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.
Much has happened in the time that has elapsed since Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople granted autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) in 2018-19. The world continues to struggle through the pandemic. Natural disasters are destroying lives at home and abroad. Pictures of Afghans trying to flee the Taliban stun our consciences. Europe’s longest ruling dictator continues to brutalize citizens of Belarus.
When COVID brought the world to its knees in 2020, I thought that it would create a much-needed ceasefire in the longstanding informational war among Orthodox Ukrainians. Surely, the most hardened participants in confessional polemical warfare would cool off.
I was wrong. Anger continues to percolate among some Orthodox inside and outside of Ukraine. Opponents of the decision to grant autocephaly to the OCU were incensed by Patriarch Bartholomew’s acceptance of President Zelensky’s invitation to visit Ukraine on the occasion of the thirtieth year of national independence.
Among the patriarch’s opponents, clergy and laity came together to demand that he take responsibility for his actions in Ukraine and meet with them. The group is named “Myriane” (laity). They held a prayer vigil on August 21, the day of Bartholomew’s meetings with President Zelensky and the Ukrainian Parliament.
The recent dustup over Archbishop Elpidophoros borrowing the historic St Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York City for a celebration of the Divine Liturgy and then subsequently meeting with its rector, Bishop Dean Wolfe, highlights the perennial debate among Orthodox about how we ought to relate to outsiders. Throughout church history some have seen threats where others see opportunity. But opportunities can be threatening, because they imply risk and change. And for churches to make the most of opportunities requires leaps says Charles Taylor, the eminent Canadian Catholic philosopher and author of the widely praised A Secular Age: “There can and must be leaps. Otherwise no significant forward steps will be made in response to God. Someone has to break altogether with some historic forms” (669).
This conflict over relating to outsiders is as old as the gospels. Jesus made a point of engaging with people “outside the camp” (Hebrews 13:13). While this was refreshing for some, among religious leaders and traditionalists it mostly ignited opposition. They saw Jesus and later the Apostles as threats to familiar and even God-given customs and traditions. Time and again throughout the gospels we see Jesus standing his ground in the pursuit of the mission to open new opportunities to generously advance God’s Kingdom through compassion, healing, offering a spiritual oasis, simplifying and widening access to grace. He does this often quietly and secretly, but at other times in open defiance of religious leaders and the expectations of his own family and disciples. Here are a few examples:
As an Eastern Catholic, I find tremendous solidarity with Orthodox Christians. One of these areas of commonality is our love for the Jesus Prayer.
I discovered the Jesus Prayer in an unlikely place and from an unlikely source.
In 2010, during my first year of the Jesuit Novitiate, I borrowed JD Salinger’s Franny and Zooey from the community library. I loved reading The Catcher in the Rye in high school and shortly after college, so I was intrigued to read another Salinger novel.
But I didn’t expect this Salinger novel to have a spiritual impact on me.
Zooey introduced me to the Jesus Prayer. When she explained this prayer to her boyfriend Lane, she enlightened me, and I am sure many others, about the encounter with Christ and the experience of His Peace by praying this simple, ancient prayer.