Black History

Humility is the Solution

It is African-American History Month. And this is the first year that we observe this month under a president that wants to “Make America Great Again.”  Under the administration of his predecessor, the first African-American to hold the office, we were still the greatest nation in the world.  Apparently, the political left and right cannot, or for the sake of promoting their agendas, refuse to come to an agreement of what makes for greatness.  I am choosing to ignore their arguments because in African and Orthodox Christian history, there are consistent elements and examples of what greatness is and that we have agreed upon in all places at all times.  I will lift up one element and example for your consideration; the humility of Macarius the Great of fourth century Egypt.

180px-st_macarius_the_great_with_cherub

One day, Macarius was gathering reeds to make baskets when Satan began to beat him with a scythe. His blows had no effect on the man and he stopped and left him alone.  As the devil was leaving, he told the saint, “I do everything you do.  You stay up all night praying, I don’t sleep.  You fast, I don’t eat.  You have one advantage over me that I cannot overcome; your humility” (1).  For those of you unfamiliar with the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (a book that African-American Christians would do well to read and study), I give you these words from the Apostle Paul; “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus … He made himself of no reputation … He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death … Therefore, God also highly exalted Him and given Him a name above every other name” (Philippians 2:5-10).

Russuan Paper Mache Cross

The thief on the right of Christ is the upward side of the lower bar.

In both sides of the political argument, humility is tragically absent. I use this adjective because without this critical element that Jesus and Macarius lived by, greatness will not happen; except that we may achieve great failure and embarrassment.  Let’s take the right; everyone wants a strong economy with good jobs, and protection from enemies.  The desire to achieve these goals is no excuse for belligerence.  The left’s concerns for diversity, fairness, and social progress are also admirable and necessary.  Vulgarity only hurts the cause one struggles for.  And it may be that the media is drowning out the more conciliatory voices on both sides for the sake of ratings and profits (I don’t doubt this at all).   But, with few (if any) voices on either side are pointing out to humility as the means of achieving greatness, calling on God to bless America or saying that God is on our side are empty words that will generate atheism faster than anything Charles Darwin could have dreamed of.

It will not be any political leader or party that will humble the heart of America. It will take the masses to embrace the mentality of our Savior and the African saint (and I welcome a similar spirit from those of other faiths and no faith).  For African-Americans, perhaps a deeper look at the humility of our forefathers would help.  Not every slave was Harriet Tubman or Nat Turner.  The very existence of devout Christian slaves whose spirituality went deeper than that of their masters was an indictment against the false Christianity of the American South and their friends in the North.  For a modern example, Muhammad Ali beat George Foreman by laying on the ropes and taking hard punches to tire out his opponent.  And at the right time, he fought back.  For the Orthodox Church, while we do pray for our Cesar’s, we don’t comply with their spirit.  Many of our greatest saints rejected the popular wave of Christianity after the edict of Milan and fled to the deserts of Africa, Asia, and (later) the wilderness of Europe and Siberia.  Those who didn’t flee aided and spoke up for the downtrodden, rejected the excesses of their society, and pointed to the examples in the Egyptian and Northern Thebaid on how best to follow Christ.   Indeed, St. Herman and other missionaries to Alaska stood up for the rights of the natives against Russian colonial exploiters and oppressors.  To this day, Natives there choose and respect Orthodoxy over Protestantism and Catholicism because of their example.

st_anthony_great_2

St. Anthony was shown all of the traps the Devil had spread all over the world.  He groaned and asked what could get through them all.  Then, a voice came to him and said, “Humility” (2).  It is not so much that conservatives have to become liberals or vice-versa.  But, we have to approach one another and the issues of our country with this all-powerful virtue.  Solutions will not be easy.  But, with humility and God’s grace, we can solve our problems.  Without it, we can only expect to continue with this destructive vicious circle we are in and for it to get worse.

  1. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, pgs. 129, 130
  2. Desert Fathers, pg. 2
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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.

 

 

 

 

The Marcus Garvey Factor & African American Orthodoxy

Marcus Garvey was not an Orthodox or any other Christian that I know of.  Yet, this forefather of Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism provides a couple of doorways for African-Americans to leave the confines of Protestantism and dive into the deep waters of Orthodoxy.

Truth

Garvey was a direct influence on the African Orthodox Church.  Bishop George Alexander McGuire, a former Anglican pastor from the West Indies and ally of Garvey, sought the creation of a Christian church headed by black clergy with roots going back to the origins of the faith.  A Kenyan and two Ugandan clergymen became members of the AOC in their homelands and began seeking a connection with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria.  Their churches became a part of the Eastern Orthodox Church in the late 1940’s.  In particular, the Church in Kenya faced bitter opposition from the British colonial government in the 1950’s.  The Archbishop of Cyprus dared preach against colonialism in Nairobi and won the respect of African independence leaders.  Today, the church continues to grow steadily from its grass-roots of black people who wanted an authentic form of Christianity that was not handed down to them by their colonial masters.

Emperor Haile Selassie venerating the cross during Orthodox worship

Garvey is better known as the man who proclaimed that there would be a black king crowned in Africa.  This statement is the birth of Rastafarianism, named after the pre-coronation name of the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie Ras Tafari.  The popularity of Rastafari grew with the rise of Reggae music and its biggest star, Bob Marley.  A year before his death, Marley converted to Christianity and became a member of the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church.  It was only natural that a man who sang about African freedom and redemption would be a part of a form of Christianity that came to Africa by the ministry of the Apostles Mark and Matthew.

Brother Bob Marley

For African-Americans fearful of being labeled a “sell-out” or “forgetful of where you came from” in their pursuit of Orthodox Christianity, the Garvey Factor with the witness of 2,000 years worth of the African martyrs, saints, and theologians crushes such shallow criticisms.  Charges like that do not deepen the faith of black Christians.  They only scare us from knowing more about who we are.  And when a person is too scared to know himself, anyone else is empowered to define him.  These charges keep us on familiar plantations and keep us fed on mere scraps.  While this was (only by the grace of God) nourishment enough when we had access to nothing else, we can now go to our own fertile fields and choice foods in the Orthodox world.

Together in worship (C) John Gresham

Together in worship (C) John Gresham

Do not let the critics keep you shallow and scrap fed on a plantation.  For those who have seriously looked (and peeking your head in the door and going the other direction because you didn’t want to be the “only one” is not seriously looking) at Orthodoxy and decided to remain AME, Baptist, COGIC, and etc; fine.  You made an informed choice.  If you feel your choice was right, you shouldn’t mind others investigating the ancient faith and choosing for themselves.  And if the fear of being the only black person or lack of a black clergy makes you so uncomfortable about Eastern Orthodoxy (Antiochians, Greeks, Russians, OCA, …), look into the AOC, Copts, Eritreans, and Ethiopians.  Garvey and McGuire awakened black Christians to the fact that we did not have to settle for the faith that was handed down to us by former colonial and slave masters.

The Ancient Faith & Afro American Christianity Conference 2012

I have attached a couple of resources that highlight Garvey’s influence on modern African Eastern Orthodoxy:

http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/history/fr._raphael_morgan

http://www.orthodoxytz.com/OrthodoxMission.asp

http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/features/orthodoxy_in_africa