This essay was first published in Greek at Polymeros kai Polytropos, the blog of the Volos Academy for Theological Studies.
In our time, racism has many faces. Sometimes it manifests itself in a more visible way and other times in an invisible way. Whether it is racism of gender, race, religion or social class, of ethnic origin or sexual orientation, it is certain that the enemy is always the other. It does not matter if the other amounts to whole nations, social groups, or individuals, the other in this case becomes the “red cloth” of a blind ideology, which does not define people as unique and irreplaceable persons in the image of the Triune God, but primarily based on certain natural characteristics.
This is, one might say, the very source of racism and the rejection of otherness. Hostility towards the other, or rather hatred for the different is what defines our identity. This counterpoint is the cornerstone on which all kinds of ideological or religious justifications for discrimination between people are based. Not only each of us, but also entire nations form their collective identity in an oppositional way, in the name of a national, political, cultural, economic, but also religious superiority over others.
The atrocity of the Third Reich during the last century, based on the ideology of the Aryan race, which still has an impact in Europe and beyond, also among believers in the Christian churches (including the Orthodox), which show embarrassment or even indifference towards neo-Nazi formations, is the most characteristic as well as the most disgusting example of racism and its effects.
On the other hand, the recent assassination of the African American George Floyd in the United States, which shocked the world public opinion, dramatically highlighted one of the dominant figures and manifestations of racism. It is about social inequality, the marginalization of entire populations in favor either of white purity and supremacy, or in the name of an extreme neo-liberal economic theory, which measures everything through the prism of profit—in other words, a kind of a slow but established systemic racism, which pervades not only state infrastructure but also everyday language (for instance hate speech against the different prevails on social media), shaping patterns that perpetuate this tragedy.
In particular, the escalation, particularly over the last decade, of refugee and migration flows to Europe from the Middle East, which was considered, not always unjustly, as a threat (due to extremist Islamic fundamentalist ideas and groups) in terms of altering the Western lifestyle, often feeds the mill of racism. It is customary in this case for multiculturalism and religious pluralism to be held responsible for the alteration of the way of life and identity and the communitarian fragmentation of Western societies.
If this is the case, is there room for the Christian churches, which are experiencing the childhood diseases of secularization in Europe and around the world, to be a factor in stopping the phenomenon? The cooperation of the churches, either in the context of the ecumenical movement or at the bilateral level, could theoretically contribute to the formation of a common approach to the phenomenon, to the emergence of a philanthropic ethos based on the foundations of the Christian faith. Let us refer here to the industrious and once intensive attempts of enlightened Orthodox hierarchs (the blessed Archbishop of America Iakovos and the current Archbishop Elpidophoros are the most characteristic examples) or of monks and nuns, theologians, but even lay people like Olivier Clement or even the attitude of the nun Maria Skobtsova and her son Yuri, as well as Élie Fondaminsky and Fr. Dimitri Klépinine, who are now recognized as saints by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and who stood by Jews during World War II. The temporary resurgence of various forms of racism, both in Europe and in other parts of the world, which often take the form of confessional racism, centered on national ideologies, unfortunately challenges the important achievements of the ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, and a gentle application of secularization.
This difficult situation should not, however, prevent the prophetic voice of the church, its critical and creative theology, from highlighting those elements of the common tradition of the ancient church, which could indeed contribute effectively in dealing with the whole situation. Remaining faithful to the well-known admonition by St. Paul: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28) as well as the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 30-33), theology can only work to update the message of the Gospel which has at its core the unconditional love for each other, for the neighbor who is an image of the truly “Other.” Interpreting this parable, the Metropolitan of Demetrias and Almyros Ignatios notes characteristically in this direction: “Answering the question ‘who is our neighbor,’ Jesus Christ…places the neighbor beyond and outside the narrow Jewish context, beyond and above the definitions of race, nation, social class or even religion.”
Central to this perspective is the migration journey, the exit of Patriarch Abraham to the collective unconscious of the three “Abrahamic religions,” a journey that sometimes reveals hidden affinities. For our part, Christians, faithful to the teaching of the Holy Trinity and its anthropological implications are called upon to remember in our encounter with the “other” the imperatives of the theology of the person, recognizing the “other” as a constituent element of ourselves, of our Christian existence. The Eucharist—the common supper of the people of God beyond all forms of discrimination based on nature—could again inspire and incarnate the spirit of sharing, justice, and hospitality or teach through the renewing and liberating ecclesiastical ethos how to welcome the otherness of the “other.”
Nikolaos Asproulis is Deputy Director of the Volos Academy for Theological Studies in Volos, Greece.
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.