The point here is that we have to be humble when trying to discern other people’s motives and, if possible, avoid situations where getting such discernment correct is vital to the success of our efforts. 

What might this mean for humanitarian work?  It seems to me that it provides another reason to help people with our own hands and enable them to do the same.  We seek out and serve those who have been damaged by the world.  We recognize the hurt – pain is not hard to discern, even when we do not fully understand its causes.  There is little need to place blame when we are healing with our hands; it is when we move towards advocating political solutions that the proper placing of blame becomes important.  Unfortunately, it is also when it is the most difficult to be done objectively.  When it comes to this, only those with great – or little – humility can place blame rationally. 


I would like to finish with two, more controversial points.

The first goes back to the idea of us as part of the “New Humanity”, the body of Christ.   One of the signs that Jesus was the Messiah was his miraculous healing ministry.  He was the One Through Whom the World Was Made, the One Who Created Humanity.  He was the omnipotent one incarnate as man.  He emanated grace continually.  And even so, he did not heal everyone.  His healing ministry back then was not just designed to bring relief to those relatively few people who were healed, it was also pedagogical, designed to demonstrate that He was the God-man Messiah and how we were to act in Him.  As part of the body of Christ, we have to recognize that we cannot comfort and heal everyone.  We also have to know that this in no way diminishes the importance of our work.  That work is not just about bringing succor to those in need, it is about restoring humanity and preparing the world to take part in the even greater restoration that is to come.

My second point is more difficult to express, and the most likely to be misunderstood.  I do not know how widespread this is, but in America we are increasingly behaving as though we believe that people cannot have dignity while they are poor or suffering from inhuman conditions.  It seems to me that one of the greatest gifts that Orthodoxy has to offer to the world – and especially to the oppressed and victimized in this world – is the ability to be sanctified and perfected through poverty and suffering and to have the kind of contentment and joy that is completely invulnerable to circumstance.  This is anathema to the world, but it is the consistent witness of Church’s martyrs and ascetics.  No one need wait to be healed, trained, or lifted out of poverty, to become part of restored humanity, the New Adam.  This is no excuse for us to neglect our responsibility to serve, but it does suggest that our service should involve more than the satisfaction of physical needs.  What does that look like?

Here we have come full circle and to the end of my talk: we restore the dignity and humanity of the victimized and dehumanized by loving them, serving them, and treating them as persons made in the image of God.  Through this they will be reminded that, as sons and daughters of God, they should be loved.