In my article a few days ago about the Ferguson and New York cases, I made the point that we should all care about the unrest the cases caused. It should disturb us that in 2014, the black community in America still feels so unheard, so unseen, so vilified, patronized, afraid, and so continuously placed in the role of being feared by whites, that they have to protest and even riot in order to be heard. I asserted that society has taught us to fear young black men. And I pointed out that our institutions and laws (such as the War on Drugs and the War on Crime) are inherently and subconsciously biased. They have caused our society to put black men in jail in such disproportionate and astonishing numbers as to be utterly devastating to the institution of the family in the black community.
I further said that, as a white person, the worst kind of way to condone and even perpetuate the problem of this “white privilege” is to deny its existence altogether, to rationalize our participation in the system which continues to oppress, and to ignore the suffering it continues to cause. The ability to deny the existence of this problem is actually a symptom of the problem. And while it is not something to feel guilty about, as we did not each individually create the privileges that now exist in our society, culture, laws, and institutions, we can each combat it individually by being aware of it and taking actions to level the playing field as much as we are individually able.
I ended by pointing out that our own Orthodox parishes are generally not as diverse as we would like to think, and challenged my readers to examine their own personal biases, work to further their own knowledge and experience of the problems that plague our society, and work to change them.
It was interesting to see the comments left both on OCN’s website and on Facebook in response to my piece. As I predicted in the article itself, it clearly touched a nerve, provoking thought and reaction from many. Some people responded defensively, looking to lay blame at my feet (some of the choice words hurled my way were: leftist, Marxist, and racist), at the feet of the media, and at the feet of the victims themselves. For the record, I do not subscribe to any particular political ideology or consider myself to belong to any particular political party. I tend to agree with both conservatives and liberals, depending on the topic, at different times.
One point was raised which I wanted to use to continue the conversation. Why should what is happening with race relations in our country matter to us? Why is diversity in our own parishes important? I’m Greek. I attend a Greek Orthodox Church where my husband serves as a priest. Why should I care if there are any faces other than Greeks standing in the pew next to me?
As Orthodox Christians, we are the Church of the Book of Acts. When we read the Book of Acts, we are reading about the origins and development of our Church. One of my personal favorite moments in Acts is the day of Pentecost, when the Apostles were heard speaking all different languages. Then, in the Council of Jerusalem, we see that the Apostles were actually groundbreaking in recognizing the importance of diversity, and validating the experience of others who were different from them. The Council of Jerusalem was convened to discuss whether or not circumcision would be required of Gentiles entering the Church. The Apostles discussed the matter and decreed that they would not require the Gentiles to adopt a tradition which was foreign to them in order to be part of the Church. All throughout the development of the Church in Acts and beyond, we see the importance of diversity and find it both validated and even emphasized.
The Jewish born Apostles could have easily decreed that one had to become a Jew, to unite him or herself with the Jewish identity in order to be part of Christ’s Church. But instead, they recognized that, as Christ Himself taught, the Church is for ALL people. Christ specifically told us to make disciples of ALL nations, not just the Greek nation, the Russian, Serbian, Ethiopian, Lebanese, Romanian, Bulgarian, Finnish, Ukrainian… nations. He did not tell us to divide ourselves along racial or ethnic lines. And yet, that seems to be what we have done in this country. We have divided ourselves. It is as if, like Paul condemns in 1 Corinthians 1:12, we are declaring to whom we belong. In 1 Corinthians, it is “I follow Apollos,” “I follow Paul…” Today, it is “I follow the Greeks,” “I follow the Russians,” “I follow the Antiochians…”
If Christ commanded us to make disciples of all nations, to gather His people to His home, to bring the little children, etc., how can we justify the fact that our parishes are, frankly, monochromatic? If we are trying to bring people to Christ by bringing them into the Church, what message does it send to the people we are supposed to be shepherding to our Lord that our service is in a foreign language and all the faces look the same? I would assert that, while we may be telling ourselves that we are trying to bring people to Christ, the subtext of the message we send is that outsiders are, in fact, not welcome. We even go so far as to capitalize on our lack of diversity by hosting cultural festivals which, some would say, perpetuate the myth that one must be Greek to be Greek Orthodox, Russian to be Russian Orthodox, Romanian to be Romanian Orthodox, etc. Newcomers and potential converts are left thinking that they have to assume our traditions and our culture to be part of the Church. I wonder what the Apostles at the Council of Jerusalem would say about that.
Besides being counter to our mission, our lack of diversity also affects us as individuals. We like to think of ourselves as diverse, because we belong to a community which is of an ethnicity and/or faith different from the norm in our larger society. I used to consider myself very multicultural. I am of Greek and Scots-Irish origin. I am defacto different from most of the people in our society. I could think of times when I felt I’d been discriminated against because of my ethnicity and faith. While I wasn’t devastatingly poor growing up, my family had its share of financial problems which were, at times, incredibly difficult. All this being the case, certainly “white privilege” doesn’t apply to me, right?
WRONG. The more I have learned, the more I have realized that, if I have had one, two, or five experiences of discrimination, I still can’t even begin to imagine what some of my brothers and sisters in Christ who are people of color or even sexual minorities experience. Because, truth be told, I DON’T know what it’s like to walk down the street and have people fear me because of the color of my skin or what I am wearing.
When I started working at a psychiatric hospital with people of low socio-economic status, impoverished and indigent, as well as people of all different races, religions, colors, sexualities… I began to see the struggles, and how affected my patients are by the oppression which still exists. I began to understand the systemic issues of our criminal justice system. I began to see firsthand how our laws are often written and enforced in a way that (knowingly or unknowingly) targets black men more than anyone else. Over and over again, my patients shared their struggles with the scarlet letter that a felony conviction puts on the chests of black men, rendering it nearly impossible to obtain good jobs after getting out of prison. I began to see the “us vs. them” dynamic in how conversations about race take place (“well, I’m not a racist, but they need to stop committing crimes!”). And I began to understand how these systems impact our entire society, me included (though in an entirely different way). I don’t like being in the role of oppressor. It is not one I would like to accept, but it is one that is thrust upon me by society.
Diversity is part of being a well-rounded person, because it means that I expose myself to people with different voices, different experiences, different ideas, and that I see value in the differences. I learn from people who are different from me. I learn to respect others. And I learn to value my experience all the more, and to see my own blind spots and how I would like to eliminate them and grow even more as a person. I appreciate others’ individuality as well as my own. I see more beauty in God’s creation because, instead of being monochromatic, I see bright, vivid colors which come together to paint a picture that reveals His wonders.
If diversity is part of being a well-rounded person, then is diversity also part of being a well-rounded community, a well-rounded parish, a well-rounded Church? The Apostles clearly thought so. They not only included everyone, but they sought them out, spoke the language of the newcomer, allowed them to retain their individuality, and didn’t force them to adopt traditions which weren’t essential to their salvation. As a Church which values Apostolic Tradition, I say we should listen to the Apostles more often.