Thursday, February 29, 2024

Jae Hyoung Choi: St. Basil, Charity, and Justice

Today’s post is by Rev. Jae Hyoung Choi. Rev. Choi is Missionary in Residence with the General Board of Global Ministries.

I visited Kenya recently as a member of Global Ministries' core team for Global Mission Fellow (GMF) training. During the program, we had the opportunity to visit Kibera. A Kenyan guide mentioned that Kibera is one of the largest slums in the world, along with Soweto in South Africa, where I had a chance to visit during the 2019 Africa regional missionary gathering.

Observing GMFs engage in programs with children in Kibera brought back memories of Parola, an informal settlement in Manila, Philippines. Parola served as a refuge for those initially arriving in Manila to escape poverty, owing to its proximity to the bustling market called Divisoria. While Parola was smaller than Kibera, the living spaces were considerably narrower. Due to the illicit practice of electricity tapping, known as “jumping,” Parola often experienced fires.

I recalled a grandmother who tragically lost her beloved grandson in one such fire. While she went to the market to buy food, locking the door from outside for the child’s safety, the fire consumed her home. I also knew a woman raising nine children, three of her own and six brought by her husband from other women, who made ends meet by doing laundry in other people’s houses. Despite outward smiles, it seemed they might be silently shedding tears, enduring unspeakable suffering.

I pondered the meaning of missionary work for individuals facing ongoing poverty, injustice, and discrimination. What does it truly mean to “participate in God’s mission” amidst these challenges?

In recent months, I studied Basil, a figure from the fourth-century Cappadocian Fathers. While renowned for his Trinitarian theology, my focus delved into his social teachings and his acts of charity. 

His Christian ownership principles, rooted in natural law and the Scriptures, offer profound insights into contemporary socioeconomic and structural issues. Perhaps his concern for land issues in his homeland, Cappadocia, led him to advocate the Christian ownership principle based on the biblical mandate, “The land belongs to God (Leviticus 25:23),” which underscores a commitment to distributive justice and equitable resource access, promoting communal responsibility.

However, the historical evaluation of Basil’s charitable activities is divided. In 369 AD, a severe famine left many in poverty, some even starving to death. Basil mobilized his assets and connections to aid the poor, establishing the Basiliad, a massive complex dedicated to caring for the poor and sick, which moved Emperor Valens to donate land.

Yet, the church’s charity, including Basil’s, during that time is now facing reassessment in a new light. Historian Peter Brown notes that the eastern church during Basil’s time earned the title “Lovers of the Poor” not only due to its active charity but also because it was an era when the Roman Empire’s unjust economic system mass-produced the poor.

Some wonder whether Basil’s words were prophetic but his deeds were priestly. Why did Basil, who approached the core of social justice through his land ownership teachings, focus only on charity in practice?

Basil’s charitable work was intertwined with his ascetic monasticism, which was based on Hellenistic dualism. At that time, the monastic movement’s ultimate focus was the coming kingdom, emphasizing helping the poor rather than solving poverty itself.

The fundamental reason seems to be his dichotomous worldview dominating his ascetic monastic movement. Ioannes Karayannopoulos comments that Basil’s ultimate orientation was “to the other real life [heaven],” so “Basil does not consider it his duty to try to change [the present system].”

Today, charity remains essential to the church's mission. However, the church must hear that the world is voicing criticisms of its charity. Books like “Toxic Charity,” “When Helping Hurts,” and “When Charity Destroys Dignity” illustrate this phenomenon. Kibera, Soweto, and Parola call for justice beyond charity.

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