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

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?


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.