Anti-Capitalism and the Three Holy Hierarchs

Today we celebrate the Three Holy Hierarchs,  three late 4th century eastern bishops who were enormously influential on the development of Christian theology: St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil the Great, and St. Gregory the Theologian. Among other ways that they’ve impacted my view of things, thinking through the implications of their understandings of property and our duties to the poor was a major part of one of the three or so strands of thought that led me towards accepting some form of socialism (or at least some form of anti-capitalism).

It’s a strange thing to me that those who are most wont to harp on the importance of the Fathers are usually the least likely to take seriously the moral and political implications of what they say about property and the poor. Even more bizarrely (though I admit it didn’t always seem so to me), I’ve found that many of them think that libertarianism, or the economic liberalism that has become part of “conservatism”, are ideals that can be consistently accepted by someone who takes the Gospel seriously.

I won’t try to make any case exhaustively or argue the point here, but just let the Hierarchs speak for themselves. Here are a few representative statements that are worth thinking through:

“Let us imitate God’s law of creation. He makes the rain fall on the righteous and the wicked and makes his sun rise upon all human beings without distinction. He gives to all the creatures living on earth vast spaces, springs, rivers, forests…and his gifts ought not to be appropriated by the mighty nor by governments…Hold fast then to that primitive equality, forget subsequent divisions. Attend not to the law of the strong but to the law of the Creator. Help nature to the best of your ability, honour the freedom of creation, protect your species from dishonour, come to its aid in sickness, rescue it from poverty…You who are Christ’s servants, his brethren and fellow-heirs, while it is still not too late, [in the poor] help Christ, feed Christ, clothe Christ, welcome Christ, honour Christ…” – St Gregory the Theologian [1]

“…to grow rich without injustice is impossible…”But what if he succeeded to his father’s inheritance?” Then he received what had been gathered by injustice. For his ancestor did not inherit riches from Adam; some one of his many ancestors must probably have unjustly taken and enjoyed the goods of others….Tell me, then, what is the source of your wealth? From whom did you receive it, and from whom the one who transmitted it to you? “From his father and his grandfather.” But can you go back through the many generations and show the acquisition just? It cannot be. The root and origin of it must have been injustice. Why? Because God in the beginning did not make one man rich and another poor. Nor did he later show one treasures of gold and deny the other the right of to search for it. He left the earth free to all alike. Why then, if it is common, do you have so many acres of land, while your neighbor has no portion of it?…

The possessions of the Emperor, the city, the squares, and the streets, belong to all men, and we all use them in an equal degree. Look at the economy that God has arranged. He has created some things that are for everyone, including the air, sun, water, earth, heaven, sea, light, and stars, and He has divided them equally among all men, as if they were brothers. This, if nothing else, should shame the human race. The Emperor has made other things common to all, including the baths, cities, squares, and streets. There is not the slightest disagreement over this common property but everything is accomplished peacefully. If someone tries to take something and claim it as his own personal possession, then quarrels arise. It is as if the very forces of natures were complaining, and as if at that time when God was gathering them from everywhere they were trying with all their might to separate among themselves, to isolate themselves from each other, and to distinguish their own individual property by coldly saying that ‘this is yours but that is mine’. If this were true, quarrels and bitterness would arise, but where there is nothing of this sort neither quarrels nor disagreements occur. In this way we see that for us as well a common and not an individual ownership of things has been ordained, and that this is according to nature itself. Is not the reason that no one ever goes to court about the ownership of a public square the fact that this square belongs to all?” – St. John Chrysostom [2]

“In just a little while, his life will be snatched away, and what is [the rich person] thinking? ‘I will pull down my barns and build larger ones.’ Well done, I would say for my part.  The treasuries of injustice well deserve to be torn down.  With your own hands, raze these misbegotten structures.  Destroy the granaries from which no one has ever gone away satisfied.  Demolish every storehouse of greed, pull down the roofs, tear away the walls, expose the moldering grain to the sunlight, lead forth from prison the fettered wealth, vanquish the gloomy vaults of Mammon.

‘But whom do I treat unjustly,’ you say, ‘by keeping what is my own?’  Tell me, what is your own?  What did you bring into this life? From where did you receive it?  It is as if someone where to take the first seat in the theater, then bar everyone else from attending, so that one person alone enjoys what is offered for the benefit of all in common – this is what the rich do.  They seize common goods before others have the opportunity, then claim them as their own by right of preemption.”

“Now, someone who takes a man who is clothed and renders him naked would be termed a robber; but when someone fails to clothe the naked, while he is able to do this, is such a man deserving of any other appellation? The bread which you hold back belongs to the hungry; the coat, which you guard in your locked storage-chests, belongs to the naked; the footwear mouldering in your closet belongs to those without shoes. The silver that you keep hidden in a safe place belongs to the one in need. Thus, however many are those whom you could have provided for, so many are those whom you wrong.” – St Basil the Great [3]

As I said, I think these passages more or less speak for themselves, but it might be helpful to put together and review some of the implied principles they seem to have for a genuinely Orthodox/Patristic approach to political economy:

  1. Equality is natural and God-given; drastic inequalities are caused by sin.
  2. Christians should see themselves as servants of the poor, with whom Christ identified himself.
  3. Wealth is not a worthy pursuit, and great wealth is always a result of injustice.
  4. The fact that wealth was inherited, even through many generations, or that it was acquired by an initial uncontested appropriation, is not sufficient to claim moral ownership.
  5. On the contrary, the excess wealth of the wealthy literally belongs to the poor who have not enough.
  6. Common ownership is a good thing, and best represents God’s economy.  And this can be true, even when the common ownership is by way of government.

I won’t say more about what economic/political philosophy best fits with these general precepts (in part because I’m not sure in my own mind about the details), but it seems to me quite clear that they are completely inconsistent with the economic liberalism that has become the default position of so many so-called “conservatives.”

 [1] “On Love of the Poor,” 24-27 (PG 35, 274-7, 285), as quoted in Olivier Clement’s *Roots of Christian Mysticism*, pp. 295-296.

[2] Homily XII on 1 Timothy 4:1-3, as quoted in Vol. 7 of Georges Florovsky, Collected Works.

[3] *On Social Justice*, SVS Press, p. 47.

2 thoughts on “Anti-Capitalism and the Three Holy Hierarchs

  1. Agree that they are least ‘heard’ and ‘quoted’ about resource equity. Before modern days, economics was a subset of theology and economists were clergy. It was assumed that resources were fixed quantities so moral distribution was key. Then, came the new idea that wealth could be created limitlessly, then bitcoin and EFT and add prosperity Gospel – what a mess. New credible moral voices are needed more than ever.


  2. We want to recognize that Capitalism has long been wrongly identified with both Democracy and Christian values. Capitalist values are deep in the Western (religious) psyche. Its propaganda is still overwhelmingly effective.


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