The church of Hagia Sophia was the preeminent monument of Christian architecture and an active church for almost a millennium until the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, when the clergy and people were slaughtered as they celebrated their last Liturgy. Hagia Sophia was used as a mosque for Muslim prayers until 1934, when the new secular leadership of the Turkish state declared it a museum. Hagia Sophia was preserved as a tourist site, and no prayers of any kind were allowed. However, earlier this year, the Turkish government under the leadership of President Erdogan, restarted Muslim prayers. Hagia Sophia became a mosque again.
For the current president of Turkey and his supporters, the meaning of this event is clear: the ascendancy, supremacy, and inevitable victory of Islam. For Orthodox Christians—and for all Christians who are aware of it—the event is a source of anguish. These two meanings are clear and incompatible.
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.
It was with academic and existential interest that I read two summer yoga essays by Aristotle Papanikolaou and Metropolitan Konstantinos. As a scholar of South Asian religions engaged in interreligious work, and as a proponent of the comparative theological project among Orthodox, I found much that resonated, not only in terms of accurately reflecting the benefits of yoga practice, but the constructive Orthodox hermeneutic by which we should encounter the religious Other.
The reader should know that much ink has been spilt on the origins of yoga, its development into the modern period, and even what is meant by the word “yoga.” The Sanskrit root yuj means “to unite, join, or connect.” (The word yoke is an Indo-European cognate.) Generically, then, yoga simply means “union”—and it is possible to unite the mind/body organism, or oneself to Śiva or to non-dual Hindu understandings of the divine Self or to the Trinitarian God. Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain schools and lineages use the term yoga differently, tracing practices to different ancient texts and teachers. Practices will vary. The encounter of East and West in the colonial period has had as much to do with what yoga is today than many would care to admit. By the way, not every Hindu does yoga. Hindus might be surprised to hear that yoga is “integral” to Hinduism, the word used by the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece—at least if that means everyone practices yoga or is an absolutely necessary soteriological practice, though Hindus would almost universally agree that it is beneficial and salutary in the pursuit of liberation (mokṣa), variously conceived. While we are at it, most English-speaking Hindus don’t refer to their tradition as a religion at all. Rather, “Hinduism is a way of life.” Sound familiar?
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.