Racism: An Orthodox Perspective

by Aristotle Papanikolaou  |  ελληνικά  |  ру́сский  |  српски

The primary goal of the Orthodox Christian is to struggle toward theosis—deification. The word theosis often conjures up images of a super hero like Thor or a Greek god like Zeus. When St. Athanasius proclaimed that “God became human so that humans can become gods,” he was not envisioning super-human strength, nor was he envisioning a life of moral perfection. To become like God is to love as God loves, which means, as Jesus proclaimed, even the enemy and the stranger. The struggle for theosis is one that entails a learning how to love. It is often so very difficult to love even our parents, siblings, friends—imagine now learning how to love the enemy and the stranger.

This learning how to love ultimately entails seeing all human beings as created in the image of God. This is not as easy as it seems. It’s one thing to declare that all humans are created in the image of God; it’s another thing to form oneself in such a way that such a belief is evident in our thoughts, feelings, actions—our very being toward the other person, especially the one who is different from us.

On the surface, then, it would seem that, of course, Christians are against racism—we should never think someone is inferior because of race. But theosis calls us to a deeper level. The struggle to learn how to love is one that includes rooting out racism in our own hearts and in the very structures that constitute the political, cultural, and economic matrix within which we locate ourselves. The first requires incessant self-reflection; the second requires action.

Racism today looks different that it did prior to the 1960s, when there were actual visible signs that proclaimed that Black persons were inferior to White persons, especially through segregation of bus seats, drinking fountains, restaurants, sidewalks, hotels, etc. Those signs are, for the most part, gone, but there are other, less visible signs such as the disproportionate incarceration rate of Black and Latino Americans—even when charged with the same crimes as White Americans—the continued segregation of schools, the continued and widening gap between White household incomes and the incomes of people of color, the decision of persons to opt for prison as a way of avoiding gang culture because there are no other options, or the need for high school kids in Chicago to train themselves to walk in the middle of the street in case of a drive-by shooting—one could go on and on. These disparities, as well as others, such as access to loans or the best public schools, evince clear signs of privileging of White persons, notwithstanding the fact that lower- to middle-class White persons have suffered economically over the past two decades. It also points to the reality that although the visible signs of racial segregation are not as evident, or that overtly racist actions are not as socially acceptable, racism is still operative in the complex social matrix in which we are embedded, and which undoubtedly forms and even deforms our judgments and beliefs in ways that we are not aware of.  If that is true, then it requires incessant self-reflection in our struggle to learn how to love or to identify how we may be contributing to this structural inequality, even when we consciously condemn racism. This type of self-reflection may give us courage to act–to create structures that would facilitate for all people the lived experience of irreducible uniqueness—of being created “in the image and likeness of God.”

There has been much resistance to the slogan, “Black Lives Matter,” even (sometimes especially) by Orthodox Christians.  The rhetoric of sweeping demonization—often against police offers—that issues from a few persons identified with BLM does not help.  In our struggle to learn how to love—theosis—it is absolutely the case that “all lives matter”; those associated with BLM do not deny that “all lives matter.”  However, BLM is attempting to bring attention to the fact that within the current political and economic structures in the United States– all lives, in fact, do not matter equally.

What our struggle for theosis most demands is a politics of empathy. What can this look like? We can, for example, attempt to imagine what it is like to live as a Black person in the United States of America. For some Orthodox Christians in this country, this imagining shouldn’t be difficult: Greek and Arab Christians living in the South once found Klan crosses burning in their own yards because of their dark skin. But black history, unlike Orthodox immigrant history, is in part founded on the back of slaves. There is no erasing that tragedy from our history, whose traumatic effects still endure. In imagining what it is like to be in the body of a Black person in the USA, perhaps we can see more clearly the structures in place that facilitate the inequality among persons. Those Orthodox Christians who say that Blacks should just “improve their culture” (yes—I’ve heard this), do not have a sufficiently theological understanding of sin and its insidious and lingering social effects. Is it really that easy, as an example, to will a better life for those who find themselves judged unemployable for a job or unworthy of a promotion because of their skin color–much as some Orthodox Christians in a not so distant past?

Racism has gone underground in this country in the sense that it has moved to the realm of the unconscious—with both personal impacts and structural effects. As Orthodox Christians, the challenge of our spiritual life is to incessantly self-reflect on what blocks our own growth in love of our family, friends, stranger and enemy. If that self-reflection is successful, then it will get us to see that there is, in fact, a privileging of White persons in this country; it will get us to see how we may—even unintentionally—be contributing to this privileging; and it will empower us ultimately to non-demonizing action that attempts to transform the structural matrix that facilitates treating all persons as being made in God’s image. That action may take many forms—prophetically calling attention to injustice, educating parishioners, mobilizing a parish, political involvement, participating in and facilitating racism training, to name simply a few. We must act to excise structural injustice in order to make America—in the immortal words of Martin Luther King Jr.—“to be true to what it said on paper,” to realize the ideals symbolized by the American Flag, in every crevice of American society, including our individual hearts and minds. King’s pursuit of justice for all, in the end, is grounded in the call to holiness, to become godlike, to love as God loves, which means to facilitate the lived experience of irreducible uniqueness—of being created in God’s image.

Aristotle Papanikolaou is the Archbishop Demetrios Chair in Orthodox Theology and Culture and the Co-Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.