My Silent Church
Above my desk is a sign I bought years ago in an antique shop in the town where my Yiayia Kay grew up. It says, “No Dogs, No Greeks.” I originally bought it with a fair amount of Millennial irony, too gleeful at the fact that it would preside over a room that normally contains only me and my 4.5 lbs Maltese named for the fourth Musketeer. On the same wall is hung a framed copy of the famous Life Magazine cover of Archbishop Iakovos standing next to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I have fixed in the frame a handwritten slip of paper with Dr. King’s words, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” These words serve as a reminder to me each time I sit down to write: Which friends will remember my silence today?
However, over the past few weeks, these words have become a sort of accusation each time I see them, particularly resting as they are under an iconic image of a Greek Orthodox Archbishop’s friendship with one of the great heroes of the American Civil Rights Movement. This is why during the seven days it took the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America to respond to Donald Trump’s disastrous first executive order banning travel from seven majority Muslim countries, I wrote to them. It’s also why when the statement did come, I felt it didn’t go far enough.
I was raised on the stories of the moral courage of Archbishop Iakovos during the Civil Rights Movement in America and Bishop Chrysostomos during the NAZI occupation of Greece. I loved these stories, because they reminded me that the prophetic bravery of the Church of Christ was not a matter of ancient times alone. They reminded me that at any moment, I too could be forced to give an “account of the hope that was within” me; and should that time come, the leadership of the Church stood ready to do the same.
This was especially important to me because the other stories of my childhood were stories of exile, stories of my family’s flight to America to escape the Turkish occupation. There were also stories of the discrimination they faced when they arrived, like that sign that hangs above my desk. But thick accents gave way to impeccable American English and coal miners’ sons became white-collar professionals. Even then, I did get called a “Mary Worshiper” once on the playground at school. The Mormon boy who lived next door was the one who stood up to that bully for me. As a result of all this, the words of Exodus echo in my head every time the subject of refugees or immigration is raised: “Remember, you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.” I fear that we do not remember this. Worse, I fear that we have come to believe that this is our country, instead of recalling the words of St. John Chrysostom that, “…the believer belongs to no city on earth but to the heavenly Jerusalem.”
The American Orthodox Christian community is still largely a community of immigrants and their descendants. I do not forget for a minute how hard won our acceptance into the mainstream of American society has come, what has been suffered to gain that acceptance. But I wonder to what extent it has made us reluctant as a corporate body to speak out against an outrageous abuse of human rights and betrayal of Christian values. It is worth asking if and how our desire to be accepted prevents us from acting with boldness on pressing moral issues, not just as they relate to refugees or presidential executive orders, but more broadly as well.
I have seen in several places the response that our silence is due to the fact that the Church does not engage in “politics.” That is, however, demonstrably untrue. The Church regularly wades into the “Culture Wars,” usually taking up the mantel of Right-wing culture warrior. And what could be more political than that? For example, of the five statements posted on the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America website’s “Contemporary Issues” section, two are related to marriage (including a statement on the Obergefell v Hodges decision), one is related to abortion, one speaks out against the ACA requirement that all employers provide insurance that includes contraception, and one is a statement on the importance of Sunday. These statements make any conceit that the Church does not become involved in political debate ring hollow since it seems there has been plenty to say on issues like abortion and civil marriage. What these Culture War issues all share is the attention and affection of the powerful Religious Right. When Orthodox Christian institutions make statements with regards to these issues that echo the positions of those powerful voice on the Christian Right, we are sending the oldest message of assimilation, “We are just like you. It’s those other people that are different.” And when we have a different message than the largely white, Protestant Religious Right? Deafening silence. For evidence, one need look no further than that tempered and delayed statement by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese following the first travel ban, which fails even to mention the executive order directly.
So, this is how it appears to me at this point: We are willing to take up “political questions” when our respectability is not threatened. But respectability is not the way of the Cross. If the Church and Her leaders will not speak truth to power, then the Ark of Salvation becomes nothing more than a crippled arm of worldly power; and, if our history, particularly our Orthodox history, teaches us anything, it is the dangers of that accommodation. While I pray that I am wrong, I suspect that there will be many opportunities for moral leadership and courage in the days ahead. So, while I have a sense that we as a Church have failed this first test, I am hopeful that we can do better. St. Peter denied Christ three times, because he was afraid, afraid of what would happen if he was known to be a disciple. I cannot think of any more pressing question than whether or not we, through words or actions or silence, deny Christ because we are afraid. Because when we are silent, the Lord hears our silence–and so do those who are friends and enemies–all of whom we are called to love.
Katherine Kelaidis is a writer and historian whose work focuses on early Medieval Christianity and contemporary Orthodox identity in non-traditionally Orthodox countries.