Orthodox America

Editorial - Perils of Prosperity  

According to polls, the recent impeachment of the president has had little or no effect on his approval ratings. This is not surprising, for there is typically a strong correlation between these ratings and the state of the economy. Clinton is credited with the positive performance of this country's economy over the past several years, and a strong economy, which nourishes a high standard of living, is more important to most Americans than any moral failings the president may have, even those as egregious as adultery and perjury. Material prosperity can be a great blessing, but it can also dangerously weaken the moral fibre - of nations as well as of individuals.

Ever sensitive to economic considerations, this spring the Clinton administration mounted stiff opposition to the Wolf-Specter Freedom from Religious Persecution Act, which calls for imposing certain restrictions on countries that persecute. R. J. Neuhaus comments with his usual wry insight: "Neither [trade nor big business] seems to be bothered by a little, or even a lot, of religious persecution when there are big dollars to be made in places such as China" (First Things, March '98). Congress nevertheless finally approved the bill, although in a predictably weakened form: the legislation provides several choices of action, leaving control of the US response to the offending country in the hands of the White House. Given the fact that in this administration, as William Schultz of Amnesty International put it, "Trade always trumps torture when the two clash," the bill's efficacy is doubtful.

Here is one example of the moral weakness of a system in which the pursuit of material well-being has become the ruling factor. As French political philosopher Jean-Francois Revel shrewdly notes, "The West is virtually incapable of reducing its living standards even slightly to achieve a political end" (How Democracies Perish, 1983). The same thinking informs Solzhenitsyn's prophetic warnings - not only to the West. Speaking in Taiwan, he "referred to the obvious danger from Communist China, but he also said there was an even greater danger, which ... was that all prosperous people tend to lose the awareness of danger, and through addiction to the good living conditions of today lose their will for resistance."

British author Michael Davies contributed this last paraphrase to an interview he held with Malcolm Muggeridge for British radio in February 1983 (published as A Fireside Chat with Malcolm Muggeridge, Neumann Press 1984). In discussing what Muggeridge refers to as the unconscious "death wish" of Western society, clearly reflected in the abortion and euthanasia debates, Davies remarked, "The problem is, when one is materially comfortable, one has nothing to struggle for and one doesn't believe in anything outside oneself and one's own amusement and gratification. /.../ ...raise living standards and religion dies away."

These thoughts are not original. The wise Solomon declared that the prosperity of fools shall destroy them (Prov. 1:32, KJV), and Blessed Augustine, commenting on the Psalms, wrote, "Prosperity is more perilous to the soul than adversity to the body" (On the Psalms, Ps. L:4). He cites the example of the Prophet King David, who, surrounded by the wealth of his station, was overtaken by the weakness of the flesh and fell into the depths of sin. By contrast, when he was being persecuted, when he was pursued by Saul and his life was in danger, "he lusted not for her that was another's, he slew not husband after committing adultery with wife. He was in the infirmity of his tribulation so much the more intimate with God as he seemed more miserable" (Ibid.) It was not peace and prosperity but tribulation and grief that brought the king to experience the wondrous mercy, grace, and love of God, as he so eloquently and repeatedly declares in his psalms.

Not long ago we received a letter from a Coptic Christian in Egypt. He describes the situation there:

"In large cities like Alexandria or Cairo, Christians rarely find employment in big companies or organizations. Even if employed in small companies, they are payed almost half as much as they should be paid, and they are not given any big positions. Many times Christians are offered money to change their religion."

This must be a great temptation, for, as human-rights authority Paul Marshall notes in his excellent book, Their Blood Cries Out (see page 23), "Most Egyptian Christians are desperately poor, even more so than the average Egyptians. They are employed in menial positions such as street sweeping, or subsistence farming."

In reading about the difficult plight of Christians in countries like Egypt, one is haunted by the question: How would I react if being a Christian meant accepting second-class status, if it meant sinking into poverty, if it meant suffering "pervasive and systematic discrimination," as it does for so many Christians in other parts of the world?

The question may be purely hypothetical at the present time, but who knows what tomorrow will bring. Even today, there is a distinct anti-Christian sentiment that permeates the media, academia, and other corridors of influence. "Many Christians," writes Marshall, "are persecuted simply because they are Christians. Their usually peaceful and quiet beliefs stand as a rebuke to those who are corrupt, to those who cannot tolerate the presence of any view but their own, and to those who want to make their own political regime the only focus of loyalty."

Is this what we Orthodox Christians will face under the New World Order? Even if that day never comes, we cannot afford to be spoiled by our affluence. If we are not persecuted externally, we must persecute ourselves, denying our self-will in favor of God's will, curbing our appetite for pleasure and sensual gratification, consciously detaching ourselves from our culture's materialist preoccupations that we might seek first and foremost the Kingdom of God.

Our Egyptian friend writes:

"If it comes to talking about Copts, it will take books to explain how their life is being so hard and bitter because of persecution, but at the same time how sweet Christ is, the Good Shepherd Who never forgets anyone suffering for His Name.

Here is true prosperity!