Entries with tag faith matters .

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.

How to Make Outreach Part of Your Family's Lenten Journey

A major challenge for Orthodox Christians today is to leverage the strengths of technology while understanding that our faith places a high value on external and personal relationships.  Fulfilling Christ’s commandments to love God completely and to love and serve our neighbors typically takes personal interaction.  It would be hard to worship properly online (even though streaming the Liturgy is a sometimes useful innovation) and participating in any sacrament through an app will never be an option.  Similarly, it can be difficult to build rich and meaningful online experiences that serve those in need -- the hungry, the naked, the stranger, the sick and imprisoned.  At some point, if we are going to live up to Christ’s commandments and stand on His right side at Judgment, we must put the tech down, go out and meet people where they are. 

But who has the time to go out and help others?  Life is busy – plain and simple.  I’m the first to admit that my wife and I struggle to keep a balance among Church, work, school, Greek school, baseball, Greek dance, modern dance, Girl Scouts, family vacations, gymnastics, swim team, soccer, house chores, and homework.  With all of these activities, it’s fair to say that there is no balance in life.  Many of us suffer from the fleeting desire to give our children every material opportunity to prosper in life while we fail to give them the peace, calmness of home and dedicated time that is necessary to grow together as a family and to work together, family-as-church, towards our salvation.  

Keeping Christ and His Church at the center of our families’ Lenten journey starts with parents leading by example -- allowing our children to see us actively praying, fasting, attending church regularly and participating in acts of service to others.  As faithful parents a we must root our Faith deep into our homes and then take that faith back out into the world, building it into the routines and habits of our children through actions, not words. 

A key component of Lent that can often be overlooked is acts of mercy and outreach to those in need.  Whether it’s sponsoring a parish food or clothing drive, visiting the elderly or shut-ins, helping a neighbor take care of their home or working with homeless families and children we should all seek opportunities to engage in outreach activities and make service to others part of our weekly routine.

Working together as a family on outreach projects is not only a wonderful way to instill the teachings of Christ into our children, but it strengthens family togetherness, helps children learn, and empowers them to understand that they can help others.  Serving others benefits a child's psychological, social and intellectual development. It increases self-esteem, responsibility and helps children develop new social skills. The time that you spend together as a family helping others will be rewarding and more memorable than almost any other family activity this year. 

This Lent, make outreach a habit.  It will take time for your children to be comfortable at a nursing home or serving meals at a soup kitchen.  Don’t expect them to feel comfortable on their first volunteer experience.  But know that with each time they volunteer, they are building an inner strength that will help them throughout their lives and on your family’s journey to salvation. 

What can your family do to serve others?

  • Start at home: Read the daily readings, watch Be the Bee, and have a conversation with your kids about the topic covered. Teaching your children to focus on others and be aware of people’s needs is an important step in raising compassionate children. 
  • Sponsor a food drive at your parish or youth group and let your children be involved.  Let your younger children color a poster or flyer advertising the drive.  Bring your older children to the food bank or shelter when you drop off the collected items.   Local food banks are incredibly strained this year and there is always a need for non-perishable grocery items
  • Make greeting cards for children who are hospitalized with chronic illnesses
  • Visit the elderly and shut-ins, visit parishioners in their assisted living.  Bring them a small gift – a flower, plant, small icon, greeting card.
  • Invite FOCUS to your parish or youth group for a “family day” of service.  FOCUS will lead a day-long outreach into your community to help people in need while helping you learn and experience the root causes of poverty and understanding what you can do to help. email: info@focusna.org 
  • Listen to your kids – ask them for ideas of how you can help someone in need. 
  • Shovel the driveway or rake leaves for an elderly neighbor.  Lead by example.  It won’t do to tell your kids, “go rake Mrs. Pappas’ leaves!”  But if you get a few rakes, put them in the hands of your kids and lead them over to her house, you will find that it is wonderful to work together. 
  • Help FOCUS cook and serve meals to hungry children when they don’t have access to free/reduced meals at school.  Contact FOCUS for info on how your parish can help. www.focusnorthamerica.org or info@focusna.org 

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on the Role of Orthodox Laity in Christian Unity

A week ago here in Wisconsin, the Sunday liturgy was cancelled at our local Greek Orthodox parish. Typically, we would have driven the hour and a half to an OCA parish in Milwaukee that we sometimes attend but it was below zero and my wife and I didn’t want to test the iciness of the highways. Instead, we finally visited a nearby Byzantine monastery, which is about half the distance to Milwaukee. I had wanted to go there since we moved to Wisconsin last fall but this finally seemed like a kairos moment. Yet, I had my doubts about how we would be received. This hesitation was not from a lack of experience with Byzantine monasteries. I am no stranger to those. Instead, it was due to the fact that the monastery was not only Byzantine, but Byzantine Catholic. I had been to Eastern Catholic churches before but never a monastery. I knew the liturgy would be the basically the same but would the community be otherwise ‘weird’? Admittedly, this is a strange thought coming from an American-born Orthodox from the Deep South where Orthodoxy doesn’t even register as Christian for many. I wondered how the monks would react when I told them I was Eastern Orthodox. Would it be awkward? Would I have to find the right words as to not offend or confuse? These and other worries crossed through my mind before making the decision to go.

It turns out that my petty insecurities were unfounded. I was surprised and impressed by this bastion of Eastern Christian spirituality hidden among endless acres of farmland in a town with a population of 783. It had a thriving lay presence on Sunday’s Divine Liturgy. Many families trickled in during the service and I watched as they lit their candles and looked for a place to stand in the tiny chapel. The sermon was powerful, direct, and deeply rooted in the Eastern Fathers. It is certainly not a coincidence that the brotherhood choose to settle in a town named after St. Gregory the Theologian. My wife and I were on our way out after the service when a young monk ran up to meet us. After a friendly chat with him, I was told it would be fine to take a photograph in the chapel (which is not always a given). We then met the abbot, who was equally kind and put to rest any initial hesitations about our reception. Most importantly, from my short conversations with the monks and from some pamphlets they have for visitors, I got the impression that there was a clear recognition of the tragic reality of ecclesial disunity between Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, but a determination to work towards its healing. In other words, there was neither a naïve ‘well, we’re all the same anyhow!’ nor a fatalistic ‘our differences cannot be overcome’. This encounter left me with thoughts on the role of Orthodox laity in ecclesial unity among Christians.

It seems a given that our rifts will never be healed without the work of the entire church community. There must be a role for the laity in the process, which is also, dare I say, a prerogative. This mending will never occur if clergy and laity continue to point to canons forbidding prayer with separated brethren (while ignoring many other canons) to justify avoiding ever attending a church or even associating with other Christians outside of work. I don’t buy the argument that going into a church is akin to an act of treason that somehow validates the group as supreme and repudiates one’s own allegiances. Neither does it lead to a weakened faith, though it may reveal an already weak faith. Perhaps the hard truth is that many secretly don’t want unity despite grudgingly giving it obligatory lip-service. It can be hard to define yourself when you no longer have a foil to which you can favorably compare yourself and point out their every flaw. But this is not a path to unity and will lead nowhere but increasing sectarianism and ghettoization. The informed laity cannot simply leave it up to the theological authorities and bishops to solve this issue, but must show their interest and investment by making this clear in their words and actions and by getting involved in events that show mutual Christian affection and respect that goes beyond their own communities.

Of course, many will see a danger in this. What if some people get the idea that real differences and divisions are superficial and can be ignored or flouted? This is a legitimate concern and I do not wish to diminish its importance. But note that I earlier specified ‘informed’ laity. I submit that there is a need for committed and spiritually-rooted Orthodox Christians to meet and even worship with other Christians, not to proselytize or engage in apologetics but to come together in love, honesty, and the hope of future reconciliation, which must be built on love. At the very least, this will help us know the ‘other’ not in theological caricature but as concrete persons we are called to love, forgive, and ask forgiveness of before offering ourselves as a living sacrifice at the Holy Table.

I want to be clear that I am not advocating full sacramental participation prior to actual ecclesial unity. I don’t think this issue can be solved by disingenuously pretending there is no division. In fact, I think that the inability to fully participate serves as a painful but necessary reminder of our disunity. Similarly, I do not suggest neglecting one’s own liturgical services to attend others, since various Christian services often occur at the same time. I am simply calling for laity to take advantage of, and even make, opportunities to fellowship with other Christians and express their solidarity and desire for union. This is the single most important step in overcoming centuries of animosity, mistrust, and spiritual stereotyping. If the laity mobilize to show that this is a pressing issue for them, it is much more likely that something will be done about it by the Church as a whole. Ironically, this influence can be most famously seen in the popular mobilization against the failed Council of Ferrara-Florence. Today we need to apply the same force to the cause of ecclesial unity in accordance to Christ’s prayer that ‘they might be one’, regardless of whether we think it is likely or even feasible.

Despite the notorious bad blood between Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholics in lands where there has been sheep-stealing and internecine (or should I say ‘inter-Nicene’) violence, I believe Eastern Catholics will play an important role in future Christian rapprochement. They can be viewed as the test case for other Orthodox churches. Can the Catholic Church reverse centuries of centralization to rediscover and accommodate a robust diversity of autonomous and autocephalous churches? Can the Orthodox Church accept a spirituality and liturgy that does not have its roots in Byzantium and rediscover a meaningful place for the Pope of Rome as the first among equals? While it is still too soon to know, in the last few decades leaders in the Catholic Church have begun to seriously address many of the historic grievances of the Orthodox faithful such as local diocesan autonomy and the possibility of married priesthood. These are signs of goodwill and Orthodox should publically recognize them as such and reciprocate in kind with similar gestures that indicate a willingness to work towards unity.

This is not a formal theological proposal. It is my own theologoumena, if you will. Or perhaps, even less, it a simple personal reflection on these matters since I am not trained as a professional theologian or canon law authority. Yet, I can find no good reason that an informed laity should not take up the call to be more involved in the mandate of promoting Christian unity to whatever degree it is possible, and even whenever it is not. I can confidently say that I plan on returning to the aforementioned Byzantine Catholic monastery this Lent whenever I cannot attend locally or when there are additional services that are not offered at most parishes. Yes, I know I’m an optimist but that won’t stop me from hoping, praying, and acting for Christian unity, adopting the following slogan until I, God willing, reach the age of seventy-four: “De-Schism 2054.” We all have a role to play.

Dr. Christopher D.L. Johnson is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Fond du Lac.

Death by Snow: Syrian Refugees Face Struggle to Survive in Winter

Death by snow: it’s a reality that receives little attention in the international media, but for the more than 11 million Syrians living as either internally displaced persons (IDPs) inside the civil-war torn country or as refugees in neighboring states, the effects of winter weather make our extreme weather problems here in the US look like a winter wonderland.

Think about it.  Earlier this week, the US government shut down because of snow.  This past weekend, New England was hit by another blizzard.  The country’s southern states have been paralyzed by the shock of snowfalls.  Meteorologists are predicting the continuation of record extreme weather conditions for the rest of this month.  Through it all, the US news cycle reports that wet and heavy “heart-attack snow” has claimed many victims; hospital E.R.s have seen a spike in visits for treatment of grizzly frost bite symptoms; urban commuters have been trapped in subways stopped by frozen tracks and power outages; public school superintendents are scrambling to reschedule the rest of the academic year after the onslaught of snow days; and homeowners are struggling with freezing pipes and buckling roofs caused by ice dams. 

But we in America would do well to put our angst about winter into perspective.  In the words of a wise teenage whose maturity and compassion and humor bring daily joy to my life, “these are first world problems!”  She’s absolutely right.  The reality of winter for Syria’s IDPs and refugees is a daily struggle for survival against the winter elements.   Consider the following facts, simple and bleak.  Since Syria’s descent into civil war since 2011, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees has registered 2.2 million Syrian refugees in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan, and the government of Turkey has registered 1.5 million Syrian refugees.  Other neighboring countries in the Mideast and North Africa, as well as in Europe, have taken in an estimated 100,000 refugees from Syria, bringing the estimated total to 3.8 million refugees, with an additional 6.5 million Syrians living as internally displaced persons. 

Simply put, 50% of Syria’s population (more than 11 million out of 22 million) has been moved, either voluntarily or by force, because of the unending violence of civil war between supporters of the al-Assad regime and a motley coalition of opposition forces which have now been infiltrated and marginalized by the expanding terror footprint of The Islamic State (IS/ISIS).   As The Wall Street Journal reported early this year, Syria’s population shifts since 2011 would be the equivalent of “more than 160 million Americans either fleeing the U.S. or moving to other cities or states because of fighting in their neighborhoods.”  

Imagine our extreme weather conditions of the last few weeks against that sort of backdrop, and you have a sense of the winter nightmare being endured by Syrians.  During the months of January and February, winter conditions, including blizzards, rains, heavy winds, and freezing temperatures, have swept Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Israel and the Palestinian Territories.  Indeed, winter struck just after international humanitarian providers raised the alarm about the humanitarian consequences of impending snows in the Mideast.  At the end of 2014, the World Food Program (WFP) announced that flagging donor support was forcing the suspension of the WFP’s food voucher program, a cut that would terminate the ability of  1.7 million Syrian refugees in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey to buy food in shops; the United Nations agency emphasized that the suspension of the food voucher program would be disastrous for Syrian refugees and IDPs already at risk of perishing from malnutrition and lack of regular access to clean drinking water. 

According to the Syrian Refugees Inter-Agency Report for February 2015, prior to the cold snap that’s spread across the Levant, 38% of Syrian refugees were already living in sub-standard conditions which aid agencies have described as deplorable, despicable, and inhuman.  The UN reported its preference for relocation of refugees affected by winter weather, but yet again, lack of funds has made this impossible.  Syrian refugees and IDPS struggle in plastic tents with no heat and intermittent electricity.  The majority of tents are not weatherized, much less winterized, so snow and rain and wind have meant that tents collapse, camps flood, and people freeze to death.  Relief workers report that small children are either barefoot or wearing summer flip-flops in freezing temperatures.  Standard-issue plastic sheeting provides no protection, and the need for blankets and heating stoves is at critical levels.  The UN has moved urgently to distribute blankets, as well as stoves and gas cylinders for heat, but these goods are in short supply and can’t meet the needs of the full refugee populations. 

The terrible conditions in formal refugee camps organized by international aid agencies are worse still in the plethora of informal refugee settlements in which many Syrians have gathered.  For example, Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley has almost 900 informal refugee settlements, where tens of thousands of Syrians congregate unsheltered, in sheds and on farmland and in vacant lots.  The Lebanese Red Cross reported only recently that Syrians fleeing across the border into Lebanon have frozen to death on the trek, with a seven-year old boy and a shepherd, and a 10-year-old girl, the latest recovered victims of wartime winter.   The plight of Syrian IDPs is even worse.  Hundreds of thousands of Syrian IDPs live in unfinished buildings and garages, and on exposed mountainsides.  In the absence of core relief services, such as physical shelter, regular access to food and water and basic medical care, and functioning sewage systems, the most vulnerable populations (children, women, the elderly, and the disabled and emotionally traumatized) are at grave risk of perishing in winter. 

Meanwhile, here in the US, a quick look today at the short-term forecast by the National Weather Service shows that we’re in for more ice, snow, and frigid temperatures in huge swaths of the country.  But let’s remember, our battles with weather are first-world struggles.  For Syria’s millions of refugees and IDPs, the weather forecast is a matter of life and death.  Let’s try to take action, by offering time and treasure to humanitarian organizations and relief agencies that can make sure that death by snow is not added to the daily suffering, degradation, and despair that now define the lives of so many of Syria’s people.

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.

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