On March 15, 1965, something momentous occurred. Martin Luther King Jr. marched down the streets of Selma side by side with various important religious and social leaders to memorialize the deaths of two civil rights heroes. With him marched Archbishop Iakovos—the only white bishop who had responded to the call to march.
The three marches on Selma served to highlight the inequality and racial discrimination African-Americans were still facing at the time, even after the 1964 Civil Rights Act. These marches are said to have directly influenced the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a legal measure that sought to protect African-Americans from unfair voting roadblocks.
Now, over 50 years later, progress has been made. The icing on the cake is surely the eight years Barack Obama has spent in the Oval Office. A black president—elected and re-elected—surely must be the signal that racism, especially explicit racism, is a phenomenon of the past.
Or so we told ourselves until 2016. This past year made it clear that Obama’s presidency—while astoundingly impactful and inspirational to millions—may have given us a false sense of security when it comes to race relations in the U.S. This illusion of progress has unraveled at the seams in the past year and a half. The Black Lives Matter movement shed light on police brutality against the African-American community, Michelle Alexander’s brilliant book, The New Jim Crow Law, revealed disturbing racial trends regarding who gets incarcerated and for how long, and Donald Trump won the American presidential election with a campaign that attracted the support of the KKK. All the while, race-based hate crimes have risen in the past year.
Trump’s victory has cast fear and doubt into the hearts of many. His upcoming inauguration, however, will hopefully serve, not as a catalyst for defeatism, but as a catalyst for awareness. We can and should reappraise Trump’s presidency as a wake-up call. Trump did not somehow magically create an attitude of intolerance—he only helped reveal it.
Religious institutions are some of the most racially segregated institutions in the U.S.. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center Study, 81 percent of Orthodox Christians are white, 8 percent are African-American, 3 percent are Asian, 6 percent are Latino, and 2 percent are classified as Mix/Other. That is to say, the Orthodox Church is a few percentage points away from being racially homogeneous. In addition, my own research has noted a general trend in modern iconography that inaccurately depicts the saints from North Africa and the Middle East as white. The most well-known black Saint is quite literally called Saint Moses the Black—revealing all too well how unique that descriptor is.
The Orthodox Church should not shy away from the task ahead: embracing and representing more of those who are not of the typical Orthodox demographic, as well as marching, like Archbishop Iakovos, in solidarity.
To add another dimension to this discussion, it is comforting to note that Orthodoxy has always has a strong record of anti-racist policy, which has been attractive to African-Americans converting to the Church. There are four aspects in particular that demonstrate Orthodoxy’s ties to the African-American struggle and suffering.
First, to many African Americans, Orthodoxy is unique in that it historically operated outside of the racism and slave trade of the United States, unlike Protestantism. For example, the first Black Orthodox priest in the U.S who lived in the very beginning of the 20th century — Robert Josais Morgan— saw the Orthodox tradition “as prior to the racially segregated Christianity of Europe and America.” (See Oliver Herbel, Turning to Tradition, 2013).
Second, Dr. Albert Raboteau, an African-American professor of Religious Studies at Princeton University, has written on the link between Orthodoxy and suffering, a link that personally influenced his own conversion into Orthodoxy as an African-American. He writes:
When I was considering becoming Orthodox, a friend and fellow historian of African-American religion asked me if I understood how much Orthodoxy fit the aspects of African-American religion that had most personally interested me over the years. Several months earlier, an Orthodox monk had remarked to me how attuned he thought Orthodoxy was to the traditional spirituality of black people.
Third, is the simple fact that Orthodoxy has been present in Africa since the time of the early church. Moreover, looking at a predominantly Orthodox country in Africa—Ethiopia—we find the history of Orthodoxy being precolonial, which again is unique compared to other forms of Christianity.
Fourth, Orthodoxy has a strong record of anti-racist policy, and even in modern times has been involved in the Civil Rights Movement. As Deacon Turbo Qualls notes, Orthodoxy has always been committed to fighting racism. For example, the pan-Orthodox Synod in Constantinople in 1872, condemned phyletism—or the conflation between Church and nation—as a modern ecclesial heresy. The official statement of the Synod read:
We renounce, censure and condemn racism, that is racial discrimination, ethnic feuds, hatreds and dissensions within the Church of Christ, as contrary to the teaching of the Gospel.
When Archbishop Iakovos marched on Selma, he received hundreds of death threats from Greek Orthodox Christians because of his solidarity with the African American cause. Clearly this highlights the paradox of Orthodoxy as practiced in the U.S., as some of its adherents operate with implicit or explicit prejudice.
It was heartening, therefore, to see that the Orthodox Church of America released a statement in 2011, under the direction of an African-American priest, Fr. Moses Berry, stating the need to “promote and encourage education about the shared heritage of Black and White Americans and the necessity for increased efforts to evangelize the African American community.”
Fr. Berry has also stated that “to be a Church for all Americans, we will have to overcompensate.” Overcompensation, especially during Trump’s presidency, may mean getting out of our comfort zones and opening up dialogues with ourselves and others. Fr. Berry exemplifies his commitment to opening up dialogue, as he is the curator of the Ozarks Afro-American Heritage Museum, a museum located in Ash Grove, Missouri— an all-white town. The museum explores the United States’ past with regards to slavery and oppression. Fr. Berry mixes his ministry as an Orthodox priest with another mission of racial reconciliation in the larger community. Clearly in Fr. Berry’s eyes, waiting for racial reconciliation to organically occur is not the answer.
For the Orthodox Church, its leaders, and parishioners, both Fr. Berry and Archbishop Iakovos serve as role models for the next 4 years. Awareness begets action, and action wards off apathy. So let us start marching.
Georgia Kasamias works as copy editor for the Journal of Religion and Violence. She attends Youngstown State University and recently presented research at the Annual American Academy of Religion’s meeting on race and the Greek Orthodox Church.