Gregory of Nyssa on Social Justice

Happy New Year! It has been some time since my last post as I've been enjoying some time off with the family. I pray that 2011 will be a great year for you and your family and that the Lord will bless you and be blessed by you.

Issues relating to social justice have, in recent years, received a considerable amount of attention, and rightly so. We should all be concerned about issues of equality, fairness, justice and righteousness in our world, and the biggest shift in this regard is the accessibility that we each have to the solutions. Simple things, like the items we purchase at the supermarket can and do make a difference to real people living in unjust situations. I thank God for that.

One thing that may be of interest, though, is that issues of what I prefer to call "social sanctification" have always been on the minds of Christians (and indeed the people of Israel in the Old Testament). Admittedly, they haven't always known how to address the issues at hand, or worse, have chosen to ignore them; however, social sanctification has been spoken of and addressed throughout Church History. As always, Gregory of Nyssa is the person I'm most interested in. Below are two examples.

The first is from Gregory's fifth homily on The Lord's Prayer; specifically the line "Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation. But deliver us from evil." It's a lengthy quote, but worth reading and considering.
When we approach God in prayer, we ask that our debts may be forgiven us. But such words are ineffectual and do not reach the Divine hearing unless our conscience cries in unison with us that it is good to impart mercy. For if a [person] really believes that it is worthy of God to love [people]... [they] ought to confirm [their] judgment on what is good by [their] own works. Else [they] might hear from the just Judge words such as these, Physician, heal thyself. You ask me to love [people], and yourself do not give love to your neighbour? You ask to have debts forgiven, how can you strangle your debtor? You pray that I may blot out what is written against you, and you preserve carefully the acknowledgments of those who owe you something? You ask to have your debts cancelled, but you increase what you have lent by taking interest? Your debtor is in prison, while you are in church? [They are] in distress on account of [their] debts, but you think it right that your debt should be forgiven? Your prayer cannot be heard because the voice of [they] who suffer [are] drowning it. If you remit the material debt, the bonds of your soul will also be loosened; if you pardon, you will be pardoned. You must be your own judge, your own lawgiver. By the disposition you show to him who is under obligation to you, you pronounce the judgement of Heaven on yourself. (Gregory of Nyssa, The Lord's Prayer, the Beatitudes, ed. Johannes Quasten, and Joseph Plumpe, trans. Hilda C. Graef, vol. 18, Ancient Christian Writers (New York: Paulist Press, 1954) 80.
There is no distinction here between the "spiritual life" (as we might call it today), and its associated actions - prayer, worship, 'going to church' - and just treatment of others. Social justice and the true Christian faith are not separated here. They are intrinsically linked and impact one another.

The second quote comes from Gregory's commentary on Ecclesiastes. A word must be said here about the importance of the "image of God" in Gregory's anthropology (understanding of the human person). It is a significant driving thought and crucial to keep in mind as one considers this doctrine in his writings. The image of God is the gift of God to all people and distinguishes humanity from the rest of creation. It makes us special and is the reason we are given stewardship over creation. It is particularly evident in the freedom of the will. Again, a lengthy quote, but a good one. (Forgive me for leaving the exclusive language in this quote).
He who makes the property of God his own property [i.e. slavery], does he not transgress the limits of the power of his species, when he presumes to be owner of men as well as women? Does he not, by his arrogance, transgress nature itself, by regarding himself to be something else than those who are so ruled? 'I have purchased slaves and servants'! What are you saying? By condemning to slavery man whose nature is free and self-authoritative, you are setting up laws contrary to God, upsetting the very law of nature. Him who was made to be lord of the earth, ordained to rule, you bring under the yoke of slavery, thus rebelling and fighting against the very order established by God!... 'I have bought slaves and servants'! For what price, pray, tell me. What have you found, among existent beings, as an adequate price for this human nature? How much money have you estimated as the value of a rational being? How many obols [one-sixth of a Greek drachma, a very small coin] would you regard as a fair price for the image of God? For how many statera [a silver or gold coin] would you sell the God-fashioned nature? For God said 'Let us make man, according to our own image and likeness'. Him who is thus the likeness of God, having dominion over the earth, who has inherited full authority over everything that is upon the earth, who is it, tell me, who will sell him and who will buy him? Only God is able to do this. Or perhaps not even God. For 'God does not repent of his gifts', it says... For who can it be that added to your nature more authority? Neither age nor beauty, neither fitness of body nor superiority in virtue. Of the same origin as you are, biologically the same as you: both you who lord it over him and he who is subjugated to your lordship, are equally subject to the same passions of soul and body, the same pains and pleasures, the same mirth and anguish, the same joys and sorrows, the same desires and fears, the same diseases and death. (In Ecclesiasten. Oratio IV. GNO V. 334/14-338/8. cited in Paulos Mar Gregorios, Cosmic Man: The Divine Presence (New York: Paragon House, 1988), 134-136.)
I hope for those who are particularly passionate about issues relating to social sanctification that you may take from this quote assurance that people throughout Church History, including Gregory of Nyssa, are standing beside you in affirmation of your desire for equality, fairness, justice and righteousness throughout creation. 

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