As America is embroiled in a severe crisis of racism sparked by the protests of white supremacists in Charlottesville, religious leaders are composing responses to controversy. Racism as a pillar of a white nationalist ideology exacerbates the crisis, especially given the controversy surrounding President Trump’s affiliation with the alt-right movement. America’s legacy of racism, racial tensions, and varying policies on immigration challenges Christian leaders to formulate responses to the evil of racism. The Orthodox Church does not have deep roots in American religious history, and the leaders of the Church are selective about the topics they choose to address in the public forum. The Orthodox Church does have a teaching about love of nation (or national origin) that can be applied to this crisis on racism, especially in light of the nationalist ideology that relies upon racism.
The Orthodox Church’s condemnation of ‘ethnophyletism’ (Constantinople, 1872) generates heated debate. In the context of Orthodox communities, ‘ethnophyletism’ occurs when a Church permits membership only to people belonging to a particular nation. In this case, for example, only Bulgarian people could belong to an Orthodox Church in Bulgaria. People of other national origins would have to find another parish for worship, namely one associated with their national identity (e.g., Russians in a Russian parish, Greeks in a Greek parish, and so on). The Orthodox Church’s condemnation of ‘ethnophyletism’ occurred during a period when nations emerged from the rubble of empires. The condemnation of ethnophyletism is designed to honor the central Christian tenet that all are baptized in Christ, regardless of gender, social status, or national origin (Gal. 3:26-28). The teaching also protects the Church from becoming an organ of nationalist interests: even if the nation seeks “ethnic” uniformity, the Church continues to honor the common identity of Baptism in Christ, regardless of differences in other identity features.
Most Orthodox historians and theologians would be likely to argue that ethnophyletism remains a serious problem in the Orthodox Churches. Because most of the local Churches use the language, customs, and communicates through the cultural idioms of the prevailing national group, someone who does not belong to that group could feel excluded from full participation. This problem becomes much more severe when pastors use the pulpit to align the Church with nationalist ideology.
In my experience, ethnophyletism is present in Church communities belonging to nations enduring some kind of crisis. For example, many Churches have accused the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of ethnophyletism because some of the Church’s leaders share their patriotism publicly and promote it within the Church. In this case, the Ukrainian Church feels singled out, asserting that patriotism is confused for dangerous nationalism, and that there is nothing wrong with celebrating love for one’s country, especially when that country is ravaged by war and a crisis of internally displaced people. The fundamental problem occurs when love for one’s country is linked directly to a narrow absolutism in terms of how people look, dress, and talk. Ethnophyletism is condemned because it seeks to exclude anyone who is not of a particular ethnic identity from full participation in the body of Christ. Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead for all of humankind. The mandate to be Christ’s body – God’s body – for the life of the world is not exclusive to one nation or race.
Therefore, every claim to messianic nationalism is contrary to the Gospel. No nation or association of nations is anointed for a messianic mission to save the world – not America, not Ukraine, not Greece, not the European Union, not any particular nation or people. The people of a nation can be baptized in Christ, but they cannot claim an exclusive representation of Christ or a divine mandate to carry out God’s will exclusive of all others who are also baptized in the body of Christ.
When we think of identity, then, we begin with the one thing we all hold in common: human nature. I am not white, American, or Ukrainian – fundamentally, I am human, and my name is Nicholas. God honored my name by granting me an identity grafting me to the body of Christ, and this is true for each person who is baptized. Messianic nationalism is a grave threat to the life of the world and must be condemned – that means condemning the white nationalists who wrought violence in Charlottesville. It also reminds each Christian of the responsibility to be wary of conflating a political ideology with the work assigned to the holy people constituting the body of Christ. Christians claim to worship the one true God, his son, Jesus Christ, together with the All-Holy Spirit.
How should Christians respond to racist nationalism and false political ideologies? I hope that the problem of ethnophyletism could be applied to the national crisis on racism. The Gospel demands an inclusive approach to full participation in Christ’s body. One can hope that Christians who are formed to share Communion with all of God’s people will make their daily lives an image of Church, and live peacefully side-by-side with all people in their neighborhoods.
The work required to make this social transformation a reality is hard. Eradicating racism, ethnocentrism, or any other kind of bigotry and disdain for others from one’s heart and soul requires consistent effort. Each Church has its own tradition of ascetical and spiritual practices to create a culture of love for others, beginning with responding affirmatively to the call of repentance in the Gospel.
Eucharistic spirituality also has something positive to contribute to the task of learning how to love all others. Mary Fulkerson has addressed the capacity of the Eucharist to facilitate racial reconciliation because the Eucharist is an embodied event where participants encounter one another (“Ecclesiology, Exclusion, and Sacraments,” in Ecclesiology and Exclusion: Boundaries of Being and Belonging in Postmodern Times, ed. Dennis Doyle et al. (Orbis, 2012), 244. The Eucharist invites us to see the face of our neighbor and share communion with him or her. Regular participation in this liturgy should invite us to see ourselves in the face of the other because of what we have in common – the image and likeness of God.
The social transformation for which we hope will not arrive easily – it will require time and practice because it is a process. If we are committed to engaging this process, regardless of the number of times we fail, we can become people who honor the common image of God in our brothers and sisters, regardless of their race, gender, or national origin, because it is a gift of divine grace from God through Holy Communion. Can people whose hearts and souls are transformed so that they strive to love all others overcome nationalist movements in the twenty-first century? This is possible if the vision of the final destiny of humankind is to be in one single Communion consisting of all with God. May the divine grace of the Eucharist be a gift of blood given to the body of people who call themselves Americans.