In the midst of pandemic and protests over racial injustice, it is important to remember that the connection between disease and racism in North America is not a new one: Europeans extended their domination over the land and the indigenous populations that lived on it in large part through their decimation caused by diseases brought by the Europeans. St. Tikhon of Moscow, who was bishop in North America at the turn of the last century, observed this dynamic and condemned racism in no uncertain terms.
The concept of race that categorizes people according to skin color and physical differences is a modern one, inextricably connected to European colonial domination. Because it is a modern concept that developed largely outside the Orthodox world, to this day there have been few statements on race and racism made by universally recognized authoritative Orthodox voices. The challenge in the Orthodox world since the nineteenth century has been the growing connection between religious and national identity and therefore the problem of nationalism in the Church. It is especially important to pay attention to an explicit condemnation of racism by one of the greatest modern Orthodox saints.
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.
On June 4, the leadership of four interfaith organizations—Religions for Peace USA, Parliament of World Religions (PoWR), United Religions Initiative (URI) and the Interfaith Center of New York (ICNY)—issued a statement: “This Perilous Moment: A Statement from Religious Leaders and Communities on the Crisis of Racial Injustice and Inequity and Current Protests.” This statement is important, as Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha’i, Humanists, Indigenous, Jains, Sikhs, Taoists, Unitarian Universalists, Zoroastrians, and many others signed on to the statement and were able to address, in one voice and with a sense of urgency, the systemic evil of racism that plagues our country. Drawing inspiration and empowerment from the spiritual resources of their respective tradition, each faith community is underscoring their commitment to justice, peace, and reconciliation.
The Orthodox Church, as an active member of the Interfaith Organization Religions for Peace USA, is also a partner in this interfaith witness. Her participation in these efforts reflect her ethos as it has been authoritatively expressed in the Great and Holy Council (Crete 2016) to seek inter-religious understanding and co-operation for the advancement of peaceful coexistence and harmonious living. His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, in his address to the Global Peace Conference of Al-Azhar and Muslim Council of Elders (2017), expressed the belief of the Orthodox Church in the need for human solidarity and the commitment of the Orthodox Church in advancing that goal through interfaith collaboration building a culture of justice and peace. He stated that the credibility of religious communities in today’s world depends on whether they are active advocates and guardians of human dignity and freedom of all people. His All-Holiness has suggested that it is only through dialogue and collaboration that faith-based communities, governments, and civil society are able to respond together to the challenge of building a just and peaceful world.
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?