- Racism: An Orthodox Perspective
The primary goal of the Orthodox Christian is to struggle toward theosis—deification. The word theosis often conjures up images of a super hero like Thor or a Greek god like Zeus. When St. Athanasius proclaimed that “God became human so that humans can become gods,” he was not envisioning super-human strength, nor was he envisioning a life of moral perfection. To become like God is to love as God loves, which means, as Jesus proclaimed, even the enemy and the stranger. The struggle for theosis is one that entails a learning how to love. It is often so very difficult to love even our parents, siblings, friends—imagine now learning how to love the enemy and the stranger.
This learning how to love ultimately entails seeing all human beings as created in the image of God. This is not as easy as it seems. It’s one thing to declare that all humans are created in the image of God; it’s another thing to form oneself in such a way that such a belief is evident in our thoughts, feelings, actions—our very being toward the other person, especially the one who is different from us. (more…)
- Orthodox Christianity, Systemic Racism, and the Wrong Side of History
When Archbishop Iakovos stood alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma in 1965, he was maligned by many Greek Americans who took offense that their Archbishop would “fraternize with Civil Rights agitators.” Fifty-five years later, opinion has shifted dramatically. Iakovos’ march alongside MLK is widely regarded as one of the iconic moments of Orthodox Christianity in the United States, if not globally. Today, we either ignore or apologize for that generation of Orthodox who did not understand the moral necessity of the Civil Rights movement.
We now find ourselves at a similar moment. Will our grandchildren have to apologize for us because we stood on the wrong side of history, or will we accept the spirit of the Black Lives Matter critique because it is morally and theologically convicting?
- “Full and Understanding Support”: A Response to “The Wrong Side of History”
We are thankful to hear from two distinguished Greek Americans, Dr. Aristotle Papanikolaou and Dr. George Demacopoulos, who recently published an essay about the injustices African Americans face. The authors encourage us to step into their shoes, and we agree that the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese has a role to play in the struggle for justice. We do not, however, ignore or apologize for our grandparents’ generation. As Archbishop Iakovos attested to, our grandparents are examples for us to emulate in today’s struggle.
Papanikolaou and Demacopoulos argue that the generation of Greek Americans who lived during the Civil Rights movement did not understand its moral necessity. They paint a picture in which many Greek Americans were racists and maligned Archbishop Iakovos for marching at Selma. Yet His Eminence painted a different picture. Following his appearance, he issued this press statement:
- Fear Then, Action Now: A Response to “Full and Understanding Support”
It is encouraging to see young scholars and emerging Greek Orthodox leaders entering the conversation about anti-racism. In a posting in this forum, Nikolaos Piperis and Stavros Piperis, scholars at the Creighton University School of Law and Youth Directors at St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in Omaha, Nebraska, contribute to the discussion from a sociopsychological perspective: they single out fear as a key variable explaining the Southern Greek-American reticence to openly side with the Civil Rights movement en masse.
Their position connects social psychology, immigrant material realities, and the violence of white supremacy. The immigrants’ public support of the Southern anti-racist movement, they point out, would have meant risking one’s business and endangering one’s personal and family life. “These Greeks feared their businesses would be blacklisted, their windows shattered by bricks or their loved ones killed,” they write. The authors designate the inhumane cruelty of Southern segregationism as terrorism, asking that our critique acknowledges the Greek-American predicament under Jim Crow terror. Were we in their position, would we have risked the destruction of our hard-acquired possessions? This angle of seeing the issue makes those who did defy Southern racism but also racial injustices elsewhere all the more laudable.
- Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement
Martin Luther King, Jr., was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1929, the son of Alberta Williams King and Martin Luther King, Sr., pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. King’s childhood was happy and secure, though all too early he was made aware of the hurts inflicted by racism. Like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, he entered the ministry, and throughout the years of his leadership in the civil rights movement, he remained a preacher, regularly occupying the pulpit for Sunday worship, and drawing upon the black church tradition in which he was formed for both the style and content of the political speeches he delivered at demonstrations and appearances in the public square. Courses in philosophy, ethics, and theology at Morehouse College, Crozer Theological Seminary, and Boston University provided King with the opportunity to develop an intellectual framework for systematic analysis of the relationship between Christianity and society, but the existential base for his commitment to social justice was already established in the tradition of black religious protest exemplified by his father’s and grandfather’s embrace of social gospel activism. Strongly attracted to the intellectual life, King might have combined ministerial and academic careers by choosing job offers at schools in the North, but in 1954 he chose instead to accept the fateful call to pastor Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. (more…)
- African American Orthodox Christians
In 2016, I began a series of interviews with African American Orthodox Christians in four regions of the United States. An integral component of a wider ethnographic research project (one combining participant observation and digital research) personal narratives offer a necessary depth of insight into an Orthodox community which still remains relatively unfamiliar to many.
While the number of African American Orthodox Christians appears to be growing, research on this particular group remains scant. Focused either on historical figures like Fr. Raphael Morgan, the first African American Orthodox priest— or on narratives gleaned from a “community of elders,” the most prominent exemplary African American Orthodox Christians, existing research can sometimes convey a single-story narrative, one not entirely untrue—but incomplete. There remains, therefore, much to be learned at the intersection of Orthodox Christianity and African American culture. (more…)
- My Letter to a Young White Friend
A cherished friend—a religiously unaffiliated but morally earnest young white woman who recently completed her first year at a prestigious American university, where she majors in Astrophysics—recently wrote to me to tell me that, in light of George Floyd’s murder, she is making every effort she can to educate herself about the dynamics and the reality of racism and white privilege, so that she can do her part to effect lasting and positive change. She shared with me a list of the books she’s reading this summer, and asked me my opinion of her efforts. She even asked me to tell her of my own experiences as a black man who has grown up and grown middle-aged in America. It was not in any way an impertinent request. She and I had often enough in the past discussed, in a much more general way, how to understand our common human predicament in a properly “integral” or “holistic” way; it was always probably a natural next step for us to broach the topic of the very particular predicament that only some of us must endure.
In any event, below, in a slightly redacted form, is the letter I wrote back to her—which, with her enthusiastic permission (mindful that I would maintain her anonymity) I reproduce here. It remains very much a personal letter in tone and form, and for that I ask pardon in advance. But, for just that reason perhaps, it also says more than an impersonal essay might have done. After all, genuine friendship—one bridging differences in sex, age, race, religion, family origin, socioeconomic background, etc.—bears in itself the seed of a comprehensive solution to the problems that challenge us all today.(more…)
- The War on Drugs and Systemic Racism
Why Christians Should Care
The “War on Drugs” has been a bi-partisan effort spanning several decades that is one of the key components of “systemic racism” and anti-blackness in the United States and elsewhere. The roots of the War on Drugs lie in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration and the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, but it did not become a comprehensive program until Richard Nixon’s Controlled Substances Act of 1971. This War then led to the mass incarceration of many Americans, but disproportionately black males through the strict enforcement and sentencing requirements of the Reagan administration, as well as Joe Biden and Bill Clinton’s “Crime Bill” in the 1990s. Incarceration rates doubled between 1980 (501,800) and 1990 (1,148,700) and doubled again by the year 2000 (1,937,400).
Mass incarceration, however, is not the point of this essay. Rather, I wish to focus here on how Christian values are directly opposed to the motives for the War on Drugs. First, it should be noted that strict “Prohibition” of mind-altering substances is not an Orthodox position. Indeed, we use alcohol, the substance rated as the most dangerous in terms of cumulative personal and social harm, as part of our most sacred rite, the Eucharist. And Orthodox paschal celebrations are typically full to the brim not only with beer and wine, but also vodka, ouzo, and arak, all of which have their origins in predominantly Orthodox cultures. Strict prohibition has its origins in Protestant temperance movements, many of which had strong anti-Catholic and anti-Orthodox biases.
And where America’s failed experiment in alcohol prohibition ends, the War on Drugs, and its racist and un-Christian underpinnings, begins.