Tag: slavery

2020 Conference: The vision of deeper roots of Orthodoxy in America: On Bended Knee

By FSMB Board Member Hieromonk Alexii Altschul of Holy Archangel Michael Skete in Missouri.

This talk is based on a key principle I learned when I was doing trauma therapy in the nineties and first decade of this century. Trauma unexamined tends to be trauma reenacted. Let us call to mind the Word of the Lord to the prophet Jeremiah, “When you can extract the precious from the worthless, then you will become my spokesman” (Jeremiah 15:19 NASB). Individual, family, community, and national healing emerges after we spend time removing the log from our own eye. Then, we can see clearly to help our brother with his speck, as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 7:5).

So, we will consider this idea of considering the log on a national and individual basis. The prophet and Lawgiver Moses, the restorer Nehemiah, and the prophet Daniel all modeled the idea of confessing our individual failings, as well as those of our ancestors, in order to return and cooperate with Divine Grace (Lev. 26:40-42; Neh. 9:1-3; Dan. 9:3-8).

In the time of King David, a three-year famine came upon the land of Israel (2 Samuel 21:1-9). When he sought the Lord for the reason, it was revealed that it was because King Saul had broken the treaty of protection with the Gibeonites (Joshua 9:14-20). This was a treaty from 250 years before! Did King David break the treaty? No. But the commitments and debts of our ancestors are binding upon us. In settling estates, the executor must take care first of the previous debts of the one who died. In this case the breaking of a treaty with the Gibeonites resulted in a three-year famine.

When we think of the broken treaties and promises we’ve inherited as a nation, we must soberly reflect on how to restore that which we have taken and enjoyed. The worst thing we can do is blame those who suffered for our sins and continue to penalize them. Let’s take a few minutes to pause, reflect and regain our vision.

As an image of focus, let’s consider the idea of the knee, as both a point of departure and a point of return.

Wounded Knee

After I was made a monk in 2013, my bishop, His Grace +LONGIN, directed me to Mt. Athos in Greece for seven months. Also known as the Holy Mountain, monasticism has been practiced there for over 1000 years. My home monastery was the Serbian monastery of Hilandar. As I approached my time to return to the United States, something unusual took place. On separate occasions, three individual monks, and one bishop, gave me the same advice. Separately, they told me that since I was returning to the USA, the most important book I could read, to help root the Orthodox Christian faith in the USA, was Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown.

It is the story of the westward expansion from the perspective of the Native Americans. After we began the small monastic community, the skete, in Missouri, I started to read this book. For two weeks I found myself in tears at the mistreatment of the original people, by the use of religion to force people from their homes, kill, slaughter, and steal, and, the countless times that treaties were broken for the cause of progress. It concluded with the Massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota when nearly three hundred Native Americans, men, women, and children were killed by US Army machine guns on December 29, 1880.

The monks had told me until we deal with those issues revealed in the book, Orthodoxy would not go very deep and it would keep us from laying a foundation of enduring Orthodoxy. As I meditated on the book, I kept seeing recurring moral failures:

  • dehumanizing and demonizing “the other”
  • ethnic superiority and entitlement
  • progress before people, supported by force
  • failure to honor treaties (nearly 500) and keep our word.

An example of the dehumanizing and demonizing:

Colonel Chivington, a former Methodist minister, later a military officer in Colorado, called for the killing and scalping of all Indians, even infants. Why? He said, “Nits make lice”. P. 89. He was responsible for the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado. 105 Indian women and children were killed and 28 men. (1864)

The Cheyenne, Wyoming paper, Daily Leader, clearly expressed the ethnic
superiority:

The rich and beautiful valleys of Wyoming are destined for the occupancy and sustenance of the Anglo-Saxon race. The wealth that for untold ages has lain hidden beneath the snow-capped summits of our mountains has been placed there by Providence to reward the brave spirits whose lot it is to compose the advance-guard of civilization. The Indians must stand aside or be overwhelmed by the ever advancing and ever-increasing tide of emigration. The destiny of the aborigines is written in characters not to be mistaken. The same inscrutable Arbiter that decreed the fall of Rome has pronounced the doom of extinction upon the red men of America. (Mar. 3, 1870). P. 184

What happened in the Black Hills shows the progress before people, broken treaties.

“They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it” (from Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee)

Approximately five-hundred broken treaties, primarily for gold, silver, or copper, reveals what we, as a growing nation, valued more than human beings and our words.

One example is the Treaty of 1868 at Ft. Laramie: “No white person or persons shall be permitted to settle upon or occupy any portion of the territory, or without the consent of the Indians to pass through the same.” Yet, by 1874 there was such a mad clamor from gold-hungry Americans that the Army was ordered to make a reconnaissance into the Black Hills…. Custer reported that the hills were filled with gold “from the grass roots down” … and parties of white men began forming like summer locusts, crazy to begin panning and digging.” (cf. pp. 261, 264-5).

The treaty was broken for the acquisition of gold. This period culminated in the Wounded Knee Massacre.

I realized these ways are so contrary to Jesus and the Gospel, that unless I and my brothers and sisters deal with these in ourselves, we will lose our saltiness completely.

The Knee on the neck of George Floyd

By now, most, if not all, know what transpired on May 25, 2020 to the 46 year old George Floyd. The handcuffed black man, restrained with a knee to his neck on the ground, after twenty times beseechingly, saying “I can’t breathe” to the police officers who arrested him. For over seven minutes this continued. He finally whispered to his mother who he hoped would see what happened, “Mom, love you. Love you. Tell my kids I love them. I’m dead.”

What happened to George Floyd sadly reflects the same perception of the “other” as we saw with the Native Americans. I want to view the knee on George Floyd from my own family history. I want to confess my sins and the sins of my ancestors regarding the same things that the Native people suffered, what George Floyd suffered. Why? Because I and my family need mercy. Because those we’ve caused to suffer need mercy. And the Divine Scriptures assure us that mercy will come to those that “confess and forsake” their sins (Pr. 28:13).

Great-grandfather William Dick Tolbert

I grew up in a family with a strong racist past. When I was 9, my uncle told me that since my great-great grandfather Josiah Tolbert was a Confederate Colonel and owned slaves, that I should know that we were Confederates. So, I donned my gray coat and would always be a Confederate when we played soldiers.

One day, my dad let us know about the life of my great-Grandfather William Tolbert, who was known as Dick, in Paducah, KY. He was a tall, large, outgoing man with a sense of humor and extremely popular in the community. He was a detective for the railroad, but also served as private investigator, assistant to the police on surveillance, and was given a wide berth in bringing in “the bad guys.” He was a common person in the newspapers, the Paducah Sun, the Paducah Daily Register, and the News-Democrat between 1904 and 1908.

It turned out the “bad guys” were commonly black men who apparently were “guilty until proven innocent.” The final act was played in 1908 when he shot a runaway African American in the back on May 12 and then my great-grandfather himself tragically drowned to death on June 12, one month to the day after he had shot the runaway. I thank God for my great grandfather, but I also realize he grew up in a system that had normalized treating black people with disdain. I ask God for mercy for him and all my family.

As I read the newspaper articles, what was most striking was how often he and the society treated his arrests as if he were always in the right before there had been any hearing or trial. The paper said of the African-American that he shot:

If a mulatto who has been lurking in the rear of the Paducah high school … is not carrying a bullet in his evil body since Monday afternoon, it is not because Patrolman Dick Tolbert, of the Illinois Central railroad’s force, did not try to kill him. If citizens of that section of the city come on the negro, the coroner is apt to have a new job…. Policeman Tolbert laid for the negro. It was early Monday afternoon when the big cop spied the brute exposing himself. Tolbert tried to slip up on the negro. The latter discovered the policeman before Tolbert could reach him. As the negro fled the cop pulled the trigger of his pistol twice. The second shot the negro cried out in pain. He managed to hurdle a fence and succeeded in loseing himself.

(front page of News Democrat of Paducah, KY June 12, 1908)

This one article reveals so many painful but important points:

  • No court hearing.
  • Seen as guilty before innocent, instead of innocent until proven guilty
  • Regarded as inherently ‘evil’.
  • An implied threat to lynch: If citizens of that section of the city come on the negro, the coroner is apt to have a new job.
  • A Brute (stereotype for less than human).
  • “Exposing himself” is a common term for relieving oneself outside.

Who knows what the reasons were? But our country values “due process under the law” in administering justice, and that someone is innocent until proven guilty. That these ideas were not passed on to all citizens, reveals a glaring failure.

(Fifty years later, 14-year-old Emmitt Till was brutally tortured and murdered for whistling at a white woman when, likely, this form of whistling was the means to overcome stuttering that his mother had taught him.)

My early life contains much racist ideology. There are just a few experiences that I will share that reflects a world view that I still seek to overcome. Looking at the same moral failures in our nation’s history toward Native Americans is a lens through which I look at myself, how I was raised, and our national history.

Just as the Native Americans were regarded as less than human, and this was used to justify killing them by the soldiers and pioneers, so racial myths were part of my own upbringing. Anytime an African American named Tolbert would be on a football team, whether college or professional, my uncle would say, “He is probably a descendant from one of the slaves who worked on our plantation!” Occasionally, there would be an off-hand comment about how fast or strong an athlete was and how they were mixed with some kind of animal. Later, I found out that this was part of early American pseudo-scientific racial theories. They were also part of the same theories of Nazi Germany for both blacks, Jews, and others that they said held less than Aryan purity, and according to them were mixed with animals. When Jesse Owens won four gold medals for his track and field feats, Joseph Goebbels, propaganda minister for the Nazis remarked that it was because he was part animal. When my wife, Matushka Michaila, was young, several times she was asked if people could see her tail. Seriously! This was in the 1940s and 1950s! Racial myths continue to whisper in peoples thinking. It creates a fog. It creates a sense of the other.

For each birthday and Christmas, I would receive cards from my grandmother Dorothy who grew up in Paducah, Kentucky, addressed to “Master David Altschul.” Yes, I know that according to etiquette standards from Great Britain that is how you would address a young boy, at least until he was 12 or 18. However, the important point is that this was normally for young white boys! The ruling class in Colonial or Southern America would never address a young boy of color as Master. It was reserved for the anticipated heir of an estate or, later, to prepare a young boy to take his place of honor and responsibility. To be groomed for white entitlement. There are so many reinforcements of white cultural advantage in our culture, but because they are so pervasive, they often remain hidden. It is essential to look deeper into how, if white, we benefit from such structures, at the expense of others.

Change in the 17th Century

In the 1600’s of our nation, enduring changes were set in motion that would lead to both Wounded Knee and the Knee on George Floyd. Early in the 1600s if a slave became a Christian, the master was expected to set him free. But in 1639, it changed. As a result, if you weren’t white, you could be enslaved! In 1640, three indentured servants escaped from Hugh Gwyn’s farm. When caught, the two White Europeans were to finish the terms of their work contracts with an extra year added on, but, the third, John Punch, who was black, was ordered “to serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural Life.”

After that they added slavery for the duration of one’s life, shortly after that Colonial courts ruled that the children were also to be enslaved. Later, they ruled that even the land of free blacks could be seized from a widow by the state because ‘he was a Negroe and by consequence an alien” (Africans in America)

How did these ideas come about?

The Puritans held to the climate theory of Aristotle (the Greeks were in between the “ugly” extremes of pale or dark skins resulting from extreme cold or hot climates, and that “humanity was divided into two, the Masters and the slaves; or, if one prefers it, the Greeks and the Barbarians, those who have the right to
command; and those who are born to obey.” Politics)

The Puritans also held to the the misinterpretation of Genesis 9, known as the curse of Ham theory. In this theory, they say, because of Ham’s sin, Noah cursed the descendants of Ham, who settled in Africa, to servitude. Sadly, seldom is it mentioned that, in the Genesis account, this curse was not to all four of the sons of Ham, but only to Canaan who would serve the sons of Shem. This then was a prophecy about Jacob’s family returning to the land of Canaan after being slaves in Egypt for 400 years and Canaan would become their homeland. It was fulfilled over three thousand years ago. It had nothing to do with skin color, Africa, or justification for perpetual bondage.

Yet, supported by such misguided theories and theology, they found a convenient way to justify the perpetual holding of people of color in bondage. Why was this to the advantage of the colonists?

Profit!

The exporting of tobacco back to Europe had grown from 20,000 pounds in 1619 to 38 million pounds in 1700! In the 1680s African slaves had grown to far surpass white indentured servants. Furthermore, the death rate among Africans working in the fields was less than whites and Native Americans. Eventually, the slave trade itself became big business. In one century, the model of labor in the colonies was changed from primarily indentured servants to generational race slavery, where blacks were regarded as those created to labor for the white race.

We also see the same habit of breaking promises and treaties with the African Americans, as had happened with the Native Americans. In 1865, toward the end of the Civil War, Gen. Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15. It set aside 400,000 acres for freed slaves along the Atlantic Coast in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. The phrase “40 acres and a mule” emerged from this order.

It became the expectation that this would be the standard of reparations after the Civil War. But after the assassination of President Lincoln those hopes were dashed. President Andrew Johnson turned much of the south back over to many of the formerly Confederate leaders who issued the Black Code laws. The federal troops pulled out and the violence from the Klan and others reinforced these Black Codes. These Codes became the foundation of the Jim Crow laws after Reconstruction. This was not a North/South issue. This was pervasive. This was due to the clinging of racial fears and prejudice since the founding of colonies in this beautiful land.

Our Response: The Knee of Repentance and Reflection

When I first became Orthodox, some of my Protestant friends had a problem with the end of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” They would say things like, “you’re not a sinner anymore. The Apostle Paul says you’re a saint now!” But I remembered the Parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee. The Pharisee said, “God, I thank you that I’m not like other men!” Whereas, the tax collector, “God be merciful to me, a sinner” (cf. Luke 18:9-14). The tax collector left with freedom. The deeper we go, the more we see ourselves, and when we see that we are sinners and have a long way to go, it produces an awareness of our need for mercy, grace, power to change. It’s not “been there, done that.”

In the 1950s, Gordon Allport, in his classic work on prejudice, pointed out that it stays with you. It’s something that must be monitored and examined. In the past twenty years much research has been done on implicit bias that confirms this and expands on it. Given the recent tensions in our nation, this inner work is needed more than ever. If we are to be “peacemakers” as Jesus spoke of in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt.5:9), we must face our logs. Currently instead of helping remove each other’s specks from a place of peace (evidence of doing our inner work), we are seeing an assembly of loggers poking each other on Facebook, in church, and in public forums. The idea of racism and our collective response to it, reminds me of when my friends used to tell me that I wasn’t a sinner, that now we’re saints. In our collective experience, it’s like we’re saying, “we’re not racist anymore. We’ve moved beyond that! Obama was President!”

When I married my wife Thelma, after becoming Orthodox she was known as Matushka Michaila, some thought I had moved passed racism and prejudice, simply by marrying her! But like the bumper sticker says, “wherever you go, there you are.” I still have much to deal with. I recognize my racist past and thoughts, and yes, culture, and it indeed is a national sin that I must deal with. In the language of the desert fathers, it is a form of the passion of pride and vainglory.

When I became a monk, I was in many all-night vigils in the monasteries on Mt. Athos. I had heard about the “Uncreated Light” manifesting itself. For me? All I was seeing was my sins and failings. Then it hit me. God doesn’t send His Light to condemn, but to illumine. We see ourselves as we are. With His help, we can be purified. Included among my many sins, I began to see the passion of pride as it related to racism.

I remembered the pride of my youth and the racist comments, jokes, and thinking I was better because I was simply white!

After becoming a Christian, I remember the idea of seeing myself “doing something great for the poor blacks” not seeing the religious pride behind it — the “great white savior” idea. It was after reading the civil rights leader John Perkins, and his quote from Lao Tzu that started to change this hidden pride:

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves” Lao Tzu

I remember when I wanted to marry Thelma (Michaila), well-meaning pastors called me to a meeting where they appealed to me not to go through with this because of the differences in our age, our educational levels, and our class difference. Implied in this was also our racial difference. I was shaken. I was very concerned about what people thought of me, and I knew the proverb that among a ‘multitude of counselors there is safety’ (Prov. 24:6). When I returned to talk to Thelma, she was so upset and saddened, that I went on a long walk to pray. When I was nearly home from my walk, I heard a still small voice in my heart, “You were like Peter. You were walking on the water, and you began to sink because you were paying attention to the winds of public opinion.” We got married after that right away.

I remember Thelma’s difficulty stopping smoking. I was concerned on the surface because of her health, but deeper I realized it was because of my self-image. How would it look, me a pastor, having a black wife who smoked? After I faced it, and confessed my pride, my Pharisaism, she of her own will was able to stop within the year.

I remember many times pulling up to a corner where a group of young black men were congregating, and rolling up my windows, locking my door. What was I dealing with? The stereotype! The social imprint! The message was ‘Black men were criminals’. This has been used since the time of slavery when vagrancy laws were used to keep black men in servitude with convict labor. Why? Because during the Black Code laws and Jim Crow, the vagrancy ‘crime’ was to not have a job. Yet often the only jobs available were returning to forced labor in plantation conditions! I had bought into this stereotype in my mind. Yes, it was the culture that I was in, but that kind of thinking was in me. Fortunately, this deeper reaction can be purified when we open it to the One Who is Light and has the power to heal and change us. (I still lock the car but rarely is the thought because of the racial context. Mostly now it is done because of protecting what belongs to others. Nevertheless, sometimes such thoughts still pop in there, which I rebut with the truth of my experience.)

I remember Thanksgiving, 1988. We had a free Thanksgiving meal for people in our neighborhood at Reconciliation Ministries. We partnered with Rev. Raymond Mabion and members of Bethlehem Christian assembly. After the meal, I asked Brother Mabion, how he thought it went. He said, “Well, a lot of people were fed!” But I could see something more was there. So I prodded a bit. We had a commitment of love and honesty to each other. So, he told me that several of our white volunteers had told the black grandmothers a “better way to cook and prepare the turkey. They simply backed up and let the white ladies lead.” My heart was pierced. I realized that we had put efficiency over the relationship. Some of theme had been making turkey dinners for fifty to sixty years and yet we thought we had a better way. It was painful. But it was important. Progress does not come before people. Human beings are the image of God, but in need of being restored to His likeness. This is not the time for us to seek to be lords and rulers. This is the time to seek to be servants and healers.

So, we come to the third focus of the knee. Me on the knees of my heart.

I say God be merciful to me a sinner.
I say God be merciful to me a racist.
I confess my sins of pride, vain glory and racism.
I confess the sins of my ancestors and our pride, vain glory, and racism.
I confess our sins of greed, stealing, murder, lust, rape, and kidnapping to establish and continue our country.
I confess our treating those for whom Christ died as the other, as less than human, as evil.
I confess putting progress before your children.
O Lord.
Lord have mercy.
Show us what You would have us do to help repair the breach.
Show us what You would have us do to heal the wounds.
Show us what You would have us to do.

In closing, I’m mindful of the hope in Joel 2 that if we return with prayer and fasting and change, “who knows if He will not turn and relent and leave a blessing behind?” There is no magic formula or algorithm. God is One in Three Divine Persons. He cannot be manipulated. But we know that “He resists the proud and gives grace to the humble”. Lord have mercy. Amen.

2020 Conference: Slavery in Babylon the Great and America the Great

By Dn. Joseph Clark, FSMB Board Member and deacon at St. George Orthodox Church in Upper Darby, PA.

Introduction

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

Conclusion

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.

Amen


Notes

  1. Reconstruction Era: Dec 8, 1863 – Mar 31, 1877
  2. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Marduk
  3. 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.)
  4. Ps.136:1, LXX
  5. From the preface of the Code of Hammurabi.
  6. Jeremiah 29:5-7, KJV
  7. Psalms 33:5, NKJV
  8. Mark 9:29, KJV
  9. St. Paisios of Mount Athos. Spiritual Counsels I: With Pain and Love for Contemporary Man, pp.92-93.
  10. 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)
  11. Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address: https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=38&page=transcript
  12. 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.
  13. St. Gregory Palamas, Treatise on the Spiritual Life
  14. St. Innocent of Alaska, Indication of the Way into the Kingdom of Heaven http://orthodoxinfo.com/general/kingdomofheaven.aspx