This is the rule of the most perfect Christianity, its most exact definition, its highest point, namely, the seeking of the common good, for nothing can so make a person an imitator of Christ as caring for his neighbors.
St. John Chrysostom
The concept of the “common good” has fallen out of favor in recent years. Over the past two decades, it has become increasingly common to dismiss the notion that we all share an interest in the broader community, that society is more than simply a collection of individuals pursuing their individual material self-interest.
In Socrates’ Apology, he tells a story that illustrates the tension between corporatism and commonweal. Zeus, Socrates relates, decided to help mankind create a human society. He sent Hermes to distribute the necessary technical and managerial skill to certain people. The result was a society based on self-interest and expertise. Such a society was centrifugal and fragmented. As the philosopher John Ralston-Saul observed, Zeus had created a society based on the corporatist model, with economic and social structures based on professional self-interest. People were defined by what they did. In more contemporary terms, this would be the corporatism of consumer capitalism, also based on self-interest and self-centeredness: defining people by what and how much they consume.
Zeus sees his error and decides to remedy it by having Hermes distribute social reverence (aidos) and right-mindedness (diki) to each person. Social reverence signifies a sense of “community,” a shared awareness, a shared knowledge of selfconstraint and belonging. Right-mindedness relates to a sense of social justice, integrity, freedom, and social order: a shared sense of responsibility. This is what we refer to as “commonweal.” It defines people simply as “fellow human beings,” as members of a community that we call “humanity.”
Corporatism, a fundamental aspect of our modern consumerist economic system, is inimical to Christianity and a violation of God’s Law. (See, for example, Deuteronomy 24:19-21)
Corporatism reorganizes society with the reduction of the individual to the status of consumer. To consume is regarded as patriotic while to consume in excess raises’s one’s social status. This new economic world order presents us with intense moral and ethical contradictions, arguing that greed, self-gratification, and excess consumption are simply aspects of human nature. This argument, taken from the doctrines of Social Darwinism, is certainly questionable. As Linda McQuaig observed in her essay, “Lost in the Global Shopping Mall”:
The rapaciousness of certain business leaders has been much in the spotlight…. Even conservative pundits appear shaken by the astounding greed and dishonesty at the heart of … corporate culture. Still, some shrug it off as simple human nature, saying that we are inherently a competitive, acquisitive species, naturally inclined to push our own self-interest as far as we possibly can. But is this the whole picture? Is our society really nothing more than a loose collection of shoppers, graspers and self-absorbed swindlers? Perhaps we are in danger of becoming such a culture, but it is important to remember that culture itself is a learned set of rules.”
At this point we may examine the corporatization of morality and, to some extent, of the Christian Church.
The concept of commonweal the common good is fundamental to authentic Christianity. A clear and profound doctrine of commonweal permeates the Old Testament. It is made law in the book of Deuteronomy and constantly enjoined by the Holy Prophets.
Jesus Christ reaffirms this “law of commonweal” with his two great moral imperatives, (“love your neighbor as yourself” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”). Christ makes the love of neighbor together with unconditional love of God the very foundation and essence of the Law and the Prophets. The fulfillment of such a moral imperative certainly requires a direct encounter and interaction with culture and society.
Unfortunately, this is an encounter that has been either abandoned, corporatized or reduced to outbursts of moralism by many Christian bodies.
Contrary to this trend, the Christian community must address society and interact in the shaping of our culture. However, this interaction must consist of something more than merely scolding politicians and demanding the law enforce on all citizens the sort of behavior we consider to be correct. We must avoid the inner contradictions of moralism and address the whole scope of true morality.
Morality or Moralism? How can Christians consider it to be an authentic expression of morality to oppose the killing of unborn children while ignoring the killing of children who are already born? Is it truly moral to protect the lives of unborn children but ignore or trivialize the fact that they will have to grow up in a world where, because of our own excess, they may not have sufficient food and many of the necessary natural resources will have been squandered and climate change will have made their lives precarious and uncertain? Is it actually moral to demand that governments enforce the sort of correct personal behavior that our own ideologies demand while turning consumer capitalism into a religious doctrine that cannot be subjected to critique and criticism?
One fatal flaw in the preaching of Christianity that has had negative effects in North America is the failure to distinguish between morality and moralism. From an authentic Christian point of view, true morality has to do not only with salvation but with every aspect of our inter-human relations; it is not simply a system of correct behavior.
True morality is not a system of law which, if obeyed, makes one a moral person. It is necessary to have such laws for the sake of society, but that has little to do with the change of a person’s heart and an inner transformation into the image of Christ’s love. Morality is not a form of bondage but a path of liberation. When we speak of “the law of God,” we are not speaking of an ordinary, worldly notion of “law.” God’s law is not given to repress us but to protect us.
If we are driving along a dangerous highway and the signs warn us to slow down because there is a dangerous curve in the road, that is a “law.” The speed limit is set by law. If we disregard that law and crash over a cliff because we are driving too fast, we do not claim that the government punished us by making us crash. On the contrary, the government tried to save us from serious injury or death by making that law.
This is precisely the meaning of the “law of God,” of our system of morality. God has revealed to us a manner of life that can keep us from much pain and suffering and from many disasters. He has called upon us to realize that his law is a law of love, and that we should obey it out of love and trust in him, not from fear of punishment. Moreover, such true morality constrains us to imitate God’s love in our dealings with the world. This is the essence of true morality.
We cannot equate morality with behavior that is acceptable to a given society, because often a society accepts behavior that we know is contrary not only to our salvation but is also inimical with the concept of commonweal. If we preach only a legal morality that does not encompass the moral imperatives of Jesus Christ then we are mere moralists. Moralism is cold, unforgiving, full of hatred, and spiritually destructive. It is self-centered, and it deforms the idea of morality for the advantage of one or another class in society to the detriment of others.
When we speak of true morality, we are not referring to simple obedience to a system of law but a free accord with a system of spiritual healing. The authentic Christian spiritual life really does provide us with the means for moral healing, but even among our own people, we see so many who never experience such healing. This is because they encounter only moralism: “Obey this law or God will do something bad to you.”
Moralism does not take into account what is necessary to actually heal a person and deliver them from the bondage of their inner suffering so they can lead a moral life; it thinks only about condemnation and punishment. But let us indicate how these ideas have a direct bearing on our subject.
Our modern consumerism inclines a society not only to excess but also to self-centeredness and indifference. One can opt to blame such attitudes on Satan, but when one does, let him remember that the power of Satan in our lives can be defeated only by means of unselfish love, by adopting a sincere sense of commonweal to love your neighbor as yourself in place of a desensitized self-interest. There is no such thing as Christian morality without an inner struggle toward unselfish love, self-constraint, and a sincere concern for the welfare not only of those around us but even for future generations.
Moralism condemns, usually with arrogant self-righteousness, while a spirit of true Christian morality seeks one’s own moral healing and the moral healing of those around us so they might be liberated from bondage. This is the concept of morality that can keep us alive spiritually in our consumerist and secular culture; this is the image of morality that will attract others to Christ and to authentic faith, a concept that can help form in us a truly Christian sense of commonweal.
The Corporatization of Morality: The corporatization of morality may be a product of radical individualism. It arises almost automatically when Christianity is transformed from a living faith into an ideology informed by such categories as liberal, conservative, leftist, right wing, and so forth. Morality then becomes corporatized into various categories of correct behavior, defined by an essentially political mindset of one or another religio-political ideology.
This narrows the concepts, so clearly stated in the Old Testament, down to horror at those things condemned with little regard for those things enjoined: social justice, non-condescending care for the poor and all those in need, and a powerful sense of mutual responsibility for the common good of the nation, of all the inhabitants of that nation.
In the Old Testament law, there are clearly ecological provisions for the care and nurturing of the land: a Sabbath for the agricultural land is just as much a part of the Law as a Sabbath for man (Leviticus 25:4-6). This care of the land, which must be cherished and nurtured, is surely as much a moral law as any in the Old Testament. Just as surely, it shows a deep concern for the common good of the whole population which must be fed from that land. This concern so obviously extends to future generations.
Organizing and spending large sums of money to protest and lobby against certain forms of personal behavior may be useful, but there is an inner contradiction that is inexcusable when the same organizers refuse to condemn corporate immorality or organize and finance lobbying about environmental issues that relate to the very survival of whole populations and the health, welfare, and survival of future generations. The destruction of the environment is every bit as immoral and kills just as many children as abortion. Any truly Christian concept of morality will encompass corporate and environmental immorality with the same fervor that it addresses personal morality.
We may have a “fallen human nature,” but it is clear that humankind is essentially good and, as the image and likeness of God, has an innate inclination toward virtue. We will all live in the new world order of consumer capitalism and secularism. We will all partake of the benefits of consumer capitalism and enjoy its positive aspect.
But as Christians, we will also have to face the moral challenges of its negative side. It is urgent for us, as moral human beings, to recognize that future generations will pay a terrible price for the excess and overindulgence of our era. We cannot separate spirituality from moral responsibility and here, consumerism poses yet another challenge.
Since consumerism thrives on over-consumption, not only must products not be durable, as we mentioned before, but they should not be reasonably “upgradable” either. Computers, for example, are discarded and replaced regularly. People are shocked to learn that, in our monastery print shop, we are still using a computer that we purchased in 1988, yet it is perfectly adequate for our typesetting needs. Let us look at the moral tragedy of this problem.
In Canada alone, 140,000 tons of computer equipment, cell phones, and other types of electronic equipment are discarded into waste disposal yards every year. That is the weight of about 28,000 fully-grown adult African elephants. This results in 4,750 tons of lead, 4.5 tons of cadmium, and 1.1 tons of mercury being leached into the water system and food chain every year.
These toxic heavy metals are already creating havoc on people’s health and causing a loss of drinking water reserves. Future generations will pay a devastating price for all this. Whether we care enough to do something about it or to resist this aspect of consumerism is a moral issue. It is also a barometer of our spirituality.
Yet we need not succumb to what Jьrgen Habermas calls “personality systems without any aspiration to subjective truth nor secure processes for communal interpretation.” This is why it is so important for us to consider the role authentic Christian morality can play in this unfolding drama of our present era. We cannot have such a role if we opt out of the political dialogue and refuse to engage culture and interact with the society around us in a creative and healing way.
Archbishop Lazar Puhalo is abbot of the Monastery of All Saints of North America in Deroche, British Columbia, Canada, and leads the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in Canada
Winter 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 52