In a recent piece in the New York Times, Jamelle Bouie writes:
Our society was built on the racial segmentation of personhood. Some people were full humans, guaranteed non-enslavement, secured from expropriation and given the protection of law, and some people – blacks, Natives and other nonwhites – were not. That unequal distribution of personhood was an economic reality as well. It shaped your access to employment and capital; determined whether you would be doomed to the margins of labor or given access to its elevated ranks; marked who might share in the bounty of capitalist production and who would most likely be cast out as disposable. (“Beyond ‘White Fragility’“)
These words are a vivid backdrop for reflecting on the economics of Father Sergius Bulgakov (1871-1944). They provide the social parameters for appreciating the insights of one of the most profound and creative Orthodox theologians of the 20th century. While Bulgakov does not pretend to solve the problem of poverty, he offers a prophetic voice for how the Church can address, in an industrialized context, the social structures that foster it. He extends the work of previous pastor theologians who recognized that social structures perpetuate social and economic disparity.
Earlier this year, I published a short piece with Anthropology News on Coptic Christian persecution in Egypt, American power, and racism in the United States. I then received a barrage of social media criticism claiming that I overemphasized racism against Copts in the US, and in so doing eschewed focus on persecution of Copts in Egypt. Samuel Tadros of the Hudson Institute wrote: “While some have experienced prejudice in America, [Copts] reject the attempt to create a moral equivalence between the persecution they faced in Egypt and whatever experiences they have in America…the Coptic experience in the United States has been extraordinarily successful, with Copts reaching heights they wouldn’t have dreamt of in Egypt.” Rather than noting the racialization of Copts alongside Muslims in America, by his account, I should draw attention to the relative success of American Copts and compare it to Muslim oppression of Copts in Egypt. In this modest response, I briefly elaborate on why American Coptic life must be taken on its own terms, and how the politicization of Coptic oppression in Egypt by American religio-political actors leads to real methodological issues.
As a minority Christian community in a majority Christian nation, American Copts are enmeshed in current debates on whiteness and American Christianity—whereby evangelical responses to racism have been theologically mired in individualism and consumed in culture wars, rather than the ways that broader social forces, institutions, and culture can constrain and shape social responses to societal ills. Earlier this summer, former attorney general Jeff Sessions, described to the New York Times how he considered his support of Trump from the standpoint of his faith as an evangelical Christian, and evoked the Copts as persecuted kin who turned to a strongman (Egyptian President al-Sisi) for protection: “And that’s basically what the Christians in the United States did [when they elected Trump]. They felt they were under attack, and the strong guy [like Sisi] promised to defend them. And he has.” Likewise, an older American Coptic man recently noted to me: “Trump is a Christian, and he’s trying to keep America a Christian nation. Under Obama, it was Happy Holidays! Now, we can say Merry Christmas again. We came to the US to escape discrimination in Egypt. We don’t want to be stripped of our rights as Christians here.” Although the diaspora offers opportunities to form new solidarities, the happy convergence of otherwise divergent persecution narratives has placed American Copts into vectors of political belonging with the Christian Right seeking to preserve a white, conservative Christian America. Sometimes at the expense of those very Copts.
Note: Because of the urgency of the current situation in Armenia and Azerbaijan and the importance of providing reliable background information, the following essay is an exception toour typical length and op-ed format and includes an extensive excerpt from an academic journal article.
Since Sunday, September 27, Azerbaijan, with support from its Turkic big brother Turkey—two autocratic totalitarian states—has launched attacks on its neighboring countries, the Republics of Armenia and Artsakh—two fledgling democracies in the Caucasus. Neither Azerbaijan nor Turkey has shown regard for human life, let alone such niceties as historical truth, or, for that matter, international law. Artsakh (called Nagorno Karabakh in Soviet times) is part of the remaining territory of the Armenian highlands, after the Armenian people’s vast territorial losses following the 1915 Armenian Genocide. The current conflict is not only a fight for the survival of the Armenian people—75% of whom Ottoman Turkey eliminated in the 1915 Genocide—but an information war. It should not be that way.
In 2016, I received a call from our local FBI office. The agent notified me that my name and my home address were circulating on jihadi websites, along with those of certain U.S. military personnel, calling upon homegrown terrorists and ISIS supporters to harm us. It was unclear to the FBI agent why my name was circulating on these websites, as they appeared to be related to the crisis in Syria. I have not served in the U.S. military. I had zero involvement in the Syrian crisis, other than calling my U.S. representatives years earlier to warn them that Turkey was funding Syrian “rebels” who were aligned with al-Qaeda. What I was “guilty” of—I surmise—was writing articles about Turkey’s denial of the Armenian Genocide and the destruction of Armenian cultural heritage by Turkey and later Azerbaijan, fundraising for humanitarian efforts in Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh), and my most recent trip to Artsakh as part of a fact-finding mission regarding several medieval Armenian monasteries that Azerbaijan (a majority Muslim population) was claiming as their own cultural heritage.
In the context of contemporary events, protests, and the revolt spreading throughout Serbia, the matter can also be seen from a theological point of view. It is hard to say how well the churchgoing people are managing in all this. On the public stage, there are but a handful of voices that are perceived as the voice of the Church. However, in the general confusion, it is not easy to discern the Christian position. Christians are usually thought of as being exclusively interested in the Kingdom of Heaven, which is basically true. Yet the path to Heaven leads through the world in which we live. Our testimony in the world is a ticket to the Kingdom of Heaven. It is often forgotten that one part of the prayer Our Father reads: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” If there is no justice of God on earth, how will the Kingdom of Heaven descend on it?
This question concerns Christian action in the world. If Christians are silent or approving of injustice, are they on the path of the Kingdom of Heaven? If they rise up against injustice, then one might call that a rebellion, a rebellion against injustice. Only free people and those who strive for freedom are capable of rebellion. The obediently pious cannot rebel. In order to better understand things, we will look at and recall some things which are almost forgotten in the Church, and which are an essential part of its mission in the world. At the heart of this recollection is the idea of rebellion.