The great religious systems of the world – and many regional indigenous strains – weave a harmonious montage in their admonitions against greed and materialism. This blog post is the first in a series highlighting religious unity against the type of values seen in the dominant religion of the land: the confluence of commerce, materialism, and consumerism. These posts are adapted from the book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, available in May 2014.
Ambrose served the populace in good manner as the governor of Milan, by appointment of the Roman emperor. When the bishop of Milan died in 373 CE, popular acclaim demanded Ambrose take the seat of bishop . . . except Ambrose had no interest in the ecclesial appointment. He even tried – unsuccessfully – to escape Milan to avoid the appointment. He quickly acceded however, and was baptized, ordained, and consecrated as bishop in a whirlwind eight-day process. A rare moment in church history: quick movement.
Ambrose wasn’t perfect (like Martin Luther later, he was involved with indiscretions against Jews) but he was adept at speaking truth to power. A riot in Thessalonica (modern day Greece) led to the death of the appointed Roman governor in that city. Emperor Theodosius, incensed at this outburst of disorder, ordered swift retaliation – even though Ambrose counseled the emperor toward patience and investigation. The bishop’s advice went ignored; retaliation came with the massacre of 7,000 Thessalonians. Later on, when Theodosius travelled to Milan, he attempted to enter church to celebrate mass. Ambrose stopped the emperor at the door and confronted him: no communion for the emperor until he repented of his sin. Remember, these were the days before widespread understanding of democratic sharing of power; Ambrose’s position was most vulnerable. Ambrose stood his ground, communion was withheld, and the emperor eventually repented. Theodosius later decreed a thirty-day wait period before executions were carried out in sentences of death.
Ambrose had an innate sense that clergy were called not only to confront abusive power, but to seek justice in support of the weak against the strong. From his Duties of the Clergy: “God has ordered all things to be produced, so that there should be food in common for all, and that the earth should be a common possession for all. Nature, therefore, has produced a common right for all, but greed has made it a right for a few” (italics mine). Rush Limbaugh, modern-day free market fundamentalist and bard of inequality, recently described the teachings of Pope Francis as “pure Marxism.” Sorry, Rush – Ambrose pre-dates Marx significantly and Pope Francis is simply propounding the historic social doctrine of the church. Ambrose helped to formulate it more than 1600 years ago: the church feeds the hungry and seeks to influence those whose decisions affect the greater common good.
Remembering Ambrose of Milan – who died Easter Sunday, April 4, 397 – teacher, preacher, composer of hymns, who stood for social justice in the face of inequality.