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. At least four of you are recent additions to Orthodoxy, “adding an element of Christian fellowship to its activities and a stronger unity to [your] cause.” On Bright Monday, you attended a counter-protest, which resulted in the beating of a man while holding, perhaps even using, an Orthodox cross. Thomas Buhls touts this event as a defense of the faith.
Frankly, it is difficult to know where to start, how to even begin addressing the distortions of Christianity which you present as its core tenets, or to believe that given your ideological convictions that anything I say will be persuasive. Many in the Eastern Orthodox blogosphere have openly wondered how one of you could have been welcomed into Orthodoxy, if your priest knew of your beliefs before your Chrismation, and whether you should be permitted to continue as a communicant in the Orthodox church. The irony is, we have canons forbidding many things. Racism is not one of them.
So, let me start by welcoming you into the home I love. As untenable as I find your beliefs about “Faith, Family and Folk,” this is not a reason to reject your presence in my community. The truth is, I simply don’t believe that we can revoke a baptism which is God’s, and I have yet to see excommunication be an effective tool for healing and restoration. Rather, it is participation in the eucharist, the “medicine of immortality”1 which enables those of us who have been “baptized into Christ to put on Christ” (Gal 3.27), a refrain you have undoubtedly heard many times, perhaps even in various languages, during this Paschal season. It is, of course, meant to recall the fruit of putting on Christ, that in Christ “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). My prayer is that you can experience the healing offered by God by eating at our shared table.
Also, I want to thank you. The ease with which you claim Orthodox theological support for your expression of White Nationalism reveals, with few exceptions, a lacuna of serious Orthodox thought on race, nationalism and democracy. Any lacuna is an opportunity to repent, and repentance is the core of the Christian life. Perhaps your voice will allow our leaders both here and abroad far more seriously the consequences of their divided witness and constant flirtations with phyletism, or what you repeatedly affirm as “racism.”
The truth is, we have made it easy for you to clothe your ideology in Orthodoxy. While you seem to conflate monarchical movements with racial purity, there is no doubt that historically, Russian Orthodoxy offers you abundant confirmation of your beliefs. You have already discovered the Black Hundreds and the canonization of a supporter, John of Kronstadt. The motto of their hero, Tsar Nicholas I, [Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality] is reflected in your repetition of Faith, Family and Folk. You have no intellectual qualms in claiming their support for your campaign to save Western civilization despite the fact that these movements saw themselves in opposition to ‘the West.’ You affirm the ‘blessing’ of the Greek neo-Nazi party, “Golden Dawn” (though you fail to note an episcopal condemnation of the party). Perhaps you have latched on to the virulent anti-semitism which permeates our Lenten hymns, and you have affirmed the bizarre homophobic and anti-semitic rantings of the repudiated Nathanael Kapner. Your homophobia mirrors the rhetoric found all to easily among Orthodox clergy and laity (unfortunately echoed in the complicit silence of those who privately disagree). Perhaps the perceived “masculinity” of Orthodoxy appeals to your particular take on traditional “family values.”
While these examples may seem extreme to many North American Orthodox, our own relationship with racism is checkered. Every January the famous Life magazine image of Abp. Iakovos (GOA) marching with MLK in Selma appears on all over the web, but it is rarely mentioned that his fellow Orthodox repudiated his actions: when he “appeared for scheduled events at his next stop, and he found himself alone in a Charleston hotel room..” Our love of our “Folk” as you call national, ethnic and racial groups, rarely takes the form of overt racism where we explicitly deny another “Folk” political and economic power. Rather, we snipe at one another over what constitutes appropriate music in church, unison, melismatic chant or polyphonic harmonies (the introduction of which is often seen as a negative encroachment of the West you so vociferously defend).2 As still-partially-immigrant churches, we struggle with what language to use, and how to accommodate multiple generations of increasingly ‘hyphenated’ Americans, and to whom we will be neighbor. I recall a perfectly vibrant ministry to men and women transitioning out of homelessness that was shut down because “we really should be focusing on our [ethnic group] shut-ins.” The ambivalence directed by our Patriarchs towards Orthodoxy in the Western Hemisphere hardly masks both the political gamesmanship underlying rival jurisdictional claims to Orthodoxy in America.
This checkered past, this ecclesial and episcopal ambivalence, reveals that we have responded to the challenge of diversity (which you claim “simply means white genocide”) in a manner very similar to what you advocate, by separation. The truth is, separation is easier. We do not gravitate towards ethnically comfortable parishes because we believe that separation is necessarily “more productive as you claim,” but certainly because it is more comfortable, easier, and sometimes safer. For immigrants coming to a new land, especially immigrants of color, seen as competition for a limited labor-pool by yours (and my) white immigrant ancestors, gathering in familiar surroundings is essential. Sometimes, staying with your folk is a matter of safety, just as you claim. “Loving one’s people” which appears to be synonymous with racism, “is natural.” Oddly enough, I agree: it is always easier to love your own. Even Jesus acknowledges this, with a twist of course.
Yet I want to be clear that our ongoing struggle with phyletism leads to associations which allow you to imagine something quite other than what we mean by our separation:
Matthew Heimbach, bolstered by the anti-Jewish preaching of St. John Chrysostom, you summarize the unintended consequences of our distorted practice perfectly:
As an Orthodox Christian I believe in the separation of races into ethnically based Church’s [sic]. That is why even in Orthodoxy there is for instance a Greek, Russian, Romanian, Serbian, etc Orthodox Church. Regional and racial identity is a fundamental principle of Christianity, must to the dismay of Leftists. I believe black Christians should be in their black Church’s, with black priests, having black kids, going to black Christian schools, etc.
“Orthodox Mike” engages in one of the more bizarre Trinitarian theologies I have encountered, likening Father, Son and Spirit to Body, Mind and Soul (a quite patristic analogy), to “Faith, Biology, and Culture,” claiming that an attack on “the People”, the Folk, is tantamount to the heresy of attacking the Trinity (I thought that the misuse of Trinitarian doctrine to justify hierarchical sexism was egregious, but at least the men of our church aren’t actually wanting to kill the women. In light of this, a small, but real, comfort).
The goal of your movement is to create racially separated regions of the United States governed by a fascist system, the achievement of which will inaugurate a final war in which the races fight until the last man standing. Racism is “natural” and must be defended by an Orthodox militant Christianity.
I cannot even imagine, at least not without horror, how you think this will play out among your new Orthodox sisters and brothers. Perhaps your parish home in Bloomington, Indiana is entirely white, providing you the comfort of a racially monotone worship experience. But you are a member of an Arab jurisdiction (the AOA), whose racial group is consistently profiled. Your Greek sisters and brothers often refer to themselves as non-white (though from the perspective of race as a form of power and influence, they are doing quite well). The first Orthodox churches in North America were planted by Russians among the Aleut, Alutiiq, Tlingit and Yup’ik peoples, and their languages are actively used in Orthodox services today. Tell me, in your vision for the future, do you just want them all to go “home”, wherever that now is? Will you implement your plan of one-to-one killing, to “just do it and get it over with”?3
There are of course, saints who belie your beliefs, The Aleut St. Jacob Netsvetov who is remembered for his service to the many “folk” of Alaska, the Tlingit, Yup’ik, learning languages new languages and planting churches. The Arab St. Rapheal Hawaweeney of Brooklyn, who served churches of all ethnic stripes all across North America in an effort to ensure that Orthodox immigrants could worship within their tradition at least occasionally. St. Maria Skobtsova, who lost her freedom and eventually life protecting Jews from the very fascism you advocate. Or perhaps Fr. Dimitry Klepenin whose was interviewed upon imprisonment for his actions:
Hoffman: If we release you, will you give an undertaking never again to aid Jews?
Klepinin: I can say no such thing. I am a Christian and must act as I must.
Hoffman (striking Klepinin across the face): Jew lover! How dare you talk of helping those swine as being a Christian duty!
Klepinin (recovering his balance, held up the cross from his cassock): Do you know this Jew?
It is the witness of saints such as these that undergirds the recent comment of the Patriarch Bartholomew:
The concept of the nation cannot become a determining factor of Church life or an axis of Church organization…Whenever an Orthodox church succumbs to nationalist rhetoric and lends support to racial tendencies, it loses sight of the authentic theological principles and gives in to a fallen mindset, totally alien to the core of Orthodoxy.
Yet it remains that our ecclesial practice allows you to make these associations. Inga Leonova is right to ask if we Orthodox are Christian enough. You have indeed accused us, presenting us “with an opportunity to begin honest soul-searching of how we manage to appear as a natural haven for people who stand against the message of the Gospel in their very core.”
Your use of Orthodox theology to disseminate your ideology is not simply a pastoral matter which should “be handled carefully, prayerfully and privately by the parish priest”. As the “OrthoCuban” Fr. Ernesto Obregon states, “There is no private spiritual direction while public statements continue to be made.”
The problem is that there is no easy solution to this predicament. Separation is often easier, and sometimes, the only possibility of safety. My WIT colleague has warned that “the framework of reconciliation, even when it attempts to speak about justice, values the confession and the future to come above the present.” We need to acknowledge our mixed and ambivalent present. Therefore, I stand by my welcome to you and your folk. But I must confess, my first instinct was separation: I wanted you out of my church. Your presence among us may be dangerous. You celebrated Bright Monday with a protest, as is your right as an American citizen. But this protest resulted in a beating. Tell me, will you beat an Orthodox Christian who objects to your racism? Will you beat any Christian who objects to your racism?
Perhaps your ecclesial participation must be monitored to ensure the safety of your sisters and brothers, some of whom may be of color, who may be gay, who may be the descendants of Jews. Perhaps you must never be left alone with those who do not share your views, in the same way a convicted child molester can participate in a community but should always be accompanied by an adult and should never be allowed to directly interact with children in any capacity, supervised or otherwise. It is one thing to share a meal in which we are reminded that our bodies are connected in and through the body of a Jewish man borne of a Jewish woman, and raised in a non-‘traditional’ family. We share this meal in the hope that as we take in Christ we put on Christ, and in so doing, become Christ to one another. But sharing a meal does not mean we can allow you to speak publicly unchecked, waving your Orthodox cross and carrying your Orthodox Bible (look closely at the Nightline videos) as you spew bad news for all but whomever you define as your “Folk.”
Indeed, you should be asked privately by your priest and publicly by Orthodox laity and clergy every day: what does your commitment to put on Christ mean towards your fellow Christian? To all human beings made in the image of God? Will you use a cross to beat someone different than you, or will you allow yourself to be hung on it by offering your body as a substitute for the least, perhaps at the hands of the very fascists with whom you now identify?4
- Ignatius of Antioch, To the Ephesians 20:2 ↩
- For an antidote to this, see the wonderful Orthodox Arts Journal ↩
See the complete Nightline interviews:
New Face of White Separatist Movement
Young and Racist: White Separatist Movement’s Rising Star
Young White Separatist Finds Unexpected Allies ↩
- Lest Orthodox read into this a support for substitutionary atonement, let me be clear: we offer our bodies not as a substitute for the reception of God’s just judicial wrath, but to take the place of our neighbor. Think Mother Maria, not Anselm. ↩