Ferguson MO

Antioch & America

… And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch. (Acts 11:26)

Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.  (Acts 13:1)

“Eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.”  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Prelude to Worship © John Gresham

Prelude to Worship © John Gresham

American Christianity (Black, White, whatever) has consistently proven itself to be a failure when it comes to living the Biblical racial standard.  There are exceptions in several neighborhoods across the country.  But on a whole, a major reason why we constantly have crisis moments between (and sometimes within) ethnic groups is because we do not aim to be the kind of church and the kind of Christians that were in Antioch.

Of the clergy mentioned in the 13th chapter of Acts, Lucius is clearly an African from what is now eastern Libya.  Ancient portraits of people from that part of the world at that time were considered to have some shade or another of brown with very curly hair and broad noses.  In other words, if Lucius were walking among us today, he would be considered a black man. Another of these five leaders is Simeon who is called Niger.  One does not have to be a Latin scholar to know that Niger means “black.”  The other three men in this list of early church leaders were of ancient Jewish descent.  Chances are their skin tones would have been somewhere in between what we today would call a “black” or “white” man.  Antioch was a center of trade in the Roman Empire.  People from all over the known world would have lived there from pale skinned Britons to the darkest of Nubians.  From the text, we can see that race simply did not matter.  Later in the 13th chapter, we find these men (under the power of the Holy Spirit) sending Saul and Barnabas to bring the Gospel to others in the world.  So, this model of a universal church of a multi-racial people is the standard.  From them, other communities of Christians under the same Holy Spirit would form.  The Apostles of Christ did likewise and visited other lands to establish the church.  Granted, a congregation in Scotland (Andrew) would be ethnically different than one in India (Thomas).  But, the people were to be guided by the same doctrine as they worshiped the same Father, Son, and Spirit.

Unfortunately, America didn’t read the text and study Christian history very well.  The Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia PA had their black members sit in the balconies and rear seats.  Richard Allen and others rejected this indignity and formed the African Methodist Episcopal Church.  Rather than admit defeat and seek reconciliation with their freed brothers and sisters, Baptist and other denominations split along racial lines.  Whites who believed in modern outpourings of the Holy Spirit in the form of speaking in tongues failed to recognize the same gift among their black brethren and those who did did so in secret.  Dr. King was right to bemoan the state of segregation among Christians in this nation.  But, unlike with schools and workplaces, blacks and whites have become so accustomed to our religious apartheid system; neither side feels motivated to put together a movement to end it.  Individuals who dare cross the line are considered “sell-outs” who have “forgotten where they came from.”

There is a fear on both sides of the racial divide when it comes to trying to have unity in Christianity.  Neither side wants to give up the authority of their clergy and denominational governors.  Nor does either side want their music and style of worship replaced with the other, even though they often mimic each other to the point where they are indistinguishable.  And politicians on the left and right have infiltrated these bodies of Christ so deeply that race and political party are all but hand in hand.  In short, the American churches are more concerned about protecting and promoting their little kingdoms on earth than trying to live to the Biblical standard of the Kingdom of Heaven.  There are several non-denominational churches and organizations that have managed to find common ground in spiritual growth and worship and have diverse congregations.  However, most American churches are more interested in maintaining walls rather than building bridges to overcome them.

Had American churches took the example of Antioch and Dr. King’s observation to heart back in 1963 when he wrote Letter from Birmingham Jail, we would be living in a completely different America.  Not perfect.  But, the climate that we see from the recent cases of Travon Martin and Mike Brown would be either different or non-existent as their shootings may not have happened.  The church, as a whole, has failed to give America the racial climate that is in the Bible and that the Apostles taught us to have.  Black and white Christians put past pain, cultural styles, and political leanings over the Savior who has but ONE body.  Until there is serious effort to unite American Christianity, there will be more “Ferguson Missouris.”

I would love to brag that the Orthodox Church is doing a great job at healing the racial divide.  But, up until the mass conversion of 2,000 Evangelicals into the Antiochian jurisdiction, the Orthodox Church has been way too content to stay within (in the words of the late Metropolitan Philip) “our own little ethnic ghettos.”  I don’t advocate that we knock on people’s doors and pester them to convert.  But, we must make a stronger effort to let America know that we exist and that our doors are open to all people just as they were in the first century AD.

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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.