Entries with tag greek orthodox archdiocese of america .

Life, Not the Death Penalty

Last spring, I had the privilege of hearing oral arguments for a lethal injection case at the U.S. Supreme Court. Working as a television reporter in Washington, D.C. at the time, I had the station’s legal beat and occasionally found myself at the nation’s highest court.

 

In this case, inmates sentenced to death in Oklahoma were suing the state over its use of a drug called midazolam, the first administered as part of the state’s lethal injection protocol.

 

There was growing evidence that midazolam—which is meant to render a person unconscious before the painful drugs that actually stop the heart are injected—wasn’t doing its job. A man in Oklahoma and another in Arizona were seen gasping and writhing in pain during their respective executions.

 

The legal question was whether executions involving midazolam constituted “cruel and unusual punishment,” violating the Eighth Amendment. The Supreme Court wasn’t convinced, narrowly deciding (5-4) to uphold Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol.

 

The five justices who ruled in favor of the this iteration of the death penalty formed their opinions on legal grounds. I would argue that, perhaps, they were not formed on a moral or ethical ones.

 

However, the Orthodox Church—through several local Churches worldwide—has taken action to oppose it.

 

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has spoken about the perversion of violence and hatred against other people in any form, including corporal punishment.

 

“How can [Jesus] support the death penalty for people’s wrongdoings, especially when He came to save the lost, and desires ‘that all may be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth?’” Patriarch Bartholomew said during a 2013 speech at an ecumencal gathering in Espoo, Finland. “How can life possibly embrace death?”

 

The Moscow Patriarchate has also encouraged mercy over lethal punishment, noting that the abolition of the death penalty provides more opportunities both for the Church to engage in pastoral work and for those who have committed crimes to repent.

 

“Today, many states have either abolished the death penalty by law or stopped practicing it,” the Russian Church’s document on the basis of the social concept states. “Keeping in mind that mercy toward a fallen man is always more preferable than revenge, the Church welcomes these steps by state authorities.”

 

Fortunately, 82 percent of countries have either introduced moratoria on the death penalty by law or in practice or have abolished it entirely.

 

Here in the U.S., where the practice is still legal in most states and in the federal government, Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos has worked extensively to put an end to the death penalty, having served twice as president of the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty before it was finally banned there in 2011.

 

Like virtually all contemporary social issues, this one is vastly complicated and riddled with nuance. But the data and research overwhelmingly paint a picture of a death penalty that doesn’t really work.

 

Death penalty convictions are often based on the race of the accused and of the victims, inmates are frequently removed from death row after evidence is found of their innocence, claims that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to murder are flawed, and enforcing the death penalty costs taxpayers millions of dollars more than it would to punish all first-degree murderers with life in prison.

 

When basing a decision in the supreme value of human life and the virtue of mercy, it becomes even more obvious that the death penalty should be discarded.

 

If your justification for opposing abortion is a personal commitment to champion life, why let the death penalty slide? Surely, “pro-life” has to actually mean “pro-life.”

 

Remember that Christ Himself prevented the legal execution of a woman (John 8:3-11), saying “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.”

 

World Day Against the Death Penalty is marked every year on Oct. 10.

 

Andrew Romanov is a Fellow at the UN for the Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (un.goarch.org).

 

The Archdiocese is an accredited Non-Governmental Organization at the United Nations through the Department of Public Information (UN DPI) and has General Consultative Status under the Economic and Social Council of the UN (ECOSOC). It has been actively working at the United Nations for 30 years.

When it Comes to Racism, Start with the Person in the Mirror

“Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me remove the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the plank that is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First, remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck that is in your brother’s eye.” Luke 6:42

Martin Luther King Jr. is the United States’ most famous civil rights leader, having advanced equality for racial minorities by using nonviolent civil disobedience based on his Christian beliefs.

That method of protest inspired countless others to join him in seeking equality for all in America, including numerous faith leaders. The movement, perhaps unlike the United States at the time, did not discriminate based on color or creed.

King was assassinated in 1968, but the many people he inspired during his ministry continued to espouse his message of peace and justice.

Archbishop Iakovos of North and South America, who was one of the faith leaders who joined King at the March on Selma, later reflected on how the civil rights movement was not over and how it continued to be a driving force in his own life.

“I know that civil rights and human rights continue to be the most thorny social issues in our nation,” he said. “But I will stand for both rights for as long as I live.”

Decades after Archbishop Iakovos’s remarks, civil rights and human rights are still at the forefront of a national conversation—and in many ways still are “the most thorny social issues in our nation.” 2016 was undoubtedly a year of racial tension in America.

Despite statistical evidence of discrimination against African Americans in law enforcement, in housing and in employment, many people refuse to listen to the people in our communities who face that discrimination every day.

In light of King’s inspiring legacy, it is perhaps even more unfortunate that people deride contemporary civil rights organizations for their work in bringing an end to said discrimination.

The criticisms of the Black Lives Matter movement today, for example, eerily resemble those of Martin Luther King Jr.’s movement 50 years ago.

In a rebuke of the civil rights movement’s critique of white violence against blacks, one person in a 1966 telegram anonymously asked King, “what about the violence by blacks in these cities?”

“Hang your head in shame,” another wrote to King. “You are responsible for all of these riots and havoc in this country today.”

Still another wrote, “you don’t point out any faults at all of your own people, just the whites.”

Sound familiar?

Such an unwillingness to listen is in contradiction to the scriptures, in which God instructs us to “incline your ear to wisdom and apply your heart to understanding” (Proverbs 2:2).

As Christians, we are called to look inward and to improve upon ourselves instead of pointing out the flaws in others. It is based in the act of repentance, the recurring stage of salvation in which we turn away from sin.

How might you discriminate in your life? At the very least, it’s worth some thought.

Do you subconsciously put your hands in your pockets when you pass a black person on the street? Did you not consider a babysitting applicant because her name sounded like she might be black or Hispanic?

These days, it’s easy to deny being racist and to generally support the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King Jr.’s era. After all, you’re probably not lynching people or forcing them to drink from a different water fountain.

But how might racism still manifest itself in your life? How can you bring an end to racism in yourself?

Martin Luther King Jr. and Archbishop Iakovos knew that, as icons of Christ in the world, they were called to challenge the institutional inequalities in our country that unnecessarily pitted one group of people against another. Many others feel that they are called to similar work today.

For us, perhaps we ought to start simply with the person in the mirror.

Andrew Romanov is a Fellow at the U.N. for the Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (un.goarch.org).

The Archdiocese is an accredited Non-Governmental Organization at the United Nations through the Department of Public Information (UN DPI) and has General Consultative Status under the Economic and Social Council of the UN (ECOSOC). It has been actively working at the United Nations for 30 years.

Arduous Journeys Across Seas and Deserts

Let’s say you had to move away. Actually, let’s say you had to move far away—like, outside-of-your-country far away.

In this scenario, the economy has gotten so bad that nobody—not even the most skilled individuals—can find work anymore. If you want to live comfortably or even put food on your table, you’ll have to go elsewhere.

Or, you grew up in a low-income family, but you studied hard, defied all expectations and earned a spot at the best university in the world, located somewhere across the sea. This is an incredible opportunity that would forever change your life and that of your family.

Or, there’s violent civil war in your country. The most recent election was hotly contested and the military staged a coup in an attempt to retain power and maintain civil order, pitting faction against faction and neighbor against neighbor. There are bullet holes in your windows and the inside of your house is covered in dust and dirt from the constant artillery shelling in the city. There’s no more electricity and tap water, and several of your family members have already died.

So, what would you do in each of those situations? Would you actually leave?

Those are only a few of the many reasons people might choose to become migrants and leave their homes. Sometimes it’s a conscious choice to leave, and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes, the reason for leaving is positive and happy, and sometimes (more often, actually) the reason is not so optimistic.

Right now, at this very moment, there are more forcibly displaced people than there have been since World War II. Many are “refugees,” who were actually able to leave their country in search of new homes and communities where they can live and learn and work. Others are internally displaced, and aren’t able to reach safety outside of their homeland.

or people who didn’t really have a choice when it came to staying or leaving—who probably don’t want to leave but are now looking for new homes and communities where they can live and learn and work.

Tragically, many of them don’t ever reach asylum. Thousands die while trying to reach safety via dangerous land and sea routes just in the last few years.

If you did have to move away—far away—how would you want people to think about you? How would you want them to treat you?

The next time you hear about migrants or refugees in the news or in politics, think about the reality of the situation for these people and their actual lives. Should you welcome them into your community with open arms and understanding (like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau famously did)?

Or, should you reject them on the basis of that they might be dangerous (which isn’t really true)?

In reality, it’s the migrants who have usually faced danger—leaving behind family, friends, relationships and any sense of normalcy to make their way across treacherous terrain in order to reach the border that promises safety.

Which means that migrants are some of the most courageous, resilient and resourceful people on the planet. They are more than people in need—they are people wanting to give and make a meaningful contribution to society.

After all, remember what the most famous refugee, Jesus Christ, went on to do.

International Migrants Day is on Dec. 18. The International Organization for Migration is calling on the international community to come together and remember the refugees and migrants who have lost their lives or have disappeared while trying to reach safe harbor after arduous journeys across seas and deserts.

Andrew Romanov is a Fellow at the U.N. for the Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (un.goarch.org).

The Archdiocese is an accredited Non-Governmental Organization at the United Nations through the Department of Public Information (UN DPI) and has General Consultative Status under the Economic and Social Council of the U.N. (ECOSOC). It has been actively working at the United Nations for 30 years.

 

The Potential of Religious Education, even Sunday School

On any given Sunday from about September to May, I conservatively estimate that at least 10,500 young people attend a parish religious education program, with at least 2,625 adult volunteer teachers, with the support of the 600 clergy in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (You can do the math: 525 parishes: an average 20 students, 5 teachers per parish.). Whatever the size of your parish’s program, you are participating in the single largest program of the Greek Orthodox Church on a national scale. If we were to include all Orthodox Christian parishes in the US, the numbers would, of course, be even larger.

Handing forward the Orthodox Christian Faith and Way of Life to another generation ought to be a central activity of every parish and family. As Orthodox Americans, we have been thinking about the best ways to teach the next generation, pretty much since we arrived on these shores. Implicit in this effort has been the realization that our educational efforts are essential to “make it” in America. This realization has become more important today. As the sociologist Peter Berger advised an Orthodox audience more than a decade ago, we can no longer “take it for granted” that our children will remain connected to the Church and their Faith. If we fail in our educational ministry, you and I could be the last generation of Orthodox Christians in America. It’s a great responsibility and challenge.

“Knowing” is more important today than perhaps ever before; we don’t call it “the information age” for nothing. We are bombarded by all kinds of information from a dizzying array of sources. As Orthodox, we are often asked to explain what we believe to others, so knowing the facts is important. Educational experiences that foster thinking provide the space for separating the wheat from the chaff through study, questions, discussion, and action. Of course, we can “know” in many ways, but religious education creates, at least, the opportunity “to know” in our minds.

Religious education has the potential to fill the minds of young and old and expose them to the treasury that is the Orthodox Christian Faith and Way of Life. Religious education, when done well and for all, provides everyone in the community an opportunity to acquire the knowledge of the contents of their Faith and ask honest and critical questions of it, hopefully getting good answers, so that they can more deeply appropriate its truth and wisdom in their heads, their hearts, and their hands.

As a Church, we have yet to tap the potential of good religious education, even in the Sunday school model. There are real strengths in the schooling approach to religious education. Yes, there are challenges, but there are advantages as well.

Focused, sequenced, and age-appropriate study. Religious education should follow good educational practices, utilizing what we know about how people learn over their lives and the best ways for teachers to facilitate learning. One benefit of a textbook series is that someone has done that work, sequenced what is to be learned in an orderly way that makes sense for someone over time. Is it everything that can be learned about any given topic? Of course not! There is always more to be learned and experiences to process, which is why it takes a lifetime.

Adults mentoring students. Teachers take up a lot of time and space in young people’s lives. At church, they can instill a love of learning about the Faith, because they are excited about learning it. They are role models, guides, and coaches in living the Faith, because they are striving to put their Faith into action.

Community building. A classroom setting is a good place for people to get to know one another; relationships are formed and a community is built. Studying together fosters relationships because of the work of the class, discussions, projects, games, and celebrations. In the parish, a classroom experience is just one of a few ways young people can meet regularly and become friends. They can mentor one another as peers, student to student. In a class, we learn what it means to be a part of a community.

Reflection and making connections. A classroom is a good place to make an intentional connection between the praxis and experience of the Orthodox Way of Life with the content of the Orthodox Faith. Customs, traditions, and practices are connected to stories, events, and sources. Hymns have words that relay ideas, concepts, doctrine, and teachings. A classroom is a good place to ask the questions, “What does that mean?” and “Why do we do that?” One of the great truisms of education is that we can learn little from experience without reflecting on it.

This being said, we must state that we have too easily limited our understanding of curriculum to a printed book. The entire life of the parish is the curriculum. Which physician would you prefer? One who only read medical textbooks or one who went to a medical school filled with labs, good teachers, hospital internships and residencies? The same is true for the Church. Schooling in faith -- reading a textbook, answering questions -- is just one dimension of the much larger curriculum of the parish that teaches us what it means to be and live as an Orthodox Christian. The curriculum that is needed is a dynamic parish community filled with good worship and liturgy, opportunities for service to the world and parish, good fellowship and organization, and fellow parishioners who can talk about and share their knowledge, experience, and wisdom that comes from a life in the Church. In such an environment, classroom experiences fill in the knowledge about the Christian life that is being lived.

Religious education programs should not happen during the Divine Liturgy or any other worship service of the Church. For the better part of the last fifty years, Orthodox Christian religious educators, the Department of Religious Education, and Clergy Laity Congresses of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese have reaffirmed this message repeatedly.

There may have been an unintended byproduct of this message. Some people say that the main reason they attend church on Sundays is to send their children to Sunday school. Perhaps, just perhaps, they have figured out when Sunday school begins and time their arrival just for that! Perhaps, just perhaps, (as one of my students observed), attendance at Divine Liturgy was better when people came to Liturgy from the beginning because they knew that’s when Sunday school began and they sent their children to class while the adults attended Liturgy.

Finally, permit me to share how religious education occurs. Volunteers handle the overwhelming majority of this work in our parishes and Metropolises. They are the little recognized heroes and heroines of this ministry. In my travels around our Archdiocese, I see creative and dedicated teachers, supervisors, and clergy, who week after week strive to teach the Faith. St. Paul ranks teachers after apostles and prophets, and before miracle workers (1 Cor. 12:28). Yet these teachers are apostolic and prophetic, and week after week, they perform miracles.

There is no expansive educational bureaucracy to support them. There is one Archdiocese office of seven people that creates textbooks and supplements, magazines, videos, develops programs, and now websites, blogs, and social media discussions (and it takes real money). They also seek out other materials created by Orthodox sources and evaluate resources created by non-Orthodox, so that they might be purchased and distributed to parishes (We maintain a catalog of nearly 800 items.). They spend time on the phone advising parishes and teachers about these resources, and take their orders, answer their questions, pass along tips and ideas about improving a parish program (We have about 7000 customers, parishes and individuals, from all Orthodox jurisdictions in North America and the English-speaking Orthodox world.). And we are responsible for keeping track of it all – accounting, reporting, computers, files, etc. (We average 3000 orders per year.) As I like to say, this dedicated group of people is too few people trying to meet too many needs.

In the first description of the Church after Pentecost, the community gathered daily to attend to the teaching and fellowship of the apostles (Acts 2:42) and the breaking of bread and prayers. Education in faith has been an organized and intentional activity of the Church since its very first day. Our task is to honor that legacy with the best educational ministry we can.

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.

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Date: 12/2/16