Tag Archives: Aram Sarkisian

Blessed are the Peacemakers: Thinking Historically About Russian Orthodox Soft Diplomacy

by Aram G. Sarkisian

Retvizan Battleship

If you stand before the iconostasis of St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Manhattan, the representation church of the Moscow Patriarchate to the Orthodox Church in America, you will see an old and ornate cross perched behind the altar table. First placed there nearly 120 years ago, it is an artifact of another moment in which the diplomatic and foreign policy goals of the Russian state were intertwined with the transnational reach of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The cross was first obtained for the chapel of the Retvizan, a Russian battleship built in a Philadelphia shipyard between 1899 and 1902. During its construction, Orthodox clergy in nearby New York came to know the ship’s personnel. When the cornerstone was blessed for the new St. Nicholas church in early 1901, the officers and sailors of the Retvizan formed a choir under the direction of the parish sacristan, Father Ilia Zotikov, and sang the liturgical responses. They also donated funds to the building project. Several months later, Bishop Tikhon (Bellavin) returned the favor, traveling to Philadelphia to consecrate the ship’s chapel. In 1904, when the Retvizan was damaged at the outset of the Russo-Japanese War, the ties that bound the ship and its crew to Orthodox leaders in North America proved as strong as ever. Responding to a telegram from Tikhon expressing concern for the ship’s crew, their commander wrote to request “the prayers of your Grace to God to grant us strength to be of comfort to our country.”

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What Happens When Scholars of Orthodoxy Write about White Christian Nationalism

by Aram G. Sarkisian

Statue of Robert E. Lee

In December of last year, I wrote for Public Orthodoxy on the Philip Ludwell III Orthodox Fellowship, an effort that uses myth of the Lost Cause to evangelize the American South. Responses to my piece were robust and diverse. I enjoyed learning from many of the readers who engaged with my work. Yet some of this response was distressing, even threatening, a reaction common to this kind of public scholarship on Orthodoxy. In a recent New Yorker profile of conservative radio host Dan Bongino, the firebrand Trump ally boasts to his interviewer that “there’s nothing you can write I can’t write back even worse. It’s asymmetric warfare. You never win.” This is what scholars of Orthodoxy endure when they write about white Christian nationalism in the church. And it happened to me.

To publish this work means initiating a rapidly-escalating pattern of hate and derision not so much about your work as it is about you. First comes a predictable flurry of angry tweets resembling other far-right coordinated online attacks, such as GamerGate. These Twitter users present as young, devout Orthodox men, usually from the United States. Some list their jurisdictional affiliations (usually ROCOR or OCA), and occasionally the ecclesiastical ranks they hold. Their avatars frequently incorporate Pepe the Frog, which is recognized by the Anti-Defamation League as a hate symbol. To a man, they tweet COVID-19 denialism and anti-vaxxer conspiracies, brag of being “red-pilled,” voice displeasure with democracy, and broadcast explicit anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia. They also post Orthodox icons, quote elders and saints, and sometimes express aspirations of becoming monks or priests. Their responses snowball quickly into a tangled web of tweets and retweets venting anger and hate. This is almost always done beneath the familiar purple-and-white emoji of an Orthodox cross.

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Orthodox America Has a Lost Cause Problem

by Aram G. Sarkisian

confederate battle flag

For more than a decade, researchers have excavated the fascinating story of Philip Ludwell III, an Anglo-American convert to Orthodox Christianity who lived in colonial Virginia during the mid- to late-eighteenth century. A friend to Benjamin Franklin, cousin to Martha Washington, and a member of one of Virginia’s most established and well-connected planter families, Ludwell was also a distant relation of Robert E. Lee. Recently, a group of Orthodox Christians from the American South have drawn on this story to establish the Philip Ludwell III Orthodox Fellowship, a group devoted to “nurturing the roots of Orthodoxy in Dixie’s land.”

What is interesting, but troubling about the rise of the Ludwell Fellowship is its appropriation of an eighteenth-century story to fit a twisted and ahistorical agenda of the twenty-first. Scholars and other observers are noting the growing links between Orthodox Christianity and the American alt-right. This includes, but is not limited to the rise of Orthodox political candidates Michael Sisco and Lauren Witzke, the rhetoric of white supremacist leader Matthew Heimbach, and the participation of OCA priest Fr. Mark Hodges in the January 6th insurrection at the United States Capitol. Normalizing a conservative strain of Orthodoxy rooted in the farthest reaches of the political right, the Ludwell Fellowship poses their namesake as a spiritual antecedent to a convert-driven Southern Orthodoxy that neatly maps onto neo-Confederate ideologies of a redeemed Dixie. In this way, the fellowship is but one aspect of a larger movement within some Orthodox communities in the United States to draw on these developments to help shift the fulcrum of Orthodox America into the heart and history of the American South, and in turn, normalize white supremacy.

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“For You Were Aliens in the Land of Egypt”: Why Orthodox Christians Cannot Remain Silent on United States Immigration Policies

by Aram G. Sarkisian

In recent weeks, distressing images of detained children, renewed calls for drastic immigration restrictions, and the United States Supreme Court’s decision upholding a travel ban against Muslim-majority countries have intensified national discourse on immigration policy. These developments should strongly resonate with Orthodox Christians. Though the church’s demographics have certainly changed over the past century, Orthodoxy flourished in the United States during the early 1900s as a church built by, and for, immigrants. Orthodox Christians must draw on their histories to speak credibly to the anxieties of migration, the human toll of detention and deportation, and the negative implications of immigration restrictions, entry quotas, and normalized xenophobia.

One argument employed to support stringent immigration policies comes from those who insist that since their immigrant ancestors “came legally” and prospered, others should be held to the same standard. The truth proves a little more complicated. Continue Reding…