Social justice, early-church style


Giotto's Franciscan allegory of poverty: Poverty is a winged gaunt woman dressed only in rags, at whom children throw stones or brandish sticks. Christ himself marries this woman to St Francis. Numerous angels, as well as the personifications of Hope and Chastity, are present as witnesses. As offerings, two angels carry worldly goods heavenwards. The reactions of the world are depicted at either side: on the left a young man imitates Francis, and on the right the rich express ridicule.

The most recent issue of neoconservative Acton Institute‘s organ, Religion & Liberty, brings an interesting interview with “paleoorthodox” pundit Thomas C. Oden. Actually it is an excerpt of the interview; other bits of interview, dealing with Marxist liberation theology and the current condition of Oden’s United Methodist Church, can be found here.

The excerpt printed in Religion & Liberty ranges from early Christian treatment of the poor to global South missionaries coming to the West. Here are some of Oden’s comments on the value of patristic exegesis for today’s Christians–in particular where such exegesis was applied to social issues:

Why do you think many evangelicals, in their searching, are drawn to patristic thought and commentary? What can churches do to encourage those that are searching?

They’re drawn to patristic thought because it is wise. They are hungry for wisdom. They are looking for reliable Christian teaching and, in many cases, evangelicals have not been exposed to these documents because they have been focused on Christian doctrine since the Reformation. I, myself, am an example. I grew up in the Methodist tradition and I had some vague idea of what happened before Luther and Calvin and Wesley, but I hadn’t really been deeply informed. And even when I went to my doctoral studies at Yale, I did not spend a great deal of time in patristic writers, so I had to find these on my own.

So what can churches do to encourage people that are searching? First of all, they can make accessible the writings that have been long buried, especially within the later Protestant tradition. They were commended by Luther and Calvin and Cranmer and Wesley, but not sufficiently taught and transmitted. The texts themselves have largely been buried. Now, fortunately today a lot of these are digitalized. There’s a lot more available. So there’s almost no excuse for an evangelical who wishes to know classic Christianity, to ignore these teachings.

. . .

You can hardly find any contemporary political issue that has not been dealt with, in some form, in a previous cultural and linguistics situation by the early Christian writers.

That does not mean they can be directly transferred into our political situation, but by analogy we can learn from them about the faith that become active in love and produces good works. And the doctrine of good works, of course, is taught in Scripture. Now, that is not, certainly not to Protestants, to diminish the priority of justifying faith for our salvation. We are not saved by our works, but we are called by grace, through our faith, to be active in the works of love.

There is a great deal of material about poverty in patristic exegesis, particularly in commenting on those scriptural texts on stewardship, money, generosity, and hunger. In every Christian community in the ancient world, there were forms of active engagement with the poor. When you went to church, from earliest times you would have an opportunity to give to the poor.

. . .

We have a large body of patristic literature that deals with what we today would call social witness. For example, displaced persons, the homeless, and care for widows. How do you care for the fatherless? These were all considered, based on scripture texts. How do you care for sick people? The whole idea of a hospital emerged within the frame of this ethos of caring for the poor and the sick and the needy. Basil of Caesarea created the first hospital as a way of participating in the healing ministry of Jesus. But all across these areas of social witness and marginalization, we have the same concern.

If somebody is hungry, you try to provide food for him, without demeaning him or making him a dependent. If they don’t have clothes, you provide clothes. You provide what’s needed. If you want an even more condensed study of these sorts of marginalization, you can find it in The Good Works Reader. Among the topics treated there are hospitality to the stranger, the children of war, sexual abuse, and homelessness. Dealing with actual human needs was central to the practice of the Christian life.

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One response to “Social justice, early-church style

  1. Pingback: Purpose Driven Anti-Christianity?

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