Archbishop Iakovos, Martin Luther King Jr., and The Challenge of Selma

by Andrew Estocin

The third Monday in the month of January is set aside by Americans to honor the memory of Martin Luther King Jr.  King’s witness in life and death continues to call society to see every person as created in the image and likeness of God and worthy of equal treatment under the law.

One of the most significant moments in American Orthodox history took place when Archbishop Iakovos of North and South America chose to march against racial segregation laws alongside King in Selma, Alabama. This event was made famous on the cover of Life Magazine and serves as a reminder that the Orthodox Christian Faith is not a museum of history but a way of living in the world that must be acted upon with care and courage.  The fact that the most distinguished bishop in American Orthodoxy chose to march with King is a reminder that the Church can learn much from America’s leading civil rights leader.

Here are three lessons to be learned from King and Archbishop Iakovos marching together.

Civil Disobedience Can Serve God’s Purposes:, God’s people are continually called upon to say “No” and “Repent” to those in power. Reverend King illustrates this very clearly: “(Civil disobedience) was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.” Archbishop Iakovos’ words in Selma echo this view: “We have fought oppressive and repressive political regimes, based on Christian principles, for centuries. . . . A Christian must cry out in indignation against all persecution.” Civil disobedience in the service of God is a powerful catalyst for repentance. Lives and laws are changed forever when Orthodox Christians live their faith with courage.

Being Legal Does Not Mean Being Right: “Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.” This warning from Letter from Birmingham Jailpoints to the tradition of natural law. Natural law is an integral part of Orthodox Christianity and the thought of Reverend King. In responding to his critics from jail, King reminds them of this ancient tradition: “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. . . .An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” Orthodox Christians have a responsibility to recognize laws in our society that agree with the laws of God and promote human dignity while resisting those laws that do not.

Be An Extremist For Love and Truth: Orthodox Christians are criticized for being extremists when they take a public stand in support of Church teaching.  King was treated in the same manner by his brother clergy who shunned him and labeled his actions “extreme”.  Reverend King turned the tables on his critics with the following words: “But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’ Was not Amos an extremist for justice: ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.’ Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ . . . So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?”

One of the forgotten details surrounding the march in Selma is that Archbishop Iakovos faced death threats from members of the Greek Community. These threats frequently came from Greeks in the American South. Many of his brother clergy also cast him aside and chose not to march with him. The reality is that the Church that embraces Archbishop Iakovos as a civil rights pioneer is the same Church that was afraid to march alongside him in Selma. This historical fact is evidence of the ongoing struggle between Omogenia and Orthodoxy today. It is a tragedy that Greek language and culture continues to be used to exclude rather than include people in the Church. It is long past time to change how the word “Greek” is understood when it comes to Greek Orthodox identity. Segregation in the Orthodox Church must come to an end.

The words of Reverend King and the image of Archbishop Iakovos marching alongside him in Selma is not nostalgia to be dusted off once a year. Their witness is not confined to history but represents an urgent question for American Orthodoxy as to what its mission and identity is today.

American Orthodoxy can choose to focus on nostalgia alone and slowly self-destruct or it can choose to embrace the gift of the Holy Spirit that led Archbishop Iakovos to Selma and remember his prophetic words:

“The church will not be pessimistic, nor sit quietly in its handsome houses of worship while war rages outside its churches for the bodies, minds and souls of its parishioners.”

Andrew Estocin holds a B.A in Philosophy and Theology from Fordham University.