In the midst of pandemic and protests over racial injustice, it is important to remember that the connection between disease and racism in North America is not a new one: Europeans extended their domination over the land and the indigenous populations that lived on it in large part through their decimation caused by diseases brought by the Europeans. St. Tikhon of Moscow, who was bishop in North America at the turn of the last century, observed this dynamic and condemned racism in no uncertain terms.
The concept of race that categorizes people according to skin color and physical differences is a modern one, inextricably connected to European colonial domination. Because it is a modern concept that developed largely outside the Orthodox world, to this day there have been few statements on race and racism made by universally recognized authoritative Orthodox voices. The challenge in the Orthodox world since the nineteenth century has been the growing connection between religious and national identity and therefore the problem of nationalism in the Church. It is especially important to pay attention to an explicit condemnation of racism by one of the greatest modern Orthodox saints.
St. Tikhon (Bellavin, 1865-1925) is best known as the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church in the midst of one of its darkest hours, during the Russian Revolution from 1917 to 1925. Earlier in his career he served as the sole bishop for the ethnically diverse fledgling North American Orthodox Church (from 1898 to 1907), where he made lasting contributions to American church life.
St. Tikhon condemned racism in a sermon delivered in San Francisco on August 5, 1900, after returning from a trip to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region of Alaska so remote that no Orthodox bishop had ever visited . The entire trip lasted 78 days and covered several thousand miles, much of it by kayak and traversing swampy tundra on foot. St. Tikhon observed how the natives struggled with the exploitative practices of the American trading companies. It was also a region that had been recently impacted by the sudden influx of white Americans using it as a route to the Klondike Gold Rush, who brought with them diseases that were new to the native Alaskans. On route to the settlement still called Russian Mission, Tikhon learned that the town had been struck by an influenza epidemic. In the following days St. Tikhon visited everyone in the town in their homes to pray for their recovery despite great risk to himself. That summer nearly three-quarters of the population perished, including the priest’s own wife and son .
The day after St. Tikhon returned to his episcopal see in San Francisco, he delivered one of his most powerful sermons. The sermon was subsequently published, and was described by one of his readers—his predecessor as bishop in North America Nikolai (Ziorov)—as so “eloquent and inspired” it moved him to action. In the sermon, Tikhon discussed the Gospel reading about the feeding of the 5,000, noting especially that Christ cared about the earthly needs and hunger of the people—and that he instructed his disciples to “give them something to eat” (Mt. 14: 16). Then St Tikhon told his listeners about his recent journey, and how the natives had been on the verge of starvation the previous winter only to be decimated by an epidemic “brought there by white people and from which the natives die quickly.” The sermon thus highlighted the links between poverty, racial inequality, and disease.
St. Tikhon exhorted his listeners (and readers) to help, just as Christ had instructed his disciples to feed his hungry followers. It should not matter that the Alaskan natives belong to another race, St. Tikhon stated, and then explicitly condemned white supremacy: “That is not civilization, which is shamefully preached by others,” according to which “the white race should dominate the world,” much less that whites “wipe off the face of the earth other ‘colored’ races” or refuse to care for them in their suffering. On the contrary, St. Tikhon asserted, “true civilization consists in giving as many people as possible access to the benefits of life.” The truly civilized are those who use their privileges to “raise up to their level” those who are less fortunate.
St. Tikhon then explicitly rejected any form of racism: “Since all people originate from one person [i.e. Adam–SK], all are children of one Heavenly Father; all were redeemed by the most pure blood of Christ, in Whom ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free’ (Gal. 3:28).” In Christ, racial distinctions have been transcended, all are granted equality. “All are brothers and must love one another,” St. Tikhon said, and further declared that this equality should not only be theoretical, but must be expressed in action: “…must love one another—not only in words, but in deeds as well.” At a moment in America’s history when divisive forces are pulling Orthodox Christians in contrary directions, St Tikhon’s message is clear: not only are we to regard all people as brothers regardless of race and love them as such, but we are express that love by standing with those who are victims of racial injustice.
 An English translation of the sermon can be found in St. Tikhon of Moscow, Instructions and Teachings for the American Faithful (1898-1907), translated and edited by Alex Maximov and David C. Ford (St. Tikhon’s Monastery Press, 2016), pp. 45-47. The correct date for the sermon is 23 July/5 August 1900. I have slightly modified the translation according to the Russian text.  An account of the trip can be found in A. V. Popov, Amerikanskii period zhizni i deiatel’nosti sviatitelia TIkhona Moskovskogo, 1898-1907 gg. (St Petersburg: Satis, 2013), pp 73-87.  Maximov and Ford translate povetrie as “social diseases”; although the word can be used with a metaphorical connotation, in this context its primary meaning (“pestilence” or “epidemic”) would be more appropriate.
Scott Kenworthy is Associate Professor of Comparative Religion at Miami University.
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.