Three years ago, a scandal broke out. An outspoken white supremacist by the name of Matthew Heimbach was received into the Orthodox Church on Lazarus Saturday. A few days later, on Bright Monday, Heimbach and his cohorts from the Traditionalist Youth Network (a white supremacist group affiliating itself with Orthodoxy) beat up a protester at a hate rally with an Orthodox wooden cross.
The story went viral. There were multiple demands on the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America (ACOUSA) to speak out against the white supremacy and the racists’ claim that it is “ontological” to Orthodoxy. Quoting Heimbach,
“As an Orthodox Christian I believe in the separation of races into ethnically based Church’s. That is why even in Orthodoxy there is for instance a Greek, Russian, Romanian, Serbian, etc. Orthodox Church. Regional and racial identity is a fundamental principle of Christianity, must to the dismay of Leftists. I believe black Christians should be in their black Church’s, with black priests, having black kids, going to black Christian schools, etc.”
Instead, the Antiochian Archdiocese quietly dealt with the matter by excommunicating Heimbach and his mentor Matt Parrott (another chrismated Orthodox and leader of the “parent” Traditionalist Workers white supremacist group) and posting a notice on the parish website. No public statement was ever made by the bishops of either the Archdiocese or the Assembly. Within a year, Heimbach found a spiritual home with some Romanian Orthodox group, and today his network is going strong and happy in the United States.
On August 11, 2017, a crowd bearing torches and shouting racist slogans marched on the campus of University of Virginia in Charlottesville ahead of the largest white supremacist gathering in the US history in decades. The next day, August 12, the rally led to clashes with counter-protesters and ultimately an act of domestic terrorism, when a car driven by a white supremacist James Fields mowed down a group of counter-protesters, killing one woman and injuring nineteen people.
Matthew Heimbach has marched in Charlottesville with the TradWorkers group, waving the “Orthodoxy or Death” banners. On August 14, he stood in front of the courthouse in Charlottesville where Fields had just been denied bail, and promised that Charlottesville was “just the beginning,” and that the neo-Nazis will be “more active than before.” White supremacists marched in Seattle on the same weekend, and there are rallies being announced in Boston, on the National Mall in Washington, DC, and in other places.
For weeks leading to the “Unite the Right” rally, far-right Orthodox – most of them affiliated with various canonical parishes in the South – have been organizing on social media in support or for participation in the rally. Monitoring groups have been in contact with clergy and bishops, reporting the growth of racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric in “conservative” Orthodox social media, and the relations between members of those groups and the Heimbach/Parrott organization.
Not a single public statement has been made by any of the American Orthodox jurisdictions on either these alarming public events or the growth of nationalist, racist, islamophobic, and anti-Semitic element in American Orthodoxy.
We know that American Orthodox episcopacy is fully capable of speaking in a unified voice when so moved. Our bishops have no issues with pronouncing upon the matters of secular law and civil rights, as they have done more than once in the recent years. To this day, however, they have completely failed to speak out against racism and xenophobia expanding in our midst, in our own parishes, and spilling out into the public square. The only historical record of an American Orthodox bishop joining the fight against racism is the march of Archbishop Iakovos with Martin Luther King, Jr. – which happened in 1965, and for which the Archbishop has been much reviled. Is this all the witness that our Church can offer to America? We are the Church which in America is largely composed of immigrants who have experienced xenophobia and ethnic discrimination in many forms. Yet we refuse to even acknowledge the growth of this cancer in our midst, the cancer that claims our ecclesiastical legacy as its fuel, to the deafening silence of those whose duty, as we are reminded at every Liturgy, is to pronounce the words of Christ’s truth…
Inga Leonova is editor of The Wheel, a quarterly journal of Orthodoxy and culture.