In a major new document, the Orthodox Church has condemned Christian nationalism, teaching that in that term “there could be no greater contradiction of the Gospel”.

– A document three years in the making

The condemnation is contained in a text on Orthodox social teaching – For the Life of the World: Toward a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church – three years in the making and released last March 27.

The document was prepared by a special commission of theologians appointed by worldwide head of the Orthodox Church, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, and supplemented by material from Orthodox hierarchs around the world.

“While the document was completed prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis of 2020, it nonetheless addresses the importance of social responsibility, the voice of faith in a world of science, medicine and technology, as well as the response of the Church on matters related to health care, social justice, and public welfare”, Orthodox authorities explained.

– An “unusual” but “highly significant” text for the Orthodox Church, “and not without controversy”

According to an executive summary of the document, For the Life of the World is “highly significant, and not without controversy, because it addresses contemporary social issues in a sustained manner that is unusual for the Orthodox Church, including poverty, racism, human rights, reproductive technology, and the environment”.

“The purpose of the document is to offer a reference on vital issues and challenges in the world today in ways that are consistent with living as Orthodox Christians”, that executive summary claims.

For the Life of the World is divided into seven sections, with an accompanying introduction and conclusion:

  • The Church in the public sphere
  • The course of human life
  • Poverty, wealth, and civil justice
  • War, peace, violence
  • Ecumenical relations and relations with other faiths
  • Orthodoxy and human rights
  • Science, technology, and the natural world

– Strong teachings on nationalism, the poor, war and peace, migrants and refugees and the care of creation

Highlights from the new Orthodox document on Church social teaching include the grave warning that “it is absolutely forbidden for Christians to make an idol of cultural, ethnic, or national identity”, along with the forceful condemnation of the “unexpected recrudescence in much of the developed world of the most insidious ideologies of identity, including belligerent forms of nationalism and blasphemous philosophies of race” (11).

Furthermore, For the Life of the World insists that “it is impossible for the Church truly to follow Christ or to make him present to the world if it fails to place [the] absolute concern for the poor and disadvantaged at the very center of its moral, religious, and spiritual life” (33).

On war, the Orthodox text denounces violence as “the most terrible manifestation of the reign of sin and death in all things”, and elevates peace as “the true ‘grammar’ of creation as God has uttered it in his eternal Word” (42).

With respect to the question of the Church’s response to migrants and refugees, For the Life of the World is clear: “No moral injunction constitutes a more constant theme in scripture… than hospitality and protection for strangers in need” (66).

“In our own time, we have seen some European governments and a great many ideologues affecting to defend ‘Christian Europe’ by seeking completely to seal borders, by promoting nationalist and even racialist ideas, and by rejecting in countless other ways the words of Christ himself”, the Orthodox document decries.

Noting that that “nativist panic” is not limited to the continent but has spread to other places such as Australia and the Americas, For the Life of the World launches a stinging attack on the US in the Trump era (67):

“In the United States, the most powerful and wealthiest nation in history – one, in fact, born out of mighty floods of immigrants from around the world – we have seen political leaders not only encouraging fear and hatred of asylum-seekers and impoverished immigrants, but even employing terror against them: abducting children from their parents, shattering families, tormenting parents and children alike, interning all of them indefinitely, denying due process to asylum-seekers, slandering and lying about those seeking refuge, deploying the military at southern borders to terrify and threaten unarmed migrants, employing racist and nativist rhetoric against asylum-seekers for the sake of political advantage”, the Orthodox text deplores.

“All such actions are assaults upon the image of God in those who seek our mercy. They are offenses against the Holy Spirit”, For the Life of the World warns.

Lastly, on care for the environment and our ‘Common Home’, For the Life of the World teaches that creation is a “divine gift from the loving creator [that] exists not simply as ours to consume at whim or will, but rather as a realm of communion and delight, in whose goodness all persons and all creatures are meant to share, and whose beauty all persons are called to cherish and protect” (74).

“Our ecological crisis must be seen not merely as an ethical dilemma; it is an ontological and theological issue that demands a radical change of mind and a new way of being”, the Orthodox text affirms, adding that “this must entail altering our habits not only as individuals, but as a species” (75).

Denouncing that the world’s “heedless consumption of natural resources and our wanton use of fossil fuels have induced increasingly catastrophic processes of climate change and global warming”, the Orthodox Church insists that “the pursuit of alternative sources of energy and our efforts to reduce our impact on the planet as much as possible are now necessary expressions of our vocation to transfigure the world”.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.