By Protopresbyter John Meyendorff, Dean [1984–1992], Professor of Church History [1959–1992], St. Vladimir’s Seminary. Excerpted chapter from Witness to the World (SVS Press 1987)
In the time of Christ, the Jewish society in which He lived was split into several quite distinct political groupings which offered diametrically opposed options: the “zealots” wanted to organize rebellion against the Roman authority which ruled the country; others—including the priests and other officials of the Temple, as well as the “publicans” who collected taxes for the Romans—defended collaboration with the powers that be.
The “zealots” saw in Jesus the Messiah, and urged Him to head the rebellion, but He, while acknowledging the Messianic title, “ate and drank with publicans,” while at the same time He denounced the “hypocrisy” of the establishment. At no time, however, did He identify Himself with either “conservatism” or “revolution.” His message was that of supreme and absolute freedom from all the entanglements of human “politics”: His disciples were called to become citizens of His Kingdom, not the servants of political “causes.”
He certainly identified himself with the “poor” and the “little ones,” but not in order to call them to revolution. He called them “blessed” because He considered them closer to the Kingdom than the rich. He did castigate the rich, but only by calling upon them to give to and to love the poor.
No new social system can be constructed on the basis of His teaching. However, no system of social thought has ever had, throughout the centuries, as much social influence as the Christian message. This influence was real whenever and wherever the Church was able to be truly itself; wherever the Gospel of Jesus Christ was accepted for its own sake, not for the sake of earthly political causes.
Christian history is full of tragic and contradictory abuses of Christianity. Christian empires used it to conquer the “infidel” through violence. The rich have preached non-violence in the name of Christ to pacify those who envied their wealth. The bourgeoisie monopolized Christianity and made it synonymous with social respectability.
All these abuses from the “right” provoked today’s reaction from the “left”: social radicals identify Christianity with a utopian program of egalitarian society in this world. As a mater of fact, however, their ideal is just as utopian as that of the “holy empires” of the Middle Ages.
The Church ceases to be the Church if it excludes either the rich or the poor; for where else than in the Church will the rich learn how to give and become poor, and the poor how to transform their poverty into “poverty in the Spirit,” for which the Lord called them “blessed”? — March, 1969
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