2020 Conference: What color are your eyes?

By Fr. Turbo Qualls, FSMB Spiritual Formation Chair and priest at St. Mary of Egypt Orthodox Church in Kansas City, MO.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit!

My brothers and sisters, I greet you on this landmark day of our 27th Annual Conference… and although we are unfortunately not able to be with each other bodily, we can, and should take this time as an opportunity to look with a new set of eyes….to seek the Lord’s face in the midst of such uncertainties….With this hope in mind, I would like to begin my talk with a question..a question that I pray will help to address the theme of our conference…

What color are your eyes? What color are the eyes of your spouse or your child? Obviously the answer to this question is going to be incredibly diverse, according to how many people were to answer the question, and yet an interesting phenomenon is demonstrated here… In answering this question, some would say “I have blue eyes..and some would say I have brown..yet in the midst of all these answers (which individually would be correct) everyone could also answer the question by saying either my eyes are black, or they could say my eyes are white!

You see, The human eye, or at least the visible part that we identify as the eye, is comprised of three portions..the sclera which is the surrounding white portion of the eye, the iris which is the colored portion of the eye, which incidentally will also be the portion that most will refer to when seeking to answer the question, and finally the pupil, which is black and is also the smallest of the three parts…

It would be safe to say that the vast majority of people who answer this question answered by naming their iris. The iris functions by helping the pupil to regulate the amount of light that the eye receives, it is also the colored portion of the eye which happens to also point to the uniqueness of each person.. it’s that portion of the eye that helps them mark their identity.

And yet, we all share complete unity in the exactness of the pupil and the sclera! Why then do we default to the iris? If unity, and inclusion is what our society is striving for, why then do we default to that which seemingly sets us apart from one another?

On April 5, 1968, which was the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Jane Elliot, taught her brown eye-blue eyed exercise. The exercise essentially divided up the classroom into blue or brown eyes, and then gave the brown eyed students greater advantage and privilege. She observed that the brown eyed kids, who had been given greater privileges, began to treat the blue eyed children poorly. She then reversed the experiment the following day, and naturally the blue eyed children began to follow suit in
treating their fellow students poorly….. It was with this exercise that Ms. Elliot offered a great contribution to the work of dismantling the falsehood of racism; however, as with any good spiritual or moral work, we must be doers of the word and not simply hearers…

My brothers and sisters.. We are now half way through 2020. The whole world has forever changed in a matter of six months, and yet some of these changes, are seemingly particular to our country… In regard to the unrest we are witnessing around issues of justice and race, I doubt anyone would disagree that they have been fomenting for years; moreover, I don’t think it would be far fetched to point to 2017 as a shift in the attitude and fervor in which these issues are engaged in our country, and perhaps around the world? In other words, much of the tone of the racial strife we see in 2020 found its flavor in 2017, when ideas of neo-segregation and White Nationalism leaped from obscure internet chat rooms into the national spotlight….

In 2017 in the aftermath of Charlottesville, the title for my talk at the 24th annual conference was “Saul’s armor doesn’t fit”, and in it I spoke on the phenomena of voices within the church offering political commentary on those terrible events and the obvious fact that many of these same voices were often out of their depth. That the trend of Orthodox Christians and especially clergy to take to the internet and battle these issues out, with all the bluster of a late night news pundit, but with none of the blessing of a transcendent God, who rules both heaven and earth. I argued that they were seemingly blind to the obvious co-opting and burgeoning infiltration of our Holy Church by white supremacists and racial separatists…now in 2020 is see that phenomenon and danger is still ever present: however, it has morphed and multiplied…now it simply isn’t the reality of white separatist and supremacist infiltrating and dividing, its now those who would do the same but in the name of racial equality and the Black struggle…and yet, Saul’s armor still doesn’t fit….

In his first epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul speaks to a body that is suffering from division…. he writes:

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. ​ ​For we were all baptized by​ one Spirit so as to form one body—​whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free​—and we were all given the ​one​ Spirit to drink. ​ ​Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many…. he goes on to say

…The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet,
“I don’t need you!” ​ ​On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, ​ ​and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty,​ ​while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it,​ ​so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. ​ ​If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

St. Paul’s vision of unity is striking. Not so much that it calls for a greater awareness of the other from individuals…but because it calls for those who would be seemingly at odds, and irreconcilable to be aware of each other as a ​single​ body….

We must ask ourselves, could there be any other way for the Apostle to see? Is this not the prayer and vision that our Lord offered to the Father? In the Gospel John our Lord prayed:

I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who ​will believe in Me through their word; ​ ​that they all may be one, as You, Father, ​are​ in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. ​ ​And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one:

St. Paul caught that vision, because he moved outside of himself…outside of his perceived​ identity for the sake of his​ true​ identity which is in Christ…In his epistle to the Galatians he writes:

For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel.For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.​ ​But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace,​ ​was pleased to reveal his Son to​ me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone;​ ​nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.

For St. Paul, his identity was found to be only in Christ, more importantly it was actually in his ​abandoning​ of his earthly identity as both a learned rabbi and Jew of the greatest stock that he would be able to all the more see ​and​ obtain his true and heavenly identity which is found ​only​ in Christ!

Again, the Apostle Paul, this time in his epistle to the Philippians states:

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ​ ​and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—​ ​ ​that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death…

In truth, we can see not only from these selected scriptures, but from the lasting fruit of St. Paul’s work in sowing spiritual seed where none had been sown before…by calling to unity those who were at enmity with both themselves and God…and more importantly, by first abandoning his ​own​ inheritance of identity, he leads by example and without hypocrisy!

This vision of being able to truly see…to have sight beyond sight…to see the other as yourself is ​only​ possible if the one who is looking, looks without distraction of self…My brothers and sisters, it is ​impossible​ for your physical eyes to be aware of themselves in the same capacity in which they are aware of what and ​who​ they are looking upon…your physical eyes do not see themselves…they only see the other….the ​Pupil​ simply receives the light as it may….and if you will allow me the turn of phrase, the ​pupil​ only truly teaches what he’s taught…

I would like to now turn our attention as pupils to our common teacher in the faith…St. Moses…In his teachings, and in his life, we see some hard things…but do we have the vision to truly see what is being laid before us? Or do we simply take our Holy father at face value? For the color of his skin or for the fallenness of his former life and how it seemingly resonates? For many who are new to the work and community of the fellowship, I would ask you…have you studied and not simply read the life of our Holy father? Or has your awareness of his life been simply from digital snippets and social media posts?

I ask this, because like our Master, there are things that are hard to understand in his life….and I submit to you, that it is precisely the hard things that are the most needed….

For example: It is said of our holy father in the faith, St. Moses, that one day when a council was being held in Scetis, the Fathers treated Moses with contempt in order to test him saying,

‘Why does this black man come among us?” When he heard this he kept silence. When the council was dismissed, they said to him, “Abba, did that not grieve you at all?” He said to them,’ I was grieved but I kept silence”…

My brothers and sisters, when you hear this hard saying, how does it make you feel? Does it leave you confused? Does it leave you questioning the faith, or our tradition? Does it begin to give weight to the contemporary critiques against Christianity that are so prevalent in the current zeitgeist? I know that for many years it left me confused…and yet in my willingness to learn from our beloved patron I find myself closer to understanding…I find that truly St. Moses ​is​ a worthy patron for ​all​ Orthodox, for ​all ​who seek refuge in this bitter world…but ​especially​ for African Americans! For is it not the sanctity and the transformative power of a life ​dignified​ by Christ like endurance that finally broke the stranglehold of Jim Crow and Segregation? How providential that such a holy man from the 5th century deserts of Africa would experience what so many in 21st century deserts of the inner cities would experience!

But, are we learning from him, our Holy father in the faith? Are we as the pupils, teaching what has been taught?

Allow me to put that another way…What is ​our​ vision? Not just as a Fellowship, but as the Church? Do we seek to throw our interpretation of orthodoxy into the marketplace of ideas, seeking to compete with all the other peddlers of worldly authority and accolades? Are we watering down the good wine we’ve been given or are we turning the stagnant and bitter water of our lives into new wine?

In my short time working with non-profit organizations, I learned that duplication of services is not best practice, and I would submit that we as the body of Christ, and more specifically as a fellowship would be wise to heed that practice…. That we do not seek to offer what the world has to offer; instead, that we offer the ​one thing​ that no one else can…

The search for racial identity is a seemingly natural pursuit for a people who have in many ways lost their identity…but what if that identity wasn’t actually lost? What if it was actually being formed and lived out as we speak? What if, like the pupil, or the iris, that identity was to be actively experienced and ​not ​observed as if it was some sort of trophy or goal to gained?

The domination of identity politics and particularly for African Americans in this country has in fact left the very community that it supposedly meant to serve blinded and groping in the ever darkening landscape of the western world…As our Lord had said, that those who seek to find their life must lose it, and that those who lose their life for His sake will find it…No words could better address the seemingly inescapable trap
that African Americans find ourselves in.

But I believe that we ​can​ escape this trap..but only with God’s Holy help!! Money ​won’t fix it​..millions are poured into social programs and yet African Americans still struggle…Political power and policies ​won’t fix it​…In a recent op-ed, Walter E Williams, a professor of economics at George Mason University, addresses this reality of the false black power of political gains, He writes:

In 1965, there were no blacks in the U.S. Senate, nor were there any black governors. And only six members of the House of Representatives were black. As of 2019, there is far greater representation in some areas – 52 House members are black. Nine black Americans have served in the Senate, including Edward W. Brooke of Massachusetts, Carol Moseley Braun and Barack Obama of Illinois, Tim Scott of South Carolina, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California. In recent times, there have been three black state governors. The bottom line is that today’s black Americans have significant political power at all levels of government. Yet, what has that meant for a large segment of the black population?

My brothers and sisters, I would submit to you, that these political gains are the only fruit of identity politics…but it is fruit that is rotting on the vine and on the ground! If we were to measure what African Americans are wanting and needing, it seems that your only course of action would be to look at the conglomerate of corporations and political pundits sponsoring BLM, and if one was to go strictly by that, you would have to come to the conclusion that African Americans are a helpless and pathetic lot, that we have scraped and stumbled since we came out of the mire of slavery….and that in fact, we won’t be actually whole and healed as a people until “we get what’s ours”.

But what is it that we are supposedly looking for? What is this continuously elusive prize that we simply cannot attain for ourselves, that only by demanding a forced apology and begrudgingly given reparations from those who we are told, ‘victimized us’ can we truly be dignified and whole?

I believe that what the world and the devil has duped both African Americans and those who would be our allies into continuingly questioning what that prize is, and that it is something that we don’t already have. My brothers and sisters, I submit to you, that we in fact, already own this elusive prize. Moreover I would submit that this prize has not only failed in satisfying us as a people, it has in reality poisoned us. That prize is Power, worldly power, to be more exact. And like all who seek power, once a taste has been given it is never enough…it can never satisfy.

I imagine many of you who are hearing this, might be shaking your heads, and wondering what in the world I am talking about…How can I say that African Americans have power? Then I will ask you this question…Who dominates the pop charts? What community has successfully shaped the artistic and creative landscape for the last 100 years? From Jazz to Hip-hop!? Whose buying power was 1.4 TRILLION in 2019, which happens to be more than the GDP of Mexico? Ive already mentioned the various political seats held by African  Amercians…And still, will you say we have no power? Yes..we have power and as I said earlier, it obviously doesn’t satisfy…we still thirst as a people…

But our Lord said that He has water that if we were to drink of it, we would never thirst again! Holy Orthodoxy, being the fullness of the faith, or if you will, the depth of that sweet well that is Christ. It is our faith tradition alone that offers what is necessary to quench the thirst of African Americans, for in this well, both Nation and individual find the drinking gourd by which this deep water can be drawn with..In his 5th cent on love, St. Maximus the Confessor writes:

Spiritual knowledge unites knower and known, while ignorance is always a cause of change and self-division in the ignorant. hence nothing, according to sacred scripture, will shift him, who truly believes from the ground of his true faith, in which resides the permanence of his immutable and unchanging identity. For he who has been united with the truth has the assurance that all is well with him, even though most people rebuke him for being out of his mind, but without being aware that he has moved from illusion to the truth of real faith and he knows for sure that he is not deranged… he has been liberated from the fluctuating and fickle turmoil of the manifold forms of illusion.

This fickle and fluctuating turmoil is temporal identity, ego, self, power….it is an illusion, and yet we are still grasping for it!

There are so many things that can be said….but what can be done? My brothers and sisters, we must cast a vision for the people. A vision that is heavenly, indestructible and beautiful! WE must give people Orthodoxy. But in order to do that, our vision must be clear…we must see our tradition for what it is..The Ark by which beasts are turned into men! The place where beauty is given for ashes, and by which the broken are healed and the captives are liberated!

But in order for us to accomplish this, we must see the truth of where people are actually​ broken, the truth of where people are​ actually​ in need of healing and the truth of where people are ​actually​ held captive!
Plato wrote:

Self-knowledge can be obtained only by looking into the mind and virtue of the soul, which is the diviner part of a man, as we see our own image in another’s eye…Orthodoxy gives the means, by which purification, illumination and deification are possible…and this is only possible by becoming, and knowing, that the search for true identity is only salvific, life giving and possible in the Body of Christ. This is the lesson given by our Holy Fathers…But will the pupils teach what’s been taught? Will we see the unifying principle, and hold this out as the way forward? Will we learn and teach that in ​every Icon of Christ, the pupil is black, and the sclera white?

In closing, I would like to ask one more question…if you were to lose your eyes….if you lost your sight, what would you miss the most? Again, like the first question, the answers will be infinitely varied..​but​, I would say to you that all the answers could be boiled down to one word….BEAUTY…this is what you would miss…this is the ultimate purpose and function of the eye…to behold BEAUTY…

Identity politics have blinded too many…it has left too many groping in the dark for something that is best left alone…and more tragically, it has blinded too many from what is so desperately needed…Holy Orthodoxy is the pursuit of true beauty..of holy wisdom..the pursuit of God, and this is what ​all​ people are looking for…And we as the Church alone, can give it to them…this reason alone is why we exist. Let us now be faithful in fulfilling this command. Let us Love.