An Oppressed Church Declares Black Lives Matter: A Reflection on Whiteness and Blackness
Updated: Jun 5, 2020
The theological reckoning of our church with the secular ideology of whiteness is long overdue. This confrontation is not a matter of theory. As a people who claim Christ as our Pascha, it has everything to do with our practice.
Since the late nineteenth century, America has represented to our people — Immigrants and apostolic Christians — the land of the free, the place where opportunities can happen and dreams come true. In 1896, a German immigrant named Max Nootbaar joined the Chicago Police Department. He was among the first “ethnic” immigrants to join the police force, ushering in an era when Catholics, non-Anglo-Saxons, and other marginalized social groups could vote, run for office, and receive the privileges of American citizenship. Two years earlier, the first Ukrainian Greek-Catholic priest, Ivan Wolansky, came to America to serve upwards of 200,000 Ukrainian immigrants living in America, having abandoned brutal economic conditions in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and just been freed from serfdom in the Russian Empire. America, one might say, represented in these instances a country where upward mobility really was possible.
The problem is that this story omits the 204,000 Black Americans who headed north at the same time, escaping pervasive lynchings and death in a similar "Great Migration" that Ukrainains took over the oceans. This period in history, through several more waves of migration from Eastern Europe and the deep south, placed Greek-Catholics alongside Black Americans. They lived in the same cities and worked in the same workplaces. Yet if one were to read the experiences of Greek-Catholics, befriend a priest or bishop, attend a church, or even get involved in a social initiative, the Black neighbors are never acknowledged. They are ignored. They are invisible.
After the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, the police-involved death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, an Afro-Ukrainian in Toronto, the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, the harassment of Christian Cooper in New York, and countless other instances in Black oppression in the last couple months alone, Blackness has never been more publicly visible in North America. In addition, tens of thousands of Black families have grieved in social isolation due to disproportionate death in Black communities from the global COVID-19 pandemic, pointing to deep hidden trauma and pain being felt right now. Personally, Black people are our neighbors, colleagues, friends, and even family. But they have borne the brunt of the suffering in our midst. In the face of such immorality, the Church must acknowledge the injustice of that racial difference, especially when that difference determines whether or not a person— indeed, one of us — gets to live or die. Consistent with our mission and record, we at St Mary of Egypt Social Justice Fellowship therefore declare unequivocally now as we have in the past: Black Lives Matter.
A Meditation on Whiteness
There is no theological reasoning for silence in the face of the grave evil that denies that Black life matters, especially not for a people who claims Christ as our Pascha. The framework of America as a land of opportunity is a secular mythology, one founded on economic calculation for survival instead of theological faith in the God who will raise us from the dead. This survival, however, has sustained itself on a racial hierarchy imagined by empires centuries ago. This hierarchy has persisted, borne not on essential biological difference, but maintained by countless waves of immigrants who have proven themselves worthy of this empire’s spoils. Just as St. Paul acknowledged that the difference between a Christian and Gentile need not depend on the ritual of circumcision, so too should we realize that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female.”
Therefore, the differences we perceive, while actual only to our earthly social context, do not need to determine life or death, prison or liberty, free will or determinism. Likewise, we can choose to co-suffer with those in prison, hunger for the hungry, clothe the naked, and welcome the neighbor. Or, we can choose to behave in a manner that enforces hunger and nakedness, by proving to our neighbors how much we agree with that racial hierarchy, assimilating into an identification known as “whiteness” because we believe that the path to survival in a new land is to prove ourselves to be the same as the powerful who occupy it. The choice is thus clear: we can be who we truly are through the transformation of the Spirit, or we can revert to the angst of the flesh by conforming to the pattern of this world.
Conformity is what it means to become white. It is to adopt the values of a white society and in so doing to erase all the colorfulness of our being in Christ. Whiteness, after all, is marked by absence. As Aquinas reminds us, “whiteness is not said to be a being as though it were by anything else; but because, by it, something else has accidental being, as an object that is white.” The color white, in other words, does not exist, and that is precisely the point: assimilation into whiteness is to become nothing in the hope of moving from a position of subjugation to power.
In the words of Noel Ignatiev, the author of How the Irish Became White, “whiteness has nothing to do with culture and everything to do with social position. It is nothing but a reflection of privilege, and exists for no reason other than to defend it. Without the privileges attached to it, the white race would not exist, and the white skin would have no more social significance than big feet.” Slavic people, as well as other Eastern Christians, know how arbitrary racial lines are drawn. No less than three generations ago, the rising German Reich decided that we were not Aryan — that our physical and cultural characteristics were not deserving of power, liberty, or life. This was an evil ideology then, as it is immoral now. It also shows how slippery whiteness can be. Sometimes you might be it, and sometimes you might not be, and if you hitch your cart to this horse, you may be in for a very wild ride of broken promises and shattered dreams.
Whiteness, the hegemonic ethnic identification of socially-mobile Americans, is the attitude that Max Nootbaar adopted when he joined the Chicago Police Department, retiring as the “most cultured” policeman in the city . Whiteness is what immigrants to the United States quickly learned they had to aspire to. Whiteness, privilege, was the country club, the department store, a good school, a low-interest mortgage, and every relationship and economic transaction that allows for prosperity for generation after generation. But, as Ignatiev notes, people who believe they deserve privileges on account of biological chance physically fortify that belief, most importantly against the people who worked to build the infrastructure that allows those privileges to persist: Black slaves and low-paid workers. This is why Catholic European immigrants like Nootbaar joined police departments, to be on the front lines defending White Anglo-Saxon privileges, proving their usefulness to the gatekeepers of White privilege against any possible revolt from Black laborers.
Some might claim, perhaps, that immigrants are necessarily ignorant, that they must be baptized into an American ethos in order to understand its racial oppression. But the only baptism we know as the church of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, is the one that has initiated us into the life of the One who was lynched on the cross and as his blood cried for justice with that of Abel of old, He rose from the dead, trampling death by death, and to those in the tombs gave life. It was not ignorance that drew immigrants to the trappings of power. It is a new, white ethno-phyletism, (a heresy of conflating nations with Churches) to replace their old ethnic comforts. Their eyes, like those of our first parents at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, were wide open to what the world had to offer, the same world for which our Lord warned that we might gain at the cost of our souls.
The practice of assimilation calls into question the narrative of our church, for we claim to be an oppressed people. Some make selective arguments, using selective data, to argue that racism isn’t real, or that they are greater victims. Make no mistake, these claims are not grounded in truth and are rooted in a sinful moral relativism. Can you imagine a Gospel of “whataboutism,” where the apostles reject any notion of a good Samaritan by asking Christ, “what about the good Levites?” Perhaps, as Paulo Freire and Frantz Fanon remind us, the desire of the colonized is usually to want what the colonizers have, which is the power to oppress, a seat at the table so that others can be denied access to it. But as St.Paul exclaims, where sin abounds — including the sins of our people — grace abounds even more.
A Meditation on Blackness
The story of our church, as our people tell it, is not one where we survived by our own will Mongol invasion, Tsarist banishment, Polish repression, Austro-Hungarian tokenization, Nazi German enslavement, Stalinist liquidation, and Putinist annexation. Our life remained with us because the Spirit of the living God animates the Body of Christ with divine energy. We came out of the catacombs of the underground church — millions of us — to bear witness that where powerful men can kill the body, the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has sent his spirit into our hearts crying ‘Abba! Father!’ can and will raise the dead.
In light of the resurrectional life that we as a people live, our Church in America cannot hesitate to join the cry of Black people, who are our people, whose sole demand in this hour is that their lives — or in the words of Black Lives Matter's Alicia Garza who co-founded the movement, our lives — matter. Indeed, if we engage in the sin of silent omission, then does it not give the lie to the bold theological declaration that has characterized our church’s resurrection from the underground? Is it Christ who is among us, or has our survival in fact been premised by the fantasy of the American Dream and assimilation into a whiteness formed by an erasure of our shared blackness?
‘The history of blackness,’ the theorist Fred Moten writes, “is testament to the fact that objects can and do resist.” Black people in America have, in other words, been long regarded as a subordinated and passive people — first by slavery, then through lynching and segregation, and now by criminalization and incarceration. In many ways, blackness is the radical surprise that humans who have been objectified and oppressed are still persons. As icons of the living God, persons live, move, and breathe, partaking in the being of One whose breath and light sustains all things.
Are these not the very terms we claim for our Church, we who have been derided as ‘uniates’ and as the ‘bleeding wound of the Body of Christ’ but who turn out to be a people whose history reveals that the living Christ is risen in our midst? Assimilation is an abandonment of our own history and of our own present condition in an Anglo-American imperial context. We who have suffered the indignity of being regarded as objects ourselves have, in the words of the spiritual, ‘come this far by faith’ and time and again enacted Revolutions of Dignity against those who said that we were just things not worthy of personhood. The risk we run when we as an oppressed people side in silence against Black people in America is to suggest that the story of oppression we tell ourselves is just that: a story, and not much more, with us enacting the very post-truth ethos we have decried of our invaders and oppressors across the centuries.
A Meditation on Violence
What is an invasion if not a state-sanctioned form of looting? The evil empires that have conquered our motherland did so for its spoils, enserfed us not for our gain, but for theirs. The rich black earth that runs the Ukrainian steppes is the same that feeds the American midwest. European empires conquered these American lands for their spoils, enslaving indigenous and African people to work for their gain. Make no mistake, just as today’s Russian Federation was built on the labor and land of Ukrainians, Chechens, Georgians, Yakuts, Tatars, Buryats and countless others, the United States was also founded on the plunder of indigenous land and built of Black labor. During the Stalinist horrors, the Holodomor, the state systemically withheld the fruits of people’s labor. In a moment of famine and dispersion, the state forced people to either starve or steal back their own labor, breaking the unjust laws of a land set on committing genocide either through hunger or rifle fire.
We believe that the spoils of America’s and Ukraine’s earthly riches do not belong to their conquerors or unjust institutions, but to the kingdom of God, and likewise, all of God’s Children. “The earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness, the world and those who dwell therein,” reads Psalm 24. In the same manner, we do not belong to ourselves. “A Christian is the property of Jesus Christ, a slave purchased at the great price of Christ’s blood. That Almighty God and Jesus Christ do not treat a human being as a slave only increases his obligation to subject himself to God’s will,” wrote our Holy Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky in his anti-Nazi encyclical Thou Shall Not Kill.
There is no logic to imperial plunder, just as there is no logic in the racial segregation of our cities. These are ideologies of greed, materialism, and radical inequality, not a faith in God’s providence, as described by St. Matthew: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” The powerful secular actors that decided a submicroscopic virus can prevent one quarter of Americans from having a home, feeding their families, and accessing even a taste of the American Dream worship the invisible hand more than our God. The invisible hand, more invisible than the virus, is a wrathful god — one that thrives on racism and a facade of civility, not Christian love and generosity. It is a god unable to cure viruses, or even prevent their spread. It is a god that depends on violence, whose idols are displayed in shop windows in city centers.
As unjust as violence often appears, especially when it is levied against one’s own, we believe that no human has innately violent inclinations. In Thou Shall Not Kill, Sheptytsky writes “the sight of shed blood arouses in the human soul a sensory concupiscence, united with cruelty, that searches for satisfaction in the infliction of suffering and death on its victims….but God’s endless mercy does not release him from the duties imposed on him by nature itself. ” Violence, however, arises from the absence of power — including the power to live out one’s free will, judged only by God at the Great Judgement. "Power and violence are opposites. Where one rules absolutely, the other is absent," writes the philosopher Hannah Arendt, who intimately knew the struggle out of which our Church emerged.
In response to Russia’s most recent attempt to exercise absolute rule over Ukraine, and the Russian Orthodox Church’s attempt to do the same over all of apostolic Christianity, many, including clergy, called for the defensive use of violence to protect their own relative power and dignity from unjust rule. Today’s protests across America and the world serve to fundamentally oppose centuries of unjust rule, and persistent indignity the likes of which makes us examine our complicity in maintaining. Violence, as Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us, is not an unexpected outcome, but the “cry of the unheard.”
However, those who defend acts of counter-violence — military, police, vigilante, or otherwise — merely repeat historical violence. They reify the position of the first instigator of violence, in this case the empires that enslaved Africans 400 years ago. They reject the Christian notion that violence begets more violence. These were debates in the early Church, especially among baptized soldiers, and these issues should have been settled long ago. “We who were filled with war and mutual slaughter and every wickedness have each of us in all the world changed our weapons of war: swords into plows and spears into pruning hooks," wrote St. Justin the Philosopher and Martyr, echoing the Old Testament prophets and repeated by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. almost two millennia later. However, those Eastern Catholics who refuse to leverage their relative positions of privilege (even the recent immigrants who have just gotten a taste of what assimilation might offer) to create plowshares, willingly sharpen their swords, and become useful foot soldiers in the defense of whiteness. This defense of whiteness — of defending even scraps of social privilege — is a tacit endorsement of Black death, and therefore death itself. And embracing death, Moses reminds the people of God in the Book of Deuteronomy, means rejecting God.
A Call to Penitence
Therefore, the St. Mary of Egypt Social Justice Fellowship calls all readers of good-will, all apostolic Christians, Eastern Catholics, and Orthodox, clergy and laity, bishops and hegumens, Ukrainians and all ethnic groups, to reject the sinful, secular, and death-filled ideologies of American whiteness by asking forgiveness of everybody Black among us, known and unknown.
Like our patron St. Mary of Egypt living in penance in the desert, we stand on our knees before God, asking for reconciliation and peace, and we walk in penitence by joining the call of Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives for divestment from militarized policing and investment in the physical, mental, and spiritual well-being of Black communities.
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” Christ reminds us. Sheptytsky, building on Christian peacemaking wrote, “wartime brings us more than one suffering and more than one temptation. It is a question only of remaining within God’s law through his grace and hoping that His most holy mercy will turn all the suffering He has sent us to our benefit.” Let us pray, and act in a manner that puts our historical suffering, and our present suffering in Ukraine, to our benefit. Let us not fall to our temptations and violent impulses. Let us not justify the kind of violence that lusts for excess power. Let us see clearly our responsibility to those who have suffered due to our actions and the unrepented actions of our spiritual and national ancestors.
Let us act on the words of St. Martin of Tours, who, after serving the will of the state told the emperor: “up to now I have served you as a soldier. Now let me serve Christ.” We turn to Christ, having served the countries we live in, but we now must serve Christ by heeding his words of nonviolence, anti-poverty, and love-of-neighbor. When large shares of municipal budgets are directed to policing private property and the acquisition of military-grade weapons, combined with what President Dwight D. Eisenhower called with ominous warning the “Military Industrial Complex,” we question America’s commitment to peacemaking. Therefore we must take peace into our own hands, learn justice, listen with patience, “heart to heart,” and live the greatest Commandment to “do to others as you would have them do to you.” Once again, as the Black Lives Matter movement has taught us, the resources that make for war against our own people must be diverted from that cause and beat into plowshares for community gardens, conscientizing education, and collective health services.
The Holy Andrey Sheptytsky warned not to become complicit in the Holocaust. Even though many of us came to America after the end of de jure Black slavery and the end of de jure Jim Crow, their effects are palpable in our social maintenance of a Black-White divide. We understand that the 13th Amendment emancipating slaves nonetheless permits slavery “except as punishment,” which has let police roam our neighborhoods and create new slaves in a country that has never imprisoned more people than any country has ever before. We cannot be complicit any longer.
Taking this stand will not be easy. In 1942, the Holy Andrey Sheptytsky reserved excommunication for all those guilty of corporeal violence in wartime. He encouraged anybody in a position of relative authority “who care about the good of society” to “punish such degenerate individuals in whom almost nothing of human nature is left.” It is not easy to turn on a brother who insists on acting unjustly, and it is certainly not easy for a priest to shun a parishioner who acts on racist beliefs, or for a bishop to censure a priest who is complicit in unjust violence.
But because when one part of the Body of Christ hurts, we all hurt, it must be done. On top of the call of Black Lives Matter to divest from a police state and invest in collective resources in black communities, an ecclesial divestment would entail cleaning our own house from our dependence on white supremacy, in the material terms of our membership, our finances, and our manpower. This means rejecting money from foundations and working with publications who use racist dog whistles alongside opportunistic and inconsistent discourse on secularism, family life, traditional values, and America. For if our churches are themselves constituted by the secular logic of assimilation, how will it be possible for us to embody fully the theological blackness that our very resurrectional narrative claims? Let us not be found in the end to be liars; let us walk in the light, as our Lord Jesus Christ is the light of the world.
The epistles of the Apostle Paul encourage us when he says, “let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart” to know we have faith on our side. These same words provided solace for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who preached in 1967: “To be a follower to the Jesus Christ means taking up the cross. And my Bible tells me that Good Friday comes before Easter. Before the crown we wear, there is the cross that we must bear. Let us bear it—bear it for truth, bear it for justice, and bear it for peace.” In the words of Melkite Archbishop Joseph Tawil, we can “be ourselves” by rejecting assimilation, and that means to be morally and righteously consistent in our teaching by declaring that Black Lives Matter.