Racism and Orthodox Christianity in America: A Modern Commentary

In light of recent tragic acts of racism and brutality — including the heinous execution of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, the murder of a black man simply for jogging in Georgia, and the weaponizing of the police against a black man in New York City, I humbly offer this blog entry, taken from a speech I presented in October 2019, which highlights racism and the Orthodox Christian Church in the USA today.

Allow me to open by quoting a 2017 statement of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America on the topic of racism.  I quote:

“The essence of the Christian Gospel and the spirit of the Orthodox Tradition are entirely and self-evidently incompatible with ideologies that declare the superiority of any race over another. Our God shows no partiality or favoritism (Deuteronomy 10:17, Romans 2:11). Our Lord Jesus Christ broke down the dividing wall of hostility that had separated God from humans and humans from each other (Ephesians 2:14). In Christ Jesus, the Church proclaims, there can be neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, but all are one (Galatians 3:28). Furthermore, we call on one another to have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather to expose them (Ephesians 5:11). And what is darkness if not hatred? The one who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness (1 John 2:11)!”

This brief passage lifts up the biblical notion of oneness and solidarity, while at the same time condemning acts of hatred and racism. In fact, however, the holy scriptures go beyond mere tolerance and outright condemnation of racism and discrimination. They also inform the Christian Tradition on the manner in which we ought to act, profoundly and personally, namely through the way of love. For he who does not love does not know God; for God is love (1 John 4:8). And, he who does not love abides in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him (1 John 3:15-16). Therefore, hatred and bigotry, racism and discrimination, or indeed any other action or attitude that violates the “other,” who is our neighbor, our brother and sister, are the exact opposite of love and fail to embrace Christ’s command to love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31). By contrast, any form or degree of racism embraces actions that are biblically condemnable, while simultaneously ignoring and contradicting the commandment to love. Ultimately, this is a rejection and denial of God, who is Love. Put plainly:  one cannot be racist and Christian; the two are mutually exclusive.

At the same time, the Orthodox perspective is also informed by the communal experience of racism both historically and to this day. At various times and in every corner of the planet, Orthodox Christians have been persecuted either for their ethnicity or else for their faith. Even here in the United States of America, early immigrants were frequently denied vital work, fundamental freedoms, and equal rights. Today, many Orthodox Christians – particularly, though not exclusively, those coming from the Middle East or Africa – are able to commiserate with our Muslim cousins inasmuch as systemic racism targets them simply because their skin is a bit more brown or they sport a long beard and robe. Whether they experience extra screening at airports, have difficulties securing loans, or are literally beaten on the streets, it is for no other reason than their heritage, as assumed by their appearance. So, you see, the darkness of racism is known to the Orthodox family both theologically and experientially.

At this point, I would like to make a quick “parenthesis” in order to clarify that I do not wish to reduce this matter to an “us too” moment. While my account here among you today is indeed truthful, and while our theological understanding or humiliating experiences might position us differently with regard to white guilt, I will not and cannot deny the fact that the majority of Orthodox Christians are of European decent. In this respect, our white complexions – whether or not these are perceived as “camouflage” – have played a key role in our community’s ability to overcome discrimination in this country. Unfortunately, because of the struggles of our ancestors – as well as for those Orthodox who are not white and continue to struggle – the concept of white privilege is neither readily acknowledged nor accepted. And by not recognizing this sense of privilege, some of our people have, over time, unfortunately embraced the ideals of racism and white supremacy. Some of these individuals even preach distorted and erroneous understandings of the Orthodox Christian tradition in the hope of recruiting others to their unhinged ways. For these individuals, I can only apologize sincerely and ask that we all pray fervently for their souls. For as we know those who do not abide in Christ, [who is love,] are cast forth as a branch and wither; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned (John 15). After all, no individual or group is perfect; so we must continually practice metanoia, which involves a change in our disposition from hate toward love.

Now, to return to my argument: despite the actions of a few, the majority of Orthodox Christians lift up the aforementioned theology of solidarity, embracing the experiences of others and embodying the love of Christ. In this way, the corporate body stands committed to addressing racism and ending discrimination, while remaining firmly positioned to promote essential equity and eventual equality. In this spirit, Orthodox Christian leaders have stood up against racism and discrimination in the United States of America for many decades. For instance, in the 1800s, Russian missionaries in Alaska defended local natives from abuse and prejudice on the part of the established trading companies and, instead, advocated for their land rights. More recently, Archbishop Iakovos famously marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and worked tirelessly behind the scenes for the passage of Civil Rights Legislation in the 20th century. His actions were recognized in 1989, when he and Dr. King together received the Congressional Medal of Freedom. Today, an annual conference entitled “Moses the Black” focuses on missiological principles among African-American communities and addresses systemic racism from a biblical and Orthodox perspective. In May 2018, Archbishop Demetrios, the former head of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, hosted an event at St. Sophia’s Cathedral in Washington DC to launch the National Council of Churches’ ACT to End Racism Campaign, which we currently co-chair and are very eager to advance. And just this past Monday, 1 June 2020, the Assembly of Bishops released another statement on racism and violence.

Dear friends, by way of conclusion, I would like close in an unconventional manner and leave you with the final words of Archbishop Demetrios at the aforementioned event in our nation’s capital:

“Typically, a [blog] has a beginning, a middle, and an end. But not this [blog]. This [blog] will end when the story ends. This [blog] will end when we have obtained, finally, the desirable overcoming of any racially involved entities and vestiges in our world and our society. So now, an open ended [blog]!”