Black Americans make up a tiny percentage of Orthodox Christians in the United States. Considering how difficult it is for someone from our American culture to convert to the Orthodox faith, it makes the stories of the seven Black individuals in the most recent issue of Jacob’s Well—a magazine of the Diocese of New York and New Jersey (OCA)—rather amazing. Orthodoxy, from the outside looking in, can seem foreign, complicated, and confusing. But perhaps Black Americans are better positioned than any ethnic group in this country to traverse the convert’s journey. They are a people experienced in being “the stranger.”
Earlier this month, Jacob’s Well published a special issue featuring seven interviews with Black Orthodox Americans. It may be the first publication in more than 20 years devoted to Orthodox Christians who are Black Americans (the last we’re aware of was the essay collection, An Unbroken Circle, published by the Fellowship of St. Moses the Black in 1998). The issue was noteworthy both for the diversity of its interviewees and for the commonality among the stories. There were men and women of different ages, some descendants of American slaves, others recent African immigrants or of Afro-Latino backgrounds. They spoke English, Spanish, and French. Some came from Catholic backgrounds, and others from Pentecostal or traditional Black churches. Yet, threads of shared experience ran through them all.
On the morning of August 24, I was hot! I woke up as I usually do—to the morning’s light, with stares from my cat, awaiting his early meal. I turned on Morning Joe and opened up my iPhone’s newsfeed. This is what I saw:
Now, generally, I’m not one easily given to anger. When I get angry—that is, when I’m in the grip of the emotion—I tend to resolve it in a matter of hours, or a day, tops. My maternal grandmother (God rest her beautiful soul), who was very much a biblical woman, always used to say, “Do not let the sun set on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26, NAB), and I try my best—with God’s Grace—to live by this rule, as Grandma certainly did.
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.
As I sit holding and examining the print of the famous painting “The Last Meeting of Lee & Jackson” by E.B.D. Julio, I reflect on my own racism and prejudices that I grew up with as a Southerner. I feel as Wendell Berry wrote about, The Hidden Wound, inside me and the South, the hidden wound of racism. In this piece I would like to make my confession of how being raised in the South influenced me and other Southerners.
Being raised in the South, I became entrenched in the racist heritage of the South and beholden to the religion of the Lost Cause. I did not know or think of myself as a racist, for I had African American friends and colleagues. But deep inside me was the hidden wound that goes unnoticed by many Americans.