- Overcoming Greed:An Eastern Christian Perspective1
As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I have chosen to approach the topic of "overcoming greed" from an Eastern Christian perspective, relying particularly on the writings of some of the early theologians of the Greek East. It is not coincidental either that laissez-faire capitalism arose in the Western Christian world, or that the first strongholds of communism developed in Eastern European, traditionally Orthodox, countries. Both phenomena speak to an intrinsic difference in the way in which human beings are conceived as relating to the world and to each other, both personally and communally.The traditional Eastern Christian model of the human person as not simply caretaker of creation, but fundamentally as a mediator uniting all aspects of creation in humanity's own nature,2 has led historically to a general lack of interest in exploiting creation (in fact, the worst environmental problems in the Orthodox world occurred in countries after they came under totalitarian communist domination). Similarly, the Eastern Orthodox emphasis on the relational, and even communal, nature of salvation created an environment hostile to the individualist, exploitative model upon which modern Western economics has been founded (this has been rapidly changing in post-communist Eastern European countries and Russia, however).
The Eastern Church identifies this phenomenon of exploitative and abusive relationships toward nature and other persons as a consequence of the fallen condition of humanity, that is, humanity as it currently exists, in a state where our natural communion with God has been ruptured. In this context, Christianity in general and Eastern Christianity in particular recognize greed as one of the passions (equivalent to what Buddhism describes as "cravings") that are part of our fallen human nature, a consequence of our separation from God. Some of the passions are primarily physical in nature, others emotional or psychic, but in fact virtually all passions are a combination of the two.
Greed, a passion of both soul and body that is endemic to our current existence, is typical of this understanding. There are two aspects to the vice of greed: (1) the emotional or spiritual dimension, that is, the acquisitive lust that usually betokens either a deep-seated insecurity or, worse, a desire for power and control; and (2) the [End Page 47] external, physical manifestations of greed in the actual acquisition of things, often to the detriment or exploitation of others. Eastern Christian writings attempt to work on both dimensions of the passion of greed, especially the spiritual, while often distinguishing between greed (a moral vice) and wealth (an amoral condition).
This article will focus on two early church theologians, Clement of Alexandria and John Chrysostom. In particular, it will focus on their biblical exegeses of two pertinent New Testament passages: Jesus' conversation with a young righteous scholar of the Mosaic Law and the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, respectively. Finally, I will suggest that, for Orthodox Christians, an important key to overcoming greed is disciplined asceticism, to be practiced by all persons and not simply by monks and nuns. Asceticism—the exercise of control over the passions through fasting, prayer, chastity (understood differently for married and unmarried persons), and almsgiving—is the vehicle by which to cultivate an attitude of apatheia or passionlessness, the Christian equivalent of the Buddhist ideal of detachment.
Clement was a philosopher-theologian who headed the great Christian catechetical school in Alexandria in the late second century C.E. In his treatise Who IstheRich ManWhoWill Be Saved? 3 Clement mused on the spiritual and soteriological dimensions of greed by reflecting on Jesus' encounter with the wealthy young "lawyer," that is, scholar of the Mosaic Law, who questioned Jesus on how to acquire eternal life. In his response, the young man showed himself righteous in his adherence to the demands of the law, but ultimately unwilling to commit all of himself by giving away his property, even though Jesus said that it was the price to inherit eternal life.
Clement pondered whether it were therefore possible for anyone wealthy to be saved, given Jesus' declaration that "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man...