Philanthropic God

Again and again the liturgy of St Chrysostom calls God a lover of mankind. He is Philanthropolos Theos (man-loving God), Kurios Philanthropolos (man-loving Lord), Philopsychos (lover of the soul). Philanthropy wasn’t a Christian invention. Roman benefactors gave benefits to subordinates. What was new was the shape of philanthropy, for the philanthropic Christ doesn’t bestow benefits from a distance, but, out of love, lowers Himself to us.

The Divine Liturgy, as John McGuckin writes (The Path of Christianity), recounted the philanthropy of God that “restored the weak and the failing, and . . . called out to the one who was lifted up to lift up others in mimesis of the selfless love of God” (945). Rulers especially, the liturgy taught, were to be living icons of the philanthropy of Christ.

In Byzantium, philanthropy took concrete form in hostels and hospitals that aimed to bring Christ’s healing power to the sick. Justinian rebuilt and endowed the Xenodochium in Constantinople, and established other hospitals. Centuries later, Emperor John Comnenus II founded the hospital of the Pantocrator that included a surgery, a gynecological clinic staffed by women, and two 27-bed units for general illnesses (McGuckin, 946-7).

As McGuckin says, “To place healing and the medical care facilities in a theoretically grounded ethos of dignity and loving care, understood as a sacred action of mercy, is one of the church’s great and enduring contributions to civilized life” (948).

We will spend the next week thinking, conversing about, perhaps debating politics and economics. We’ll discuss power, law, war, violence, wealth, poverty, justice, production, distribution, exchange.

Behind all this will be one central theme: The gospel is the foundation of our politics. The gospel is political news: The kingdom of God has come! Jesus is Lord! God has come near in human flesh to take our humanity through death to His heavenly throne. He’s sent His Spirit to form the church on earth. The gospel announces God’s unprecedented eruption into political history.

Today, the US faces massive political and economic challenges. What ought to be done with immigrants and refugees? Does our criminal justice system live up to its name, and, if not, what are we to do about it? How can we protect the vulnerable, including unborn babies? How can we educate effectively? What is America’s proper role in the world? What can be done to support families? How can Americans thrive in a global economy, and what are we to do to help those who fall behind?

The gospel shows that we cannot take the political world as a fixed given to which the church has to adjust and respond. Our primary framework for addressing all of these questions must be the gospel and the church, which made the political world we inhabit and continue to remake it. Through the gospel and the liturgy, an evangelical politics has been penetrating the world for two millennia. The Spirit by whom the Son became incarnate is with us still, and we are called to discover imaginative ways to give political form to God’s philanthropy.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis. This essay was delivered as the Solemn Charge and Exhortation to students in Theopolis’s Pentecost Term course on political economy.

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