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Political ethics

The field of political ethics examines three specific areas: 1.) Church-state relations, 2.) responsibilities of the state towards its people, and 3.) the responsibility of the people towards their state. Focusing on the political history of the Orthodox Church and taking an Orthodox Christian perspective, this article will primarily turn to Stanley S. Harakas for ethical commentary.

Church-State Relations

Harakas argues for four possible categories of Church-state relations:1

  1. Separation of church and state. In this case, the state can be neutral, friendly, or antagonistic to the church.
  2. Papocaesarism (theocracy). The church, or religious authority, is the government.
  3. Caesaropapism. The church is governed by the state.
  4. Symphonia theory. The church and state are complementary and exhibit mutual respect.

Most countries today implement some sort of separation of church and state. Politics and governance as social institutions are viewed by Orthodox Christianity as part of the divine plan for humanity. In light of this, the primary goal of the Orthodox Church is to seek a cooperative position with the state. Emperor Justinian I expressed this position when he said, "A distinction is drawn between the imperial authority and the priesthood, the former being concerned with human affairs and the latter with things divine; the two are regarded as closely interdependent, but, at least in theory, neither is subordinated to the other."2 This statement embodies the "Harmony," "Concord" or Symphonia Theory, which has been generally characteristic of Orthodox thinking about the state and was historically set in place in the Christianized Roman Empire from 321-1453 A.D. and described by scholars as the Byzantine Empire. Such a position is scripturally based as evidenced in several Old Testament texts; the most notable references being that of Melchizedek the priest-king and the brotherly relationship between Aaron, the high priest, and Moses, the leader of Israel from Egypt.

The Symphonia Theory upholds the ideal principles to which the Church and state should strive for. However, as modern history has shown, the modern state still has yet to make such an achievement of this ideal. Harakas states,

"Today, there are almost no existing presuppositions for its implementation as a system of Church-state relations in our times. In no nation of the world today do the ideas of an active 'symphonia' principle and a committed 'symphonia political agenda' exist. At the least, the 'Symphonia Theory' of church-state relationships is nothing more than a fossil of antiquarian interest. At most, it presents 'an impossible ideal' in the contemporary world, which may illumine some attitudes for Orthodox Christians regarding their views of the well-ordered state as well as the relationship of the Church toward the state."3

Within the vision of the Symphonia Theory, the Church encourages her members to take on political involvement in a healthy manner. She calls for her members to be good citizens, to be aware of the issue at hand, to make oneself informed, and to speak up on issues when the necessity arises. This way the voice of the Church is heard by the government and society. With Orthodox Christians involved in the political system, the Church has the capability of affecting the social conscience. Without effective Orthodox Christian thinkers and activists in the political structure, the Church is reduced to a mere spectator, forcing her to become disconnected with the world in which she resides.

Responsibilities and Rights of the State

The Orthodox Church has always stressed the responsibilities of the state towards its people. Taking a biblical standpoint, Romans 13: 1-7 clearly defines the responsibilities of the good state:

"Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor."

Maintaining the Orthodox Christian position that the government as a social institution is a part of the divine plan for humanity, the state must therefore be granted the authority to administer, legislate, and oversee obedience of the law. This authority should be wielded under the acknowledgement that such authority empowers the state as an instrument of God’s will and for the well-being of the people. Therefore, the state does not exist for itself, but for the people. Having said this, the people do not exist for the state either. The proper formula for is that the state exists for the people and the people exist for the service of one another.

Harakas notes that, "Students of Orthodox ethics will recognize in these lines an appeal to what the Orthodox doctrinal and ethical tradition describes as the inborn moral drive and the inborn moral sense and the inborn natural moral law." According to St. Ambrose, "God instituted the state at the creation of human beings. They were not created for an individualistic purpose, but to be 'of service to each other' and to 'help one another by ... public service ... to increase among us the benefit of living together.' This is an affirmation of the inborn human need to live corporately so as to meet mutual needs. It is a positive purpose for the state to fulfill."4

Responsibilities and Rights of the People

The Orthodox Church has always stressed the responsibilities of the people within society. Taking a biblical standpoint, 1 Peter 2:13 clearly defines the responsibilities of Christian citizens:

"Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; by live as servants of God. Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor."

The Church Fathers quite often show honor and respect to state leaders. Tertullian declares, "In the Emperor we reverence the judgment of God, who has set him over the nations." Osios of Cordoba viewed the emperor in a similar fashion, making him God-appointed: "For in your hands God has put the kingdom..." While today's governmental structures are very different in nature, the same respect and honor is still due to those in office and these statements of the Fathers still apply. The Church continues to pray for her state leaders in the litanies of worship services and individuals are called to make these intercessions a part of personal prayer life.

Political Ethics as an "Applied Ethic"

Bernard Crick in 1982 offered a socially-centered view, that politics was the only applied ethics, that it was how cases were really resolved, and that "political virtues" were in fact necessary in all matters where human morality and interests were destined to clash. Applied ethics is a discipline of philosophy that attempts to apply 'theoretical' ethics, such as utilitarianism, social contract theory, and deontology, to real world dilemmas. The "political virtues" were an important feature of Crick's classic book, In Defense of Politics; he saw them as an alternative to "ideology" or any "absolute-sounding ethic". They included but were not limited to: prudence, conciliation, compromise, variety, adaptability, and liveliness.5

Ethical Challenges to Orthodox Christians in Politics

Many Orthodox scholars have been known to make the claim that, “For Orthodox Christians there is no such thing as Christian Ethics.” According to Orthodox Tradition, human behavior grows out of one’s relationship with God. A human being acts on his or her personal experience, faith, knowledge, and every other aspect of the person. The human person also has a complete responsibility for his or her actions and will be held accountable.

Fr. Thomas Hopko, Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir’s Seminary and renowned Orthodox theologian has this to say on the matter, “Ethical behavior, in this perspective, is never simply the application of formal principles or rules. Orthodox Christians accept certain rules of behavior as normative and binding not because they consider them as universally applicable to human beings regardless of their beliefs and conditions, but because they believe them to be commanded by the living God who acts in their lives and to whom they are indebted and responsible. And since Christians are factually in different stages of belief, understanding, commitment and spiritual growth, their behavior will differ in different times and conditions (see Luke 12:47-48, John 13:17, Rom 2, Jas 4:17).”:6

“Orthodox Christians are obliged to reflect together on what love for God in Christ and the Holy Spirit requires of believers. We are called to consider in common what God commands each one of us to do. We are especially obliged to do this in respect to specific issues, such as those involving nations and lands, properties and possessions, goods and services, sickness and health, life and death, sexuality and family life, and the use of money, resources and power, which in recent years have become extremely complicated due to social, political, economic, scientific, technological, and legal changes and developments.”7

So what does an Orthodox Christian do in a political position? The Orthodox Christian faces the same ethical challenges as every other political actor. The challenge of lust is the greatest challenge anyone will face--lust for power, money, even sex. They are all the hottest scandals that hit the front page of the news paper. The question for the Orthodox Christian is not an ethical one, but a question of the very person that he or she claims to be. When asked in an interview, “How will you conduct yourself now that you will be working in the office of this prominent politician?” an Orthodox Christian correctly responded, “Sir, it is not this office which defines who I am, but my faith and duty as an Orthodox Christian which represents my character.”

Case Study: Sam and the Governor’s Clemency Panel

Fifty years ago Sam was one of three students who went to their high school, Madison High, and started shooting with automatic weapons. Fourteen students and a teacher were killed. Many other students were injured, including one girl who was paralyzed for life. Sam's two accomplices committed suicide at the school. Sam was caught and tried as an adult, as he'd turned eighteen the week before. Although the prosecutor wanted the death penalty, Sam got life in prison without parole from the jury.

A half a century later, Sam has asked the governor to commute his sentence to time served. Although Sam's sentence means he can't get parole from the prison system's parole board, a governor (or president) has an historical power to change sentences, such as commuting a death sentence to life in prison, releasing people for time served, and pardoning. (A pardon erases the whole conviction.)

Sam says he doesn't want a pardon, but that after fifty years, he is no threat to society, and is a changed person. He says he is no longer the eighteen-year-old kid that committed the crime. He argues that he is a harmless sixty-eight year old man who deeply regrets what happened, but who has changed so much and experienced so much that he simply is "not the person who committed the crime."

The survivors and the victim's families have objected to any change in Sam's sentence. They think that "Life means life," and a life sentence should be exactly that. The paralyzed woman died ten years after the attack, and her family argues that Sam should have a "life sentence" just like she did. They say Sam may look different and say he's sorry, but the jury's sentence should remain if people are to have faith in the judicial system. 8

You are sitting on a panel appointed by the governor to review Sam's request to be released. As an Orthodox Christian, explain your choice. Recall the different aspects of political ethics in this situation. What are the responsibilities of the governor, the candidate, the review panel, and you?