race relations

A Home for White Nationalist?

An African-American Orthodox Christian shared this article with me; “How the Orthodox Christianity Became the Spiritual Home of White Nationalism” (http://religiondispatches.org/how-orthodox-christianity-became-the-spiritual-home-of-white-nationalism/?platform=hootsuite). Much of the writing focused on the example of Matthew Heimbach, who was excommunicated by the Antiochian Orthodox Church for his racist activities. The author does mention that this action “means that he is technically unable to receivesacraments in any canonical Orthodox church” and that he may or may not have sympathy from a Romanian priest. Other than a generalization of “alt-right” thugs displaying Orthodox symbols on the web, she does not name anyone else or any other American movement except Heimbach. Combined with an incident of a priest in Corinth blessing an office of the Greek Neo-Nazi “Golden Dawn” and the Russian nationalist fervor among Christians and supporters of Vladimir Putin, it would seem that the Orthodox Church has opened its arms to white nationalist. No doubt, there is a problem of white nationalism in the Church. But, from my experiences and what I see as an African-American Orthodox Christian, I think that the “alt-right” has some major obstacles to overcome if they are to make the Church their spiritual home.

First of all is the fact that Orthodox Christianity owes much of its spiritual wisdom to non-European people. It is hard to find any monk or nun that does not refer to the “desert fathers” of Egypt. St. Anthony the Great was a native Egyptian (according to St. Athanasius) and is widely regarded as the father of monasticism. Many monasteries are organized in a structure formed by St. Pachomius who lived in Upper Egypt where the residents are certainly not of Nordic stock. St. John Cassian, who brought monasticism to many places in Western Europe was heavily influenced by such monks including St. Moses the Ethiopian (also known today as “the Strong, Robber, and Black). Prayers from St. Macarius are found in many prayer books, including the widely used “Jordanville” prayer book of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. Going back to St. Athanasius, he is credited to be a lead spokesman at the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea and put together the list of 27 books that would be canonized as the New Testament. Even that canonization was done in the African city of Carthage. As nationalistic as Russian Orthodox Christians may seem, some of their most influential writers such as Sts. Ignatius Brianchaninov, John of Kronstadt, and Theophan the Recluse point back to these African saints. The works of American orthodox heroes Fr. Alexander Schmemann and Seraphim Rose also point back to this source of wisdom. Sure, a white nationalist may embrace the double –eagle and the idea of a holy dynasty. But, anyone who seriously studies where the great spiritual masters of the church came from will have to face the fact that they were not European.

Then, there is the mission of the Church, the spread of the Gospel and making disciples of all nations (as Jesus taught in Matthew 28). The apostles did not stay in Judea. They went through out the known world. Barnabas and Paul, the first missionaries, were ancient Middle Eastern Jews and were ordained in a Syrian city in part by two black clergymen (Acts 13:1). These brown skinned people brought the faith to the darkest of Africans and the palest Europeans. Had it not been for the Muslim invasions, Africa beyond Ethiopia would have been evangelized centuries ago. The Russians had spread the Church into China, Japan, and their Alaska territory not as a means of dominance and conquest. They did so because they believed and the Church teaches that the Gospel is for all people. If a white nationalist becomes Orthodox, he will have to justify his racial supremacy with the call of Christ and the history of the first believers.

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Finally, the modern Orthodox Church has been making much better efforts in evangelizing to minority groups than in decades past. Up until the mass conversion of evangelicals into the Antiochian Archdiocese in 1987, very few “whites” were converting to Orthodoxy. That event was a sign to America that the Orthodox Church was for anyone who would “come and see.”  The Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black, a fellowship committed to spreading the faith to African-Americans, was inspired by the St. Herman of Alaska Monastery in Platina CA over 20 years ago. The internet broadcaster, Ancient Faith Radio has featured lectures from the Ancient Faith Afro-American Conferences since the 1990’s. Several bishops and well known priest have by voice and action expressed their support of minorities coming into the Orthodox Church.

Am I saying that Orthodox Christianity has no white nationalist and people with “alt-right” tendencies within our walls? I wish I could. When I posted a part of my conversion story on my blog, I had one person declare that I could not be black and Orthodox at the same time. There are some parishes who try to send minority inquirers somewhere else. There are some African-Americans who love the history and spirituality of this ancient faith. But, they have been put off by Orthodox clergy and laity that refuse to extend a hand of friendship and an unwillingness to find common ground on political and social issues. I am sorry to confess that in some places across the country and around the world that the Orthodox Church is a haven for bigots.

But, I know that is not the whole story. There is a Greek parish that has taken the time to offer the Canon of Racial Reconciliation with its weekly Compline (nightly) prayers before Bible Study. An Orthodox Church of America bishop and priest are working to bring a predominately African-American congregation into that jurisdiction. A Serbian parish has served as a model for helping to bring social services to poor inner city neighborhoods to create a “village” atmosphere where there was racial division. One white person left a parish when an icon of St. Mary of Egypt was being venerated.  He wanted nothing to do with any saint that didn’t look like him.  I have seen and participated in too many instances of racial brotherhood in the Eastern Orthodox Church to let a few toxic people keep me from practicing the faith of my ancient African, Middle Eastern, and European fathers & mothers. With the multicultural history and spirituality of the Church and the jurisdictional leaders reaching out to minority communities, white nationalist cannot remain comfortable in Eastern Orthodoxy for long. Those who do are being superficial and should not be taken as model examples of who we are.

NO SAINTS = NO SANITY

So, it has been revealed that the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” scenario was false and the city of Ferguson MO was discovered to have a problem with racial bias after a series of peaceful protest and violent riots based on that falsehood.  Meanwhile, a black student in Charlottesville VA with a clean record and good reputation gets his face slammed in the pavement by white law enforcement officers for supposedly using a fake ID at a bar.  And while these stories of racial clashes are broadcast all over the news, four black students on a historically black college campus were stabbed by black people in Baltimore MD.

Since 2013, I have been saying that there is a need for African-Americans and Americans in general to know the saints of Africa and turn to Orthodox Christianity.  Then again, since I have no popularity or status, it is easy to ignore the words of a poor country preacher.  I really don’t care to have a national spotlight.  If someone else more noteworthy wishes to say the same thing I am saying and captivate the world’s attention, glory be to God.  Because the continued ignorance of the brown and black (red, yellow, and white as well) skinned holy men and women and the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church they belonged to is not working.

The situation in Charlottesville is personal to me as my wife is from that city.  My in-laws live there, I got married there, it is a home to me.  Dr. William Black, and Orthodox missionary to Kenya and Chanter at St. Nicholas Ukrainian Orthodox Church in nearby Greenwood, recently spoke at UVA about the history of African Christianity on that campus.  St. Nicholas hosted a series on the topic “The Surprising Story of African Christianity” (I had the blessing of being one of the speakers).  With such a topic, there should have been a strong flow of traffic on I-64 to the church.  The hall that Dr. Black was speaking in should have been standing room only.  And had those police officers been in either audience, they may have learned that the very New Testament that they have was put together by a black man, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria.  They may have learned why blonde haired, blue eyed, Russians love St. Moses of Ethiopia as an example of humility and forgiveness.  Maybe they did have reason to suspect that the young man they brutalized was up to no good.  But, if these men had knowledge of the African saints (better still, been devout Orthodox Christians), they would have handled the situation far more peacefully.

The situation in Baltimore also grieves me as my wife and I have family there.  Morgan State University is an historically black college like our alma matter, Virginia State University.  It is bad enough that someone outside of our race commits violence against us.  But, we haven’t even made our own communities safe places for ourselves.  And for this to happen on a campus where our young adults are striving to have a better future is nothing short of horrible.  In a place of higher learning, there should be more images of St. Anthony who is regarded as the father of Christian monasticism and St. Cyprian who led the church in Carthage during some of the worst Roman persecution.  St. Perpetua’s diary is one of the oldest writings of a Christian martyr.  But, even among our best and brightest, our youth and young adults are infected with the images of the likes of 2 Chainz, Nikki Manaj, Rick Ross (who is not the real Rick Ross), and that ilk.

The Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black at the 2014 Ancient Faith Afro American Conference in Lima, Ohio

And what is the response to these unfortunate incidents?  A rally chanting “No Justice = No Peace?”  I have heard it said that it is crazy to do the same thing and expect a different result.  Equality and justice are good things to strive for.  But, apparently there is something deeper plaguing our society than rouge cops in Ferguson and Charlottesville.  That same rouge spirit surfaces in other places at other times.  At Morgan State, the administration is asking students to promote the positive things that are going on at the school.  There is nothing wrong with putting one’s best face forward.  But, unless the oral issues are dealt with, putting on a great shade of lipstick will not hide the rotting teeth.

I believe the real issue is that the religious culture in America does not honor and celebrate the holy men and women that God has given to us as examples of how to live.  We ignore their images, their role in establishing Christian doctrine, and their words of prayer and wisdom.  Think about it, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated not with worship services, special chants and prayers, and special meals that keep with the Lenten Fast.  Irish and non-Irish tend to honor this holy man by having parades, parties, and drinking Guinness Stout.  The Feast of St. Nicholas is on December 6th (18th for Old Calendar Jurisdictions), not on Christmas Day.  December 25th (January 6th) is reserved for the birth of Jesus Christ.  St. Peter the Aleutian is not made known to Native Americans outside of the Pacific Northwest although his martyrdom is the first known on this continent.  Unlike Protestant missions, the Orthodox faith was not forced on anyone and Natives took to the Church as they could keep their culture and language and be Christian at the same time.  During the 1960’s, African-American Christians were too busy with the Civil Rights Movement to learn about the Desert Fathers, Coptic and Ethiopian Christianity, and the black saints.  Painting Jesus with an “afro” or “dreadlocks” is not good enough!  Too many black church leaders ignore the depths of African contributions to early Christianity, do not try to share what they know with their congregations, or try to mix true Orthodoxy with Protestant doctrines.

The Orthodox Church is also greatly at fault here as we have done a poor job of evangelism.  The late Antiochian Metropolitan Philip criticized our willingness to stay in our own little ethnic ghettoes when the wave of Evangelicals came into the Church in 1987.  But, we haven’t had too many parishes in working class, mixed race communities, much less the lower income housing projects and trailer parks since then.  Archbishop Iakovos marched with Dr. King in 1965.  It doesn’t take a lot of courage for cradle Greeks or Serbs to share a prayer of St. Macarius with someone that has never heard of him.   The Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Church has the light of God of 2,000 years and we in America have kept it under a bushel basket for way too long.  No wonder this nation is stumbling in the dark.

Let us make a stronger effort to share our faith with others.  The first and best way for us to do so is to live Orthodoxy.  Let us maintain the fasting, prayer rules, veneration of saints and their icons and love God and our neighbors as ourselves.  We need not pester people.  But, we can invite friends, neighbors, and relatives to our worship services.  We can host special programs that focus interesting portions of our beliefs.  Our Lord taught us that the harvest is ready, but the laborers are few.  We make up a very small percentage of Christians in this nation.  But, we can’t let that discourage us.  After all, He did take two fish and five loaves of bread to feed thousands.  Let us take what little we have and see the miracles God can and will do through us in healing America’s racial divide.

African-American Orthodoxy and the Native American Model

One of the reasons why some African Americans are not becoming Orthodox is that we feel that it is someone else’s faith and culture and not our own.  I have read some discussions on other sites as to where some of us wish to mix other doctrines into the Church to make it more relevant and appealing to black people.  Rather than post what I was typing last night, I will share with you an idea that came into my head this morning.

What do Native Alaskans know that we African-Americans need to learn about being Orthodox Christian and culturally yourself?

The native Alaskans became Orthodox during the time when Russia claimed the land as their territory.  Russian fur trappers shared their faith (in good and bad relationships) with the Natives to a point where the missionary priest found Orthodox Christian communities already existing with lay leadership.  Rather than force them to adopt the Russian language and culture, men like Sts. Herman and Innocent translated the scriptures and holy books into the Native languages and blessed the best of Native culture.  American Protestants and Catholics forbade the Natives to use their language and tried to impose their denominations and English on the people.  The Alaskans saw that if they wanted to be Christian and still be who they were as a people, the Orthodox Church was the best choice.  It is still said by some, “To be Native is to be Orthodox.”

So, here is my idea.  Let’s learn from the Native Alaskan Orthodox Christians how they manage to be true to their culture and members of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.  After all, they faced racial prejudice and were looked down on just like us.  They didn’t want to see their language and culture disappear.  Orthodoxy honors who they are.  But how?  Are there places in the Divine Liturgy that they used a Native musical tone rather than Byzantine or Slavonic?  Do the Native preachers speak with a certain vocal pattern that reaches the people in ways sermons from others cannot?   This blending of faith and culture is not the result of a bridge of modern doctrines made by non-Orthodox clergy.  Orthodoxy in Alaska is over 200 years old.  They must be doing something right up there.

No doubt, people of the race of Jackie Robinson and James Farmer of the 1950’s and 60’s ought not be afraid to go to any church in 2015.  No doubt, too many Orthodox parishes are still infected with a cold ethnocentrism, even towards potential catechumens that look like themselves.  But, if there is going to be a bridge to help more blacks become Orthodox, the Native Americans of the north may have some proven ways on how to be Orthodox Christian and yourself at the same time.  I think that it was Malcolm X who said something like this:

If you have a problem, look at your neighbor who had the same problem and see how he solved it.  Once when you learn how he solved his problem, you are well on your way to solving yours.

The Race of Jesus: My Two Cents

Anyone who enters St. Cyprian of Carthage Orthodox Church near Richmond will be dumbstruck at its iconography.  The patron saints, Cyprian of Carthage and Moses the Ethiopian (the Black),  are both African and are as dark as my father and myself.  The icons of Christ Pantocrator and the Theotokos are both racially ambiguous, kinda like  mixed-race “redbone” blacks.  With the exception of one or two Ethiopians, virtually everyone in the church is white of Eastern European origin or Anglo-Saxon converts.  The ancient pictures of Christian Nubia depicts brown-skinned kings, queens, bishops, and saints.  But, Jesus and Mary are depicted as pale skinned.  This can be seen as a debunking of the black Jesus idea as the native Africans who had their own kingdom and were not under the yoke of bondage did not paint Jesus as one of themselves.  How do we interpret the question of the race of our Lord when He walked the earth?

A Slavic Christ Pantocrator

First, let’s go to one point that we all should be able to agree upon.  Jesus was not of a pale skinned, blonde haired, blue-eyed, Nordic stock.  Anyone with any sense of archaeology or history knows that such people would have found it difficult to survive in the Middle East.  The Israelites spoke a Semitic language that was closer to those still spoken in the Ethiopian highlands than Western Europe.  Indeed, the earthly lineage of Jesus has no connection to any place in Europe.

Yet, the idea that Jesus was a racially pure dark-skinned Nilotic African is also  misleading.  Immediately some would like to the point out that the Pharaohs of Egypt were  black people.  It is undeniable that most of the great rulers of Egypt were black.  But, consider the fact that there was a good deal of race mixing with lighter skinned races for centuries.  The Hyksos were a Semitic people who ruled Egypt for about 200 to 300 years.  The African kings did continue to trade with the likes of the Hittites, Phoenicians, and even the Greeks blending Egyptian blood even further.  The conquest of the Persians and Macedonians pretty much ended the idea of a racially pure black Egypt before the dawn of the first century.  So, when Joseph took Mary and the Child to Egypt to hide from Herod, it was just as much out of the fact that Herod had no authority over any place outside of Judea as it was that the Holy Family would be  able to blend in with the general population, which by that time the people’s skin tones ranged from “high yellow” to Ethiopian brown with a few darker Africans and more pale European elites.

6th century Christ Pantocrator from Sinai

Early Christianity depicted our Lord and Savior in a variety of skin tones.  For the Slavic people, a dark-skinned icon of the Theotokos was well accepted as she was from a part of the world different from theirs.  To a black Nubian, anyone from north of Memphis was painted with pale skin because they would be lighter than themselves.  For the first 300 years of the faith, Christians of all races were persecuted not because of skin color but because they refused to abandon their belief in Jesus.  After the legalization of the faith, it was a deacon from Africa, Athanasius, denounced by his detractors as “the black dwarf” that led the successful argument that Jesus was co-substantial and co-equal to the Father.  His mentor, Anthony, was another African and is widely regarded as the father of Christian monasticism.  Athanasius would later become the bishop of Alexandria and write the list of books that would be canonized as the New Testament in the African city of Carthage.  Europeans knew the history and the roles their African brothers played in the establishment of the Christian faith and even through the Renaissance depicted black people with the same dignity and honor as they painted and sculpted themselves.

A 5th century mosaic of Jesus from Rome

The slave trade changed this sense of mutual respect.  Muslim Arab conquerors  began the process of dehumanizing  Africans who refused to convert to Islam. They ruthlessly persecuted Christianity in Egypt and the Middle East, conquered Christian Nubia, and left Ethiopia as an isolated Christian nation.  As Western Europeans began their age of exploration, they saw the profits that could be made in enslaving non-Christian Africans.  With the faith barely reaching beyond Ethiopia and no regard for the persecuted Orthodox believers, greedy Catholic and Protestant elites found it easy to dismiss sub-Saharan people as being subhuman.  This is where the “curse of Ham” doctrine (a lie that was never taught by neither the Desert nor Early Church Fathers) was born with the excuse that Africans were meant to be slaves.  Catholic elites quickly ignored all but a handful of their black and brown-skinned icons and any references to Christianity’s African past.  Protestants rejected icons wholesale relying only on their various interpretations of the Bible.   Even through the end of the Trans-Atlantic trade, the preferred images of a more European-looking Jesus was a tool to establish supremacy  over the darker races of the world (the slave trader John Hawkins named his ship, “Jesus,” and his coat of arms was a black man in bondage).  African-Americans have every reason to reject portraits of our Lord and savior as a blonde haired, blue-eyed, pale skinned man.

Coptic Christ Pantocrator

But, I wouldn’t necessarily endorse every picture of Jesus with dark skin, an Afro, or dreadlocks either. To display images of a black Jesus to counter the racist images that we African-Americans had grown up with makes sense.  But, there is a temptation to use the dark-skinned Christ not as a tool for healing and reconciliation, but as a wall to keep black and white Christians separated.  Someone may easily start boasting his identity with that of the Lord and consider their former oppressors ans incorrigible or too far gone to receive salvation.  Blacks are not in an economic, political, nor social position to impose on whites anywhere near the same kind of hell we went through in this country (nor would 99.9% of us want to).  But, to use the image of Jesus as an example of black supremacy is just as racist and wrong as what white society did to us.

If you are comfortable with your heritage and skin, you need not be bent out of shape with what color Jesus is.  Attending St. Nicholas Ukrainian Orthodox Church this past weekend, the images on the iconostasis were all darker than my mother.  The Slavs know that they have preserved the faith during the fall of Byzantium and spread Christianity to North America.  So, venerating images darker than they are is not a problem.  I saw a picture of an Ethiopian woman proudly displaying an icon of the Theotokos with pale skin.  For her to admire and adore this image does not threaten her noble history as the Christian kingdom that was never colonized by neither Arab Muslims nor Western Europeans.  African-Americans have experienced chattel slavery and segregation under the image of a Nordic image of Christ.  But, we also developed a reverent spirituality in the midst of our suffering and proven that the power of love and non-violence can overcome hatred.  Like the Ethiopians and Slavs, we can hold our heads up with a sense of pride.  We need not get uptight about the color of the image.  And as we are all called to the great multitude of humanity that will be saved in the heavenly kingdom, perhaps it is best for us to embrace one another’s differences as well as our unique qualities here on earth.

Chronicle of Conversion: Day Three How “White” is the Orthodox Church?

I am the son and grandson of African-American Baptist Deacons and Deaconesses.  I hold the office of Pastor which is a position of power and influence in the black community.  And I am about to leave my status and “lane” to go to a “white” church in one of the most white places in Virginia?  This doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.

However, let’s ask the question:  How “white” is the Orthodox Church?  Granted, I doubt if one will hear the singing of the Mississippi Mass Choir or the preaching of Gardner Taylor in the church I am heading to.  But, a close investigation will show that the Orthodox Church is a very non-white “White” Church.

Firstly, for a church to be truly “white,” it must be some form of Anglo-Saxon Protestant preferably with some sort of contemporary worship style.  The Orthodox Church is predominately Slavic and worships with a liturgy that is older than the Bible its self.  Mix in the Greeks, Lebanese, and Syrians (yes, there are still Christians from and in that part of the world) and Orthodoxy is a bit to exotic to be  a truly “white” church.

What sort of “white” church would be named after black people?  You will never see “St. Moses of Ethiopia Southern Baptist Church.”  But, there is St. Cyprian of Carthage Orthodox Church (OCA) just outside of Richmond,  St. Mary of Egypt Serbian Orthodox Church in Kansas City,  and churches of all jurisdictions named after Sts Athanasius, Anthony, and some other saints from Africa.  Even when the icons of these saints are shown to have pale skin, there is no question of their continent of origin.  Many Orthodox believers admit that they were of some level or another of black origin and that the early church accepted members and leaders of all races (Acts 13:1).

Not only are there Orthodox Churches named after black people, believers venerate their images.  This includes bowing down to and kissing their icons.  In the popular “Jordanville Prayer Book” (Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia) there are the prayers of St. Macarius.  These “white” people pray the prayers of a black man as they do prayers of any other saint.  Can you name a “black” Protestant church that does these things, much less a “white” one?

Am I saying there are no racist and prejudiced attitudes among Orthodox Christians?  Certainly not.  Every church, including the black church, has it’s share of bigotry.  I know of stories where hyper ethnic congregations have been very cold to black inquirers (before 1987, there were whites who were met with unfriendly stares when they entered these churches as well). But, the Orthodox Churches I have visited have been very welcoming to African-Americans as they have not forgotten their church’s African heritage.  So, I am going to join a predominately white church that is partially mine to begin with.  That is not selling out.  That is reclaiming a part of my heritage.

Yeah, I (and later, prayerfully, my wife) will be the only African-American member at St. Basil Antiochian in Poquoson.  But, I feel at home among this hodge-podge of  Arabs, Eastern European, Ethiopians, and white people.  Who knows, maybe I can influence a few more of “us” to (at least) take a serious look at the ancient faith.  In heaven, there will be a great gathering of people from every nation, language, and race.  It may be a good idea to learn to worship with each other now so that it won’t be a major adjustment later.

Great music can be made when we play together.