The Challenge of the Other
by Inga Leonova
Orthodox in America are privileged in enjoying complete freedom of worship untethered by allegiance to the state. This is an environment that still, a few hundred years later, is experienced as somewhat of a novelty compared with our much longer history in which we were either joined to the state, or oppressed by it.
We have to admit, however, that we have not used this gift to its full potential. Whether it is due to historical forces of the times, or our internal ecclesiological ambiguities, a sad fact remains that in the absence of an external political structure to shape our identity, the Orthodox jurisdictions in America have opted to identify along the lines of ethnic and cultural origins. The scandal that is the jurisdictional disunity in America in spite of the existence of formally unifying conciliar structures only deepens with time. When Father John Meyendorff wrote in 1980 of “nationalism as a divisive force,” he was speaking extensively about the national churches of the Old World, since there seemed to still be a hope for jurisdictional convergence on the American soil. Today, 36 years later, we are more divided here than perhaps ever, in spite of the issues of culture wars reverberating across the jurisdictions and frequently eliciting similarly uncritical and unpastoral responses.
The scandal of our identity being ensnared in ethnicity has come to a head a couple of years ago, when the story emerged of several leaders of the white supremacist movement called Traditional Youth identifying themselves as Orthodox and propagating public statements in which they had claimed “Orthodox witness” in support of their racist and xenophobic agenda. Tragically and inexcusably, the issue did not receive its due vocal and unified condemnation from the body of the Orthodox hierarchs in North America. It had instead been “dealt with” on a local level, albeit ineffectively since the people in question simply claimed a different jurisdictional home. Unlike with the hot-button “culture wars” issues, the scandal of open racism and xenophobia claiming Orthodox foundation has not been acknowledged as a matter of concern and responsibility for our church body, fragmented as it is. Today, several years later, we still see the same group, emboldened by the legitimization of racist and xenophobic speech in public sphere, growing and expanding its hateful activities.
And this brings me to the question of what our Christian witness must entail in the times when the fires of division have been stoked for years from various sides, and when too frequently the Orthodox identity becomes enmeshed and confused with rejection of the “other” and with condemnation instead of compassion.
We are likely to see the forces of hatred and prejudice further emboldened and enabled. Already there is considerable public support for the scapegoating of entire groups perceived as “threats to the American way of life.” Regardless of who those groups are, we as Christians must remember that our responsibility and our place is with the persecuted, with the stigmatized, with the downtrodden. Our neighbor is not only the fellow Greek or Russian or Serbian American in our comfortable and insular middle class enclaves. Our neighbor is also one who makes us, at times, uncomfortable, and one whose life is alien to ours. When our neighbor is lying wounded by the side of the road, it is the Good Samaritan that we must look to, not the (Orthodox) priest or (Orthodox) canonist passing by. Our recent history boasts as saints Mother Maria of Paris and those with her who gave their lives in service of the “other” under mortal peril, and Archbishop Damaskinos of Athens, Archbishop Joachim of Volos, Bishop Chrysostomos of Zakynthos, and countless named and unnamed Orthodox Christians who had risked their lives and freedom protecting their neighbors under the Nazi occupation. We cannot wait for the people being rounded up to come to their aid. We have to resist evil every day when and where we encounter it, be it at work, at school, on the street, or even in our parishes.
We also need to look deep into ourselves for that rejection of the “other” that accompanies our Orthodox tradition as an evil twin of our “orthodoxia.” Over the centuries, the Orthodox have endured horrible persecution at the hands of various “others.” Yet by the same token, once we had gained the upper hand, and especially with the might of the state behind us, we ourselves have time and again turned against the “other”. Whether it is a heterodox “other,” a non-Christian “other,” a heretical group within the Church, etc., we have shown hatred and rejection, which at times had even been enshrined in our liturgical tradition. Lately, the “other” has become a gay “other,” and a poor “other” – the “gospel of prosperity” has taken hold in the American Orthodox mind and led to the rejection of those who are not seen as “deserving.” This is what the culture of hate breeds on, and if we don’t face it in our own midst, we run the danger of allowing it to consume us. For the Church to be countercultural, it has to be with Christ, and to be with Christ is to be with, not against, the “other,” to be vulnerable to the “other,” even at the ultimate cost.
Inga Leonova is editor of The Wheel, a quarterly journal of Orthodoxy and culture.