Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Health Care Reform in Light of Orthodox Theology and the Sanctity of the Human Body

As this country debates health care reform, I cannot help but turn to Orthodox theology for some answers. Orthodox theology is pretty much synonymous with Patristic theology. For an Orthodox Christian, salvation is holistic, involving Body and Soul. It is organic. God does not save the soul only, but the Body as well, and all Creation. To separate the soul from body is to hold to a decidedly non-Christian form of dualism. In the Eucharistic prayers of the Byzantine Liturgy, it is affirmed that the Holy Eucharist is for “the healing of both soul and body.”

From the standpoint of Orthodox theology, Christianity is a materialistic religion, in the best sense. Matter is not abhorred or downplayed. St. John Damascene, writing in reference to the Holy Images (Icons), has this to say about matter:

"I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honouring that matter which works my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God."
St. John Damascene

This reverence of matter of course extends to the human body. God does enjoin us to value human needs, the human body. We do not preach in the Byzantine Church only the salvation of the soul, apart from the salvation of Creation, matter, our very bodies. These things are connected, the spiritual and material, "Thy immortal Spirit is in all things," wrote the author of the Wisdom of Solomon (Wisdom 12:1).

St. Paul expresses this in his first letter to the Corinthians: "know ye not that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you, which ye have from God? and ye are not your own; for ye were bought with a price: glorify God therefore in your body." - 1 Corinthians 6:19-20. 

We can see this holistic, organic view of salvation expressed very succinctly and sublimely by St. Ignatios of Antioch. A disciple of St. John the Apostle, and consecrated the Third Bishop of the See of Antioch by St. Peter himself, he is an important witness to Apostolic doctrine. The quote below is from St. Ignatios' letter to the Smyrneans:
St. Ignatios of Antioch

Consider those who hold heretical opinions with regard to the grace of Jesus Christ which hath come unto us, how opposite they are to the mind of God. They have no care for love, nor concerning the widow, nor concerning the orphan, nor concerning the afflicted, nor concerning him who is bound or loosed, nor concerning him who is hungry or thirsty. They refrain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father of his goodness raised up.

See how St. Ignatios makes the connection between the needs of the human body with the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, the Body and Blood of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ? It is not surprising that St. Ignatios taught this doctrine, for he certainly received it from the Apostles. It makes sense that Ignatios is connected with St. John, whose gospel stresses the Incarnational and Sacramental aspects of salvation.
St. John the Theologian

St. John himself taught: "If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, cannot love God whom he hath not seen." - 1 John 4:20

Love cannot be spiritualized away, it must be concrete. Love addresses real needs, real suffering. The heretics that St. Ignatios inveighed against were likely the Docetists, who did not believe Jesus really suffered, but only appeared to have a body, and only appeared to suffer. They did not care for the oppressed and poor, and denied the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. You can see that a consistent sacramental and incarnational theology reverences the human body, and cares for human suffering; and how, on the other hand, a theology that is not sacramental and incarnational in character falls short on caring for human need.

St. John Chrysostom, writing in the 4th century put it this way: “Do you wish to honor the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk only then to neglect him outside where he suffers cold and nakedness. He who said: ‘This is my body’ is the same One who said...‘Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also to me.’”

Mother Theresa of Calcutta
Mother Theresa made this connection in her ministry. Visitors asked her how her and her 
sisters could face every day the suffering on the streets of Calcutta. She said it was their devotion to the Holy Eucharist that strengthened them for service to the poor, and helped them to see Christ in the poor and suffering:

In the Mass we have Jesus in the appearance of bread, while in the slums we see Christ and touch him in the broken bodies, in the abandoned children...Our lives are woven with Jesus in the Eucharist. In Holy Communion we have Christ under the appearance of bread; in our work we find him under the appearance of flesh and blood. It is the same Christ. ‘I was hungry, I was naked, I was sick, I was homeless.’”
With this sacramental, incarnational understanding, how can we tolerate people dying from lack of health care? Some will object, "That is not the government's job?" Says who, may I ask? The Holy Bible? The Holy Fathers of the Church? Christian values should be reflected both in our private and public lives, if we claim a Christian heritage. Our laws and policies should reflect our values. We should be willing to use private charity, private business, and yes, government and tax resources to make sure our fellow citizens have their needs met. We are all in this together. Individualism is not a Christian value. The Christian societies of the Byzantine Empire and Kievan Rus' used tax monies to serve the common good.

The lives of the holy, Orthodox Christian kings and queens record that they performed charitable works -- aiding the poor, the hungry, and the needy; and building churches, schools, and hospitals -- using, to finance this work, money that was in part tax-derived. So too, we who live in nations with democratic political systems where we influence government policy, urge that similar policies be followed, so that government resources will be utilitized to promote the general welfare of the populace, and of the world in which they live.
- From the Facebook Group, Progressive Orthodox Christianity

Yes, private charity should be brought to bear on the health care crisis; but we as Christians, if we are guided by Doctrine of Christ, cannot help but be moved by the plight of the sick and uninsured- surely we cannot bear the needless suffering and death that occurs for those without health care! Shouldn't we seek to create a society in which we care for human needs and suffering, and in which we honor the human body, which is the Temple of God? Shouldn't our values be reflected in society?

My dear friends, if we believe Christ is in the poor and oppressed, the sick and the suffering, we should want to honor Him in them; we should venerate His presence in them. This is a question of values, at a momentous time in our society- how can we claim to honor the Body of Christ, and yet stand by why our brothers and sisters slip away?


  1. Matter is abhorred or downplayed?

    Should there have been a "not" there?

  2. Oh yes, I was missing the "not" that is SO frustrating to have missed that, thank you for pointing it out. It is fixed now.