Tag: racism

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.

2020 Conference: Racism and Its Grounding in Shame and Disgust

By Fr. Stephen Freeman, pastor of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, TN.

“For there is a shame that brings sin; and there is a shame which is glory and grace.” (Sirach 4:21)

There is a popular definition of shame that describes it as “how we feel about who we are.” Along with this is a definition of guilt as a feeling of “how we feel about what we have done.” Those are oversimplifications but they are a useful place to start. Because race in our culture is a central part of how we see ourselves (“who I am”), it is inherently the case that shame is involved. But today, I want to take us much deeper into the phenomenon of shame and see what is really going on, how we can deal with it, and how it affects our relationships. Finally, I will offer some thoughts on the place that shame holds in our spiritual life, both shame that is of a sinful nature, as well as healthy shame which is glory and grace.

We are hard-wired for shame

I pray this is not a distraction – but it is worth considering, before anything, the actual neuro-biological basis of the experience of shame. The psychologist, Sylvan Tomkins, first identified nine structures in our human “wiring” that he labeled as “affects.” They are: Distress-Anguish; Interest-Excitement; Enjoyment-Joy; Surprise-Startle; Anger- Rage; Fear-Terror; Shame-Humiliation; Disgust; and Dissmell. These are reactions that are inborn. For example, the “surprise-startle” affect. When we play “peek-a-boo” with an infant, the child does not need to be taught how to play the game. They know the game because it consists in our “surprising” them, engaging a reflex that has been there from the beginning. Tomkins theorized that these primitive affects combine with our life experience over time to form emotions and the major aspects of our personality.

It is useful to identify this, I think, because when we speak of “shame” – we tend to have in mind that more-developed emotional experience with all of its associations. But it’s useful to think about it in its most fundamental aspects, particularly when we come to think of what is called “healthy shame.” And it will be necessary to speak of healthy shame in order to discover the route past toxic shame towards healing.

At this primary level, “shame” is an affect that is our “self-protection” signal. It marks a “stop” in our experience. It can be as innocent as signaling a boundary. Interestingly, it is also the affect that is perhaps most deeply involved in the experience of the holy. Think for a moment about someone entering a “Holy Place,” such as an old cathedral. We instinctively (meaning an affect is involved) become quiet, lowering our voice to a whisper. It is the instinct of “self-protection” – there is some sort of vulnerability we are undergoing (Aslan is not exactly a “tame” lion). We “hide,” in a certain way. It would be possible, I think, to do an entire presentation on this alone. But we have much harder work to do.

This fundamental affect of “self-protection” easily becomes mired in very negative, dangerous experiences. The body remembers these things. An immediate question for us is, “How does this have anything to do with the “shame” question of “How I feel about who I am?”

A good story for thinking about this is the Genesis account of the Garden. Created by God, we were “naked and unashamed.” There is no boundary of vulnerability between the man and the woman and God. They are utterly safe. With the first sin, they become aware of their nakedness – there is a new feeling – that of being unsafe and exposed. They hide – it is the most primal reaction of shame. Commonly, we experience shame most notably in the face. Embarrassed, blood rushes to our face. We turn our face away, we look down and cannot make eye contact. We hide.

Nothing is more “exposed” or “exposing” than our sense of self-identity. Most of our lives are spent “hiding” in one manner or another. God “clothed” Adam and Eve with “garments of skin.” We have continued to “clothe” ourselves with garments that seek to define our identity, or hide it, etc. Tattoos, for example, serve to “clothe” us with marks of identity. And, of course, the “clothing” of our racial characteristics provides another such identity marker (one that cannot be hidden). The same is true of language dialects. All the various clues to our identity risk exposing us to unwanted and even dangerous attention. As such, we spend a fair amount of time seeking to control precisely whatever it is that we expose of ourselves to others. We join groups whose music, style of dress, use of words, etc., mark us as members, creating a sense of safety and protection in our belonging.

It is worth noting that it is in adolescence as we move outside of the protective intimacy of the family and into the more social world that will eventually become the place of our adulthood – it is there that we begin to make these first forays into creating identities. Adolescents and teens are extremely prone to clump themselves into cliques. It is also the time where we begin to see bullying come to the fore – as some seek to define themselves by exerting dominance over others. Shame is brutal.

Our intimate relationships, of course, are “intimate” precisely because it is there where we expose ourselves the most. As such, they are potentially the most “dangerous” places in our lives (and, potentially, the safest places in our lives).

While I am speaking about the shame affect, I also want to touch on Disgust and even Dissmell. Disgust is our signal to spit something out. Dissmell tells us to avoid something. Anyone who has raised a child has probably seen both of these many times at the dinner table! But they are hard-wired and difficult to ignore. As we begin to think about racial identity (particularly as experienced in American culture) these affects are also very much in play. It’s to the racial applications that I want to now turn.

Story from my childhood

My first conscious experience of race was a Baptism into full-blown, Southern racism. I was 4 years old and was with my mother in a local department store. Thirsty, I went for a drink of water. This is 1957. She found me drinking from the fountain marked, “Colored.” She snatched me up and scolded me lightly and said that this was the “fountain for colored people” and that I was not to drink from it. She said nothing more. She did not explain that we were racists and therefore did not drink from the same fountain. Since there was no explanation, I was left with a 4 year-old’s imagination to ponder the problem. The only reason I could think of not to drink from something was because it was unsafe and unclean. The obvious conclusion was that “colored people” were somehow unsafe and unclean. I recall wondering all day long if I had caught something and whether I would start to turn black.

It’s a silly, tragic, example of the many thousands of lessons woven into the experience of the Jim Crow South. Those lessons included not just ideas, but primal, neurobiological reactions. Disgust and Dissmell are far more primary than mere racial theory itself. Ideas are easy to change. Neurobiological reactions are something altogether different. I first heard actual racial theory when I was 10 years old, attending a Baptist youth camp whose counselors were from Bob Jones University. Three years later, I attended a Baptist Church for the last time when my older brother, then a Freshman at Clemson, walked out on a sermon that was preaching segregation and railing against the planned integration of Furman University. I went with him – he was my ride home. It was my introduction to politics, and the beginning of a journey out of my Southern childhood.

While reading Mother Catherine’s small book on race, identity and reconciliation, I was thinking about this deep programming of hard-wiring in our culture. Jim Crow laws are gone, but there are many subtle ways in which these things still remain. If I take these thoughts to something less charged than the racial context – say Appalachians (my own subculture) – we can see some of the same things at work. A strong Appalachian dialect is equated in our culture with laziness, crime, stupidity, lack of cleanliness, etc. It is a strangely acceptable prejudice, with tv shows, commercials, etc., that make use of these stereotypes without compunction. I hear echoes of it in my head: “trailer-park trash,” “Walmart people.”

The world has changed a great deal since my childhood. Inter-racial marriage is now rather common, when it was unheard of and illegal then. There is greater interaction. However, as many have noted, there are “structural” or “systemic” aspects of racism built into many parts of our culture. I think of the world of shame and disgust as part of the “deep structure” of any culture. There are no laws that can touch these things. They require the difficult work of healing within the human heart. I think it is also the case that these deep matters of shame, disgust, and dissmell, are themselves terribly embarrassing. It is relatively easy to talk about economic injustice and police brutality. It is frightfully difficult to admit the presence of these very deep-seated reactions – “passions” of a sort. But it is those deeper reactions that form the psychological framework for injustice that marks our culture.

Healthy Shame and Healing

To think about the work of healing, I want to take us to the place of healthy shame. As noted in the quote from Sirach – there is a shame which is glory and grace. I’ve been asked any number of times by various people why use the term “shame” to describe healthy shame. Isn’t it confusing? The reason is simple – the underlying mechanism for healthy shame and toxic shame is the same. They differ in intensity, and cause. Toxic shame is painful in the extreme and can be completely paralyzing. Healthy shame is painful (in a very small degree) and is essential to living a healthy life. It signals boundaries – a life without boundaries is very unhealthy, indeed.

I will take us back for a minute to the example of the Cathedral. We enter, and instinctively become quiet. It is an architecture that is designed to convey the divine. The German Theologian, Rudolf Otto (The Idea of the Holy, 1917), famously described this experience as that of the “Wholly Other” (ganz Andere), or the “numinous.” In its presence we are “completely abashed.” In colloquial terms, this primary experience of God says to us, “You’re not Him.” This same experience also reveals the naked truth of ourselves to us. Adam and Eve see their nakedness and hide. In a healthier story, there is Isaiah’s vision. He sees the Lord, “high and lifted up.” At the cry of the Seraphim, Isaiah exclaims, “Woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people with unclean lips!”

Job sees God and says:

“I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5–6)

“Therefore I despise myself.” Though it might sound like it, this is not toxic shame. It is a healthy acknowledging of the truth, and, thus, the beginning of a true and authentic existence.

Some years back, when I began doing study on the topic of shame (out of a deep personal need), I spent some time with Archm. Zaccharias of Essex. He writes a bit about shame in his work. St. Sophrony, his teacher, instructed him when he first began to hear confessions, “Teach them to bear a little shame.” In my time with him, he spoke about sitting in the presence of God, acknowledging whatever shame I was feeling, and praying, “O God, comfort me.” At its best, this can take place in confession.

I will add parenthetically, that shaming others is not the job of a confessor and can be extremely toxic. The abuse of shame is the very heart of spiritual abuse. Please note this.

This gentle exposure, an exercise in vulnerability – in the presence of God – unjudging, forgiving, comforting – is profoundly healing. On a personal level, in therapy sessions, I have worked with personal shame in the context of EMDR, processing those powerful emotions into a place that is “bearable.” It is deeply therapeutic.

Some psychologists have described shame as the “unbearable emotion.” It is painful, even in small amounts. Most of us avoid embarrassment, its lightest form. Rather than experience shame, we most often transform it, almost simultaneously, into a different emotion – most commonly, anger or sadness. That we are a culture that is currently caught up in a vortex of anger is symptomatic of the prevalence of shame. Those with whom we disagree are not just wrong – they are “evil” (or so we think and feel). The language of shame has become mainstream. It is also not a language practice that brings about transformation. It brings about anger and depression and all that goes with it.

And this brings us to the Orthodox Christian practice of bearing a little shame – healthy shame. We understand that repentance is made possible by God’s grace – but that God’s grace makes us aware of our sins – it reveals our shame. But in doing this, God is not crushing us. He is revealing Himself to us, and, in that Light, we see light – the light of the truth of our own self (and our culture as well). It is good to understand that God Himself has led the way in this: “I turned not my face from the shame and the spitting.” In His Pascha, Christ enters the depth of human shame. St. Sophrony of Essex said, “Christ has entered the depths of hell and has promised to meet His friends there.”

I am the descendant of slave owners. The culture that created slaves is part of my inheritance. There have been material benefits that come from that fact. Worse still, part of my inheritance has been a heart that was darkened with shame and disgust – not just racially but elsewhere as well. The entire culture of “Black and White” is itself born out of slave culture and is marked by numerous lies. My authentic existence cannot be found within such a culture – only in the light of Christ.

But we need to sit with the truth, including the shame that goes with it. We should sit with it quietly in the presence of God. “I have quieted my soul like a weaned child at its mother’s breast.” That is a place where healing begins to take place, a transformation of the heart.

America and its modern mythology seeks political solutions for every ill. Doubtless, there are areas of justice that can only be addressed by governing authorities. But such attempts at justice do not and will not heal shame. And shame is the far greater disease.

As an aside. Historically, human beings have used various liturgies, or liturgical events, in the healing of collective shame. American culture struggles with this. Often, its liturgical events are coopted by division and recrimination, thus only making the problem worse. Strangely, the Civil War can be seen as a liturgy of sorts – a bloody effort to exorcise a demon that had inhabited the land for so long. Hymns such as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” reveal the deep religious nature of that conflict. Of course, over time, it failed. It was insufficient and was swallowed up in the institutions of Jim Crow. I think that the civil unrest, protests, riots, etc., of the recent past are themselves “liturgies” of a sort. I do not think they will be effective in the healing of shame. Indeed, they are dominated by the language of shame – whether deserved or not.

The role of the Church, and thus, the role of Christians, is to live fully and completely in the role of Christ Himself. We walk as He walked. We live as He lived. It’s in that train of thought that I offer suggestions as the conclusion of this talk.

If we think carefully about the texts of Holy Week, we’ll notice that the Church focuses not so much on the pain of Christ’s death. Rather, it is the mocking and the shame. The nature of the Crucifixion is that it is a shameful death (“even death on a Cross”). It is, therefore, part of our path to acknowledge and bear the shame created in racial relations – we bear it, so that, in Christ, it might be healed. The hallowed ministry of “fools for Christ” consists of a willingness to bear shame, and, in bearing it, to heal it in others. These are four “strategies” that seem appropriate:

  1. Tell the truth – especially about yourself to yourself. We will not be healed by our excellence (“I am not a racist!”) but by our weakness. Think through your story and look for the feelings of shame and disgust within it.
  2. Bring the truth into the light – and sit with it. We can do this with trusted persons, including in the context of confession. I will emphasize that this must be voluntary. No one can or should demand that we exposure our shame. And be sure that you’re in a safe context, with a safe person, when you do expose it. Safe means – not judging.
  3. Overcome barriers where possible. We cannot be reconciled to others when we do not know them face to face. Recognize that these barriers are charged with shame and embarrassment. I think one of the great values of this Fellowship of St. Moses the Black is that its presence and conversation reminds us all of a shame we would like not to admit – and that to be the Church in North America – we must acknowledge and give attention to its healing.
  4. As much as we can, we need to “bear” our shame and not displace it. Even though many of our thoughts and feelings are a product of a culture we did not create, we have to take responsibility for ourselves. In this, I think, the role of the holy fool is an important example. I could easily imagine an American version of the novel Laurus. The bizarre behaviors would doubtless scandalize us all – and reveal the depths of our hearts. Christ, I think, is walking that path somewhere in our midst. I pray for us that we will have the courage to take up that path when it is made clear to us.

The Glorified Black Body of Jesus

The fact that so many of us cannot identify with the struggle of Black men and women in this country is perhaps indicative of our failure to recognize Christ—and the Church—as Black. Black people bear the damning mark of stereotypes, all too often resulting in their mistreatment or even unjust death. But Christ and the Church are always found with those that are left out and marginalized.

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Bringing Myrrh to the Tomb of Ahmaud Arbery

Christ is risen! Truly He is risen!

It has been three weeks since we celebrated Great and Holy Pascha and we are well into the festal season. And yet, for many during this extraordinary time, the traditional Paschal greeting flows from pious lips mixed with bitter feelings of sorrow and confusion. The disruption to our religious and social lives caused by Covid-19 has been felt the world over. We have endured a very unconventional Pascha, to say the least. In the midst of what would normally be considered a joyous time of celebration of Christ’s victory over death, we are yet reminded that death is still with us. And as we struggle to reconcile the paradox of Christ’s resurrection juxtaposed to the seemingly all-pervasive death around us, we are reminded once again of death’s presence, not only in the abstract, but as a very specific evil that inflicts very specific persons. Amidst the flurry of our bright and sad Paschal celebrations, death has reemerged in our consciousness in a profoundly tragic, yet sadly, all-too familiar way in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. Our country has been turned completely upside-down over the last few months, yet it seems that our most haunting legacy has remained intact: the unjust slaying of black bodies.

And yet, as horrific as Ahmaud’s death is, it comes as no surprise to those within the black community, for whom this killing is only the latest in one long funeral procession beginning at the very founding of this country. Indeed, this is not the first Paschal season to be marked by racial violence. How many Easters have been celebrated in this country in segregated churches? How many Easters did white mobs organize the lynching of black men and women and distribute commemorative tokens for the occasion? How many blemished sacrifices have been offered on this soil; Christians worshipping the crucified and resurrected body of Christ, while simultaneously injuring, murdering and oppressing the black body of Jesus? Sadly, the killing of Ahmaud Arbery is hardly anomalous, and it is to the great shame of our country.

As counter-intuitive as it may be, however, the recognition of death during the Paschal season is quite fitting. On the third Saturday after Pascha, the Gospel reading comes from John 15:17- 16:2. In it, the Lord reminds his disciples that they will experience hatred and oppression from the world. He tells them that because the world hated and eventually killed him, it will do the same to his followers. As modern readers of the Gospel, we may be tempted to read this passage as warning of the inevitable and unqualified persecution of Christians simply because they believe in Jesus. But the world didn’t hate the disciples because they were Christians in name only. The Gospel tells us Christ’s disciples were hated because they followed Jesus— they went where Jesus went and did what Jesus did. Christ led them, as he leads us, to become lowly and identify with the hated, even to the point of death.

Quoting the Psalmist, the Lord says, “They hated me without a cause.” In his incarnation, crucifixion and decent into death, Christ becomes the one who is hated without a cause. Christ joins the Psalmist and all humans that have been hated without a cause. Throughout his life, Christ identifies with the lowly, the poor, the hated, the outcast, the sinner and the suffering. And at the Final Judgement, Christ will consider actions done to “the least of these” as done unto Him. It is because of his downward movement, his solidarity with the hated and the suffering, that Christ tells his followers that they should expect the same. If anyone is to follow Christ, they follow him into his identification with the hated and they follow him into death.

What does it mean to be a Christian (a follower of Christ) in the wake of the lynching of a black man? In his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone says, “The lynched black victim experienced the same fate as the crucified Christ and thus became the most potent symbol for understanding the true meaning of the salvation achieved through ‘God on the Cross.’” The unjust killing of Ahmaud Arbery, or Bothem Jean, or Trayvon Martin, or Emmett Till or the many other black brothers and sisters in this country brings the cross out of our religious observances and into our lives. And it is by identifying with these victims that we embrace the cross and follow after Christ. Cone says further, “The real scandal of the gospel is this: humanity’s salvation is revealed in the cross of the condemned criminal Jesus, and humanity’s salvation is available only through our solidarity with the crucified people in our midst.” 1 The connection between following Christ and identifying with suffering humanity was also made by Elder Sophrony when he said, “The Son of man has taken into Himself all mankind — He has accepted the ‘whole Adam’ and suffered for him. St. Paul said that we, too, ought to think and feel like Christ — having ‘the same mind which was in Christ.’” 2 If we want to be with Christ, we must suffer with those who suffer.

On the second Sunday after Pascha, we commemorate the myrrh bearing women. In many ways, the story of the myrrh bearing women is a sort of reversal of what St. John Chrysostom described in his Paschal Homily, “[Hell] took a body, and met God face to face.” 3 The myrrh bearing women came to Christ’s tomb, not expecting to meet God, but expecting to show love for Jesus, the dead man. They came with spices to care for his human body. The Church, in her wisdom, places this gospel reading during the Paschal season because she wants us to remember that it is only when we draw near to human death with love that we can experience the presence of God. In the story of the myrrh bearing women, we see the extreme unity between our proximity to God and our care for human suffering and death.

What this requires of us— especially white Christians— is more than “white guilt.” Identifying completely with suffering humanity, and thereby joining Christ, involves repenting of sins we would normally not consider “ours.” Elder Sophrony says, “According to the second commandment, Love thy neighbor as thyself, each of us must, and can, comprise all mankind in our own personal being. Then all the evil that occurs in the world will be seen, not as something extraneous but as our own.” 4 In one sense, we are responsible for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. We are collectively infected with a deep spiritual sickness that has produced countless lynchings, racism and injustice. But what is required is love, not self-loathing, and not performative breast beating in an effort to placate our guilt.

So, what do we do? First, let us bring myrrh to the tomb of Ahmaud Arbery. Let us mourn with those who mourn. Let us pray for rest for his soul and comfort for his family and community. Let us do what the Church does in times of death: let us grieve. In grieving, the Church resists the power of death and insists that it is wrong, it is unnatural and it has been defeated. Let us use the various ways that the Church provides for us to respond to death. Many will commemorate Ahmaud in prayers for the departed during Divine Liturgy. Others will spend these days leading up to Pentecost praying for his soul with the Akathist for Those Who Have Fallen Asleep. Let us not forget his name, and the names of the others who have been killed as a result of racial hatred— those that have been hated without a cause. Let us care for Christ’s body where it has been cut down in the streets of Georgia, or Ferguson, or Sanford. Let us also care for our black brothers and sisters that carry in their body and mind the burden of death. Let us not turn away or quickly forget because it is painful, for it is only in drawing near to death that we will encounter the Living God.

Lastly, as we identify with those who are killed, let us also not be afraid to identify with those who kill. Elder Sophrony said that “each time we refuse to take on ourselves the blame for our common evil, for the actions of our neighbor, we are repeating the same sin [of Adam] and likewise shattering the unity of Man.” 5 In embracing all of humanity as Christ does, we also must confront the evil that lies within all of us. As we pray for the repentance of Ahmaud’s killers, we must also repent. We must confront the ways that our fears, insecurities and jealousies prompt us to think and act in ways that destroy and kill. In our fear of death, our desire to preserve our life, we take from others, we scapegoat our fellow human being. We must confront the racism that exists in our hearts, the habits of thought that prompt us to make stereotyped judgements about black people or people of color. We must confront the reflex to justify a killing like that of Ahmaud Arbery when we presume guilt by asking, “What did he do?” We must repent of the ways that we have simply accepted his death and others like him as “normal,” or unavoidable. By accepting responsibility, we accept the need to change.

These are opportunities for our faith to become alive and for us to experience the resurrection. As Christians, we have no fear of death and bear no condemnation. Because Christ is risen, we are delivered from death’s power and thereby free to confront death in our hearts and in our society. Let us meet Christ then, bringing myrrh to his body that we have also slain, that he may raise us up from our death in his resurrection. Let us live, and not only sing, the Paschal Hymn:

“This is the day of resurrection. Let us be illumined by the feast. Let us embrace each other. Let us call ‘Brothers’ even those that hate us, and forgive all by the resurrection, and so let us cry: Christ is risen from the dead, Trampling down death by death, And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!” 6

– – –
1 James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 160.
2 Archimandrite Sophrony, Saint Silouan the Athonite, trans. Rosemary Edmonds (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s
Seminary Press, 1991), 47.
3 St John Chrysostom, “The Paschal Sermon,” https://www.oca.org/fs/sermons/the-paschal-sermon.
4 Sophrony, 122.
5 Sophrony, 121.
6 Verses for Paschal Matins.