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17 minute read

“The Love of the Neighbor is a Sacrament"

Paul Evdokimov’s Vision of Church and Society

Without specifying the forms of social structures, the Gospel is nevertheless precise about the basic attitude in relationships among human beings, something St. John Chrysostom later would qualify as sacramental: “The love of the neighbor is a sacrament,” he would say, a sacrament because beneath the visible form of the neighbor is given the grace of the invisible presence of Christ. It is this presence which makes me the neighbor of all. The last judgment is centered upon this “sacramental attitude” towards the sick, the hungry, the poor, and prisoners.

Over fifty years ago, theologian Paul Evdokimov gave a course on the church’s social theology at the Ecumenical Center at Bossey. Evdokimov had migrated to Paris in the years after the Revolution and was in the first class at St. Sergius Theological Institute there. Fr. Sergius Bulgakov was one of his primary teachers, along with Nicolas Berdyaev and other luminaries of the émigré thinkers in Paris. Evdokimov raised his two children after his first wife’s death and spent years caring for the marginalized in ecumenical hostels in Sévres and Massey with his second wife. During the WWII occupation of France, these hostels helped protect people who were the targets of the Nazis. Evdokimov was a faculty member at St. Sergius and an ecumenical observer at Vatican II. Of all the great writers at St. Sergius, Evdokimov was the most pastoral, the most concerned with the mission of the church to the world and, in particular, to the suffering. In this, he was close to the ministry of St. Mother Maria (Skobtsova) of Paris and her companions.

The Bossey course was aimed at sketching out how Orthodox theology viewed the relationship of church and society, in light of Vatican II and of Pope Paul VI’s constant speaking out against war and for social justice. It was the early 1960s, a time of great ferment about underdeveloped countries both in the churches and in international aid groups like the World Health Organization and the United Nations agency UNESCO. European nations such as England and France were withdrawing their colonial presence in other countries, and the enormous economic gaps between the “third world” and the rest of the nations were drawing international attention.

It was not only a time of such rising social and economic consciousness. It was also a time of the rediscovery of the church as the people of God and as the witness to the Gospel in the world, as exemplified

by Vatican II’s dogmatic constitutions, Lumen gentium (“Concerning the Church”) and Gaudium et spes (“On the Church in the Modern World”). As was his custom, Evdokimov later turned the core of his lectures into a longer article, published in the French Orthodox theological journal, Contacts.

The essay begins with a sweeping overview of how Christians regarded the society around them throughout history, from the idyllic communalism of the Jerusalem church as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles and later in the post-Apostolic era, through the heyday of the Byzantine empire, the medieval period and thereafter, to our own time. At the same time, Evdokimov cuts to the heart of things. Seeking a Gospel-based vision of how Christians should live in and confront society, he ransacks the tradition. He scours the Scriptures, then the library of writings that have come down to us, from the Didache and Letter to Diognetus to the powerful social outlook of Basil the Great and John Chrysostom, from the witness of the early desert mothers and fathers to the later Christian luminaries.

As catholic as one could hope for, Evdokimov also invites us to listen to the “masters of suspicion” of the modern era — Freud, Darwin, and Marx — but puts them

Paul Evdokimov
photo c. 1965
'A Christian alone is no Christian,' he argues, citing Tertullian’s great saying.

in conversation with Christian writers such as Bulgakov and Berdyaev. Possessed of immense learning, Evdokimov urges us to also listen to the philosophers Martin Heidegger, Jean Paul Sartre, and Michel Foucault, as well as the novelist Franz Kafka and the playwright Samuel Beckett. He includes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi as exemplars of resistance, protest, and struggle. He even quotes King on praying to be an instrument of peace and freedom, love being the only way to defeat hate. It is easy to imagine that had he lived longer, he would have included Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu, and when he learned of them, the American Catholic writers Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Daniel Berrigan among all the voices of witness and prophecy in the church of our time.

One of Evdokimov’s great and enduring gifts is his work stressing the dignity of all vocations — monastic, married, those in orders, and the royal priesthood of all the baptized. He calls for all to be “ecclesial beings” and “liturgical people” who, after the Eucharist on the altar in church, celebrate the “liturgy after the liturgy,” “the sacrament of the brother/sister” that takes places in our hearts and in the hearts of those around us. This may start with coffee hour but extends to all other service and outreach the local church/parish gives to the community around it. “A Christian alone is no Christian,” he argues, citing Tertullian’s great saying. The kenosis of Christ, the self-emptying love of the Lord for the world, is the icon of our calling.

Thus, with the eclipse of the corpus Christianum, the Christendom produced by the symphony of emperor and patriarch, of state and church, Evdokimov locates the mission of the church in the women and men who “become what they pray,” who also “become what they receive,” in the bread and cup — the disciples of Jesus become Jesus’ body in the world, for the life of the world. He maintains that in the church’s constant outreach to the suffering, the poor, the elderly, the sick, the persecuted, and those fleeing terror, we see the heart of following Christ and promoting the Kingdom of Heaven. No one can accuse Evdokimov of downplaying the liturgy, prayer, and Scripture, for these are the fuel of the life of diakonia (service), and this was recognized by the earliest church, as Acts attests. The preaching, teaching, breaking of bread, the prayers, and fellowship — these are accompanied by the care of widows, orphans, the hungry, and the homeless. Each of us is a place of theophany, for in us God is present and working. Evdokimov never tires of Nicolas Cabasilas’s beautiful description of God’s absurd or foolish love for us, (manikos eros), which is what each of us is called to do, to be.

Christians are of the church — members of a communion of saints. Christians are in the world to be yeast, light, living water, and the “bread come down from heaven.” It is crucial to recall that Evdokimov speaks from the church. During WWII and the Nazi occupation of France, like Mother Maria Skobtsova and the other canonized martyrs of Paris, as well as his friend Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, Paul Evdokimov was active in the Resistance. We have no idea of what risks he took, what good he did in the face of Nazi monstrosity. For the rest of his life he was part of an ecumenical association that created hostels for the homeless, the displaced, and refugees; and later for third-world immigrants and students. He and his wife were house parents in these hostels. He led daily prayers, and in the issue of Contacts published in tribute after his death are testimonials to his compassion and patience, written by some of these residents of the hostels. Evdokimov experienced the “sacrament of the neighbor,” the “liturgy after the liturgy” of which he wrote.

Given the divisions, the fear and suspicion, and even the hate with which we live today, Evdokimov offers some important perspectives. Several have already been noted—the vocation of all Christians to pray and work,

to draw closer to Christ and serve the neighbor, and to be neighbors to all. Seen from a different angle, the community of faith, the church is “the moral conscience of humanity.” He quotes his friend Lev Gillet’s prayer from In Thy Presence, a prayer for each of us: “Do not allow Your Word to be in my life as a sanctuary, separated from the world by some kind of cloister or wall.”

Coming after the time of theocracy and of Christian empire and state-churches, but also after the horrors of the Third Reich and the Soviet Union, the church of the 21st century may be without persecution but also the official legitimation of a state/empire. Evdokimov sees the church as free to uniquely witness to the Kingdom’s way of life, one of sharing of resources, of justice and respect for all with no exceptions, and of compassion for the suffering. Just as the church rejected the oppression and collectivism of Soviet regimes, the church also stands against the rampant individualism, consumerism, and inhumanity of capitalism. Evdokimov warned that Christians should not substitute some idealized, romantic version of their own communion for either of these destructive forms of political, economic, and social organization. The church, as the Christ, is the suffering servant of all, and the Lover who constantly pursues the beloved, always giving but never compelling. Though it did in the past, the church must turn forever from the impulse to dominate either its own members of the Body or the world around it.

In his writings based on that course at the Ecumenical Institute, Evdokimov often points to an area of his specialization, the Russian religious thinkers of the last two centuries. In so doing, he shares the genius of the Russian philosopher Nikolai Fyodorov, who harbored the almost absurd hope that Christians could raise all the dead, as a kind of foretaste of the age to come. He also credits the insights of Gogol, Solovyov, and Khomiakov on community as church. He lifts up Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, and Berdyaev’s recognition of the social truth of the Gospel, the divine challenge to end inequality and suffering, which was so poorly served by the Bolsheviks. Evdokimov envisions with them, and with many other Christian thinkers, the authentic socialism which reflects the justice and peace of the Kingdom, over against the greed and power of so many governments and corporations.

Writers and artists must be listened to whether they declare themselves believers or not. Hence his mentioning Sartre and Beckett and the others noted above. Evdokimov recognized that they force us to see the anguish and emptiness of our time despite the affluence. They challenge our beliefs to winnow out superstition and fantasy about who God is and how God acts in the world — and about our own responsibilities. The church’s social ethics are rooted in what Jesus says and does in the Gospels.

If secularized humanism denies God, if extreme asceticism denies the world, if pietism exclusively accents God’s transcendence, the ethics of the Eastern church are rooted in a total vision balanced between transcendence and immanence, between the heavenly and the earthly. It is the Gospel ethic of the “friends of God,” Macarius’ ethics of the heart, Berdyaev’s ethic of creation.

Knowing personally the violence of the Russian revolution and two world wars, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the nuclear arms race, the Cold War, and, at the end of his life, the civil rights movement, King’s assassination, the Vietnam war, and the student uprisings in 1968, Evdokimov can still speak of a completely other violence —“the Kingdom of the heavens has been violently assailed, and the violent seize it.” (Matt. 11:12) He knows Gandhi’s preaching of nonviolence and Dr. King’s adoption of it. There is a holy violence which does not seek to destroy or discredit even one’s opponents. It is the urgency of seeking the Kingdom and its righteousness or justice. It is a willingness to sacrifice for those who are oppressed or in need. Just as with the inability of many in King’s own black churches to grasp nonviolence, not to mention the more militant, this non-destructive, ethically purposed and spiritually based “violence” does not destroy property or bodies, though willing to be abused and attacked. If there is an authentic “theology of revolution,” then it is found here, where the tax collectors and prostitutes and other notorious sinners go before us into the Kingdom. (Matt. 21: 31) The real revolution is the “change of heart,” the conversion or transformation Jesus speaks of in His first words. (Mark 1: 15)

It is impossible in a few pages to do justice to the richness of Evdokimov’s vision of the church’s social teaching and the social mission of Christians. One last perspective of his must be mentioned, and it is the one most likely to evoke disagreement and to cause trouble. He quotes at some length John Chrysostom’s extremely radical words about wealth and the wealthy. We know the payback John received for this defiant preaching from the state that supported the church in the 4th century—John was put on a death march! And this was for boldly saying that:

The rich are stealing from the poor even if what they have is honestly acquired or legally inherited…In refusing to give and share we thus earn the punishment of thieves. We are as guilty as the tax collectors who use the money of all for their own needs. The rich are a category of thieves…Do not say, I enjoy what is mine. You are enjoying the property of others. All the things of this earth belong to all of us together, just as the sun, the air, the ground, and everything else. (Hom. 11 on Lazarus, Hom. 10 on I Cor. 3:4)

Evdokimov proceeds to line up and quote a parade of other notables echoing Chrysostom — Basil the Great,

Evdokimov makes it clear that the kind of giving these holy women and men have in mind is not the dollar we slip into the Salvation Army drum or the cash we spend at a charity bazaar.

Gregory Nazianzus, Jerome, Ambrose, Symeon the New Theologian, Sergius of Radonezh, Tikhon of Zadonsk, and John of Kronstadt. We could add Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, and Mother Maria. John Chrysostom’s home church of Antioch fed thousands of people daily and sheltered the ill, the homeless widows and orphans, and many pilgrims, and yet the budget for all of it did not surpass the wealth of the richest family in the city. Basil likewise financed a multi-purpose service center in Caesarea, providing a soup kitchen, medical services, clothing, and shelter for those in need.

Evdokimov makes it clear that the kind of giving these holy women and men have in mind is not the dollar we slip into the Salvation Army drum or the cash we spend at a charity bazaar. Their radical assessments of wealth were always accompanied by an equally radical sense of how one is to give back and give forward. Church people are not remarkable in their generosity, neither in the past nor now. Only their number makes up for both their genuine lack of disposable income and their unwillingness to simply give away what they have. It is best when there is a fundraising event where other people buy things or contribute and the proceeds are dispersed to worthy charities or causes. God, Evdokimov reminds us, “is able to do everything except constrain us to love Him and our neighbor.” The movement of the heart to sharing, toward generosity, must be free, not compelled or coerced. But it is not only a matter of individual choice. Sharing is a personal challenge for each of us. But Evdokimov does not stop at the personal level.

As social creatures, he says, we are part of each other. We must realize that, stretching back into the ancient period, in mandates in the Torah and the rest of the Hebrew Bible, there was communal gathering of funds, not just for maintenance of the Temple and the sacrifices there, but also for the poor. If there is only one economic sphere in which we all live, we cannot, in justice, argue against taxes that are used for the good of all, for roads, schools, hospitals, police, fire services, defense, and many other public services. Despite the political opposition by some to government, taxes, and social entitlements, there has always been some taxation in this country, at one time for support of the church as well.

In the open and hopeful spirit of the 1960s, Evdokimov joins with Pope Paul VI’s encyclical in proposing a global fund from deductions levied on conspicuous consumption — i.e. taxes on sales or entertainment, on waste and pollution, and finally on exorbitant military spending. At this time there was much more regard for what a global association like the U.N. could and should do. While the church does not prefer a particular form of government and does not legally compel people to give, the church nevertheless could, through its own corporate giving, urge governments to consider aid to underdeveloped countries where education, medical care, food, and shelter are lacking. A half-century later we have the personal philanthropy of Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett and the other wealthy people they have convinced to join them in giving, signing The Giving Pledge to contribute at least half their total wealth to good causes. Still, most ultra-wealthy only give 8-11 percent and many less than that. The Gates and Buffett are among the most consistent givers, while they are even wealthier now than when the Pledge was proposed in 2009.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has underscored the relentless and growing social and economic inequality in his now-classic 2012 study, The Price of Inequality. For decades, the policies of U.S. administrations have furthered the concentration of wealth in less than 1 percent of the population through a collection of tax cuts, protections, and incentives that have not “trickled down” to result in more and betterpaying jobs, greater household income, and greater access to medical care and education, not to mention food and housing. The spurt of economic growth since the end of the Great Recession notwithstanding, America’s middle class is eroding. Many can find “gig” jobs or multiple jobs in an economy in which labor is expendable and often outsourced or technologized for greater profit.

It is not hard to imagine that a communal effort is the only way to counter such inequality, because for decades, the market has seemingly shown that it cannot. America once had a tax scheme that enabled upward mobility. It created the interstate highway system and financed scientific and medical research and expansion of our educational institutions. What a tragedy that any such effort is immediately branded as a destructive “socialism.” Evdokimov would not agree. Echoing his teachers, his overview of the church’s vision showed a pattern of sharing in both the personal and communal senses, as well as a place for the state to use taxes for bettering the lives of the people. In this political season, we see a lot of weaponized communication with all sorts of caricatures

5th Station of the Cross: Simon Cyrene helps Jesus 
Fr. Sieger Köder St. Stephen's Church, Wasseralfingen, Germany

and distortions of “socialism,” which would make popular and established programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid almost seem un-American, “communist” intrusions on our way of life.

In the end, Paul Evdokimov does not provide a distinctive solution to our social, economic, and political troubles. Yet, his discernment as a contemporary teacher and renewer of the church offers us a rich social theology, rooted in prayer, liturgy, and the Eucharist. He called at the end of his essay for an interfaith gathering of the leaders of the Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic churches and the leaders of Judaism and Islam (the “family of Abraham”) to pray and consider the state of the global community. To these could be added leaders of the Asian religious traditions — exactly what has happened five times since 1986, beginning with the convocations at Assisi under Pope John Paul II. Evdokimov, borrowing from his teacher Fr. Bulgakov, called this gathering an “ecumenical epiclesis,” a true calling down of the Spirit on all people. Such was Evdokimov’s own vision, at once marvelously generous and expansive and yet from the heart of the faith. His experience in service encouraged him to believe and hope that God’s people could make the seemingly impossible possible, and that remains good news for us today.

V. REV. MICHAEL PLEKON is professor emeritus, The City University of New York—Baruch College and attached at St. Gregory Orthodox Church, Wappingers Falls, New York. He has published widely in the sociology of religion, and on the life of holiness and women and men of faith in our time.