Catholicos Nersess I, known as St. Nersess the Great, lived in the fourth century and was Catholicos from 353-373. He clearly would not have used the language of “social justice,” today a phrase meant to invoke wide-ranging demands for a more just and equitable collective arrangement of the world. In fact, scholars have argued that our idea of “society” itself is quite different from ancient collective communities, whether the Greek city-state or China under the Han Dynasty. Plato, greatly interested in the concept of justice, nevertheless understood justice as inextricably bound to the organization of the polis, the Greek city-state. The concept of justice has a long history, including classical philosophy and modern political arguments as well as within Christian thought itself. Social justice, then, as an argument for equitable treatment of black Americans or wealth redistribution to ameliorate poverty, was not the concern of ancient philosophers or early Armenian Christian hierarchs (Though there is a translation of some of St. Basil the Great’s homilies as On Social Justice, where both community and justice are discussed, none of the sermons themselves have “On Social Justice” as a title, and the concerns of the sermons are not fully identical to our contemporary understanding of “social justice”). To talk of “Lessons in Social Justice from St. Nersess the Great,” then, is a clear anachronism, something placed into a time period where it doesn’t belong.
Yet anachronism can have its place, especially for those like Armenian Christians who are self-consciously placed in an ancient tradition that must navigate the present. As we have argued before, tradition is not an unchanging past forced onto the present, but rather an inherited set of tools for making sense of that present. A living, vibrant tradition does not obsequiously repeat what has been done, but make takes the inheritance (in Armenian ժառանգութիւն, a word that could also be translated as legacy) as a treasure, a գանձ, that helps the Armenian Christian navigate the world in which she lives. In some sense, the interpretative techniques of Armenian Christianity itself makes this clear: typology uses one thing to make sense of another. Jonah is a type of Christ, Vartanantz makes sense because of the Maccabees, and Catholicos Karekin Hovsepian’s appearance at the Battle of Sardarabad was so powerful because of Vartanantz. The expansive world of Armenian commentary, from Biblical exegesis to liturgy to history, is a constant attempt to use saintly exemplars, Biblical narratives, earlier history, and Jesus Christ Himself to make sense of the present and to make relevant earlier lessons and events.
Even if our contemporary language of social justice— a phrase which emphasizes the desire for a more equitable society—is not how St. Nersess the Great would have described his project, there is no doubt that his conduct and life can help us make sense of our present. After months of social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officer Derek Chauvin led to mass demonstrations and protests against police brutality and the deep, structural racism still pervasive in America. How should we, as Armenian Christians, respond to the killing of an unarmed black man at the hands of a white police officer? To the subsequent protests? To the question of racism? Without treading into partisan American politics, we can insist that our Armenian Christian գանձ, our inherited ժառանգութիւն that is the tradition of the Armenian Apostolic Church can and should guide our response. The teachings of Jesus Christ in the Gospels, the collected wisdom of centuries of Armenian Christian writings, and the Armenian experience of racially and religiously motivated Genocide should all inform how we think about racism, state violence, poverty, and all the deep problems facing us collectively today.
|On Social Justice: St. Basil the Great||A set of homilies given by the Cappadocian Father St. Basil the Great. They address questions of wealth and poverty and remain remarkably relevant. Available from St. Vladimir’s Seminary SVS Popular Patristic Series.|
|The epic histories attributed to Pʿawstos Buzand (Buzandaran patmutʿiwnkʿ)||One of the most important early Armenian histories. It provides the most detailed account of the life and ministry of St. Nersess the Great. Translated with extensive commentary by Dr. Nina Garsoïan.|
|Girkʻ tʻghtʻotsʻ||The second edition of the Book of Letters prepared for publication by Archbishop Norayr Bogharian. Containing, in Classical Armenian, the correspondence of Armenian Catholici and other church leaders from the 5th to 13th centuries.|
Many people have argued eloquently for an appropriate Christian response to racism in America. Similarly, there have been two important strains of Armenian reaction: one highlights the role of race in the Genocide while the other addresses insularity and racism within Armenian communities, including the Armenian Church, today. Here, we will do neither of these. Rather, in commemoration of St. Nersess the Great, whom the Armenian Apostolic Church celebrates this Saturday, we offer a brief glimpse into the inherited treasures of the Armenian Christian tradition that can help us navigate the present. Too often, we succumb to the idea that the Armenian Apostolic Church has nothing relevant to offer us when we confront contemporary crises of this magnitude. Perhaps the Church offers solace in individual suffering or a moral guide for us personally, but oftentimes we look elsewhere to help with contemporary issues and debates. The life and work of St. Nersess the Great should remind us that the Armenian Christian tradition is a source of sophisticated and powerfully relevant ideas and models.
As we wrote last year, Catholicos Nersess I came from the lineage of St. Gregory the Illuminator, and became Catholicos later in life, after an illustrious military career. All of our information about Catholicos Nersess comes from the early Armenian histories, with a particularly detailed account of his activity in the Buzandaran. As we have made clear, St. Nersess would not have used our ubiquitous phrase “social justice,” but this is especially true because we have very little writing attributed to him. Only a handful of letters attached to his name survive in the Book of Letters, an important collection of theological correspondence. Most of these are written to, rather than from him. Yet the Buzandaran makes it clear that St. Nersess the Great offers important lessons for anyone interested in a just and equitable social order. The Buzandaran says that he indicated “the most suitable places to be set aside for the building of almshouses for the poor and to collect the sick, the lepers, the paralytics, and all those who suffered; leper-houses were designated for them, assistance and maintenance, as well as shelters for the poor.” In essence, he created communal, “publicly funded” (or funded through the Church) hospitals and support centers for the sick and the poor.
If this activity itself is evidence of a profound commitment to the marginalized of the Armenian society of his day and to the creation of a more equitable arrangement in this world, the depictions of St. Nersess the Great in the Armenian histories also provide us with a few lessons in accomplishing this kind of work. First, Catholicos Nersess was remarkably humble. Though he had already led an illustrious career and came from an important family, he initially refused King Arshak’s desire to make him Catholicos. In fact, he made up negative things about himself because he didn’t think he was worthy of the position! Humility, of course, is perhaps the fundamental Christian virtue. If pride was the crux of Satan’s fall and the heart of Adam and Eve’s sin, then humility is the antidote to that original sin. Anania Sanahnetsi, who died in 1070 and was a vartabed at the Monastery of Sanahin (still standing in the Republic of Armenia), wrote in his Commentary on Matthew, discussing the Beatitudes, “Because pride is the source of all evils, likewise humility is the origin and source of all good things.” Catholicos Nersess I displayed this foundational humility. In our own engagement with contemporary issues and debates, it behooves us to recall Nersess’ humility as the origin of all good things. It is easy to think that we have all the answers, while it is much more difficult to sit with someone else’s experience without immediately speaking from ours. Listening, trying to understand, and changing our behavior according to new information all take great humility.
Second, we see that he worked tirelessly an equitable Armenian society and for everyone he encountered. He poured his energy into concrete projects like Church-funded hospitals and places for the poor to eat and rest. In other words, he did not stop with humility and the reflective work that comes with it, but rather took action. He mobilized the resources available to him to support the most marginalized. Other leaders of the Armenian Church undertook grand building projects—beautiful forms of praise of God in their own right—but Catholicos Nersess the Great built and labored with the neediest in mind. This makes St. Nersess the Great a true saint and type of Christ, who Himself famously ministered to the most marginalized of His day. In other words, Christian faith is not just personal and aesthetic, but a communal endeavor that requires deeds. In our current moment, this is a profound reminder that it is not enough to make personal aesthetic changes, but that we must labor passionately for others.
Finally, we can note the opposition to St. Nersess the Great’s work by the political powers of his day. Though he was appointed by King Arshak, Nersess’ Christian moral convictions and unwavering support of the poor and needy led him to make important Church reforms that King Arshak did not like. As a result, King Arshak had Catholicos Nersess exiled. During this time, Khad, whom the Armenian Church celebrates alongside Catholicos Nersess this Saturday, served as Catholicos. After King Arshak’s death, King Pap ascended to the throne and St. Nersess returned to his position as Catholicos. However, King Pap held unorthodox Christian views and also worried about the moral authority of Catholicos Nersess with the people. Ultimately, the King had St. Nersess the Great poisoned. St. Nersess therefore demonstrates moral conviction in the face of political pressure. He reminds us that Christian duty and moral conviction are sometimes at odds with dominant political trends or the state itself. Of course, there is a long tradition of Christian thought that stresses obedience to authority and temporal government. St. Nersess reminds us, though, that there is always a higher authority. As we navigate our world today, we should find strength in the Armenian Christian tradition, which, through figures like St. Nersess the Great offers examples and tools for our present. In St. Nersess, we have at least three important lessons regarding the desire for a more just world: that we should start from a place of humility, that we need to translate our aesthetic responses into concrete actions for the most marginalized, and that sometimes moral conviction must confront unjust temporal authority.
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