Statement on Charlottesville

August 15, 2017
The Feast of the Dormition of Our Most Holy Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary

In times of urgency, the Orthodox Church permits the laity to exercise their priesthood in the absence of the ministerial priesthood. For example, if no priest is present and a person is close to death, a layperson may administer baptism or hear a final confession. One of the exercises of apostolic ministry is to bring contemporary events into the light of Christ, yet as far as we are aware, no bishop of the Orthodox Church has yet addressed the open manifestation of evil in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the form of white supremacism. We are aware that the Orthodox Church is usually slow to react to such things, and yet we fear the consequences of this for our witness to the world. As such, forgive us for taking it upon ourselves to write briefly on the demands of our Tradition in the face of these events. If anything we say here is good and true, it is only by the grace of God. If anything should be insufficient or erroneous, it is entirely our own.

Firstly, as repentance and confession is necessary for salvation, so we must repent of our part in the sins of the world. At many times in our history, and up until the present day, Orthodox people have made all statements declaring the rightful supremacy of white Christendom over other peoples – and especially the Jewish people, reviled as killers of Christ. Often, we have carried out these statements in acts of violent bigotry, in murders and in pogroms, and thereby disgraced the name of God. For this – for the roots of antisemitism in the Fathers, for the crimes of the Byzantine and Russian empires, for the Black Hundreds, for the Iron Guard, and many other sins that bear our name – we repent.

At the same time, we cannot allow our tradition to be defined by such tragic errors, to become a tool in the hands of white supremacism. This is a real and present danger; one of the organisers of the Charlottesville Rally was Matthew Heimbach, who has been a member of the Orthodox Church, and claimed its teachings for his bigotry. He is not alone, but nonetheless, he does not stand with either the Gospel or the Tradition of the Church. [1]

We believe in one God, the Father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, born of David’s line, and in the Holy Spirit, who spoke through the prophets; there is no salvation for anyone without the Jewish people, through whom the Gospel first came. As Metropolitan Antony (Khrapovitsky) of blessed memory, the first primate of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, said of the pogroms in his own day:

“God’s recompense will fall upon those evil people who have shed the blood which is of the same race as the Theanthropos, His most pure Mother, Apostles and Prophets… They resemble Judas who betrayed Christ with a kiss while blinded with the sickness of greed, but these murders, hiding themselves behind Christ’s name, killed His kinsmen [sic] according to the flesh in order to rob them.”

God promised Abraham that through him and his offspring, He would bless all the people of the world; thus, we who declare ourselves to be recipients of these blessings through Christ must denounce all bigotry and violence against the Jewish people and against anyone on the basis of race.

We have focused on anti-Semitism so far since that is the sin on display at Charlottesville which has most haunted the theological articulations of our history. However, we also cannot stay silent on the Islamophobia and more general white supremacism that came with force this weekend. Muslims too worship the God of Abraham [2] and are thus in some sense cousins to the Christian faith. When St Gregory Palamas was held captive by certain Muslim Turks whose actions he strongly disapproved of, he nonetheless wrote to his archdiocese: “Watch not to suffer anything like these ill-minded men; I do not mean in regard to their reverence of God, but rather in regard to their behavior.” Thus St Gregory naturally did not approve of his captors, he nonetheless regarded their faith as genuine reverence of God. Even if this were not so, no bigotry or violence against Muslims can ever be justified. Until very recent times, Orthodox Christians have lived under Muslim rulers and yet differences in faith have usually been disputed peacefully, as can be seen in St Gregory Palamas’ dialogues with Muslims, and to which numerous Arabic sources testify. Indeed, Muslims and Christians had even worshipped together in designated spaces of the Cathedral in Damascus up until the 8th century, when political developments brought this arrangement to an end. And today the predominant Orthodox Church in the Arab world, the Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East, encourages its flock to engage Muslims in a spirit of love and good will. [3]

Equally, there is no justification in the Scriptures or the Tradition to assert the supremacy of white or European people over any other racial group, for the Church has, from her inception, venerated saints from every corner of the earth, of every race and tongue. In 1872, the Great and Holy Pan-Orthodox Synod, then meeting in Constantinople, condemned the false conflation of Church and nation or ethnicity, known as phyletism, as a heresy, declaring;

“We denounce, censure, and condemn phyletism, to wit, racial discrimination and nationalistic disputes, rivalries, and dissensions in the Church of Christ, as antithetical to the teaching of the Gospel and the Sacred Canons of our Blessed Fathers, ‘who uphold the Holy Church and, ordering the entire Christian commonwealth, guide it to Divine piety.'”

Indeed, during the years of the Civil Rights movements in the 1960s, Archbishop Iakovos of America recognised that the Church could not remain a spectator, but must stand with black Americans and activists to denounce the evils of white supremacy that then and now dominated so much of public life.

“Anger too has a share in the Good,” wrote St Dionysios the Areopagite, “to the extent that it is an urge to remedy seeming evils by returning them toward what seems beautiful.” St John Chrysostom put the same argument in even stronger terms, with his characteristic boldness, saying, “If you can live amid injustice without anger, you are unjust.” In recent times, faced with political conflict between the horrors of racism and fascism and those who seek to resist such forces in the name of justice, many of those in the Church have recognised the need for practical response. Archbishop Iakovos marched at Selma with Rvd. Dr. Martin Luther King, alienating many of his flock in the process. St Maria Skobtsova of Paris, her son, St Yuri, and their confessor St Dmitri Klepinin hid Jewish fugitives from the Nazis, issuing them with fake baptism certificates, and eventually going to their deaths alongside them in the concentration camps. St Alexander Schmorell of Munich distributed anti-Nazi propaganda in Germany as part of the resistance group known as the White Rose, and was martyred for his defiance. The Church has even been a refuge for those who resisted fascism by force of arms, and Ss Cyril and Methodius’ Cathedral in Prague still bears the bullet-scars from the battle between the Gestapo and those who had attempted (unsuccessfully) to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, SS chief, Nazi chief of police, and acting Reichsprotektor of what is now the Czech Republic. We call on the Church to recognise this great cloud of witnesses, and to do its duty in these times of crisis, in whatever form that may take.

Aug. 17 update

The Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) has issued an encyclical [4] regarding the events in Charlottesville. A few relevant passages:

Recent tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, have highlighted the presence of un-Christian rhetoric and violent actions within our communities. At the same time, the response to these events by our civil leadership has unleashed a nationwide debate which has created a certain moral ambiguity, which in turn is fostering further division. Such a climate requires a clear response from the Church. […]

The Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America joins people of faith and good will across the United States, Canada and Mexico in unequivocally, unreservedly and unambiguously rejecting words and actions which perpetrate, support or encourage hatred, violence, racism, white supremacy, white nationalism or neo-Nazism.

[…] We exhort our clergy and faithful to reject any attempts by individuals or groups to claim for themselves the name of “Orthodox Christian” in order to promote racism, hatred, white supremacy, white nationalism or neo-Nazism. This is in keeping with the Holy Gospels, the decisions of the Holy Councils and the experience of the Saints.

Aug. 18 update

The Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the USA has published their own statement [5], which does not express the reservations the OCA’s has about condemning individuals as well as ideas. Relevant quotes follow.

The Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America stands with all people of good will in condemning the hateful violence and lamenting the loss of life that resulted from the shameful efforts to promote racial bigotry and white supremacist ideology in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The Orthodox Church emphatically declares that it does not promote, protect or sanction participation in such reprehensible acts of hatred, racism, and discrimination, and proclaims that such beliefs and behaviors have no place in any community based in respect for the law and faith in a loving God.

[1] See the collection of statements from various Orthodox hierarchs against antisemitism found in Bridges: Documents of the Christian-Jewish Dialogue: Volume Two, Building A New Relationship (1986-2013), ed. Franklin Sherman (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 2014).

[2] See ‘The Disputation of the Monk Abraham of Tiberias’, anonymous author, c. 8th century, in The Orthodox Church in the Arab World, 700-1700: An Anthology of Sources (DeKalb IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2014)

[3] For example, the address made by Patriarch John X of Antioch and All the East at the Phanar on June 2, 2013: “We have learned to foster co-existence with [Muslims]; and many times we have succeeded in opening frank dialogues on the basis of love and mutual respect.” Other Patriarchates have followed this example, including Constantinople and Moscow. Especially noteworthy in this regard is His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow’s call to the West to be unafraid of accepting Muslim refugees, at http://www.interfax-religion.com/?act=news&div=12354.

[4] ‘Holy Synod of Bishops issues statement on recent tragic events in Charlottesville, VA’, https://oca.org/holy-synod/statements/holy-synod/holy-synod-of-bishops-issues-statement-on-recent-tragic-events-in-charlotte

[5] ‘Response to Racist Violence in Charlottesville, VA’ http://www.assemblyofbishops.org/news/2017/response-to-racist-violence-charlottesville-va

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