These have been unsettling times. I have been forced by the events of the last several months to face up to several disconcerting truths. When the COVID-19 lockdown orders were issued, they had a common element. Churches were not deemed “essential.” Liquor stores, pot distributors, and lottery sales were deemed essential. Commercial air travel and protests were deemed essential, yet congregating at churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques was not. Following the murder of George Floyd, I came to the excruciating realization that the politicians were right. We are not essential.
After the killing of George Floyd, I tried to find some meaning to this hideous act and its aftermath. I am not intending to set forth the arguments regarding the law’s injustices to black Americans. Although tragic, that is far too narrow an understanding of the real issue. Here is the undeniable truth: we are the most affluent nation in the world, and yet countless millions live in squalor with no real prospects or hope for change. I am ashamed of myself; I must change. Also, as a member of the Orthodox Church in the United States, I am ashamed that our church has turned so deaf an ear and so blind an eye to this national disgrace.
In August of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a letter to eight white religious leaders who had condemned the anti-segregation protests that Reverend King led in Birmingham, Alabama. Reverend King wrote this letter while he was in jail for the offense of leading a march without a permit. The “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a masterpiece. Although I fear I will not do justice to the letter, which should be read from start to finish, I would like to highlight one of the points that Reverend King made:
“Let me rush on to mention my other disappointment. I have been disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. I am not unmindful of the fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue.…I have watched white churches stand on the sidelines and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, ‘Those are social issues which the gospel has nothing to do with,’ and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between bodies and souls, the sacred and the secular.
“There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period that the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was the thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But they went on with the conviction that they were ‘a colony of heaven’ and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’ They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest. Things are different now. The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s often vocal sanction of things as they are.
“But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I meet young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour.”
Let me repeat, the politicians’ lockdowns got this right: we are not essential, and this non-essential status is all our own doing. Our churches have an extraordinarily narrow understanding of community. Our community is very much limited to the ever-dwindling number of families that share a common ethnicity. The resounding punctuation point to our non-essential status was the murder of George Floyd. We don’t take care of our neighbor—we don’t even know their name. Our churches have the same integration levels as our country clubs, maybe worse. We have rendered ourselves “irrelevant.” We have lost our “authentic ring.” We have “forfeited the loyalty of millions.” We have disappointed our young to the point of “outright disgust.”
I am proposing that the lockdown of the Orthodox churches in the United States should continue. The lockdown should continue until we “recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church.” The lockdown should continue until we come to an appreciation of our neighbor as the Lord enjoined us, no matter what their color or ethnicity. The lockdown should continue until we drop the vestiges by which we so callously define our community as Greek or Serbian or Russian or whatever our ethnic past. The lockdown should continue until we can approach Holy Communion with a true sense of repentance. The Orthodox church in the United States has utterly lost its way. It must heed the witness of Truth that is all about us and which forces us to confront our shallow understanding of the Gospels. The lockdown should indeed continue until we are committed to “meet the challenge of this decisive hour.”
Ted Theophilos is a member of Holy Apostles Parish In Westchester, Illinois, an archon of the Order of Saint Andrew the Apostle, and a member of Leadership 100. He has served as the Chair of the Legal Committee for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and is a past member of the Archdiocesan Council.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.