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Racism in the Church

3 May 2014

A few days ago someone posted a link on Facebook to a blog article that referred to some people recently received into the Orthodox Church who were apparently openly advocating racism: To My White Nationalist Brothers | WIT.

Only a few days ago, via the ubiquitous internet, a number of Orthodox Christians discovered that a new brother, Matthew Heimbach was welcomed into our midst, a member of an openly pro-White organization, the Traditionalist Youth Network.

The blog post has since been discussed quite widely in Orthodox internet forums, and it seems that the issue is not going to go away soon, so I thought it might be worth adding a few points.

Back in 1993 we had something similar in our parish, the Church of St Nicholas of Japan in Brixton, Johannesburg.

In the early 1990s there were a lot of new immigrants to South Africa from Eastern Europe, and several of them came to our parish because it was English-speaking (most of the others were Greek), and we included Slavonic hymns, especially when such immigrants were present.

One of these new immigrants was a young Bulgarian, and someone in the parish had helped him to find a job. Unfortunately, however, some of the people he worked with were members of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB), an extreme right-wing white-supremacist organisation, and one Sunday after the Divine Liturgy, when we were having coffee, this young man, I’ll call him Bogdan (not his real name) was flaunting his newly-acquired AWB membership card.

I quote from what I wrote in my diary for Sunday 25 April 1993:

We went to the Divine Liturgy at Brixton, and Jethro and I were serving. At tea Bogdan told Cathy MacDonald he had joined the AWB, and an uproar ensued, with just about everyone trying to tell him he should have nothing to do with them. I said to him that joining the AWB here was like joining the Communist Party in Bulgaria and trying to bring back Stalinism. He said no, they were not like the communists, they were much closer to the Nazis. True enough, of course, but he thought that that made them better.

I said that they were Satanic, and that we should sprinkle his membership card with holy water and burn it. He denied it, saying they were Christian, and said it was all in the Bible – the sin of the Israelites was that they did not exterminate the natives in Canaan, and that the sin of the whites in South Africa was that they did not exterminate the blacks. The Australians and Americans were less sinful because they had done a better job of exterminating the natives. I showed him Revelation 7, where it said that there was a great crowd from every race, nation, people and language. And he said yes, but blacks are not people.

They really have brainwashed him, and the trouble is that they are using suckers like him to assassinate people like Chris Hani. Bogdan started quoting Andries Treurnicht, and was saying that he was a Doctor of Theology. I said he should consider two things – first that Treurnicht was not Orthodox, and second that, though he was conservative, he would never have said that blacks were not human.

This had a sequel a week later.

At the beginning of the service, when people went into the church they would take a small prosphora (offering bread) and write the names of people they wanted prayers for. These were then taken to the altar, and the priest would pray for the people listed, and for each one would put a small piece of the prosphora on the paten with the Lamb (communion bread) for each person prayed for. For those unfamiliar with this practice, it is described in more detail here and here. The small prosphora were then returned to the entrance of the church and the people who had put them there would take them, and eat them, or share them with those they had prayed for, or those who were not able to be in church, and with others.

This is what I wrote in my diary for 2 May 1993:

We went to the Divine Liturgy at Brixton. Bogdan came, at the beginning of the service this time. There was a black guy there, from Zimbabwe. He had been there once before, and I took him to show him his way round the book. He was clutching a copy of the New World translation of the Bible, and I wondered if he was a Jehovah’s Witness. I helped him to find the scripture readings, and was struck by the poor translation. Stephen was “full of holy spirit”. The myrrh-bearing women went to the tomb to “grease” the body of Jesus, as if they were servicing a car.

I had put out a prosphora to pray for (names of various people, omitted). I got it after communion, and gave some to George, and to the black guy, and to Val and Mary. And afterwards Bogdan came up to me at tea, and wanted a Bible.

So I got him one, and he said he wanted to show me Mark 7:6: “Do not give dogs what is holy; do not throw your pearls in front of pigs; or they may trample them and turn on you and tear you to pieces.” And he said I had done something very evil in giving the prosphora to a kaffir, who is a dog, a pig, and not human. And so we went through all the things we had been through last week. I took him back into the church, and showed him the ikon of St Moses the Ethiopian, and he said he had not seen it before, but then he said such an ikon would not be found in a Greek church in South Africa.

Eventually Fr Chrysostom spoke to him, and said that he was setting himself up against the Orthodox Church, and following the teachings of heretics. When he started talking about kaffirs, Fr Chrysostom spoke to him angrily, and told him never, ever, to use that word in the church again. One thing it has done, however, is that I think it has clarified the issue for other people in the church. Some of the Russians found it incomprehensible, and said he (Bogdan) should read the Bible properly, and read it all.

Our priest, Fr Chrysostom, had been seconded to serve in our parish by the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), as there were no English-speaking priests in South Africa at that time, and Fr Chrysostom wrote to Metropolitan Theodosius of the OCA to ask for his advice on what to do about the pastoral problem posed by Bogdan. He was clearly getting his racist notions from the AWB, and not from Orthodox sources, but then was trying to recruit members of the parish to his racist cause.

A reply came from Metropolitan Theodosius in July 1993, just before Fr Chrysostom travelled overseas on a research trip. The letter did not mention Bogdan by name, but was couched in general terms, and said that if anyone advocated racism in the church, and continued to do so after being warned to desist by the priest, they should be excommunicated. I published this in our newsletter Evangelion which was read by many people in our parish, elsewhere in South Africa, and overseas.

When Fr Chrysostom returned from his overseas trip a couple of months later, he discovered, however, that some people in the parish had misunderstood Metropolitan Theodosius’s letter, and mistakenly thought that he was accusing everyone in the parish of being racist. But that is a different story.

The main point in this story is that Bogdan needed to choose between the teaching of the Orthodox Church and the teaching of the AWB, because his racist ideas came from the AWB and not from the Orthodox Church.

Another story can give a different example.

ApartheidPosterBack in the 1920s a disaffected black Episcopalian (Anglican) priest in the USA, George Alexander MacGuire, approached the Russian Orthodox bishop in America with a proposal for a black ethnic jurisdiction to be called the African Orthodox Church. MacGuire was aware that there was a Russian Orthodox Church, a Greek Orthodox Church, a Bulgarian Orthodox Church, and so he thought that there could also be a Black Orthodox Church. The Russian bishop explained that those national churches had come into being as a result of historical developments, but that those developments could not be elevated to a kind of theological principle, as MacGuire appeared to think.

MacGuire eventually obtained episcopal consecration at the hands of an episcopus vagans, Rene Joseph Vilatte, and the African Orthodox Church he started eventually led to a big expansion of Orthodoxy in Africa, but I’ve told that story elsewhere in an article on Orthodox mission in tropical Africa.

There is a lot of racism and ethnocentrism to be found among Orthodox Christians, as among many other people. But that cannot be justified by the teaching of the church. It is always a sin that should be confessed.

Perhaps what we need is a clear statement on this from Orthodox bishops. I’ve heard many Orthodox bishops denounce racism individually, but there needs to be a clear statement of the teaching of the Church on this matter.

In the absence of such a statement, I’ll point to one that was made by South African Christians over 50 years ago. It was published by the South African Council of Churches, and I can see little or nothing in it that is incompatible with Orthodox theology. It was called A message to the people of South Africa and you can find a copy here.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. constantine permalink
    5 May 2014 8:31 am

    Unfortunately,even people of the same race group discriminate against each other.Just go to any Greek Church and you will see the rich and important seated in front every Divine Liturgy.Also notice how cliquey most Greeks are and how they won’t greet most poorer members of the community.This is social discrimination.Also notice how welcoming they are to anyone not Greek and especially an angleso(english) priest.

  2. 7 May 2014 10:00 pm

    I suppose that when a people come together to be a people … some will forget that the intention of the church is for them to be a people of God… transformed by the Holy Spirit. The tendency to forget both latter parts and focus on being a group of “good guys” not like “those bums over there”… is just too hard to resist. Add to this a sense of being in a minority religion… and the group-ism thing can run it’s own unconstructive way. Many of God’s people encounter this clubishness among their own… we are but another… and I’d hope these folks would choose transformation rather than to remain unchanged. Thanks for your post! as always.

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