Skip to content

Own Affairs redux

14 August 2017

There are lots of Internet discussions about racism going on at the moment, and one that particularly concerns me was on the “Ask an Orthodox Hipster” group on Facebook. Facebook groups are good for quick questions and simplistic answers, like soundbites, but they are not good for more nuanced discussions, so I’m writing about it here, partly in the hope that I can clarify my own thinking, and partly hoping that others may contribute useful insights.

There are several links to other sites and articles in this discussion, and I’ve included some in the texts, and put others at the end.

The core question that concerned me was this:

Maximos Williams: I think loving ones own people first and foremost is admirable.

Me: And what constitutes one’s “own” people? Surely our “own” people are our fellow-citizens of the kingdom of God who are joined with Christ and us in baptism. See 1 Peter 2:9-10. If we think that “blood is thicker than water” (the water of baptism) then we sell our heavenly birthright for the pottage of this sinful world.

I should also say where I am coming from.

I lived through the entire apartheid period in South Africa, where the concept of “own people” was at the core of government thinking and the policy of the ruling National Party. For 46 years they tried to indoctrinate the entire population with the notion expressed by Maximos Williams, and I saw the results of that policy, and the results were evil. Not only were the results evil, the thinking behind it was evil. Apartheid was not just a good idea that was badly implemented. It was a bad idea. Full Stop. Period. <EOT>

And when apartheid was crumbling, and even the National Party had agreed to negotiate for a different future without it, one group of diehards who wished to retain apartheid thinking went around putting up posters saying “Own People, Own Land.” It was probably translated from Afrikaans by people who did not realise how ambiguous it is in English (Eie Volk, Eie Land), but as Paolo Freire pointed out in his Pegagogy of the Oppressed, the oppressed internalises the image of the oppressor, and those apartheid chickens are coming home to roost in the Black First, Land First movement.

During the first 20 years of apartheid it was criticised by some Christian leaders because it was unjust and oppressive. But there was usually the underlying thought that a juster, kinder, less oppressive form of apartheid might be acceptable. But they had not really examined the presuppositions on which it was based. One of the first theological critiques of the ideological underpinnings of apartheid was from an Anglican priest, Trevor Huddleston, in his book Naught for your comfort, where he pointed out that it was incompatible with the incarnation of Christ. It was only in 1968 that a significant number of Christian leaders concluded that apartheid was worse than a heresy, it was a pseudogospel. Its premisses were not merely un-Christian, but anti-Christian. They did this in a public document called A message to the people of South Africa.

We, in this country, and at this time, are in a situation where a policy of racial separation is being deliberately effected with increasing rigidity. The effects of this are seen in a widening range of aspects of life – in political, economic, social, educational and religious life; indeed, there are few areas even of the private life of the individual which are untouched by the effects of the doctrine of racial separation. In consequence, this doctrine is being seen by many not merely as a temporary political policy but as a necessary and permanent expression of the will of God, and as the genuine form of Christian obedience for this country. But this doctrine, together with the hardships which are deriving from its implementation, forms a programme which is truly hostile to Christianity and can serve only to keep people away from the real knowledge of Christ.

There are alarming signs that this doctrine of separation has become, for many, a false faith, a novel gospel which offers happiness and peace for the community and for the individual. It holds out to men a security built not on Christ but on the theory of separation and the preservation of their racial identity. It presents separate development of our race-groups as a way for the people of South Africa to save themselves. Such a claim inevitably conflicts with the Christian Gospel, which offers salvation, both social and individual, through faith in Christ alone.

In other words, the ideology of apartheid (and not merely its implementation) was based on the premiss of a pseudogospel, a false offer of salvation, salvation by race and not by grace.

I give that explanation of where I am coming from because I am aware that I might be overreacting to Maximos Williams’s statement. The phrase “own people” may carry a lot more baggage for me than it does for him.

But nevertheless the core question remains — who are our “own people”?

And if they are anything other than our fellow-members of the Body of Christ, then where do our fellow-Christians come, if not “first and foremost”?

Do they take second, or third, or fourth place?

Newly-illumined servants of God in procession around the font and Epitaphios (funeral shroud of Christ). One Lord, one Faith, One Baptism, One Holy people of God, black, white, coloured, Asian, Bulgarian, Greek, Russian, American.

And if so, is this not idolatry — because if God’s people are not “first and foremost”, then surely God himself is taking second place. “You shall have no other gods before me” — but if we put God and God’s people in second or third place, or lower down, that means we have made an idol of ethnic or racial identity, and that is the very “phyletism” that was condemned by a synod in Constantinople in 1872, whether you call it a council or not.

Another contributor to the Facebook discussion said:

Christopher Dane: I understand the nuance Maximos Williams is trying to discuss. I’ve said it three times here.

I think there needs to be serious discussion about the difference between preferential and violent racism vs identity politics. I haven’t seen a single mature conversation on that topic yet.

Now I’m not sure what “identity politics” is, or how it differs from “preferential and violent racism”. I think “identity politics” may be something peculiarly American, so I’m not qualified to say much about it, or about the “maturity” needed to discuss such a topic. Perhaps that kind of maturity is peculiar to Americans, and the rest of us should back off.  But it is Americans who like talking about “American lives” and denounce the idea that “all lives matter” — and isn’t that a kind of “own people” thinking again?

So I think that, regardless of the difference between “preferential and violent racism” and “identity politics”, the core question is who one’s “own people” are.

The original question, that Maximos Williams was responding to, was “What is the Orthodox position on racism and white supremacy?

And someone responded with this cite from the Synod held in Constantinople in 1872:

We renounce, censure and condemn racism, that is racial discrimination, ethnic feuds, hatreds and dissensions within the Church of Christ, as contrary to the teaching of the Gospel and the holy canons of our blessed fathers which “support the holy Church and the entire Christian world, embellish it and lead it to divine godliness.”

I don’t know whether that is an accurate quotation or translation of what the Synod said, but it seems similar in import to what South African Christian leaders came up with 96 years later in the Message to the people of South Africa.

And who are “our people”?

But ye are an elect race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that ye may shew forth the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light: which in time past were no people, but now are the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy (I Peter 2:9-10).

Early Christians thought of themselves as a “third race”, regarding every foreign country as a homeland, and every homeland as a foreign country.


6 Comments leave one →
  1. 14 August 2017 5:11 pm

    I think it’s in many ways “natural” (but not right) to identify with and gravitate towards people most similar to yourself. And one of the most obvious ways in which we perceive similarity is by what we look like. And one of the most obvious of THOSE ways is by the colour of our skin, since it’s one of the first things we see when we spot another person.

    We have this ridiculous need to associate with people most like us (birds of a feather, and all that), when what we probably SHOULD be doing is quite the opposite: seeking out people who are very different – and not only in appearance, but culturally and experientially – so that we can learn from them.

    I get it, though. A lone white person in a crowd full of black people is going to feel decidedly unsafe. As is a lone black person in a crowd of white people. But for that matter, so is a lone woman of any race in a crowd of men (although granted, if the woman were white and all the men were black, or vice versa, the discomfort is going to be greatly amplified.

    Likewise with someone in a wheelchair amongst a crowd of able-bodied people… Or (although it’s not immediately apparent) a gay man in a crowd of muscle-bound biker types, who hopes nobody discovers his sexual orientation.

    There are so, SO many things we can, and do, discriminate over. Discriminating over skin colour almost seems… lazy. 😛

    I sometimes think more people should read The Sneetches, or almost anything by Dr Seuss, come to think of it.

    In my humble opinion, the only way we’re going to heal is if we start making a concerted effort, every single day, to stop seeing each other as black or white, man or woman, disabled or abled, gay or straight… WHATEVER or WHATEVER-ELSE, and start seeing each other as people.

    And it’s hard. We all have our biases, and we all suffer from that fear I spoke about earlier. I know *I* do.

  2. g z thompson permalink
    15 August 2017 8:25 pm

    I think you are precisely right in your discussion here and appreciate the perspective from somebody who lived through apartheid. I would just suggest that you may want to leave the discussants’ names out of the post unless they give their permission for their remarks to be quoted, as it’s a “closed” forum and thus there’s an expectation that things are not “on the record”.

    • 17 August 2017 3:47 am

      I left the names there because I asked a question of Maximos Williams, and he has not responded. Drive-by spamming does not deal with the issue. It’s an invitation to come back and talk about it.

      • g z thompson permalink
        17 August 2017 8:17 pm

        Part of that is that he is no longer in that closed group – whether he left or was booted is not something I am privy to. If he was booted (which seems possible, given the views he was promoting), he would not have had an opportunity to respond to your questions. However, I am sure by now he has seen this post and could answer the questions now as well as comment on whether he would like his previous remarks to be “on the record”. I would have liked some clarification on his part as well, frankly, since he seemed to be going in a rather dangerous direction with his remarks, as you quite rightly point out and rebut.

  3. 16 August 2017 8:50 pm

    Sadly the article that tries to explain away the synod about ethnophyletism was written by a known white supremacist named Craig Spaulding who is a member of the white supremacist group blood and honour.

    • 17 August 2017 3:01 am

      Thanks very much fir that information. It is useful to know. I noticed that Maximos Williams, who posted the link to it, has never responded to any of the questions or criticisms.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: