A few years ago, I retired from the Massachusetts criminal justice system. I had worked for twenty years, first as a courtroom clerk in criminal sessions and then, for ten years, as a prosecutor. As a white female, it was my experience that our criminal justice system was stacked against people of color. It may have been my imagination, but higher bails, longer sentences, and harsher probation terms, seemed to be the norm for non-white defendants. Although we had a few black and Asian judges and a few non-white court officers and lawyers and cops, for the most part everyone in the courtroom other than the defendants was white. If the goal is justice administered fairly, that is not a good starting point.
Because of my work history, the events in this country that followed the death of George Floyd have pained me deeply. Like all difficult things, there are many layers to this, and I have tried to sort them out. First of all, I think nearly everyone will agree on two things. One, that what the police did to George Floyd was sickening and contrary to their duty as peace officers. Second, that looting and violence is bad. (The vast majority of the protesters these past weeks have opposed looting and violence.) So, let’s look beyond those two things. Let’s look at the real issue: what can be done to bring people of color to full equality in this country?
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?
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. Continue reading →