By Dn. Joseph Clark, FSMB Board Member and deacon at St. George Orthodox Church in Upper Darby, PA.
For centuries, the story of the Hebrew’s enslavement in ancient Egypt has resonated with Africans born in America. Generation after generation of chattel-slavery, the attempted stripping away of humanity connected our forefathers and mothers to God’s suffering people. They shared the heartfelt desire to see the Land of Promise, to experience freedom. While they were faithful to continually offer prayers to God, the sound of the lash and cry of anguish guaranteed that they would never become confused about where they were. The colonies and later states that protected slavery were Egypt, those that rejected it were Canaan-land.
With that said, as much as they desired physical freedom, the depth of their faith confirms something more. In the decades following the Civil War, European-Americans in the southern states expected a violent backlash from African-Americans. On one hand they spoke about the enslaved as being content and happy with their station, on the other they spoke about the need for gun control and terrorism as a form self-preservation. In their hearts they knew their society was built through wickedness and they expected to be repaid with equal force for their deeds. Even today many Euro-Americans talk about an impending race war. Yet how did Afro-Americans actually respond to their neighbors, by enlarge, with forgiveness. They followed Christ’s commandment to turn the other cheek and pray for those who spitefully use you. This is only possible through the power of the Holy Spirit, and an understanding that our real home, the place of true freedom, is the Heavenly Kingdom. After the Civil War, there was a period of relative freedom, but this was not to last1. Afro-Americans were to enter a new period struggle, one whose nature was akin to Israel’s exile in Babylon.
Babylon the Great
The name Babylon conjures up all manner of images, but for our purposes I would like to direct your attention to how it is represented in the Book of Jeremiah. Here we read the account of how the Israelites were carried away by King Nebuchadnezar. This traumatic event forever marked the psyche of the people, and not just those who were taken but those left behind. For those involved, it didn’t matter that Babylon was one of the most powerful and advanced kingdoms in the world, they were in a foreign land amongst strange people.
Let us consider for a moment a little of what they encountered upon their arrival. Babylon, this city of cities, was among the largest in the world, and its might stretched far beyond bruit military force. Babylon was a center of culture, science, architecture, agriculture, and law. The urban area was laid out in the form of a square, 13 and a half miles on each side. Around the perimeter of the city was an immense body of water, a defensive moat, and beyond that stretching more than 28 stories into the sky, the famous impregnable wall. Embedded in this massive wall were 100 bronze gates with pillars and other fine adornments. The city itself was filled with three and four stories houses, laid out like modern planned cities. There was also an inner wall, nearly as imposing as the outer; and two districts, one containing the royal palace and the famous Hanging Gardens, in the other a sanctuary dedicated to Marduk, also known as Bel.2
In a similar fashion as those who built the Tower of Babel, the Babylonians erected a massive tower, a true skyscraper. At the top of the tower, overlooking the city, was a temple dedicated to Marduk, containing a lavishly adorned bed and a young woman with whom the god could have relations. Below, was a second temple where sacrifices were made, containing a large golden idol, throne, footstool, and table, made from 800 talents of pure gold, or to put it another way, more than 53,000 pounds of gold.
Beyond possessing extreme wealth and a profound dedication to the worship of their ancestral god, Bel. The Babylonians gave the ancient world what we call the Code of Hammurabi. They believed that these laws were given by god, “to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak… to further the well-being of mankind.”3
We could say that they viewed themselves as the greatest source of good in the world, and by secular standards they truly were a great civilization, yet they were not a good civilization. They worshiped a demon, and like all pagan practices this meant that they gloried in and encouraged the passions, thus separating themselves from the possibility of knowing the True God. While pursuing political aims, King Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem, destroyed God’s Temple, and stole His people. He then doubled down by placing Israelites from influential families into positions that would ideally form or transform them into the image of a model Babylonian. Afterall, once they experienced the prosperity which Marduk provided and the young men had an opportunity to visit his temple, surely, the Israelites would recognize the value in assimilating into an obviously superior culture, and worshiping a superior god. Surely.
Just a few generations earlier, ten of Israel’s tribes were lost to the Neo-Assyrians, could the remaining be swallowed up as well? As it turns out, they would not. They went down to – the rivers of Babylon, there they sat and wept while remembering Zion.4 Even though God’s people had suffered a great defeat, were taken away from their home and placed in a strange land, they were not completely destroyed. The wealth and sophistication of Babylon was irrelevant, their hearts were stayed on Jerusalem. They never suffered confusion over who they were, or where home was, and if we as believers take nothing else from their example, let it be this.
America the Great
It is difficult to examine ancient Babylon and not see parallels to America. Like Babylon in its prime, American is a great military power, subduing other nations at will. She is on the bleeding edge of scientific and technological advancements, and views herself as the pinnacle of culture and refinement. Her tastes and preferences are to be considered normative, and she asserts herself as the arbiter of justice in the world. How long have we heard the U.S. described as a shining city set on a hill whose duty it is to keep the world safe for democracy. It’s as if the nation believes God Himself ordained America to “bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak… to further the well-being of mankind.”5 And all of this while considering infanticide a human right, neglecting her own suffering people, favoring the rich at the expense of the poor, and glorying in every abomination, just like Babylon the Great.
In spite of what many put forward, from the founding of the Thirteen American Colonies this society has chosen to reject the commandments of God. For example, if we turn to 1 Timothy Chapter 1, we see St. Paul’s description of those who have given themselves over to ungodliness and unlawfulness. Among the people he lists are murderers, whoremongers, them that defile themselves with mankind, menstealers, and liars. What St. Paul decries as contrary to the commandments of God, this society at one time or another has institutionalized and declared virtuous. This is the milieu which gloried in the suffering and death of Native Americans and Afro-Americans. This is the environment that fostered and encouraged injustice. Nevertheless, God is merciful. He gave ancient Babylon opportunities to repent and He is giving America opportunities to repent. The path to forgiveness, transformation, and restoration is available to nations just as it is to individuals.
What God told the Hebrew people to do
What is one to do? Thankfully, Holy Scripture provides us with an answer. If we turn to the 29th chapter of the Book of Jeremiah, we see God’s will for His people in exile. These words are especially instructive for Afro-Americans, but salvific for all Christians.
God said, “Build ye houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them; take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; that ye may be increased there, and not diminished. And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the LORD for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.”6 Then at the end of Jeremiah’s letter, God says that after a time He will end their captivity and they will return to Jerusalem.
What AA and Christians in general are called to do
Once in conversation, the question was raised, how does a person love a country that despises them? In many ways this question has always been behind the scenes as Afro-Americans. Some have suggested that if we adapt to the culture, show ourselves to be patriotic, speak without a negro dialect, dress respectably, become good Christians, and the like, we would avoid the hardships that come with being the perpetual stranger and become full members of the country built on our backs and through our blood. The hard truth is that isn’t going to happen, and frankly this is a great mercy from the hand of the Lord.
As followers of the true God, we cannot allow anything to take what belongs to Him alone. The Lord must come first, he must come before family, money, position, and yes, the Lord must come before the nation. For those who immigrated to this land seeking a better life, this is a tremendous challenge. Sure, if you put the question to people, do you love God more than America? People will most likely say yes; however, what do these same people do if others start to protest the actions of the nation? What if the wicked deeds of the nation are brought to light? What if people speak harshly about the nation? Is the response to these scenarios in line with the Gospel, or does something else altogether different bubble up. This question is easily answered, all one has to do is review online commentary from this past summer or look at the faces of the people listening to these words.
If I gambled, I’d bet that most Christians have been so transformed by their environment that they aren’t even capable of separating the things of God from the world. They have confused Jerusalem and the ways of God and Babylon and the ways of Marduk. With that said, there are people in this land who didn’t come here in search of a better life, but rather were the means by which others receive the good things of this world. For these people and their children, the distinction between Jerusalem and Babylon is clear, and as such it is a little easier to embrace one and reject the other. Obviously for those of us today, we are not choosing between literal cities, but ideas and ways of life. With this in mind let us consider God’s words and how they apply to us.
The Lord said, build homes and settle. Have children and grandchildren, pray for the city and seek its wellbeing, so that you can have peace. Note God didn’t say worship Marduk, no, serve the God of your fathers, obey the commandments, but pray and work to make Babylon a better place for everyone who lives there. And most importantly, we should keep the memory of our real home, the heavenly Jerusalem alive in our hearts. This is what we are called to do.
How and why repentance must happen
So how can we begin to make this nation a better place? We can start by using the spiritual interconnectedness we share. When I sin, its effect spreads beyond me, it touches everyone, and makes it more difficult for you to obey the commandments of God. Likewise, when a Holy Elder, deep in the forest or desert prays for the world. The power of their prayer touches us all, and gives us the strength to follow God’s commandments.
If Christians, and especially Orthodox Christians, are going to work for the good of the city, then let us begin by taking on the sins of the nation and falling down before God with prayer and fasting. Asking Him to have mercy on us, asking Him to help the nation to repent. As the Psalms say, the Lord loves righteousness and justice, let us pursue them.7 When the disciples asked the Lord why they couldn’t drive the def and dumb spirit out of a little boy Jesus said “This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting.”8 Family, the same can be said about the spirit that tears and gnashes away at this country. Sometimes we forget the seriousness of our deeds, both personal and national. We should remember that God has established spiritual laws that cannot be circumvented. The Lord is good and kind and long suffering, but He will not tolerate injustice forever. Listen to this story from St. Paisios of Mount Athos, about a wealthy family that suffered poverty and death, so we can understand the necessity of avoiding and making amends for injustice. Speaking of this family he says:
I learned that the man had inherited a certain fortune from his father which he increased by doing all sorts of wrong things. So, if a widow, say, were to ask him for a loan to pay her daughter’s wedding, and promised to return the money once she had harvested the crops, he would ask for a piece of land she owned. And, as she was in great need, she would have to sell him the land at any price he offered. Another man would ask him for a loan to pay the bank and promise to repay him after having harvested the cotton. He would demand the poor fellow’s land and would get it for nothing, as the farmer was afraid the bank would come after him. When someone else asked him for a small loan to pay the doctors, he would seek to take his cow from him, for pennies. This is how he made his fortune. The pain he caused to all these poor people was returned not only to him and his wife but also to his children. So the spiritual laws came into effect and caused them to suffer the very same things that their actions had caused to others. In order to pay all their medical expenses, and so on, they sold their land for nothing and after becoming very poor, they left this life for good one after the other. God, of course, with His love and sense of justice will judge them accordingly. The others who were harmed, all the poor folk who were forced to sell out their belongings to pay off the doctors, all these people will be rewarded for the injustice they endured. And, of course, the unjust will also pay their due.9
No individual or nation can escape God’s spiritual laws. America was founded on theft, murder, and abuse. First to the Native peoples, then towards Africans, and finally to poor immigrants. I am not the first to recognize this and it is OK to doubt me, but listen to the words of two of America’s greatest sons. Thomas Jefferson said, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.”10 And consider Abraham Lincoln’s words about the Civil War:
“If God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether’”.11
You see, from the mouths of saints and sinners alike, the seeds of brutality may grow slowly, but they always bear fruit. The only thing that can save a people is repentance, fortunately, this is something within our reach.
What those who suffer injustice must do
What about those who are on the receiving end of injustice? If we are brave enough to look, we can find answers in scriptures and experience of the saints. Trials and tribulations are part of being in a world that embraces sin. Some trials are designed to help us repent, others so that we can experience greater glories in the Kingdom of Heaven.12 Whatever the reason, no one passes through life without them, and thank God, because as scripture says, “we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22, KJV)
To this point, St. Gregory Palamas says that,
A human being who does not endure courageously the unpleasant burdens of temptations, will never produce fruit worthy of the divine wine-press and eternal harvest, not even if one possesses all other virtues. For one is only perfected through zealously enduring both voluntary and involuntary afflictions.13
And finally, let us hear from St. Innocent Enlightener of America. He says:
If you bear your cross with perseverance and seek comfort only from God, then He, through His mercy, will not abandon you but will touch your heart and will impart to you the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It is then that you will feel an indescribable delight, a wonderful inner peace and joy such as you have never experienced before, and at the same time you will feel an influx of spiritual strength; prayer will become easier and your faith stronger. Then your heart will be kindled with love of God and all people. All these are gifts of the Holy Spirit.14
If we love America in deed and not just word, and want to work for her betterment, we must call the nation to repent, while we fast and pray that the Lord will give us a little more time.
- Reconstruction Era: Dec 8, 1863 – Mar 31, 1877
- Edited by Richard Hooker; Translated by L.W King (1996). “Mesopotamia: The Code of Hammurabi”. Washington State University. (This quote is from the Preface of the text.)
- Ps.136:1, LXX
- From the preface of the Code of Hammurabi.
- Jeremiah 29:5-7, KJV
- Psalms 33:5, NKJV
- Mark 9:29, KJV
- St. Paisios of Mount Athos. Spiritual Counsels I: With Pain and Love for Contemporary Man, pp.92-93.
- Full quote. “God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between slave and master is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate that these people are to be free. Establish the law for educating the common people. This is the business of the state to effect and on a general plan.” Attributed to Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson Monument: Wall Inscription (1943)
- Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address: https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=38&page=transcript
- In the biography of St. Paisius of Mt. Athos, St. Euphemia said that if she knew the reward for those who suffer for Christ, she would have gladly suffered worse torments in this life.
- St. Gregory Palamas, Treatise on the Spiritual Life
- St. Innocent of Alaska, Indication of the Way into the Kingdom of Heaven http://orthodoxinfo.com/general/kingdomofheaven.aspx