Russian Orthodoxy and Property

The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church is little known outside of Orthodox circles, and certainly underappreciated within them. The following excerpt, from Chapter VII (“Property”), will form the backbone of subsequent posts. As such I am providing the chapter here in full without the bold highlighting that normally accompanies it. It is important to consider the chapter in full, and not simply a few “tag lines” lacking context.

VII. 1. Property is commonly understood as a socially recognised form of people’s relation to the fruits of labour and to natural resources. The basic powers of an owner normally include the right to own and use property, the right to control and collect income, the right to dispose of, lease, modify or liquidate property.

The Church is not someone who defines the rights to property. However, the material side of human life is not outside her field of vision. While calling to seek first «the kingdom of God and his righteousness» (Mt. 6:33), the Church does not forget about people’s the need for «daily bread» (Mt. 6:11) and believes that every one should have resources sufficient for life in dignity. At the same time, the Church warns against the extreme attraction to wealth, denouncing those who are carried away by «cares and riches and pleasures of this life» (Lk. 8:14). The Church in her attitude to property does not ignore the material needs, nor does she praise the opposite extreme, the aspiration for wealth as the ultimate goal and value of life. The status of a person in itself cannot be seen as an indication as to whether God is pleased with him.

The attitude of Orthodox Christians to property should be based on the gospel’s principle of love of one’s neighbour, expressed in the words of the Saviour: «A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another» (Jn. 13:34). This commandment is the basis of Christian moral behaviour. For Christians and the Church believes for other people as well, it should be an imperative in regulating interpersonal relationships, including property relations.

According to the teaching of the Church, people receive all the earthly blessings from God who is the One who holds the absolute right to possess them. The Saviour repeatedly points to the relative nature of the right to property in His parables on a vineyard let out to be used (Mk. 12:1-9), on talents distributed among many (Mt. 25:14-30) and on an estate handed over for temporary management (Lk. 16:1-13). Expressing the idea inherent to the Church that God is the absolute owner of everything, St. Basil the Great asks: «Tell me, what do you have that is yours? Where from did you take it and bring to life?» The sinful attitude to property manifested in the conscious rejection of this spiritual principle generates division and alienation among people.

VII. 2. Wealth cannot make man happy. The Lord Jesus Christ warns: «Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth» (Lk. 12:15). The pursuit of wealth makes a baneful impact on the spiritual condition of a person and can lead him to complete degradation. St. Paul points out that «they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. But thou, O man of God, flee these things» (1 Tim. 6:9-11). In a talk to a young man the Lord said: «If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me» (Mt. 19:21). Then He explained these words to His disciples: «A rich man shalt hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven… It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.» (Mt. 19:23-24). St. Mark clarifies that it is difficult to enter the Kingdom of God precisely for those who trust not in God but in wealth, who «trust in riches» (Mk. 10:24). Only those who «trust in the Lord shall be as mount Zion, which cannot be removed, but abideth for ever» (Ps.125:1).

However, a rich man can be saved as well, for «the things which are impossible with men are possible with God» (Lk. 18:27). In Holy Scriptures there is no censure of richness as such. Abraham and the Old Testament patriarchs, the righteous Job, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were well-off people. An owner of a considerable wealth does not sin if he uses it in accordance with the will of God to Whom everything belongs and with the law of love; for the joy and fullness of life lie not in acquirement and possession but in giving and sacrifice. St. Paul calls people «to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive» (Acts 20:35). St. Basil the Great regards as thieves those who do not give away part of their property in donation to their neighbours. The same idea is stressed by St. John Chrysostom: «Failure to share one’s property is also theft». The Church urges Christians to see in property a God’s gift given to be used for their own and their neighbours’ benefit.

At the same time, Holy Scripture recognises the human right to property and deplores any encroachment on it. In two out of its Ten Commandments, the Decalogue states clearly: «Thou shalt not steal… Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s» (Ex. 20:15, 17). In the New Testament, this attitude to property continues, acquiring a more profound ethical substantiation. The Gospel says: «Thou shalt not steal… Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself» (Rom. 13:9).

VII. 3. The Church recognises the existence of various forms of ownership. Public, corporate, private and mixed forms of property have taken different roots in the course of historical development in various countries. The Church does not give preference to any of these forms. Any of its forms can produce both sinful phenomena, such as theft, money-grubbing, unfair distribution of wealth, and the proper and morally justified use of wealth.

The intellectual property, such as scientific works and inventions, information technologies, works of art and other achievements of the creative thought acquires a growing significance. The Church welcomes the creative work aimed at benefitting society, and deplores the violation of copyright.

In general, the Church cannot approve the alienation and re-distribution of property with violations of the rights of its legitimate owners. An exception may be made only for the alienation of property based on the law, conditioned by the interest of the majority of people and accompanied by fair compensation. Russian history has shown that the violation of these principles has always resulted in social upheavals and people’s suffering.

In Christian history, many communities would pool property, abandoning personal proprietary aspirations. This kind of property relations contributed to the consolidation of the spiritual unity of the faithful and in many cases proved rather effective economically, as in the case of Orthodox monasteries.However, the repudiation of private property in the early apostolic community (Acts 4:32) and later in coenobite monasteries was exclusively a voluntary affair and a personal spiritual option.

VII. 4. The property of religious organisations is a special form of property. It is acquired in various ways, but the primary component of its formation is the voluntary donation of believers. According to Holy Scriptures, donation is sacred, that is, it belongs directly to God as a donator gives to God, not to a priest (Lev. 27:30; Ez. 8:28). Donation is a voluntary action made by the faithful for religious purposes (Neh. 10:32). Donation is called to support not only the servants of the Church, but also the whole people of God (Phil. 4:14-18). Being consecrated to God, donation is immune, and any one who has stolen it must return more than has been stolen (Lev. 5:14-15). Donation belongs to the basic commandments given by God to man (Sirach 7:30-34). As donation is a special case of economic and social relations, it should not be made automatically subject to the laws regulating finances and economy of a state, in particular, public taxation. The Church declares that the income drawn through entrepreneurial activity can be taxed, but any encroachment on the donations of believers is a crime before people and God.