Civil Rights

Ferguson, MO vs. Malcolm X:  Are We Chasing Our Tails?

So, it happened again.  An unarmed black teenaged male was killed by a white cop.  The response was our usual predictable outcry, “No Justice, No Peace.”  Unlike the previous incident in Sanford FL (in which the white community watch volunteer provoked a black teen to fight before killing him and was acquitted of the crime), the recent events were marred by violent confrontations between a handful of demonstrators and police.  Some businesses were looted and private property destroyed.  Did the policeman act in self defense, or did the victim have his hands up and demand that he not be shot?  That is for a judge and jury to tell, of which I am neither.  But, pondering the works of one of our most venerated African-American heroes and the universal faith of Orthodox Christianity, I can’t help but wonder if we should respond to violent and non-violent racism in a different way.

A great read

In 1964, Malcolm X did the unexpected.  He took the pilgrimage to Mecca and completely forsook the reactionary racist doctrine of America’s Nation of Islam.  He saw the universal brotherhood of Orthodox Islam and concluded that if the United States had a similar religious perspective that the problem of racism could be solved.  After speaking with an American ambassador to an African nation, he also concluded that it was our nation’s atmosphere nourishes the racist psychology of white people (see “The Autobiography of Malcolm X, chapter 19, pgs 370 & 371).

While I reject Islam as the solution, I do agree with his conclusion of the problem of racism in our nation.  We have been fighting for our rights in this nation since we were brought to Jamestown as indentured servants in 1619.  While we are no longer under the yokes of slavery or Jim Crow, the mentality of white supremacy has not been completely defeated.  In some cases, Satan has morphed this evil to be more subtle to hide behind the mask of economics, lifestyle, politics, and religion.  In other cases, he has caused people to simply ignore the importance of improving race relations.

But, here is the problem.  While Satan has used new methods to maintain the same atmosphere, we fail to fight the atmosphere.  At best, we have non-violent marches, petition drives, and rallies to draw attention to one incident or another.  We elect public officials hoping they will make great changes on our behalf.  Sadly, a handful of us will respond to racism with violence.  Sadder still, too many of us play into current apolitical and unreligious “hood rat” and “thug” images that only serves to maintain racism as many blacks are as annoyed by them as whites (listen to Chris Rock’s “Black People vs. Niggers” on the Bring the Pain release).  Carrying signs and shouting “Fired Up!  Ain’t Taking No More” only works on obvious flare-ups.  It does not address the underlying spiritual sickness of white supremacy.  In fact, as long as we fail to attack the spiritual sickness we make ourselves just as, if not more sick than white racist.  The more we see that our non-violent efforts produce limited success or fail time and time again, the more likely we will use violence against our oppressors and ourselves.

A Nativity Icon from the Coptic Orthodox Church

Strangely enough, Malcolm X gives a hint to what I believe to be the solution to America’s racist atmosphere.  In chapter 19 of his Autobiography, he mentions the Desert Fathers as the founders of Christianity (pg 368) and names St. Augustine as a savior of Catholicism (pgs 369 & 370).  The One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church (the Orthodox Church) was the beacon of the human brotherhood that Malcolm had in mind after his Hajj pilgrimage.  Not only Augustine, but Athanasius the Great, Cyril of Alexandria, and other African saints preserved true doctrine from heretics and were and are honored by Orthodox Christians of all races all over the world.  While ethnocentrism is a problem among several congregations, Orthodoxy has never considered one race greater than the other.

The Bishop of Rome and the kings of western Europe grew in power and wealth above their eastern Christian kin and declared themselves as the superiors of the faith.  The magisterial and radical reformations produced even more superiority complexes causing years of inquisitions, persecutions, and wars from Spain to Poland.  America was founded people who were guided by these perceptions of Christianity and Biblical interpretations.  They felt no need to study and adhere to the doctrines the apostles handed down to the African, European, and Middle Eastern saints and scholars.  And when these colonists came across illiterate brown skinned people, the whites considered themselves to be superior as they had the weapons and wealth.  This is the atmosphere we have in the United States.

As long as African-Americans consider western forms of Christianity to be a beacon of hope, we are only going to chase our tails in the fight against racism with even non-violent protest.  Western Christendom with its power and wealth created the atmosphere of white supremacy which teaches us that our African Christian heritage (and those of eastern European and Middle Eastern Christians) is unimportant.  Oh, we can talk about the African Methodist Church as the first black denomination.  But, it was founded by blacks who were fed up with being segregated by whites in the Methodist Episcopal Church.  We can talk about how Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great Black Baptist preacher.  But, when did any black Baptist convention establish its doctrine from the black saints rather than the white slave masters?  COGIC and other black Pentecostals do not offer a solution to America’s racial problem as well.  The Azuza Street “outpouring of the Holy Spirit” happened after a similar all-white event happened in Topeka Kansas.  If either of these were a true outpouring of the Holy Spirit, why did they not bring English speaking American black and white Christians together in one church the same way that Pentecost in Acts 2 bring together believers from all over the known world when the Apostles spoke in many different languages? Non-denominationalist are equally as delusional as they use an Old Testament that was compiled by Medieval Jews who sought to discredit Christ rather than the Septuagint (Greek language) Old Testament that the Apostles used and was compiled  in Egypt 250 years before the birth of Jesus Christ.  The oldest Hebrew scriptures, the Dead Sea Scrolls match the Septuagint (the Orthodox Old Testament is based on this version), and differ from the western Christian version in the same ways the Septuagint does.

Fr. Raphael Morgan was ahead of his time

Rather than chasing our tails protesting in the circles of a western Christian atmosphere, I propose African-Americans walk (if not run) toward Orthodox Christianity.  Those who feel uncomfortable or unwelcomed in a predominately white eastern jurisdiction, such as the Greeks, Russians, or the Middle Eastern Antiochians should find Coptic or Ethiopian congregations as these churches are undeniably African.  We shouldn’t do this with any illusions that everyone who practices the ancient faith is perfect.  But, we should understand that this church was not founded on the streets of Ferguson or on a rock in the Plymouth Colony.  This is the church that came to Africa by Mark and Matthew at the same time and with the same spirit Andrew and Paul brought it to Europe, as Thomas took it to India, and James held things down in Jerusalem.  This is the church that put the both testaments of the Bible together with the New Testament being canonized in 4th century Carthage.  This is the church where anti colonial freedom movements in Cyprus and Kenya found common ground against the imperial western Christian Britain.  This is the church of Africa’s last Emperor of the line of King Solomon and Jamaica’s most heralded musical son.   This is the church that began on the day of Pentecost with God fearing men from all nations who came to Jerusalem to worship.

Western Christendom cannot bring about racial harmony.  Roman Catholicism has known about the African saints for quite some time.  Yet, they have not shared this knowledge with us.  Mainline and Evangelical Protestantism has given us the bizarre “Great Apostasy” theory that the true church disappeared after the death of John the Evangelist (or the rule of Emperor Constantine) and they “discovered” it as they cut their ties with papal authority.  Thus, such denominations ignore the importance of even European saints, much more the holy men and women of other lands.  Non-denominational churches are no different than the denominational ones they broke away from.

It is time for us all to come home.

The Orthodox Church has never been perfect when it comes to racism in America (oh, that I wish it was).  But, the Church is rooted in the universal brotherhood of all who believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and live by the doctrines and traditions handed down by Jesus and the Apostles.  The Church acknowledges saints from all cultures and races and allows its members to learn more about how they walked with the Lord.  There is no point in running around in circles when God has provided us with a path to truth.

 

 

 

 

St. Anthony, King, Obama: The Time Is Now

The confluence of the days is no coincidence.  Martin Luther King Jr’s Birthday will be celebrated on January 21st.  This is also the same date of the Second Inauguration of President Barak Obama.  Every American, in particular African-Americans, understand the importance and prophetic like significance of these events.  King was the voice for a better America and helped lead the country out of the satanic state of segregation.  Obama is a symbol of what anyone can achieve if they strive to do their best.  There is no way I could nor would want to dispel these two great men.  But, I do believe it is important for we as Protestant Christians, and especially African-American Christians to also regard Saint Anthony of Egypt.  Today is his feast day.

St. Anthony the Great

St. Anthony the Great inherited great wealth from his parents and could have lived a life of great splendor.  Yet hearing the Gospel message, he left his worldly possessions behind and took up a life of prayer in the desert.  His devotion to prayer was a great influence on Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria who gave the church its first creed and was the first to compile the list of books that became our New Testament.  Another Egyptian, Macarius, to write prayers that are still prayed by Orthodox believers around the world.  Anthony’s defence of Jesus Christ as the incarnate Son of God during the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea helped the early church reject the heresy of Arianism.  Yet, rather than bask in the glories of his achievements, Anthony kept returning to his cave.  His followers followed his instructions and buried him in a secret grave so that he would not become the object of veneration.

The importance of Anthony is no less than that of MLK and Mr. Obama.  As we celebrate these to great men, now is the time for us to open our hearts and minds to learn about and celebrate our African-Christian heroes (and the saints of other lands as well).  Had there been no Anthony, the correct doctrines supported by Athanasius, Basil, Nicholas (yes, THAT St. Nicholas), and others may not have been as convincing to Emperor Constantine and the Council.  The rich prayer tradition of Orthodox and Catholic monks and nuns would not have developed in such meaningful ways.  Indeed, where would King have received his Holy Bible from?  What sort of Bible would Mr. Obama take the oath of office on? The “Desert Fathers” of Africa should and must be a part of who we African-American Christians honor during Black History Month as without them, we (and the world) might not be here and not have a true idea of who Jesus Christ is.

Archbishop Iakovos with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

During the era of Dr. King, we were too busy with fighting for our Civil Rights to learn much about our Christian history.  Now, it is possible that an African-American President who struggled during his first term could win a second.  Nothing is stopping us from reading the books of the early church fathers and talking to Eastern and Oriental Orthodox clergy.  Instead of choking our people on a diet of a modern Christian market, we can introduce them to the solid doctrines, prayers, and practices of our African ancestors.  Even if we choose not to convert to Orthodoxy (and I think some of us should), we should know our history.  We have no excuses not to learn.

What We Bring To The Table: Howard Thurman

I do read books, watch You Tube videos, and listen to podcast from the Orthodox Church.  Chances are that I may eventually become a convert, though no time soon.  But, there are some people and things about the African-American Protestant faith that I am not willing to easily discard.  In fact, I believe that we have some important offerings that can enhance the cause of Orthodoxy in America.  Every now and then, I will promote the best of what we bring to the table of the ancient faith.

Howard Thurman was a mystic and theologian who led believers to search for the root of bonding with God.  While many preachers were content to “Whoop” and holler.  Thurman called on his congregants, students, and listeners to think and concentrate on matters of the spirit.  It is easy to see emotionalism as a part of our church practice.  But, Thurman saw something more meaningful through our experience of slavery and segregation.  That we have to reach a point of silence and reflection.  From this point, what he calls the “centering moment,” we can then yield ourselves to the spirit higher than our own and be directed by it.  True faith has little to do with external expressions of religious acts.  But, it has everything to do with our internal pursuit of something more meaningful.

With such spiritual insight, Dr. Thurman was one of the most influential theologians of our faith.  It is said that Dr. Martin Luther King often traveled with a well-worn copy of one of his books.  The church he founded, Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, still exist as do many of his books.  For those unfamiliar with this man, I suggest his book “Disciplines of the Spirit” as a good introduction to his thought and theology.

 

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Second Monday): Asking, Seeking, and Knocking

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.

Matthew 7:7

A Broad View (© John Gresham)

I am recovering from the Feast of All Saints of North America (overindulgence in a stuffed crust, super supreme pizza).  About to go to a staff meeting at the park ( I am supplying a salad and portabella mushrooms for myself as I am not going to eat any chicken).  And I have more than a few loose ends to tie up this week for the church.  Thus far, I can say that I am happy with my journey on this Apostles Fast.

I am finding so much history in Orthodoxy.  I knew that Christianity had existed in Ethiopia since high school.  But, thanks to modern technology, I have learned even more of this church as well as the Copts of Egypt.  You Tube has become a valuable instrument in my learning of the ancient faith.  Archbishop Lazar Puhalo and David Withun have very informative videos on the network.  I also listen to the lectures on the Ancient Faith Radio podcast.  I intend to visit either the Greek Orthodox Church or OCA Mission when I go to Charlottesville soon and will be able to visit the Antiochian Church on the fifth Sunday of July.  As soon as the Greek Church opens in Williamsburg, I will attend some midweek services.

Perhaps some would criticize my appreciation for Orthodoxy and wonder why I am asking, seeking, and knocking on their door when I have been a life-long Baptist and pastor a church.  History is one reason.  We African-American Baptist have a rich legacy of preaching, music, and theology that I do appreciate and thank God for.  But, the Baptist faith is only over 200 years old.  Yes, we can talk about the legacy of Robert Walker, Nat Turner, John Jasper, Howard Thurman, and Adam Clayton Powell, and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the message they had for our community and nation.  But, we should also learn and celebrate the legacy and message of the African fathers who contributed to the very foundations of Christianity.  St Anthony the Great is recognized as the father of monasticism by both Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism.  His contemporary, St. Athanasius, described Anthony as being of the Egyptian race.  In speaking of his fellow African, Athanasius put together the New Testament!  Seriously, how can we even call ourselves African-American Christians and not give recognition to the Africans that helped form the faith?  How can we not also celebrate those martyrs such as Cyprian of Carthage, Maurice and the Theban Legion?  Is the oppression and murder they suffered less important than that of King or the four girls that were killed in a Birmingham church bombing?  If we are going to tell the history of our Christian heritage, we ought to tell the whole story.

The Africans who contributed to early Christianity were not former slaves that had to overcome Jim Crow laws to be accepted by whites.  They were held as equals in faith going back to that first named Christian community in Antioch (Acts 13:1).  Race was a non-issue in the early Orthodox world.  Ethiopians have some icons of a pale skinned Jesus out of respect for the Russian Orthodox whom they have enjoyed a long kinship with.  There are churches and monasteries in Europe with icons of the Theotokos and Christ darker than I am.  Most images of Christ and others in the Bible are depicted as Middle Eastern, neither black nor white.  The history of the faith is multicultural and universal (Colossians 3:11).

I have to cut off here.

Questions About My Journey

It is written in Proverbs that one should seek advice before taking on a project.  So, I selected four friends who hold Masters of Divinity Degrees (one has a D.Min) to give their input on the questions I have concerning the African-American church and Orthodox Christianity.  My questions are:

  • What have you learned about the church (Orthodox) in seminary?
  • Is there something about it that is dangerous or a threat to our protestant tradition (besides the fact that they don’t allow women in their clergy)?
  • What are the elements of their faith that we must absolutely reject?
  • Does their church have any relevance to the African-American community?

One thing about asking questions to the wise is that they will throw questions back at you.  So, this morning I will answer what has been put before me.

Footbridge at Sunset

What do I think is distinctively different between Orthodox Christianity and Christianity?  History is a glaring difference between the ancient church and the churches I see around me.  The history of my church only goes back to 1889 and my denomination to the colonial period of America.  Orthodoxy can trace its physical roots all the way back to the 12 apostles and the day of Pentecost.  Of course, true salvation depends upon faith and only God decides who will and won’t be granted into his eternal kingdom.  But, in a world of a new denomination (or non-denomination) being founded almost every other weekend (it seems), I think it is important that people know the original body of Christ still exist some 2,000 years since they were first called Christians in Antioch.  No preacher filled with his own sense of importance can just put on a collar and call himself “bishop.”  He must meet the standards and rise to the office.  Scripture is not interpreted by the opinions of popular theologians that lean to a political bias.  There is the long-standing tradition of interpretation from the colleagues and disciples of the New Testament writers and the writers themselves.  We tend to say what “my Bible says.”  But, had it not been for their church, we wouldn’t have a Bible since they were the ones who put it together over 300 years after they got started.  Yes, black American Christianity in particular and American Christianity as a whole has developed an authentic voice without the Orthodox Church among us.  But, the fact that the ancient church still exist and has this deep historic perspective should not be ignored.

What is appealing to me about the Orthodox tradition?  History is one thing.  Another would be monasticism.  The monastic tradition is honored in Orthodoxy, invisible in much of Protestantism, and doesn’t exist in the black church.  Too many of us Negro preachers are way off the chain when it comes to materialism and behavior.  Back in the day, Dr. Alix James used to tell seminarians to wear simple suits and little jewelry.  I have seen stuff in conferences and pulpits that make some pimps jealous.  Vow of celibacy?  Yeah, right.  Marital infidelity among American Protestant clergy is no secret.  According to the reports I have read on the subjects, the only difference between sexual abuse cases among Protestants and Catholics is that we prefer women over the age of 16.  I am sure the Orthodox Church has a few bad apples as well.  But, celibacy is a choice among its priesthood.  Giving up one’s earthly possessions is a time-honored lifestyle of faith that goes back to the second chapter of Acts.

Let me get personal.  My wife has bipolar disorder and muscular sclerosis.  Needless to say, I have been a celibate for the past seven years.  The reaction I get from Protestantism is more of gloom and despair as if my life depends on having a normal married sex life.  But, in the eyes of Orthodoxy, I am a blessed man.  I still have a wife to love and care for (which I do).  But, I am blessed because I have the challenge to overcome my natural desires (sometimes I wish he would bless someone else instead).  To a degree, I get to live the life of Paul, Saint Anthony (the father of monasticism), and other great leaders of the church.  As for a vow of poverty, I left a job at Dominion Virginia Power that gave me a very good salary and benefits package to substitute teach in King and Queen and West Point because the Holy Spirit told me to.  And though I am working year-round as a ranger at York River State Park, what I earn now is still a far cry from what I had and I don’t count it as a loss.

So, I see Orthodoxy as a rebellion against the excesses of Protestant America and those of the black church in particular.  But, I desire rebellion not for its own sake.  I have no heart to throw out the baby with the bath water.  There are elements about the church I was raised in that are well worth keeping.  Our story of faith in the midst of struggle as slaves and second class citizens, the spirituality of our hymns and praises, the form of our preaching; no, I am not prepared to put these things aside.  I am prepared to seek the truth from the ancient fathers and hold on the truth from my fathers.  That is why I am on the journey.

Two Paths: African-American Christianity and the Orthodox Church

Forgive me for not coming up with a better title for this.  But, I have an interest in both of these expressions of faith.  I am a product of the old slave religion that grew into the preaching power of Gardner Taylor and the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr.  Yet, I can’t escape the fact that there is an unbroken line of the Apostle’s faith and teaching that still exist today.  Is there a dialogue between these two paths?  Surely there are differences as well as some similarities.  What does my church have to teach the ancient ones?  What can their fathers teach this son?  This is a topic I will work with for a few years, if not a lifetime.

http://orthodoxhistory.org/2011/06/22/abp-iakovos-opposed-civil-rights-demonstrations-in-1963/

I ran across this article earlier this morning concerning the Greek Archbishop Iakovos and why he earlier opposed public Civil Rights demonstrations.  In no way did he support the bigotry and segregation in America (not just the South).  But, he was opposed to the empty participation in marches without people making a true change of heart and mind.

 “Too often the demonstrators go home and say, ‘I did my part,’ but refuse to carry through. How many of them are willing to live with Negroes as neighbors, or give them a job or train them for a skill? In those areas lie the long-range benefits.”

I found the archbishop’s point not much different from that of Malcolm X as he also noted that people would march for the sake of grand performance rather than having the guts to search within themselves to make equality and justice a reality.  Both Iakovos and Malcolm would be in Selma, Alabama to give their support to the demonstration there.  Perhaps both men realized what was written in Ecclesiastes 3:1, There is a season for everything, a time for every occupation under heaven.  The 1960’s were the time to march.  Iakovos did.  Malcolm perhaps would have been in a later march had his life not been cut short.

But, it is still time for us to have true racial harmony in this nation.  This is where Archbishop Iakovos’s words underscore the real problem with public demonstrations.  King made some similar observations in his works as well.  Participating in a public demonstration is too easily used as a cover for one not changing their hearts and minds.  Take the horrible events in Sanford, Florida for example.  How many people who are expressing sympathy for the cause and yet look on black youth with suspicion?  Indeed, how many blacks look at black youth with suspicion?

Black Protestantism and Orthodoxy have this point of agreement.  True change cannot be made by mass demonstrations, no matter how righteous the cause.  Such protest may be useful for a time.  But, unless people are willing to live as spiritual creatures that truly accept the value of one another, racism will be with us even when the “Whites Only” signs are taken down.

John Gresham