Love and Activism

To call the works of Fr. Alexander Schmemann “challenging” would be a gross understatement. In his brief but profound meditation on the upcoming liturgical season, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1969), pp. 25-26, Schmemann sets forth a powerful distinction between social activism and authentic Christian love.

In this respect, Christian love is sometimes the opposite of “social activism” with which one so often identifies Christianity today. To a “social activist” the object of love is not ‘person’ but man, an abstract unit of a not less abstract “humanity.” But for Christianity, man is ‘lovable’ because he is person. There person is reduced to man; here man is seen only as person. The “social activist” has no interest for the personal, and easily sacrifices it to the “common interest.” Christianity may seem to be, and in some ways actually is, rather skeptical about that abstract “humanity,” but it commits a mortal sin against itself each time it gives up its concern and love for the person. Social activism is always “futuristic” in is approach; it always acts in the name of justice, order, happiness to come, to be achieved. Christianity cares little about that problematic future but puts the whole emphasis on the now—the only decisive time for love. The two attitudes are not mutually exclusive, but they must not be confused. Christians, to be sure, have responsibilities toward “this world” and they must fulfill them. This is the area of “social activism” which belongs entirely to “this world.” Christian love, however, aims beyond “this world.” It is itself a ray, a manifestation of the Kingdom of God; it transcends and overcomes all limitations, all “conditions” of this world because its motivations as well as its goals and consummation is in God. And we know that even in this world, which “lies in evil,” the only lasting and transforming victories are those of love. To remind man of this personal love and vocation, to fill the sinful world with this love—this is the true mission of the Church.

The parable of the Last Judgement is about Christian love. Not all of us are called to work for “humanity,” yet each one of us has received the gift and the grace of Christ’s love. We know that all men ultimately need this personal love—the recognition in them of their unique soul in which the beauty of the whole creation is reflected in a unique way. We also know that men are in prison and are sick and thirsty and hungry because that personal love has been denied them. And, finally, we know that however narrow and limited the framework of our personal existence, each one of us has been made responsible for a tiny part of the Kingdom of God, made responsible by that very gift of Christ’s love. Thus, on whether or not we have accepted this responsibility, on whether we have loved or refused to love, shall we be judged. For “inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, you have done it unto Me….”

Before proceeding, it is worth stressing Schmemann’s observation that social activism and Christian love “are not mutually exclusive, but they must not be confused.” For today it is just as much a temptation to conflate activism and love as it is to privilege the latter at the almost complete expense of the former. Eyeing with suspicion any form of activism in this world, a growing number of Christians who feel disenfranchised or alienated by this world are starting to call for a retreat from this world. They look neither to the present nor the future, but rather inwardly at themselves, confusing love not with activism, but with cowardice. They no longer want to be a part of a world that treats them so poorly compared to yesteryear, and in a rather twisted fashion they cite Christians from earlier ages, including monastics, as their shining examples. Little do they seem to realize that when Christians would leave the world for the (literal or figurative) desert, they do so not to escape the responsibility for being “in the world but not of it,” but rather to draw closer to God while facing down the demons that constantly seek to ensnare men’s souls. Sóbrii estóte, et vigiláte: quia adversárius vester diábolus tamquam leo rúgiens círcuit, quærens quem dévoret: cui resístite fortes in fide.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who appear to have abandoned nearly every trace of authentic Christian love in favor of social activism. Romanticizing as they do ideologies and categories of thought long condemned as antithetical to Christianity, they strike a posture which they believe is amicable to a certain sector of secular politics. They are the heirs of a deeply embarrassing period in modern Christian history when the Gospel was distorted into a program for socio-political reform and Jesus lost his status as the Son of God and became a mere “revolutionary” in the most mundane sense of the word. These men do not love, for their treat their treat their enemies with nothing less than disdain, issuing calumnies as they see fit and replacing learned disputation with hyperbole, name-calling, and trolling. Whatever “good” they seek to advance is diminished by their self-conscious lack of character, and even if some of their ranks have their instincts in the right place, their refusal to sit in silence and listen to what Christ and His Holy Church teaches renders their witness empty.

To embrace love rather than activism requires a self-emptying modeled on that of our Lord Himself. Without abandoning the future (and surely not the “Kingdom which is to come”), Christians must do the “dirty work” of visiting the prisoners, tending to the sick, and feeding the hungry—those to whom “personal love has been denied.” This personal love, this Christian love, is immediate; it cannot be replaced or—Heaven forbid—“elevated” by a well-designed distributional scheme operated by bureaucrats. This truth is a hard challenge to those well-meaning Christians who, through the wisdom of the Church, are cognizant of the gross injustices of this world and know the true principles of the right social order which have been eroded by liberalism, consumerism, materialism, relativism, and indifferentism. As important as it is to combat the lies of this age, the sort that seek to make Christians feel at home with secular democracy and capitalism, it is exponentially more important to embrace those children of God who have not simply been left “on the margins” in a purely sociological sense, but in an eschatological sense. Christian love does not tend only to their temporal needs, but their eternal one as well.