Entries with tag racism .

The Evil of Ignoring Evil

The Church is a place of healing. And sometimes, to create an atmosphere that promotes spiritual development rather than decay, the Church needs to identify and speak against spiritual sickness.

Whenever it does so, one thing is clear: the Church can speak against illnesses of the heart because the Church, as the Body of Christ, is united to the source of holiness and goodness.  

On the first Sunday of Great Lent, for example, we celebrate the restoration of the icons during the Sunday of Orthodoxy. At the end of the Divine Liturgy, the faithful process with icons in hand and the clergy proclaim that we depict Christ and His saints in icons because “this is the Faith which has established the Universe.”  

Yet these affirmations of the Faith are also paired with strong anathemas against “those who persist in the heresy of denying icons, or rather the apostasy of denying Christ.” 

We see this in the Ecumenical Councils of the Church. The First Council, for example, composed the Nicene Creed, a positive statement setting forth the Church’s core profession of Faith. Yet the Council also published a long list of anathemas condemning the errors of Arius, who taught that Christ is a mere creation rather than “true God from true God” (as the Creed states).  

Sometimes, the Church needs to clearly and courageously speak out in order to correct a grave error which has taken root in our hearts. 

This correction flows from a clarity of purpose and the sure knowledge of what spiritual health means. 

Last weekend, the world witnessed something ugly and deeply twisted. On Friday night, a group of Neo-Nazis, Klansmen, white nationalists, and other white supremacists marched through Charlottesville, VA in a gathering initially organized to protest the removal of a Confederate statue. Conjuring frightful images from decades past, they marched with tourches in hand, spreading darkness and shouting vile slogans: 

You will not replace us!

Jews will not replace us!

They marched for the creation of an “ethno-state,” intentionally identifying with those who gassed and lynched in the hopes of a whiter (yet nonetheless darker) tomorrow.

The scene erupted into violence when the white supremacists and anti-racist counter-protesters clashed.

On Saturday, the buildup to a planned rally further degenerated into more violence. After a state of emergency was declared, the rally was cancelled. A car intentionally careened at high speed through a crowd of counter-protesters. Nineteen people were injured. Heather Heyer was killed.   

Condemning this should be simple and straightforward. As Christ Himself said, whatever we do to “the least of these,” we do to Christ Himself.

Similarly, whatever we do not do for “the least of these,” we do not do for Christ Himself.

When we march through the streets with torches in hand, shouting for the extermination of our fellow human beings, we join the angry mob that shouted for Christ’s blood.

Crucify Him! Crucify Him!

Similarly, when armed mobs itch to play the executioner and we remain silent, we deny our Lord as Peter once did.

White supremacy is inherently un-Christian. Racism is inherently un-Christian. It is premised on the false notion that some human beings are inferior to others.

Differences serve as an opporunity for union and love. Division, however, is overcome in the person of Christ.

Christian preaching is very clear. We die in the waters of baptism so we can rise in Christ, as members of His Body. A body is composed not merely of eyes or hands, but a rich variety of members. Divisions are drowned in the font so we can be made anew.

True identity lies not merely in our biology or nationality or ancestry, but in our union with the true human being: Jesus Christ.

Racism is contrary to our identity as Christians, and it denies the image of Christ in every person.

This is the theology of the Church.

"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."

In the past, the Church has publicly denounced efforts to diminish Christ and those who bear His image. Our duty as Christians remains the same today.

When the Church speaks against those who would dishonor Christ or His people, it is in the hope that the misguided would repent and unite themselves to the Lord.

Today, when we speak against nihilistic ideologies contrary to the teachings of Christ, it must be in the hope that they (and we) can be better: that the hearts of all people can soften enough so that we may see Christ in every face we encounter.

People are assembling to harass, intimidate, and even destroy living icons. 

We must not equivocate and mince words. We must not hesitate to courageously denounce what is evil. We must not make excuses for those who try to justify or rationalize such spiritual and societal darkness.

If we are slow to come to the defense of these living icons, is it because we do not value all people, made in the image of Christ? Is it because of the difficulty of freeing our own hearts from sin? Or do we fear the discomfort of naming and fighting the evils before us?

If we are afraid to call out the obvious evils right in front of us, can we be brave enough to confront the evils in our own hearts? And if we do not root out the evils in our own hearts, what hope do we have of being a prophetic voice in a world that desperately needs the Word of God?

May our hope rest in the Lord. May our lips speak His words and may our hands do His works: with generosity and hope, and without any hesitation.

 

Steven Christoforou is the Director of Y2AM.

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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.

The Omaha Anti-Greek Riot

The stories are rarely told, but in times past, many Orthodox Christians from the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe have been subject to bigotry and violence because of their ethnic background, their foreign accents, and the color of their skin. One example of this mistreatment is the anti-Greek riot in South Omaha, Nebraska, in 1909.

Greeks first arrived in South Omaha in 1904, brought in as strikebreakers in the local meat-packing industry. This was a time when many white Americans were already biased against immigrants, not only because they were foreign but also because they were viewed as threats to "American" jobs. So the Greeks in South Omaha had two strikes against them from the outset. Despite this, they settled in, and by 1907, over 2,000 Greeks were reportedly living in the city. It wasn’t long before they built a church, dedicated to St. John the Baptist. Everything was fairly calm until 1909.

On February 19, 1909, a Greek worker named John Masourides shot and killed a respected police officer. For many residents of South Omaha, this was the last straw: as far as they were concerned, the Greeks had to go.

Two days after the shooting, a petition was circulated calling for a mass meeting to decide how to “rid the city of the undesirable Greeks." The petition said, "The so-called quarters of the Greeks are infested by a vile bunch of filthy Greeks who have attacked our women, insulted pedestrians upon the street, openly maintained gambling dens and many other forms of viciousness."

At the close of the meeting, a mob descended on the Greek quarter. They attacked the Greeks, rioted, and destroyed pretty much the entire Greek neighborhood. With neither homes nor safety, the Greeks fled the city. The governor called in the National Guard. Eventually, order was restored, but the bigots of South Omaha had accomplished their goal: the Greeks were gone, and most of them would never return. The mass exodus almost wiped out the parish of St. John the Baptist.

As if all that wasn’t enough, a year later, the police themselves took revenge by lynching a young Greek named Nicholas Jimikas. He is buried in an unmarked grave in Omaha’s Fort Lawn Cemetery. Masourides, the Greek man whose shooting of a policeman sparked the riots, was initially convicted of first-degree murder, and sentenced to death. He appealed to the Nebraska Supreme Court, which reversed the decision. In the end, Masourides was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to fourteen years in prison, but less than halfway through that sentence, he was furloughed by the governor and then deported.

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