By Alfred Kentigern Siewers*
God’s convenant in the aftermath of the flood, not to overwhelm the earth again, is taken in some Protestant fundamentalist readings of scripture to be a reason not to be concerned with potential environmental disaster.
Ellen Davis, who is a Protestant agrarianist theologian at Duke Divinity School, in her recent book on agrarianism and the Bible, argues however that the covenant, based on other biblical contexts, is not meant to allow people to do whatever they want with Creation. And this view seems to be in line with notions of synergy in Orthodoxy theology, which emphasize the importance of both grace and human effort (notably ascesis, still inspired by grace), in salvation.
But, if after the Flood God gave to us again in effect the garden of Earth to cultivate and keep, what are the rules of gardening for doing so today in North America, from an Orthodox perspective?
In modern times those rules often are assumed to be neoclassical economics and relatives all the way from libertarian capitalism to socialism. They all emphasize a theoretical grid, including overlay grids ranging from private property and corporations to government agencies, which arguably take on a larger reality in human affairs than Creation or God Himself.
The biblical focus on economics is a bit different. Passages in Leviticus and elsewhere emphasize that the land belongs to God, a system of rotating land ownership in ancient Israel under God’s rules, and of leaving some land fallow in the process while also providing for the poor by not harvesting all of one’s property. Usury is prohibited in Israel, as it is between Orthodox Christians in Church canons (see “interest” in the index to the English translation of St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite’s compilation The Rudder). In the gospels, Christ’s parable of the “talents” can indicate a requirement to develop and grow one’s gifts from God, but wasn’t taken by the early Church as an endorsement of usury. The Acts of the Apostles indicates a time when property was held in common by the local Church, then adjusted to allow for the need for people to take responsibility for work.
As the longest-lived Orthodox Christian country in history, the Byzantine Empire was a complex and sprawling network of communities that changed significantly over time. However as Warren Treadgold indicates in his lengthy survey of Byzantine society, the line between the Emperor and Empire and what we would call the private sector was not distinct, rather there was a sense of the oecumene as an organically holistic Christian community. In this milieu St. Basil’s project of the Basiliad stands out as a model of Christian civic philanthropy, along with the role of the Church and monastics in founding the first hospitals and orphanages, although Treadgold notes that the Empire’s guilds and agrarian taxation discouraged at times (though not always) too great accumulation of wealth and land in limited hands. Treadgold describes how in the economic heyday of Byzantium, before the Crusades, the Empire held large estate owners responsible for shortfalls in tax district revenues, rather than small landowners. By contrast, some historians have said that in the Western Empire the growth of large estates at the expense of small farmers helped speed Rome’s fall.
A return to an emphasis on tithing in some Orthodox jurisdictions in America reflects a sense of the need for significant obligation to the Church community in the household economy. But the lessons of Byzantium and ancient Israel seem remote from American society, in which Orthodox Christians are a minority, and in which church-going Christians by any name are becoming a minority (along with families on the traditional Christian model).
Among alternatives to current establishment Western models of economics (neoclassical, monetarist, socialist), Marxist models have deep epistemological conflicts with Christianity, as reflected in the 20th-century history of communism. Yet one interesting but little-examined option, with potential meaning for those with environmental concerns yet seeking a traditional way of life, can be found in the neighborhood of “geolibertarianism.”
This focuses (translated into traditional Christian concerns) on a notion of land and natural resources as a common God-given resource, and on “land and resource rent” as being (like interest) not a regular source of earned income from human work, and thus eminently taxable, unlike other forms of property and income.
The basic idea is reworking tax policy to emphasize taxes on profits from the exclusive holding of land and natural resources, which would reduce sprawl and offer incentive for reducing depletion of resources and pollution, rather than focusing on taxing earned income from household salaries, as our current system does. The idea (as I understand it) is to capture increase in economic value from “land rent” (such as increasing property value) and natural resources on exclusively held land parcels, but not from improvements on land involving homes, small farms, and businesses.
Thus, the first of the articles linked immediately above suggests, Henry George’s ideas of land tax could be applied also to water resources in water-challenged areas, and also, as the second article link suggests, to whole chains of resource depletion and pollution. In the process, this isn’t necessarily anti-growth from the standpoint of community economic activity. But it does treat land and natural resources as gifts, which in an Orthodoxy understanding correlates with our experience of Creation as a gift from God, while still encouraging transformative human activity akin on a deeper spiritual level to the Orthodox understanding of the transformative priestly role of human beings on Earth.
Davis’ book, referenced at the start for its commentary on the covenant with Noah, notes the agrarian basis of biblical life and Christianity. Orthodox Christianity’s history of course has included significant urban foci such as Constantinople most notably. But it also has often thrived in village-style communities centered on the Church.
That “urban homesteading” and “urban agrarianism” are becoming an alternative for Orthodox Christian Americans today is seen in the Orthodox Fellowship of the Transfiguration’s link to our social network consultant Heather Zydek’s blog.
Thinking outside the box politically and economically, as suggested by the above links, may provide Orthodox Christians with distinctive ideas and approaches from within their tradition to help guide the development of a more environmentally balanced American culture in the future, in tandem with their own households and communities.
*Alfred Kentigern Siewers is a member of the Orthodox Fellowship of the Transfiguration Steering Committee, and teacher of medieval and environmental literature. His views are his own.
This and other OFT blog posts represent personal reflections or links of information on Orthodoxy and the environment, which do not necessarily represent any official position or views of OFT or other Church organizations.