Entries with tag faith matters .

Sometimes the World is Black and White: Archbishop Iakovos and the Lesson of Selma

March 15 marks the half-century anniversary of the culmination of a dramatic series of events in American Civil Rights history that have been seared into the country’s national consciousness, events now remembered simply as “Selma.”  On that day, captured for posterity in a moving cover photograph for LIFE magazine, the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the leader of the Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Iakovos, appeared together on a prominent national stage.  They were brought together by recent violence, tragedy, and murder that had taken place in Selma, Alabama.

Risking their jobs, their homes, and their families’ physical safety, African-American residents in and around Selma, Alabama, took the first steps beginning in January 1965 in what would become a fateful civil rights campaign.  Initiated by student activists and organized by ministers from the Southern Christian Leadership Council, local blacks attempted to register to vote, a basic civil and political right that they had been denied for generations after the post-Civil War Reconstruction in the South.  Town and county officials repeatedly turned away all black citizens as they rejected every attempt by African Americans to register to vote.  In response, the disenfranchised black community joined together in marches and peaceful demonstrations.  Despite constant intimidation and provocations from local and state police, civil rights protesters continued to rally and march peacefully in adherence to the Christian principle of non-violent civil disobedience.

Frustrated by their failure to silence the Selma protests, Alabama police authorities, now joined by members of the Ku Klux Klan, militant segregationists, and other white supremacists, turned to open violence.  On February 17, state troopers fired on and attacked a group of marchers in the nearby-town of Marion, killing a young Baptist deacon, Jimmie Lee Jackson, and wounding several others.  In response to the killing and violence in Marion, the leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Council prepared a march to take place from Selma to the state capitol of Montgomery, a distance of more than fifty miles.

On Sunday, March 7, some 600 marchers assembled outside a black community church in Selma to begin the journey to Montgomery.  As they approached the Edmund Pettus Bridge (ironically, named in honor of a Confederate general) over the Alabama River they were blocked, mockingly ordered to disperse, and then violently attacked by state troopers and local police.  Firing teargas canisters, mounted police and police on foot charged into the column of marchers, clubbing and beating both male and female protestors, ultimately hospitalizing more than 50 people.  The police rampage was broadcast by television around the world.  News and images of the violence stirred outrage across the country.  In the view of many scholars, “Bloody Sunday,” as the violent event came to be known, and the following week of developments culminating on March 15, marked the critical turning point in the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

In response to the events of March 7, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., sent telegrams to prominent religious and civic leaders urging them to join him in protest in Selma against the recent violence.  Hundreds of supporters responded and began arriving in Selma over the next several days.  Shortly after his arrival in Selma, one of those supporters, Rev. James Reeb, a young white Kansas-born Unitarian Universalist minister and community organizer from Boston, was brutally beaten and murdered by a group of Klansmen.  Rev. Reeb’s death, on March 11, produced a national uproar, prompting President Lyndon Johnson to address the nation in a televised broadcast in which he decried Reeb’s killing as an “American tragedy.”  A memorial service for James Reeb was planned to take place in Selma, on Monday, March 15, at Brown Chapel, the church where marchers had first assembled on “Bloody Sunday.”

From his headquarters in New York, the head of the then Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, Archbishop Iakovos, had been following the escalating events in Selma with growing alarm.  On March 12, the day after the death of Rev. Reeb, the Archbishop telegrammed the minister’s widow: “The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and our communicants extend deepest condolences and sympathy on the tragic death of your beloved husband, a minister of God who fought oppression of Human Rights and dignity and died heroically on the battlefield of mankind.”  The following day, March 13, Archbishop Iakovos was asked by Rev. Robert Spike, Executive Director of the National Council of Churches Commission on Religion and Race to fly to Selma in order to represent the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, the World Council of Churches (Iakovos was one of its presidents), and the National Council of Churches (Iakovos was its vice-president), at the memorial for Rev. Reeb.  On March 14, Iakovos met in New York with his staff and advisors, made up of both priests and lay people, who counseled him against going to Selma.  Iakovos’ advisors were concerned about the highly charged atmosphere in Selma, they were fearful about the Archdiocese taking any action that might prove to be politically unpopular, and they feared for the Archbishop’s personal safety. 

Against the opposition of his staff and advisors, Iakovos resolved to go to Selma.  On the morning of March 15, Archbishop Iakovos, accompanied by only one assistant priest, Fr. George Bacopoulos, and twenty other prominent clergymen representing various denominations flew into Selma on a small aircraft, which their pilot landed in a nearby cow pasture because he feared a violent reception awaited them at the town’s airport.  Iakovos soon arrived at Brown Chapel where distinguished religious and community leaders from around the country had already gathered to eulogize James Reeb.  As the highest-ranking religious leader at the memorial service, Iakovos was given a place of honor on the dais, from where he spoke to the nearly 4,000 mourners who filled the church to capacity and poured outside, saying:

I came to this memorial service because I believe this is an appropriate occasion not only to dedicate myself as well as our Greek Orthodox communicants to the noble cause for which our friend, the Reverend James Reeb, gave his life; but also in order to show our willingness to continue this fight against prejudice, bias, and persecution.  In this God-given cause, I feel sure that I have the full and understanding support of our Greek Orthodox faithful of America.  For our Greek Orthodox Church and our people fully understand from our heritage and our tradition such sacrificial involvements.  Our Church has never hesitated to fight, when it felt it must, for the rights of mankind; and many of our Churchmen have been in the forefront of these battles time and again….The ways of God are not always revealed to us, but certainly His choice of this dedicated minister to be the victim of racial hatred and the hero of this struggle to gain unalienable constitutional rights for those American brethren of ours who are denied them, and to die, so to speak, on this battlefield for human dignity and equality, was not accidental or haphazard.  Let us seek out in this tragedy a divine lesson for all of us.  The Reverend Reeb felt he could not be outside the arena of this bitter struggle, and we, too, must feel that we cannot.  Let his martyrdom be an inspiration and a reminder to us that there are times when we must risk everything, including life itself, for the basic American ideals of freedom, justice, and equality, without which this land cannot survive.  Our hope and prayer, then, is that we may be given strength to let God know by our acts and deeds, and not only by our words, that like the late Reverend James Reeb, we, too, are the espousers and the fighters in a struggle for which we must be prepared to risk our all.”

Some time later, Rev. King arrived and offered his own stirring eulogy to the congregation.  Eventually, as the mourners moved to exit the crowded church, Rev. King paused for a moment over the threshold of the doorway of Brown Chapel, locked hands with Iakovos, and spoke quietly and privately to the Archbishop.  From there, the two religious figures led the crowd of thousands in a solemn, peaceful, half-hour-long procession to Selma’s courthouse.  At the center, leading the march, was Dr. King carrying a purple and white memorial wreath, next to King on his right was Archbishop Iakovos, and to King’s left were Rev. Ralph Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young.  A resolute Iakovos, appearing stoic but dignified in his flowing black cassock and skufia, and clutching his archiepiscopal staff, towered physically over all others around him, capturing both the awe of spectators who had lined the streets and the curiosity of hundreds of reporters, photographers, and cameramen who followed the procession along its entire march.

When Rev. King and Archbishop Iakovos reached the courthouse, they found the building locked from the inside.  They and the other dignitaries leading the procession climbed the courthouse steps and then turned to face the almost 4,000 people who had followed them.  At that precise moment a photographer captured the image of Iakovos and King together that would appear on the front cover of the March 26 issue of the immensely popular, ubiquitous Life magazine, an indelible and still incomparable visual impression of the presence of Orthodox Christianity in American history and society. 

Following the conclusion of the memorial, Fr. Bacopoulos left for New York and Archbishop Iakovos flew to visit the Greek Orthodox parish of Holy Trinity in Charleston, South Carolina.  Since his enthronement as Archbishop in 1959, Iakovos had begun a concerted effort to visit all of the parishes in the Archdiocese, and his return from Selma afforded him an opportunity, which he had not previously realized, to meet his fellow Orthodox Christians in Charleston.  However, upon his arrival in Charleston the Archbishop experienced bigotry and a backlash from his own people.  Not a single member of the Charlestown Greek Orthodox community appeared for scheduled events, and Iakovos found himself alone in a hotel room fielding a stream of hostile phone calls throughout the night from Greek Americans across the country that were enraged by his presence in Selma earlier that day.       

In the years that followed Selma—marked by the subsequent legislative triumphs initiated by the Civil Rights Movement, and the expanding enlightenment of society around race and equality—more and more people, including the vast majority of Greek Orthodox Americans, came to appreciate Archbishop Iakovos’ role in the Civil Rights Movement.  Today, Greek Orthodox Christians in America rightly take reflective pride in the courage, vision, and dignity that Archbishop Iakovos displayed in the face of hatred, racism, and persecution.  Iakovos, unlike most of his white hierarchical contemporaries in the Roman Catholic and major Protestant Churches, especially during the early years of the Civil Rights Movement, was a consistently outspoken foe of racial intolerance and inequality throughout his entire period of archiepiscopal leadership.  Indeed, eulogizing the Archbishop’s death in 2005, Rev. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, reflected that “at a time when many of the nation’s most prominent clergy were silent, Archbishop Iakovos courageously supported our Freedom Movement and marched alongside my husband, and he continued to support the nonviolent movement against poverty, racism and violence throughout his life.” 

Without a doubt, Iakovos’ personal life experience growing up persecuted and discriminated against as an Orthodox Christian in Kemalist Turkey significantly influenced his unique perspective and distinguished him from other white major religious leaders in America.  Archbishop Iakovos knew all too well the harsh realities that defined life as a member of a minority traumatized by a history of enslavement.  Growing up as a Greek Orthodox Christian and citizen of the Republic of Turkey he had confronted daily the legacy of enslavement: the humiliations and insecurity that came with living in a society where his basic freedoms and rights were denied, where persecution, oppression, and arbitrary violence against his community were commonplace and justified by law.  Given his past, Iakovos identified with African Americans in ways that most Americans, including most Greek Americans, were never aware of or could never fully comprehend.

Ultimately, it was Iakovos’ faith that decisively determined his engagement with the world.  In short, the Archbishop was an unwavering, consistent advocate of the Civil Rights Movement because he was an Orthodox Christian, in deed and action, not only in word.  For Iakovos, some of the most basic principles of Orthodoxy—freedom, equality, justice, and the dignity and worth of all lives—were existential realities for all of humanity, because of God’s grace.  Denying people basic rights, persecuting individuals and communities on the basis of race, religion, or culture, constituted a rupture with God because it desecrated our sacred responsibility to accept and love all of humanity and to recognize that each and every person, regardless of race, is created in the image of God.  At Selma, Iakovos took the very unpopular action, at that time, to stand alongside Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in defense of the powerless, the disenfranchised, the downtrodden, and the poor because the Archbishop not only preached theology, he lived Orthodoxy.  Iakovos was determined to bring the beauty of his faith and Church into the real and sometimes ugly and brutal world, locking arms with Rev. King as a sign that we all must participate in transforming the world around us.     

There was no ambiguity in Archbishop Iakovos’ decision to embark upon the road to Selma—for him it was a moral obligation.  He truly revered and practiced the tenets of Orthodox Christianity, including the realization that there are moral absolutes, that often there is a right and a wrong, that, indeed, the world is sometimes black and white, and that such truths warrant recognition and action in their defense.  This is the fundamental lesson to be drawn by the noble, inspiring example set by Archbishop Iakovos at Selma. 

Rev. King often stressed that silence and inaction in the face of injustice and persecution was a betrayal of Christian principles.  Indeed, King famously noted “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”  Today, the Greek Orthodox Church in the United States—its hierarchy, clergy, and laity—has a moral obligation and a religious responsibility to rededicate itself to the things that matter, meaning that the Church must work unceasingly to contribute to the societal goals for which Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Archbishop Iakovos marched together on that fateful day in Selma in 1965.

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University, in Salem, Massachusetts, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.

Selma at 50: No Longer Master and Servants, but Friends

Inclement weather throughout the country, hours of traffic, long lines and hours of waiting couldn’t keep tens of thousands of U.S. citizens from convening in Selma, Alabama on March 7-8, 2015 for the weekend marking the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. As in 1965, people from various parts of America rallied around a common cause, namely, the rejection of racism. This was not achieved through the mandate of any single person, but because such action was consistent with the inscription in our hearts from the moment of creation. We were not called to live in isolation, in fear, and in opposition of each other, but rather in communion.

In this way, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not merely one of many Civil Rights leaders in our nation’s history, but rather, someone who responded to God’s calling to faithful and liberating servitude. And this he did not consider to be his own mission, but the ultimate purpose in life for all men and women. He encouraged all people of all faiths to search their hearts and rediscover the primordial quality that made us more than flesh and blood, more then men and women, more than black and white, more than self and other; to harness the faith to put on as our own mantle that which makes us images of God, namely love.

This was what visitors experienced as they encountered each other in the chapels, museums and streets of Selma. The brotherly love present in Selma reminded clearly reflected the love of Christ for His disciples. And this love was never condescending and never divisive. As was the case with Christ and His disciples, we in Selma had reached the point where we no longer carried ourselves as master and servant, but rather as friends, for indeed, all things that have been heard from the Father have also been made known to us (John 15:15). 

Ridley Scott’s Biblical Film—"Exodus: Gods and Kings"—and Its Discontents

Holy Moses, what a God-awful film—I promise that this essay contains no other insipid puns.  I am fascinated by film, ancient history, and Biblical stories.  Quite rarely since the 1960s, do all these things come together in big-budget, grand-scale Hollywood moviemaking.  Consequently, and especially because I had missed an opportunity to see Noah last spring, I resolved to experience the other 2014 Old Testament epic, Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, before it left theatres.  I looked forward to the film’s December release with great anticipation and interest, which was magnified by my respect for Ridley Scott’s large body of impressive work as a director—especially for his highly original, early masterpieces such as The Duellists, Alien, and Blade Runner—which has had an enormous influence on film over the last almost four decades.  Unfortunately, my excitement about Exodus and my expectations of Ridley Scott were entirely misplaced.

Exodus: Gods and Kings tells the well-known story of how Moses led the Hebrews out of bondage in Egypt, a Biblical narrative that communicates the theological purpose of God’s relationship with the ancient Jews.  Underscoring the power of film, the solemn Technicolor spectacle of the 1956 Cecile B. DeMille epic, The Ten Commandments, featuring Charlton Heston in his unforgettable role as Moses, is arguably so deeply imbedded in our popular culture that this cinematic account, rather than the Bible narrative itself, has become the Exodus story for most Americans.  Obviously, any challenge to the preeminent position long held by The Ten Commandments in the pantheon of Bible-inspired films would require extraordinary filmmaking talent and vision. 

The acclaimed English director, Ridley Scott, seemed a perfect candidate for retelling the story of Moses and the Exodus.  Scott is certainly no newcomer to historical film.  His first film, The Duellists, takes place during the Napoleonic Wars, 1492: Conquest of Paradise considers Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas, while Gladiator, one of Scott’s most successful films, is set in the Roman Empire.  Furthermore, Scott has directed works that have focused on the intersection of history and religion.  Kingdom of Heaven, for example, looks at the Roman Catholic Crusades against Islam.  Finally, over his long career, Scott has also developed a remarkable ability to successfully bring nuance, complexity, and emotional depth to epic historical dramas, whose mammoth size tend to promote two-dimensional portrayals in the hands of less talented filmmakers.  Yet, despite his impressive record of technical and artistic accomplishments as a director, Scott proved to be poorly suited to bring life and meaning to the subject of his film.  In short, Scott’s religious prejudices and ignorance of history undermined his effort to produce a film worthy of his reputation as a brilliant filmmaker.

The most successful Bible-inspired film of the last several decades remains Mel Gibson’s 2004 global sensation, The Passion of the Christ, an emotional juggernaut which forced Hollywood to take note of a largely ignored and undervalued Christian audience.  The Passion of the Christ was written, produced, and directed by Gibson, a devout Roman Catholic who aimed to reproduce through film as accurately as possible the scriptural description of Christ’s historical martyrdom.  Conversely, Exodus: Gods and Kings, was directed by an atheist, Scott, who curiously accepts the Biblical story of Moses and the Exodus as historical truth, but, paradoxically, dismisses the religious content and divine attribution of the narrative’s key events. 

Rather than reconstructing the Exodus story to reflect its religious content and meaning as elucidated in the Old Testament and the Torah, Scott uses his film to posit a materialist interpretation of the story, premised upon putatively historical and “scientific” evidence.  While Gibson was inspired to make his film because of his religious reverence for his subject, Scott was motivated by his rejection, if not also contempt, for the religious understanding of the events described in the story of Moses and the Exodus, a central figure and a watershed moment, respectively, in the evolving revelation of God for Christians, Jews, and Muslims.  Indeed, in recent interviews, Scott recounted memories of his boyhood in the 1950s when he scoffed at Biblical epics like The Ten Commandments.  Scott has noted on several occasions: “I didn’t believe it then, when I was just a kid sitting in the third row.  I remember that feeling and thought that I’d better come up with a more scientific or natural explanation.”  

Scott’s celebrated career and enormous influence in Hollywood, along with a budget exceeding 140 million dollars, enabled him, finally, to indulge his childhood hubris.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the result is a cinematic disaster.  The respected film critic, Scott Mendelson, offered a straightforward, unvarnished assessment in his December 2014 Forbes review, writing: “Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings is a terrible film.  It is a badly acted and badly written melodrama that takes what should be a passionate and emotionally wrenching story and drains it of all life and dramatic interest.” 

The failure of the film, however, extends beyond the cinematic conventions of passion and drama.  Scott’s film is a disappointment because of its conceptual and ideological underpinnings, which produce a ludicrous assault against both history and religion.  Here I want to be clear, that I do not advocate some crude religious litmus test for filmmaking: any director of a Bible-inspired film does not need to be a person of faith in order to produce a work of integrity, but producing such a work of integrity requires a director to be faithful to the film’s textual source—the Bible.  After all, Exodus: Gods and Kings is a feature film, not a documentary or religious symposium.  Filmmaking allows for, and for technical reasons often requires, creative latitude in the adaptation and transformation of textual material, including Biblical literature, into a motion picture.  However, Scott goes beyond merely making artistic or technical adjustments to the story of Exodus.  He has essentially created an alternative narrative. 

Scott’s film makes no effort to be true to the narrative of Moses and the flight of the Hebrews from Egypt.  Even this deficiency could perhaps be overlooked if Scott invoked the defense of artistic license.  However, because Exodus: Gods and Kings bears almost no resemblance to the Biblical narrative, it ultimately pretends to be something that it is not, and this is a deliberate deception that cannot be justified.  It is difficult to understand why one of the most gripping and suspenseful Biblical narratives needed so much ultimately strange altering, including the infusion of Arthurian mythology into the life of Moses.  For those familiar with the Biblical narrative, Scott’s version of the story is virtually unrecognizable.  In fact, given the omission of some of the most crucial and exciting elements of the Biblical story, coupled with the injection of entirely invented features, one may reasonably question whether anyone involved with this film ever read the Biblical account.  Were that not enough to raise concerns about the disingenuous approach to its subject, the film’s historical inaccuracies, as well as blunders in the depictions of Egyptian architecture and material culture, are too many and too vast to recount. 

Ultimately, most of the film’s problems stem from the director’s hostility towards religion.  Scott’s prejudice was clearly identified by the senior editor at the Biblical Archaeology Society, Ellen White, a University of Toronto Hebrew Bible scholar, who observed: “The movie [Exodus: Gods and Kings] is manipulative in its anti-religious polemic.  All the supernatural elements of the story (which are in the Bible to make theological points about the God of the Hebrews and thus are literarily important to the characterization of God, regardless of one’s faith position) are stripped away or given a scientific explanation within the dialogue.  It is amazing that in the movie…Moses is a firm atheist until he suffers a traumatic brain injury, which makes him hallucinate a boy-god.  Which brings us to the petulant, malicious boy-god, who plagues the Hebrews alongside the Egyptians, ignores Moses’ pleas for mercy and binds the Hebrews to him without choice in the final plague.  All of these alterations were designed to make religion look senile.” 

The highly accomplished British actor who plays Moses, Christian Bale, apparently enthusiastically embraced Ridley Scott’s outlook in preparing for his role.  In an October 2014 pre-release interview in Los Angeles, Bale noted that, although he had not been knowledgeable about the Bible before his involvement in Scott’s project, by the time of the completion of the film he was convinced that Moses was as a terrorist and “was likely a schizophrenic and was one of the most barbaric individuals that I ever read about.”  Bale also opined that Moses “was a very troubled man, tumultuous man and mercurial.  But the biggest surprise was the nature of God.  He was very mercurial.”  Bale’s unintentionally comic reflections on God are instructive because they reveal that the God of Exodus: Gods and Kings is not the God of the Bible, but exclusively the God of Ridley Scott’s imagination. 

Two months before the release of his film, a confident Scott declared with no irony or humility: “it’s always interesting to address all the facts.  Out of the facts comes the logic, and out of the logic comes reality.”  Scott’s desire to produce “rational scientific” explanations to account for the events found in the Exodus narrative ultimately led him to change even the most well known Old Testament image—God’s parting, through Moses, of the Red Sea, for the Hebrews to flee to safety ahead of the pharaoh’s pursuing army.  According to his belief, Scott attributes this dramatic climax of the Biblical narrative to a propitiously timed tsunami triggered by an underwater earthquake rather than divine intervention.

Through Exodus: Gods and Kings, Ridley Scott aims to discredit the religious interpretation of a pivotal Biblical story not by questioning the veracity of the story but by constructing a “scientific” explanation to replace the story’s religious explanation.  However, Scott fails to understand, among many things, that the historical authenticity of the Bible is not dependent upon material evidence, or, furthermore, that scientific explanation and divine intervention do not necessarily negate each other.  Scientific evidence is not needed to affirm the essential truths of the Bible.  For those truths, in the framework of Christian thought, are revealed and affirmed through the life and message of Jesus Christ, for whom the world was inexorably prepared, in part, by Moses.  This is a theological and historical reality that, not surprisingly, does not find its way into Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings.                                 

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.

MLK & Iakovos: Living Icons of Christ

On the first Sunday of Great and Holy Lent Orthodox Christians around the world celebrate the “Triumph of Orthodoxy,” a feast that commemorates the Church’s victory over iconoclasm. For over a century (726-843 AD), the Church was divided between the iconoclasts, who argued against the use and veneration of icons, and the iconodules (or iconophiles), who maintained that the veneration of icons was consistent with the tradition and teachings of the Church. During this time, the champions of Orthodoxy stressed that the presence of icons in the life of the Church was not a form of idolatry, but rather, served as windows to heaven, connecting humanity to Christ—to God. Preserving this teaching was of paramount importance because it was grounded in the Incarnation. In other words, if the Church rejected the use of icons, especially the icon of Christ, it would affirm a false teaching of the Incarnation, namely that the Son of God did not really take on flesh.

For many of us today, the Sunday of Orthodoxy is an opportunity to be proud of our faith and heritage. We go to church with our families, bearing the icon of our patron saints in hand. We are proud to be Orthodox, we say, and thankful that we are not members of some other religion. Interestingly, in their eagerness to celebrate membership in the Orthodox Church, many forget that their current status is largely due to circumstances outside of their control. Of course, this is not the case with those who have embraced Orthodoxy as adults or for all those who were baptized as infants and who later reaffirmed their faith as adults.

Undeniably, there are moments in life when all people have given thanks (sometime to God) that they are not viewed as other. The divide between us verses the them could be drawn along a number of issues, including, gender, age, class, political affiliation, wealth, and of course, race. While it is possible for people to move from one condition to another (e.g. wealth and poverty), it is not always possible to make such a transition in all circumstances. One’s race, for instance, cannot be changed.

Indeed, it is not only impossible for someone to change her race; it is impossible for her to keep it hidden (at least, not very easily), making it even easier to be considered other.

The Orthodox Church, for over two millennia, has engaged in the struggle to view and treat all people as equals, especially equal under God. Such a position has not been shaped by holding onto a certain political position, but rather, by maintaining the revelation that all people, since the moment of creation, are created in the image of God. This crown of this truth is found in the Incarnation—when the Son of God takes on flesh, is crucified and later rises from the dead for all people. Of course, there are moments in history where this legacy is pronounced, and other instances where the Church is seemingly absent from the debate.

In March of 1965, through the person of Archbishop Iakovos of blessed memory, the Orthodox Church was not only present in the effort to overcome racism, it assumed a central role. As the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of North and South America, Iakovos was able to take a local movement and transfer its message on an ecumenical platform. Indeed, according to Coretta Scott King, Archbishop Iakovos’ willingness to submit to the dangers of the struggle “elevated the struggle” and highlighted the importance of the Civil Rights Movement [1].

In his remarks at the memorial service for the Reverend James Reeb, Archbishop Iakovos declared that he traveled to Selma “to show [his] willingness to continue the fight against prejudice, bias, and persecution” [2]. Later, following the events in Selma, the Archbishop reminds both his supporters and critics that the noble cause of equality for all was “the essence of our Christianity, behind which we cannot shield ourselves with righteousness.” He goes on and affirms, “We cannot be Christians in name, and not in spirit and action. If our most prized possession is merely the respectability of Christianity, then we bring to it nothing but disrepute and dishonor. Christianity is not a jewel for safe keeping; it is a living thing which struggles with the challenge of an evil, rejoices spiritually when the evil is overcome, and dies when the challenge remains unmet and the evil triumphs” [3].

From these and other statements by Archbishop Iakovos, it is clear that in March of 1965, the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” was upheld in Selma, Alabama. The universal truth of Orthodoxy was pronounced in Selma not because people bore icons in their hands, but rather, because the men and women who gathered there bore witness to the truth in words, in writings, in thoughts, in sacrifices, and in churches [4]. And through their struggle against prejudice and racism, Dr. King and Archbishop Iakovos reaffirmed that the all people are living icons of God, deserving to be treated with love, dignity and respect. 

Racism Condemned as Heresy in 1872

We censure, condemn, and declare contrary to the teachings of the Gospel and the sacred canons of the holy Fathers the doctrine of phyletism, or the difference of races and national diversity in the bosom of the Church of Christ. – Article I of the Decree of the 1872 Council of Constantinople.

With those words, the pan-Orthodox council of bishops assembled in Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey) in 1872 condemned racial segregation in the Orthodox Church.

The trouble came about a few years earlier. At the time, the Ottoman Empire encompassed a vast territory that included modern-day Bulgaria. The Bulgarian Orthodox Christians in the Empire were under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (that is, the Church of Constantinople). The Bulgarians, unhappy with the Ecumenical Patriarchate (for pretty justifiable reasons, I might add) successfully lobbied the Ottoman government to create an independent Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

This, by itself, was not necessarily a problem – new Orthodox Churches had been carved out of the territory of the Ecumenical Patriarchate before (most notably the Churches of Russia and Greece). But the Bulgarians went further than that: they convinced the Ottomans that, if two-thirds of a given diocese was ethnically Bulgarian, the diocese would be transferred from the Ecumenical Patriarchate to the Bulgarian Church. This was a revolutionary, and disturbing, new development. 

And there was more: the Bulgarian Church had a parish in the city of Constantinople, which was clearly within the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The Bulgarian bishops exercised jurisdiction over this parish because it was ethnically Bulgarian, despite the fact that it was not in their territory.

Bottom line, then, the Bulgarian Church was pushing for ethnic (or racial) segregation in the Church. As you might expect, the Ecumenical Patriarchate would have none of this and called a pan-Orthodox council in 1872. This council issued a decree that condemned “the difference of races and national diversity” in the Church. Underlying that decree is the principle that we are all one in Christ – that there is neither Bulgarian nor Greek nor Russian, but all are united as members of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. The division of the Church based on ethnicity or race is tantamount to heresy because it divides the Body of Christ.

To this day, the Orthodox Church struggles with the notion of ethnicity. This is particularly true in America, where multiple Orthodox jurisdictions, divided mostly along ethnic lines, overlap in the same territory. But the 1872 Council of Constantinople articulated a principle that goes back to the earliest days of Christianity – that the Church embraces all people and cannot be divided along racial or ethnic lines.

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