The fact that so many of us cannot identify with the struggle of Black men and women in this country is perhaps indicative of our failure to recognize Christ—and the Church—as Black. Black people bear the damning mark of stereotypes, all too often resulting in their mistreatment or even unjust death. But Christ and the Church are always found with those that are left out and marginalized.
Christ is risen! Truly He is risen!
It has been three weeks since we celebrated Great and Holy Pascha and we are well into the festal season. And yet, for many during this extraordinary time, the traditional Paschal greeting flows from pious lips mixed with bitter feelings of sorrow and confusion. The disruption to our religious and social lives caused by Covid-19 has been felt the world over. We have endured a very unconventional Pascha, to say the least. In the midst of what would normally be considered a joyous time of celebration of Christ’s victory over death, we are yet reminded that death is still with us. And as we struggle to reconcile the paradox of Christ’s resurrection juxtaposed to the seemingly all-pervasive death around us, we are reminded once again of death’s presence, not only in the abstract, but as a very specific evil that inflicts very specific persons. Amidst the flurry of our bright and sad Paschal celebrations, death has reemerged in our consciousness in a profoundly tragic, yet sadly, all-too familiar way in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. Our country has been turned completely upside-down over the last few months, yet it seems that our most haunting legacy has remained intact: the unjust slaying of black bodies.
And yet, as horrific as Ahmaud’s death is, it comes as no surprise to those within the black community, for whom this killing is only the latest in one long funeral procession beginning at the very founding of this country. Indeed, this is not the first Paschal season to be marked by racial violence. How many Easters have been celebrated in this country in segregated churches? How many Easters did white mobs organize the lynching of black men and women and distribute commemorative tokens for the occasion? How many blemished sacrifices have been offered on this soil; Christians worshipping the crucified and resurrected body of Christ, while simultaneously injuring, murdering and oppressing the black body of Jesus? Sadly, the killing of Ahmaud Arbery is hardly anomalous, and it is to the great shame of our country.
As counter-intuitive as it may be, however, the recognition of death during the Paschal season is quite fitting. On the third Saturday after Pascha, the Gospel reading comes from John 15:17- 16:2. In it, the Lord reminds his disciples that they will experience hatred and oppression from the world. He tells them that because the world hated and eventually killed him, it will do the same to his followers. As modern readers of the Gospel, we may be tempted to read this passage as warning of the inevitable and unqualified persecution of Christians simply because they believe in Jesus. But the world didn’t hate the disciples because they were Christians in name only. The Gospel tells us Christ’s disciples were hated because they followed Jesus— they went where Jesus went and did what Jesus did. Christ led them, as he leads us, to become lowly and identify with the hated, even to the point of death.
Quoting the Psalmist, the Lord says, “They hated me without a cause.” In his incarnation, crucifixion and decent into death, Christ becomes the one who is hated without a cause. Christ joins the Psalmist and all humans that have been hated without a cause. Throughout his life, Christ identifies with the lowly, the poor, the hated, the outcast, the sinner and the suffering. And at the Final Judgement, Christ will consider actions done to “the least of these” as done unto Him. It is because of his downward movement, his solidarity with the hated and the suffering, that Christ tells his followers that they should expect the same. If anyone is to follow Christ, they follow him into his identification with the hated and they follow him into death.
What does it mean to be a Christian (a follower of Christ) in the wake of the lynching of a black man? In his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone says, “The lynched black victim experienced the same fate as the crucified Christ and thus became the most potent symbol for understanding the true meaning of the salvation achieved through ‘God on the Cross.’” The unjust killing of Ahmaud Arbery, or Bothem Jean, or Trayvon Martin, or Emmett Till or the many other black brothers and sisters in this country brings the cross out of our religious observances and into our lives. And it is by identifying with these victims that we embrace the cross and follow after Christ. Cone says further, “The real scandal of the gospel is this: humanity’s salvation is revealed in the cross of the condemned criminal Jesus, and humanity’s salvation is available only through our solidarity with the crucified people in our midst.” 1 The connection between following Christ and identifying with suffering humanity was also made by Elder Sophrony when he said, “The Son of man has taken into Himself all mankind — He has accepted the ‘whole Adam’ and suffered for him. St. Paul said that we, too, ought to think and feel like Christ — having ‘the same mind which was in Christ.’” 2 If we want to be with Christ, we must suffer with those who suffer.
On the second Sunday after Pascha, we commemorate the myrrh bearing women. In many ways, the story of the myrrh bearing women is a sort of reversal of what St. John Chrysostom described in his Paschal Homily, “[Hell] took a body, and met God face to face.” 3 The myrrh bearing women came to Christ’s tomb, not expecting to meet God, but expecting to show love for Jesus, the dead man. They came with spices to care for his human body. The Church, in her wisdom, places this gospel reading during the Paschal season because she wants us to remember that it is only when we draw near to human death with love that we can experience the presence of God. In the story of the myrrh bearing women, we see the extreme unity between our proximity to God and our care for human suffering and death.
What this requires of us— especially white Christians— is more than “white guilt.” Identifying completely with suffering humanity, and thereby joining Christ, involves repenting of sins we would normally not consider “ours.” Elder Sophrony says, “According to the second commandment, Love thy neighbor as thyself, each of us must, and can, comprise all mankind in our own personal being. Then all the evil that occurs in the world will be seen, not as something extraneous but as our own.” 4 In one sense, we are responsible for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. We are collectively infected with a deep spiritual sickness that has produced countless lynchings, racism and injustice. But what is required is love, not self-loathing, and not performative breast beating in an effort to placate our guilt.
So, what do we do? First, let us bring myrrh to the tomb of Ahmaud Arbery. Let us mourn with those who mourn. Let us pray for rest for his soul and comfort for his family and community. Let us do what the Church does in times of death: let us grieve. In grieving, the Church resists the power of death and insists that it is wrong, it is unnatural and it has been defeated. Let us use the various ways that the Church provides for us to respond to death. Many will commemorate Ahmaud in prayers for the departed during Divine Liturgy. Others will spend these days leading up to Pentecost praying for his soul with the Akathist for Those Who Have Fallen Asleep. Let us not forget his name, and the names of the others who have been killed as a result of racial hatred— those that have been hated without a cause. Let us care for Christ’s body where it has been cut down in the streets of Georgia, or Ferguson, or Sanford. Let us also care for our black brothers and sisters that carry in their body and mind the burden of death. Let us not turn away or quickly forget because it is painful, for it is only in drawing near to death that we will encounter the Living God.
Lastly, as we identify with those who are killed, let us also not be afraid to identify with those who kill. Elder Sophrony said that “each time we refuse to take on ourselves the blame for our common evil, for the actions of our neighbor, we are repeating the same sin [of Adam] and likewise shattering the unity of Man.” 5 In embracing all of humanity as Christ does, we also must confront the evil that lies within all of us. As we pray for the repentance of Ahmaud’s killers, we must also repent. We must confront the ways that our fears, insecurities and jealousies prompt us to think and act in ways that destroy and kill. In our fear of death, our desire to preserve our life, we take from others, we scapegoat our fellow human being. We must confront the racism that exists in our hearts, the habits of thought that prompt us to make stereotyped judgements about black people or people of color. We must confront the reflex to justify a killing like that of Ahmaud Arbery when we presume guilt by asking, “What did he do?” We must repent of the ways that we have simply accepted his death and others like him as “normal,” or unavoidable. By accepting responsibility, we accept the need to change.
These are opportunities for our faith to become alive and for us to experience the resurrection. As Christians, we have no fear of death and bear no condemnation. Because Christ is risen, we are delivered from death’s power and thereby free to confront death in our hearts and in our society. Let us meet Christ then, bringing myrrh to his body that we have also slain, that he may raise us up from our death in his resurrection. Let us live, and not only sing, the Paschal Hymn:
“This is the day of resurrection. Let us be illumined by the feast. Let us embrace each other. Let us call ‘Brothers’ even those that hate us, and forgive all by the resurrection, and so let us cry: Christ is risen from the dead, Trampling down death by death, And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!” 6
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1 James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 160.
2 Archimandrite Sophrony, Saint Silouan the Athonite, trans. Rosemary Edmonds (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s
Seminary Press, 1991), 47.
3 St John Chrysostom, “The Paschal Sermon,” https://www.oca.org/fs/sermons/the-paschal-sermon.
4 Sophrony, 122.
5 Sophrony, 121.
6 Verses for Paschal Matins.
Dear brothers and sisters of the Brotherhood of St Moses the Black,
I greet you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ!
Only one year has passed since our last conference and through the grace of God and your prayers, we are able to assemble again.
We find ourselves in the midst of turmoil and confusion in our country. But Jesus Christ has overcome this world, and if we would only follow his instructions concerning how we ought to treat each other and how we should be disposed towards Caesar, we will prevail.
People are responding to the injustice that we see all around us. The BSMB response will not be lock step with that which I’ve come to call “high secularism”. High secularism, for which I have respect, is the thought of intelligent, sensitive, well-meaning people who yet remain outside the salvific ark of Orthodoxy. These are righteous people, but unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, we should in nowise enter the Kingdom of Heaven” Matt. 5:20.
I will not attempt to tell you how you, personally, should rally around today’s movements and protests. I will, however, address how the Brotherhood can participate in these events. We can act through prayer, fasting and forgiving our brothers their trespasses.
Very few of us, other than I, have directly experienced police brutality, in my case to the point of being handcuffed at gunpoint and pushed into the backseat of a police car and threatened with being taken to the woods and left for the wolves. If not for the prayers of right-believing Christians, the descendants of slaves, I wouldn’t have escaped. So, I can, with some authority, talk about how we overcome unjust and cruel treatment at the hands of the godless authorities. We endure it with longsuffering, we turn away from hatred, and we pray for those who despitefully use us and say all manner of evil against us falsely for His names’s sake, for great will our reward be in Heaven. If we don’t act for the sake of Christ, our labors are in vain. This may sound lofty, but the whole enterprise of being an Orthodox Christian is lofty, and not of this world.
Black lives matter. What we are saying is, “I am a human being. Treat me like one.” When I proposed to the All American Council of my jurisdiction that we resolve to make every effort to reach out to African Americans, I was met with, “but we should reach out to all people, so why specify African Americans?” In other words, the painfully familiar, “all lives matter”. Of course, all lives matter, but that’s not the point, is it. This kind of response comes from some of those outside of our experience, and we need to be steadfast and patient in educating them about what it means to be Black in America and Black in the American Orthodox Church. That’s part of what this Brotherhood is called to do. Nevertheless, our engagement with this movement must transcend high secularism.
How do we do that? We march, but as Orthodox we march with holy images, banners, incense and prayers. Were we to publicly proclaim our faith this way, we’d soon find out who our real brothers are, Orthodox or not. I suspect we’d have friends within the movement and enemies within the Church. Regardless, if we want to make a change, we reach towards heaven, not to the unrighteous wisdom of this world.
I know a Jewish woman who told me once that the central question of her life was “if they threw me into a concentration camp, the intent of which was to turn me into an animal, how could I remain a human being?” Her answer, she said, was most deeply revealed in the Church. We aren’t promised fairness, kindness, dignity, love, or any other right and pleasant thing from this world. But we know the source of all those things, and that we are loved. Hold on to that, brothers and sisters and to each other, in Christ. Yes, with each passing year the deception is stronger, “normalcy” becomes more confused, and it gets harder and harder to do those things prescribed for us in Holy Scripture, to yield to the Word of God. This is our struggle, and it is very real.
Do what you feel you must to join your efforts to those crying out for change. Hold fast to the words of Our Lord, “these things have I spoken unto you, that in Me you might have peace, in the world you will have tribulations, but be of good cheer! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33.
May God bless you,