Entries with tag faith matters .

Honoring Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Remembering the Christian Origins of Nonviolent Resistance and Civil Disobedience

Every January, since its first federal observance in 1986, the national holiday honoring the life and legacy of the great civil rights leader and humanitarian, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., reminds us of the seminal role and moral good of nonviolent, peaceful resistance, protest, and civil disobedience in the struggle against injustice.  Rev. King rightly represents the most enduring figure in American history to be associated with these principles and practices.  Indeed, he and his life’s work are inseparable from both the history of the African-American Civil Rights Movement and from the enshrinement of nonviolent resistance and peaceful civil disobedience in the body politic and culture of postwar America. 

Yet, despite his popularized, current depiction, Martin Luther King, Jr. was not merely a political activist or community organizer who gained national influence through his eventual leadership of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s.  Rev. King was a devout Baptist minister, for whom Christian faith, philosophy, and principles were the cornerstones for how he understood life and society.  Indeed, Rev. King’s recognition of, and responses to, racial and social injustice, including his articulation and use of nonviolent civil disobedience to tackle injustice, were based entirely on his Christian beliefs.  In 1967, Rev. King famously stated: “Before I was a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the Gospel.  This was my first calling and it still remains my greatest commitment.  You know, actually all that I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of my ministry.” 

The public statements that Rev. King made about the centrality of Christianity in his engagement with civil rights were reinforced in his writings.  In one of the most famous and important documents of the Civil Rights Movement, the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written in April 1963 after his arrest and harsh detention following a nonviolent protest against racism and segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, Rev. King wrote to his “fellow Christian brothers” in an open letter that would be widely published: “of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience…It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face the lions and the excruciating pain of the chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.”               

History before Christianity does not provide us with any examples of peaceful social resistance.  Several religions which predate Christianity—Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism—may all have espoused the virtues of peace, but none, not even Indian Jainism, which regards nonviolence as the most fundamental practice of its faith, articulated a coherent philosophy of peaceful, nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience.  In this sense, the life of Christ and the early history of Christianity are instructive for understanding the origins, and establishment for the first time in human history, of the philosophy and practice of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience.

Through his preaching and example, Jesus Christ—God Incarnate—presented mankind with an example of how to respond to injustice and evil with nonviolent resistance.  Unlike the Zealots and other Jewish contemporaries of Jesus who used violence in their national struggle against Roman rule, Christ embodied a more revolutionary means and message to overcome injustice, conflict, and division in the world—love.  In His “Sermon on the Mount,” the main source for the philosophy of nonviolent resistance and peaceful civil disobedience, Christ tells us to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  This moral lesson and tenet of faith sustained the Early Church and contributed decisively to its survival and growth during its first few centuries, a time when Christians were violently harassed and persecuted first by Jews and then by the full force and power of the Roman state.  Nonviolent resistance to injustice and abuse did not end with the Christianization of the Roman/Byzantine Empire beginning in the fourth century.  Indeed, Christian mass civil disobedience, whether to heretical emperors or Iconoclasts in power, arguably acquired its most overt qualities through the repeated episodes of Orthodox resistance to corrupt or errant political and ecclesiastical authority in the Byzantine Empire. 

Reflecting on its long history, the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese priest and prolific theologian, Fr. Philip LeMasters, notes “nonviolent resistance has been present in the Church from its earliest days until the present.  Martyrs and confessors, both ancient and contemporary, have disobeyed laws and other directives that they discerned to be contrary to their faith and conscience.  Some have done so when governments commanded them to commit idolatry or embrace heresy.  Others have refused to obey unjust laws by protecting the innocent or calling for social and political change, rejecting passivity or submission in the face of evil.  These are examples of deliberate acts of resistance and refusal to allow corrupt worldly powers to control the conscience and actions of Christians.”

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, deliberate act of nonviolent resistance against the lingering, morally corrupting racist structures rooted in America’s shameful history of slavery was anchored in Christ’s tenet of love for all men.  Again, Fr. LeMasters makes it clear that such nonviolent resistance, like Rev. King’s civil disobedience, was a direct reflection of Christian philosophy: “These examples do not present nonviolent resistance as a merely prudential tactic to achieve a political goal that might also be accomplished by violent means.  Instead, these types of nonviolent action grow from the heart of the Christian faith: the selfless, suffering, forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ whereby we reconciled to Him and to one another, even our enemies.  Christ spoke and acted prophetically, denouncing evil and challenging social and religious structures that were contrary to God’s will for human beings.  Orthodox nonviolent resistance to evil follows Christ’s example.” 

This Christian view of the fullness in purpose of nonviolent resistance against evil and injustice is what accounted for Rev. King’s understanding of his civil rights mission as a religious ministry rather than as a campaign in political activism.  Consequently, when American society and state honor the memory of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., they also acknowledge, albeit unwittingly, a debt to Christ, whose message of love and forgiveness—of which we are all beneficiaries—resonated through Rev. King’s own life and martyrdom.            

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

The Sole Religion Charlie Hebdo Has Yet to Mock

Last week’s attack on the editors and staff of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, carried out by Islamic extremists looking to avenge what they regarded as blasphemous depictions of the prophet Muhammad in cartoons the newspaper had published, was a barbaric and brutal act that can only elicit profound outrage and grief from those who adhere to the most basic principles of morality and civilized society. 

What meanwhile has been the subject of increasingly robust debate, especially as the days have passed since the horrific attack, has been the question of how much appreciation is merited by the work and the principles of those at Charlie Hebdo who died.  A relative few in the western press and social media have made the unfortunate suggestion that they more or less had it coming to them.   In a piece widely criticized by people across the political and religious spectrum, Bill Donahue of the Catholic League accused the newspaper’s editorial director, Stéphane Charbonnier, of being narcissistic, and observed, “It is too bad that he didn’t understand the role he played in his tragic death.” The obvious problem with Donahue’s statement is that it makes the attackers less than fully culpable by placing some of the blame on their victims.   

Much more common have been articles and posts that regard Charbonnier and his colleagues as heroes of freedom and civilization.  Even those who would not themselves rush to offend others’ religious sensibilities have been led by the hideous attacks against Charlie Hebdo to champion the right to offend and blaspheme, and even to raise it to the level of a duty.   “The right to blaspheme (and otherwise give offense) is essential to the liberal order,” wrote the generally conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who by the word “liberal” was speaking of course of the classical Liberalism that undergirds western democracies.  “If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something,” Douthat goes on, “then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn’t really a liberal civilization any more.”

It is essentially this perspective, less fully articulated, that is reflected in the “Je suis Charlie” hashtag that immediately spread through social media in the aftermath of the attack.  One can understand how this way of showing solidarity with the victims, in mass defiance of the terrorist threat, could strike so many as the best and most compelling response and how it has continued to have broad resonance – witness the ubiquitous placards displaying the phrase at Sunday’s rally in Paris in which more than a million people marched, and the statement “Paris est Charlie” projected in block letters onto the façade of the Arc de Triomphe at night.  But there have also been criticisms, well worth considering, of the impulse to identify oneself too closely or fully with Charlie Hebdo as an icon of what our culture stands for at its heart. 

At a certain moment last week, newspapers and magazines across Europe and elsewhere were being urged by Charlie Hebdo supporters to run the very images of Muhammad – in one or more of which he is depicted pornographically – that Charlie Hebdo had run that had generated death threats and eventually served as the motive for the murderers’ brutality.  Suddenly, the idea in many people’s minds was that publications uncomfortable with running these same offensive images were cowards.  Not to participate in ridiculing Muhammad was now to “let the extremists win”.  An impressively lucid editorial in London’s The Guardian saw through this fallacy:

“[S]upport for a magazine’s inalienable right to make its own editorial judgments does not commit you to echo or amplify those judgments. Put another way, defending the right of someone to say whatever they like does not oblige you to repeat their words. . . . [You] can defend – and defend absolutely – the necessary diversity of press voices along with an editor’s right to offend. But the best response is not to be forced to speak in a different voice. The Guardian felt that at the time of the 2005 Danish cartoons controversy, and we feel it now. As Simon Jenkins argued on these pages on Wednesday, terrorists’ chief goal is to make us change our behaviour. It’s best to deny them that victory.”

At least as insightful were reflections of Matthew Yglesias in the online magazine Vox: “It's clearly one's legal right, as an American, to go around flinging offensive racial slurs at black people or to stage a neo-Nazi march through a Jewish town in Illinois. Many foreign countries take a narrower view of such things, but I think the United States has this correct. Still, while I want to live in a world where people can use racial slurs, I would have absolutely no problem with a world in which nobody did. Free speech is a right, but politeness is a virtue. . . . You shouldn't publish racist cartoons! That's not free speech, that's politeness and common human decency.”

When indecency is elevated to the status of a moral good, then what we have is a dangerous conflation of a merely legal/procedural value with an inherent value.  In the absence of true and authentic values, a culture of procedural Liberalism will be tempted in this direction, tempted not only to defend but to celebrate as if it were good what it is committed to preserving as a legal right.  But what we may permit legally and what we affirm morally are two different things.  When as a free society we have defended the legality of Hustler magazine or a KKK march (the analogy goes only so far, certainly, since the Klan’s history includes lynchings that have no equivalent in Charlie Hebdo’s past, and Hustler’s images have none of the potential intellectual or political value that satire can have), this typically has not carried with it much risk of our actually admiring or affirming the content of what we have permitted to be expressed.  Nor, if the anti-semitic or racist rants of Klansmen had ever resulted in their murder by extremists from the minority groups demeaned by them, would our absolute condemnations of the killing have led us to feel any obligation to carry the Klan’s torch ourselves.

Would those today expressing their proper horror at the deaths of the Charlie Hebdo contributors by adopting the “Je suis Charlie” mantra be saying “I am the KKK” if Klansmen had been the ones murdered?  And if people in massive numbers did raise placards at marches and send messages through social media with the hashtag “I am the KKK,” would this not be a rather disturbing phenomenon for Jewish and black people to see?  Again, the analogy has its limits – Klansmen, unlike the writers and artists at Charlie Hebdo, care less about free speech as a general principle than about expressing their own specific contempt for ethnic minorities – but how, still, does a Parisian Muslim today who utterly abhors violence look without profound inner discomfort at an officially sponsored sign at the center of town identifying his city with the publication that blasphemes his faith?

There is, in fact, no moral requirement whatsoever to keep doing boldly and fearlessly whatever is likeliest to tempt militant zealots to commit acts of violence, as if anything else would be to "let them win".  The right to unfettered freedom of expression is not at all to be pursued and cherished humanly and interpersonally, as it is legally.  Christians are very far from understanding themselves as having no restrictions on their own speech.  “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter” (Mt. 12:36).   

Certainly there is no possible justification from a Christian point of view for retaliation against others who say even the most insulting, offensive, or blasphemous things.   Jesus did not condemn those who chose to disparage him – “anyone who speaks against the Son of Man can be forgiven” (Mt. 12:32) – and singled out blasphemy against the Holy Spirit as the only unforgiveable sin, which seems to mean that some who remain open to what is good and right and true may yet speak ill of Christ from some misunderstanding about Him.  Muhammad himself seems to have been similarly placid and restrained in the face of those who accused and insulted him.

If, however, those who mock and blaspheme are to be treated with humanity, love, and restraint, this is not to say that Christians, even in staunchly defending the freedoms of liberal democracy, might not have good reason to decry in the strongest possible terms instances when humiliating words and expressions are directed toward others in the public sphere, especially toward those whose dignity is already seriously injured, as may be said in a general way of the Muslim population in French society.  Not all Americans, for whom freedom to malign religion and freedom to exercise religion are both firmly held as essential rights, are aware that Muslim women in France are banned from wearing headscarves in government buildings, that another French law (upheld by the European Court of Human Rights) prohibits Muslim women from wearing the veil in public and that a Muslim mother cannot accompany her child on a public school field trip unless she first removes her headscarf.  Far from speaking out against these limitations on the religious freedoms of Muslim women in France, the editorial staff at Charlie Hebdo has seen itself as coming to the aid of Muslims by urging them to shed their religious identity altogether.  Scott Sayare, writing in the Atlantic Monthly last weekend, recounted his 2012 interview as a New York Times reporter with the top editor of Charlie Hebdo, Gérard Biard (who was not in Paris last week during the massacre at his publication’s offices), in which Biard had suggested that while all religions are subject to the newpaper’s satire, Islam is, from his point of view, “in need of especially caustic treatment . . . insofar as it has prevented its followers from full integration into French society.”  Sayare’s reporting on the views of Biard goes on:  “‘You’re not supposed to use religion for your sense of identity, in any case not in a secular state,’ Biard said. ‘In principle, the Arabs in France are not Muslims,’ he contended—that is, Arabs in this secular, assimilationist nation are citizens like any others, and would be well served to renounce whatever attachment they may feel to Islam. ‘How is it going to help these people to make them believe they’re Muslims?’ he asked.”

Charlie Hebdo cannot fairly be said to stand for pluralistic freedom but for an imposed and remarkably narrow form of secularism – laïcité, as it is called – a kind of religion of secularism, as may be seen in these further words of Biard:  “Laïcité,” he said, “is not just some abstract idea. It is a moral value, and I believe today, one must recognize that laïcité is perhaps the prime moral value of our Republic. Because without it, Liberté, Égalité, and Fraternité isn’t possible.”

At least one commentator has suggested that the spirit of Charlie Hebdo has always and only been anti-idealist and iconoclast, and that the last thing the murdered cartoonists and editors would have wanted would have been for us to “sacralize them as embodiments of some abstract ideal of free speech,” but that analysis does not square with Biard’s words above.  Biard’s words show, on the contrary, that the newspaper’s slain contributors and their surviving colleagues did and do live and work according to something they have believed to be transcendent, an ideal, as indeed every human being does if he or she is to go on living and working at all.  The ideal in which they have believed has been the, to them, transcendent ideal of laïcité, what Biard considers to be the highest value animating the French Republic – an ideal so sacrosanct that Muslims’ right even to dress according to their own religious convictions is thoroughly overridden by it.  Charlie Hebdo’s own absolute faith in laïcité represents the one system of belief it has yet to find the freedom or the courage to mock.

Is, though, the publication’s current cover, showing Muhammad with a tear on his cheek – and the artist’s own tears as he spoke this past Tuesday of the cartoon’s profound, and apparently non-satirical, message of forgiveness – a small chink in Charlie Hebdo’s otherwise relentlessly anti-religious armor?  May we all wish it so as we mourn the deaths of those slain and pray for the souls of their persecutors.

Will Cohen is Associate Professor of Theology at the Univerity of Scranton, where he teaches on the Bible, Byzntine theology, Latin American theology, and issues of work and rest in light of faith.

Theophania and the Human Right to Water

By Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou, with Theodore Pritsis

As we enter 2015 and celebrate the Feast of Theophany, Orthodox Christians are presented with an opportune moment to reflect on a recently passed resolution of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), on the International Decade for Action “Water for Life 2005-2015.”  It’s a fair bet that most Orthodox Christians, indeed, most U.S. citizens, are unaware that we are entering the final year in a decade of efforts spearheaded by the UNGA aimed towards achieving the goal of “sustainable development of water resources,” and more fundamentally, towards ensuring the actualization of “the human right to clean drinking water and sanitation,” a right which the UNGA recognize as “essential to the realisation of all human rights.”  

It’s probably a safe bet that most of us do not stop to think about the enormous blessing that is our access to clean water and sanitation, much less to consider the implications choosing/having to purchase bottled water at the nearest grocery or convenience store.  It’s also likely that we are unaware of the fact that regular, unimpeded access to safe drinking water and sanitation is a point of growing tension and conflict in the Holy Land, especially at the Jordan River, the place of the original Theophania

Before turning to consider water in the Holy Land,  let’s review some basic data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta, Georgia: as of 2010, an estimated 780 million men, women, and children worldwide (11% of the world’s population) did not have access to safe water sources; more than 2.5 billion people (over 35% of the global population) did not have access to sustainable sanitation; and, of the 801,000 children under the age of five die from illnesses caused by unsafe and inadequate water for drinking, hygiene, and sanitation.  Even these few statistics should be enough, at the least, to raise curiosity about, and more justifiably, to end indifference to, water as a major human rights issue in the 21st century. 

Within the specific context of the Holy Land, the urgency and complexity of water as a human rights issue takes on tragic dimensions—for, in the lands of Jesus Christ’s birth, teaching and preaching, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, and in the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized by St. John, the Forerunner, universal access to clean water for drinking, hygiene, and sanitation, is anything but a given.  The Jordan River system, along with the Sea of Galilee and limited underground sources, provide water to Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Territories.  However, geography and politics, and especially, more than a half-century of continuing war, conflict, and refusal to recognize that water unites all humanity, are combining to make the salvific waters of the Jordan River into a stark expression of humanity’s failings. 

Even so, the Theophania event offers a reminder of hope for overcoming the limitations of the Fallen state.  Likewise, at a time when courageous and visionary leadership from all parties and brokers to the “Israeli-Palestinian Problem” is in staggeringly short supply, the example of John the Baptizer is worth recollection.

The event of Theophany focuses on the awesome synthesis of Jesus Christ’s divine and human natures.  Popularly referred to as Epiphany, the Theophania is, literally, the visible manifestation of God as man, with the public revelation, for the first time, of the Divine nature of Jesus as God, the Christ and Co-Eternal Son.  Theophany inaugurates the salvific mission of Jesus of Nazareth as human, and the exact location of Christ’s baptism, five kilometers north of the Dead Sea, carries enormous historical significance.  It marks the very spot where the Israelites crossed the Jordan River led by Moses’ successor, Joshua (Jesus) of Navi.  It is also the site of the Prophet Elijah’s ascent into Heaven on a chariot of fire, ordaining the Prophet Elisha as his successor.  The succession of these significant events, which culminate in the Baptism of the Incarnate Logos, has transformed the Jordan River into one of the most frequented pilgrimage sites throughout the Holy Land, from the period of Late Antiquity to the present. 

Pilgrimage to the Jordan River has been challenged by the unrelenting conditions of conflict in lands surrounding Christ’s baptismal location.  Pilgrimages were made difficult from 1948-1994, due to the Israeli-Jordanian conflict, and while the 1994 Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty normalized diplomatic relations between those two countries, access to the Jordan River occurs within the broader geopolitical context of the Holy Land, which can hardly be characterized as normal.  Diplomatic complications and physical security dangers notwithstanding, thousands of Christian pilgrims from all over the world continue to visit the site of Jesus Christ’s baptism.

On January 18th of every year (the Julian Calendar equivalent to the Gregorian Calendar date of January 6th) according to the New Calendar, His Beatitude Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem and all Palestine, along with a delegation from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, including thousands of Christian pilgrims, travels to the Jordan River, where an agiasmos (a service of sanctification of the waters) service is celebrated.  For those able to participate in the Theophany blessing of the waters of the Jordan River, the energy of the moment is palpable and enlivening, a combination of humility, joy, and hope. 

In contributing to this post, Theodore Pritsis recounted the details of one of the Theophany services that he attended over the past two years in his service in the Holy Land:  “I watched as hundreds of Christian pilgrims jumped into the Jordan River’s frigid waters—as if it were a scorching summer day in Jericho, where temperatures reach 150 degrees Fahrenheit—embracing the baptismal experience as a hajji, a Christian who is re-baptized in the waters of the Jordan.  I will never forget the perfectly positioned dove on the Patriarchal staff, which eventually flew off and landed on the bare head of His Beatitude Patriarch Theophilos III, who continued to read calmly the Gospel passage for Theophany.   In a very personal kind of way, this was the revelation of God for me.  It all made sense: this was the joy of the Lord, majesty by way of simplicity.  God chose to reveal Himself by allowing a dove to land on the bare head of the bishop of the Resurrection.  This was our Baptized Lord’s method of assuring us not to fear, that He is always with us and that He is always beside the suffering Christians in the Holy Land.  With each passing generation, being a Christian in the Holy Land becomes significantly harder due to the mass exodus of Palestinian Christians from their homeland.  The Theophany blessing at the waters of the Jordan River, is a reminder of the organic connection of mankind to his physical environment, and a comforting expression of the fact that Christians are a part of the natural fabric of society in the Middle East, such that the integrity and reconciliation in this region must support on a strong, vibrant, living, Christian presence.”

Of course, the revelatory centerpiece of the Theophania events is also connected to another message, namely, the heroism of John the Forerunner.  John’s role, within the context of soteriology, is not limited to the event of the Baptism.  The title of “Forerunner, o Prodromos” that the Church attributes to the son of Elizabeth and Zachariah suggests the anticipation, inspiration, and radical boldness, of John as the Baptizer of Christ.  Christ described the preeminent significance of John the Forerunner as “the greatest man born of a woman until that point” (Mark 11:11), and patristic understandings of John the Baptizer present him as a sort of boundary between the Old and New Testaments.  According to Augustine of Hippo, “because John represents the old, he is born of an elderly couple; because he represents the new, he is revealed as a prophet in his mother’s womb.”

In his role as Forerunner, John is fearless, yet his fearlessness does not trump his humility, when he quotes the Prophet Isaiah, describing himself as the “voice of one crying in the wilderness” (John 1:23).  John utilizes baptism as a way of encouraging people to turn away from sin and to seek righteousness, and in the process, expresses the centrality of water for healing, reconciliation, peace, and the fullness of life—for all human beings. 

This year, as Orthodox Christians commemorate the Theophany events at the River Jordan in the Holy Land—the revelation of Christ as Son of God and the new, salvific beginning offered through the Holy Spirit, as well as the humility and fearlessness of John, the Forerunner and Baptist—by attending agiasmo services and departing church with bottles filled with blessed water, we would do well to pray for those deprived of the human right to clean water.  The waters of the Jordan, which baptized the icon of God the Father, the Incarnate Christ, the physical manifestation of Love, offered the reconciliation between the created and the Uncreated to which Christians are called to aspire.  Water reminds us of the potential to move beyond the limitations of our human condition, just as our very physical survival as human beings is impossible without clean water.  John the Forerunner offers us a prototype for commitment to helping in every effort to ensure that all human beings around the world enjoy the right of unfettered access to clean water.  As we celebrate the Feast of Theophany in the year 2015, we should be mindful that this is also the concluding year of the International Decade for Action “Water for Life 2005-2015” proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations.  Orthodox Christians should commit to the message of the UNGA resolution, leading by example, and we should connect that message to the Baptist’s unceasing proclamation from the deserts of Palestine, to “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2).

Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou is Visiting Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University, and Affiliate Scholar at Harvard University's Center for European Studies, where she Co-Chairs the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe Study Group.

 Theodore Pritsis is Advisor-Liaison to His Beatitude Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem, and holds both an M.Div. and M.Th. from the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.

Christian Genocide in the Middle East and Public Apathy in America: Looking Back on 2014 and Before

One of the last diplomats to leave Smyrna after the Turks set the great Anatolian port city ablaze in September 1922 was the United States’ Consul General, George Horton.  Reflecting on the carnage and depravity of the Turkish forces tasked by Mustafa Kemal to destroy Smyrna’s Greeks and every physical semblance of their three-millennial presence in the magnificent city on the western littoral of Asia Minor, Horton wrote that “one of the keenest impressions which I brought away from Smyrna was a feeling of shame that I belonged to the human race.”  The shame that Horton expressed stemmed from his shock and disgust, both as a witness to the Turks’ genocidal frenzy and as a diplomat aware that several Western governments, including his own, had contributed to the horrors that took place in Smyrna. 

The destruction of Smyrna marked the dramatic, fiery climax—although it would not be the telos—of the Turkish nationalists’ genocidal project to annihilate the historic Christian populations of Asia Minor.  The mass murder and mass expulsion of the Ottoman Empire’s and Turkey’s Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks from 1915 to 1923 marked the twentieth century’s first large-scale and systematic state-directed genocide, establishing a model that would inspire and be replicated by other criminal regimes throughout the following century.  Moreover, the Turks’ policy of genocide encouraged imitation elsewhere, precisely because that holocaust against Christians was astonishingly successful and without penalties for the perpetrators.  Indeed, the Turks not only achieved their objectives—the slaughter of three million Christians and the expulsion of another two million from their ancestral homes did, in fact, produce an essentially homogeneous Muslim Turkey—but they did so without any consequences, evading all accountability and any justice. 

One of the chief reasons that Turkey escaped responsibility for its crimes against humanity was the complicity, albeit indirect, of several of the Western powers in those crimes.  During the First World War, the Allies condemned the Turkish nationalist leadership that controlled the Ottoman Empire for its acts of genocide.  However, once the war ended, various Western Allied powers (most notably France, Italy, and the United States), in pursuit of commercial concessions from the Turks, entered into diplomatic understandings with the Turkish nationalists, pushed aside and buried the issue of genocide, and even provided military aid and support to Kemal’s regime, thereby enabling the founder of the Turkish Republic to complete by 1923 the bloody “nation-building” project begun by his colleagues in the Ottoman Empire in 1915.

Despite the duplicitous postwar actions of several Western governments, popular sentiment in those same societies was deeply sympathetic to the plight of Christians in the Ottoman Middle East.  A remarkable variety of international relief and aid efforts emerged throughout the West, especially in the United States, in response to the humanitarian crisis produced by Turkey’s policy of annihilating its large Christian population.  The extermination and expulsions of Christians—Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks alike—in Turkey were widely reported in the United States, producing strident calls by several prominent diplomats, politicians, influential religious leaders, scholars, and the press to respond decisively to the crisis as a moral imperative and a Christian duty.  Two years before the US even entered the war, Americans had answered this call to action by organizing the highly publicized, nationwide charity that would become known eventually as Near East Relief, which channeled millions of dollars in aid to Christian survivors of the genocide. 

In sharp contrast to the American public’s outrage over the Muslim Turks’ extermination of Christians a century ago, the most recent genocide of Christians in the Middle East by fanatical Muslims, under the moniker of ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) has witnessed a very different response in American society—apathy.

In the year 2014, ISIS launched a reign of terror against Arab and Armenian Christian populations reminiscent of Turkey’s genocide a century earlier.  As Islamic State forces advanced across the northern arc of the historic Fertile Crescent (the territory stretching across northeastern Syria and northwestern Iraq), ancient Eastern Christian communities were decimated.  An undetermined number of Christians, many several thousands, were killed or enslaved by the Islamic State’s forces in 2014.  In order to escape this fate, almost 250,000 Christians fled the areas occupied by the Islamic State.  The Islamic State’s cleansing of the Christian populations under its control recalls and reiterates the project of nationalist Turkey, one in which nationalist Islamic forces functioned to create a homogeneous Muslim society in the territory under their control.

Tragically enough, the erasure of Christians in Iraq and Syria in 2014 is only the most recent episode in the wave of violence and persecutions against Christians that has been underway since the fateful United States invasion of Iraq in 2003 catalyzed the state failures and Islamist extremist mobilizations that are producing anarchy in the Near East.  During the last decade of bloodshed and chaos in Iraq, and more recently in Syria, perhaps as many as 100,000 Christians have been killed and more than 1.5 million have been made refugees.  As a result, Christianity now faces the possibility of extinction in the lands of its origin. 

The American government’s response to this humanitarian catastrophe has been characterized by overt indifference.  The Bush administration dealt with the embarrassing fact that its Iraqi misadventure had unleashed the destruction of the country’s ancient and large Christian population by ignoring and suppressing that fact.  Simultaneously, the Bush government, either deliberately or through sheer folly, implemented occupation policies that undermined the security and prospects for survival of Christian communities in Iraq. 

The Obama administration has continued and compounded the fecklessness of its predecessor administration.  Most recently, in an effort to erase the humiliation produced by his reckless comment made in late July, that the White House had no policy to deal with the Islamic State, President Obama rushed to launch a policy initiative in early August.  In a televised national address, President Obama announced that he had ordered military action against the Islamic State, rationalizing the move to limited air war in Iraq and Syria by invoking the US’ moral obligation to protect Iraq’s Yezidi religious minority from genocide at the hands of the Islamic State.  The privations of the Yezidis certainly justified a response and aid, but the genocide and plight of the much larger Christian communities of Iraq, brutalized for more than a decade by the region’s mélange of Islamist extremist groups and actively and passively persecuted by the Baghdad government, were largely ignored in President Obama’s speech.

The US government’s indifference to the genocide of Christians in the Middle East is shocking, but, unfortunately, not surprising.  The demonstrated disregard for the suffering of Christians in the Middle East by the administrations of Presidents Bush and Obama is entirely consistent with a double standard established by the moralizing hypocrisy of Woodrow Wilson in the midst of the first genocide of the twentieth century.  In fact, American administrations have been willing not only to turn a blind eye to genocide against Christians in the Middle East; they have gone beyond that, by consistently supporting, at least since the 1980s, Turkey’s genocide denial efforts. 

Yet, where is the public outrage?  Although the US government has remained consistent in its indifference and duplicity on this subject, the attitude of the American public has undergone significant change.  A century ago, the Turks’ genocide against Armenians and other Christians provoked public outrage and led to large-scale humanitarian relief efforts in the United States of America.  A century ago, America’s civil society leaders, public intellectuals, and media mavens actively promoted awareness of the Turks’ crimes against humanity, and led popular initiatives to rescue Christians from death and suffering.  The invocation in the public sphere of Christian duty and moral imperatives was sufficient to produce societal concern and action.  In contrast, today, as the Islamic State completes the destruction of the historic Christian centers that Kemal’s forces did not reach, the American public’s response is one of apathy.  The apathy is reflected in the measurable lack of public awareness campaigns and in the absence of activism when it comes to coverage about and support for the Christian victims of Islamist violence. 

The cultural and intellectual currents, as well as official policies, that have aimed to expunge religion, in general, and Christianity, in particular, from the American public sphere have been corrosive for any commitment to respect for faith and, especially, for assigning value to the survival of Christianity in human civilization.  Signs of America’s emerging a-religious culture has also been instrumental in explaining public misperceptions about the Middle East as home only to Muslims and Jews, thereby rendering reporting on Christians in the Middle East largely incomprehensible or meaningless.  In a word, the cumulative social and cultural changes attendant to the specific drivers and modes of secularization in America go a long way to explaining the reasons for American public apathy towards the annihilation of the Mideast’s Christians.  Indeed, the knowledge, principles, and the very language—“Christian duty,” for example—that produced widespread outrage and drove humanitarian relief in response to genocide against Christians a century earlier have no place in today’s public dialogue, and for some, are viewed as vestiges of an exclusivist American identity that must be terminated.

The domestic politics of faith and US foreign policy concerns regarding religion have contributed to a worrying cynicism in how Washington policymakers engage on the issue of the Middle East’s disappearing Christians.  This past August, President Obama introduced the Yezidis—a group unknown to Americans, indistinguishable victims, free from any association with Christianity—to justify limited military action against the Islamic State.  Given current American political sensitivities towards Islam and social changes generating ambivalence and hostility towards Christianity, the President (much as with his predecessor) made no clarion call for action to protect today’s Middle East Christians—a group whose experiences in the Ottoman Empire were marked by the same options—pay a poll tax, convert, flee, or be killed—that face the Yazidis and the Christians suffering in the ISIS footprint.

This year, 2015, will be a year of centennial remembrance and commemoration of the Christian—the Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek—genocide.  It will also be a year of genocide denial, already planned and launched by the Turkish state, as well as by Turkey’s apologists in the US government, American media, and academia.  In recognition of this tragic centennial, as well as the unfolding genocide in the Middle East in our time, this blog will return to these issues in several postings throughout 2015.                   

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

Christopsomo: An Ancient Christmas Tradition and a Modern Recipe

Bread has always been a staple of the Greek table, inexorably associated with life and substance, the staff of life.  For Orthodox Christians, bread has always had symbolic, sacred importance; indeed, Christ himself is referred to as “the Bread of Life.”  The convergence of these two currents in Greek Orthodox society produced a nearly two thousand year-old living tradition in which the preparation and baking of bread for holidays and other special occasions has functioned as a creative, expressive medium for celebrating faith and hope.  This tradition is most well known for yielding the annual appearance of Tsoureki, the renowned “Easter bread” found in every Greek Orthodox home at Pascha.  But just as Easter has its own traditional bread, so too does Christmas.

Christopsomo—bread of Christ, or Christ’s bread—has been used to signify and celebrate Christ’s birth probably since early Byzantine times, if not earlier.  Great care goes into the annual preparation of Christopsomo in many Greek Orthodox homes.  Only the most superior ingredients are to be used, and, according to tradition, no expense should be spared in making this mildly sweet, light, yet rich, spice-infused bread.  Reflecting its religious inspiration, Christopsomo is usually round in form, the loaf serving as a circle, symbolic of eternity, the passing of this life, and the hope of life everlasting through Christ.  Indeed, the prominent chef, author, and authority on Greek cuisine and foodways, Diane Kochilas, observes that “the very fact that the bread is edible folk art, consumed, after so much hard work, is itself symbolic of the ephemeral nature of life itself.”           

Although special Christmas breads are common to many Orthodox cultures and peoples (Cesnica among Serbs, Cozonac among Romanians, Kolach among Ukrainians, and Krendel among Russians, for example), the decorative customs associated with Christopsomo are unique to Greek tradition.  In fact, all such Christmas breads are meant to be decorated in ways symbolizing good wishes, hope for the future, and God’s grace through imagery that touches on the livelihood of the family.  In rural villages, the Christopsomo is adorned with ornate, sculpted dough figures representing crops, livestock, plows, farming traditions, and more.  In the region of Kastoria, villagers traditionally honored their animals by also making small individual Christopsomo biscuits representing each of their sheep, goats, donkeys, and horses.  In fishing or other coastal or island communities, the Christopsomo may feature images of boats, fish, or sponges.  Common Christopsomo symbols found throughout Greece include grapes and vines, olive trees, sheep, and daisies, the petals of which represent the number of family members.  Despite an abundance of regional variations, the most common symbol is the Greek letter “X,” the early Christian representation for Christ. 

The Christopsomo is broken by Greek Orthodox Christians in much the same way throughout the world, whether in Albania, Cyprus, Greece, Greek America, Turkey or elsewhere.  In the historic Greek world, Christopsomo was traditionally made the day before Christmas and eaten on Christmas Day.  In the Greek Diaspora we encounter both continuity and some change in this practice.  As Marilyn Rouvelas concisely points out in her wonderful and deservedly ubiquitous book, A Guide to Greek Traditions and Customs in America, “Some families attend church on Christmas Eve and return home for a meal that begins with the cutting of the Christopsomo by the head of the household.  Others wait until a main meal on Christmas Day.  The head of the house makes the sign of the cross on the bread with a knife saying, ‘In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,’ and then cuts a piece for each person with a wish of ‘Kala Christouyena (‘Good Christmas’) or “Chronia polla’ (‘Many years’).”

With characteristic generosity and grace, and in the spirit of Christmas, the talented Diane Kochilas shares gratis with the public a traditional Cretan recipe for Christopsomo from her website, “Diane Kochilas: Greek Food for Life,” originally published in 2001 in her superlative book, The Glorious Foods of Greece:

CHRISTOPSOMO FROM CRETE (makes 4 breads)

INGREDIENTS:

¼ ounce beer yeast

3-4 cups hit water

5 ½ pounds flour used for bread 

3 cups plus 1 tsp sugar

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 cup fresh orange juice

1 tsp mastic crystals 

1 tbsp ground cinnamon

1 tbsp ground coriander

1 tbsp ground fennel seeds

4 walnuts, in their shell

1 large egg, slightly beaten with 2 tbsp water

1 ½ cup sesame seeds mixed with ¼ cup sugar

1.  Make the starter: In a large bowl dissolve the yeast in 1 cup hot water and add 1 cup flour.  Mix well, cover the bowl, allowing the yeast to rise for an hour.  Add 1 cup sugar, ½ cup oil, the orange juice and 1 cup flour.  Mix with a wooden spoon, add more flour if necessary in order to make a soft dough.  Knead until smooth.  Let sit covered in a warm place until doubled in bulk, approx. 2 hours.

2.  Using a pestle and mortar grind the mastic crystals with 1 tsp sugar.  In another bowl, large enough to fit all the remaining ingredients, mix the rest of the flour, 2 cups sugar and spices.  Create a well in the middle and place the starter there.  Start kneading working progressively and adding the rest of the water in doses until you get a firm, yet smooth dough.  Continue kneading, either by hand on a floured surface, or in a mixer with a dough hook (you might need to divide the dough mass to fit inside the mixer bowl).  Knead until smooth, about 10-12 minutes.  Add flour as needed to achieve the desired silky, non-sticky texture.  Place the dough in an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and leave to rise, about 2 hours, until doubled in bulk.  You can also divide the dough and knead two or four pieces separately, leaving them, if desired in the same oiled bowl or in separate ones.   

3.  Once the dough has risen, punch it down again gently.  Depending on whether you have kept one big piece or four smaller ones, divide so that there are eight equal balls altogether.  Shape these into ropes about 8 inches long.  Take two per loaf and shape into a cross, pressing to secure in the middle.  Let rest in oiled pans, covered with a kitchen towel, until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour or so.  Press a whole walnut into the middle and bake in a preheated oven at 390 degrees Fahrenheit.  Brush with an egg wash and sprinkle with sesame seeds.  Bake until golden, about 40 minutes.  Cool on a wire rack and serve. Wrapped well in cling film, the breads will last for about a week. Or, wrap well and freeze.

For a traditional round shape loaf, follow the directions above, except where the recipe calls for two 8-inch ropes of dough coil a 24-inch roll of the dough into a mounded circle (similar to a snail shell).  Of course, if you, like me, lack the basic skills for success in the fine art of baking, you can also use a very modern approach to enjoying this centuries-old custom: visit your local Greek bakery or other purveyor of fine breads and make off with several loaves of Christopsomo for home, family, and friends.

Whether you make your own Christopsomo or others do so for you, remember and take joy in the fact that when you break this bread at your Christmas table you are partaking in an ancient custom that connects you, in living tradition, to the community of Orthodox Christians past, present, and future, with whom you share this special bond in celebration of the birth of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Merry Christmas.       

 

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

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