Updated: Jun 4, 2020
The hierarchs of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church have recently displayed deep courage after thugs harassed, mobbed, and lynched Roma (Gypsy) encampments around Ukraine. After 23 year-old David Popp was killed in June, Patriarch Sviatoslav issued a declaration that “strongly condemned” all acts of violence against Ukraine’s Roma minority. Since then, another Roma woman was killed in the fifth such attack since April.
The Roma are among the most marginalized social groups in Europe, and around the world. The genocide of Roma predates Michel Foucault’s history of racism. In the 16th century, Pope Pius V infamously ordered the deportation of Roma from the Holy Roman Empire. Centuries later, a half million Roma were exterminated in the Holocaust. Today, a quarter of all European Roma live without running water, and nearly half of all Europeans would be less-than-happy if they had a Roma co-worker.
In Ukraine, the lives of Roma are hardly better or worse than the lives of most Black Americans, though discrimination plays out in different ways. In the country that is home to 21% of the world’s prison population, Black people are 5 times more likely to given prison sentences than their white neighbors. Chain gangs and prison labor have effectively reintroduced slavery to America. Majority Black areas like Flint, Michigan can’t guarantee fresh water, and Black Americans are twice as likely than their white neighbors to live without adequate plumbing. On average, Black people make half the salary of their white neighbors. President Trump touts record low Black unemployment, but Foucault and many others argue that racism’s bedrock is an inexpensive and expendable labor force.
There are a lot of justifications made for these injustices. Anti-Black racism is often chalked up to laziness instead of institutionalized redlining. Police brutality and other anti-Black violence often stem from the cultural perception that Black people are implicitly threatening or lazy. Racism has a cyclical nature, where a structural injustice against one generation (like restrictive housing covenants) passes along handicaps to following generations. In this way, anti-Roma and anti-Black racism operate on identical social levels.
After the death of David Popp, Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov argued that the lynchings were coordinated by Russian interests to discredit Ukraine’s record of peace. Indeed, the history of Russian and Polish false flag operations in Ukraine is as old as those countries’ colonization of Ukraine, so the impulse to defend oneself is understandable. But the Gospels teach us to “turn the other cheek.” To say “we didn’t do it” isn’t enough. Everybody is a sinner, and the Gospels teach the one without sin to cast the first stone.
This is why Patriarch Sviatoslav’s condemnation of anti-Roma violence is so radical, so deeply Christian, and so unusual for a Ukrainian leader. His Beatitude condemned the violent acts “regardless of who committed them and what slogans these criminals used to justify themselves.” It takes a lot of courage to say something is wrong. All too often sorrow is associated with guilt, of placating oneself with direct accountability for violence. But, at the same time, none of us are without sin either. To be a Christian is to take responsibility for one’s neighbor, the rich, the poor, the colonized, and the privileged.
Perhaps one of the most explicit allegories for modern colonialism in the Gospels comes in the person of Pontius Pilate. The Judean governor, despite finding no personal fault in Jesus, handed Him over to a hateful mob to be crucified. This moment is immortalized by Pilate washing his hands of the issue, absolving himself of guilt in the collective call for Jesus’ death.
In an absurdist retelling of Pilate’s life, French novelist Roger Caillois imagines Pilate as a bumbling colonial master who weighs the opinions of several apathetic people before deciding to spare Jesus’ life. Caillois writes that “because of a man who despite every hindrance succeeded in being brave, there was no Christianity.”
This poses the irony of the Christian sacrifice. Without a hateful lynching, as is theologian James Cone’s formulation of Christ’s crucifixion, there would have been no Christianity. In every Hierarchical Divine Liturgy, the bishop washes his hands before committing a “bloodless sacrifice.” Does washing one’s hands signal a resignation to mob violence, or is it a declaration of “thy will be done” — that though evil persists in the world, grace and humility can transform violence into peace?
The washing prayer, Psalm 26, unquestionably invokes the latter:
I will wash my hands in innocence; So I will go about Your altar, O Lord, that I may proclaim with the voice of thanksgiving, And tell of all Your wondrous works. Do not gather my soul with sinners, nor my life with bloodthirsty men, in whose hands is a sinister scheme, and whose right hand is full of bribes.
In Caillois’ alternate history, the act of not washing hands demonstrated an unwillingness to engage in the messiness of transformational love and the creation of Christianity. While the real Pilate unwittingly proved to be an integral cast member in our salvation history, we can’t forget that he was a pagan making a political calculus to build populist support among the people of Judea. To wash one’s hands, and self-absolve, is an inherently anti-Christian act. Perhaps if Pilate had been a Jew well-read and steadfast in the Psalms, the hand-washing would have resulted in a courageous verdict to absolve Jesus. Instead, he absolved himself before the crowd. He said “we didn’t do it” and “it’s not my fault.”
As Christians, we reserve our hand-washing for acts of courage — for a “sacrifice of justice, oblations and holocausts” as the priest quotes from the Book of Psalms during the Divine Liturgy. We believe that salvation comes through action, as well as faith. That action gives us the courage to live out the Christianity that Pilate’s cowardice helped create.
As such, our clergy and hierarchs are called to be as courageous every time they wash their hands. The washing of hands at every liturgy is an invocation of justice. It works up the courage needed for liturgy, Greek for “work of the people.”
Patriarch Sviatoslav washed his hands of the act of violence, condemned the perpetrators, but also took on responsibility for fighting against that kind of racism. His Beatitude “washed his hands in innocence so as to go about the Lord’s altar,” to work towards justice. Like the ministers and preachers of America’s civil rights tradition, Patriarch Sviatoslav puts the responsibility of human dignity not only onto the everyday interactions of people, but also on the state:
Everyone who lives in our Country, regardless of ethnic origins or religion, must be considered a fully respected citizen of the Ukrainian State. The government must defend their rights and freedoms, above all: the right to life, safety, and free expression.
But our Church is universal. This fall, the Ukrainian Patriarchal Society of the USA will appeal to the dignity of our Church as one that, under the omophor of a Patriarch-leader, extends around the world. We believe that as an autonomous “sui juris” Church. We are not an ethnic ghetto of the broader Catholic Church. We are the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Communion with Rome. We believe that anybody, anywhere, has the right to join our Church and consider Patriarch Sviatoslav their rightful spiritual father. This is why we would like to extend his message against hate, and a condemnation of violence to all parts of the world where our Church’s faithful live and pray: the United States, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, Western Europe, and so on. Whatever injustices Patriarch Sviatoslav speaks of in Ukraine, he also speaks of to his flock around the world.
The five hate crimes against Roma since April in Ukraine have shaken that country. Two Roma have been killed, and government authorities have heeded Patriarch Sviatoslav and others’ call to take these kinds of crimes seriously. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Ukraine recorded 144 hate crimes in 2016, with only 3 resulting in homicide. The same year, the United States recorded 6,121 hate crimes, according to the FBI. Adjusted for population, there are about 552% more hate crimes in the United States than in Ukraine.
This letter calls upon the faithful not to wash their hands in the way that Pilate did, but to follow the example of Patriarch Sviatoslav. The Gospel gives no room for excusing hatred and violence. As citizens of our respective countries and members of our particular Church, it is imperative that we speak out against such unspeakable crimes. That doesn’t just mean preventing more lynchings, but the spiritual violence that day-to-day racism imposes on our society. We must stand against the racism that is apathy, and the self-interest that is to allow Roma to be without fresh water and Black Americans to be incarcerated at disproportionate rates.
In 1942, Venerable Andrey Sheptytsky wrote that “even when this hatred and hostility do not lead as far as extreme cases of murder, they are still a public misfortune and cause the people more harm than the most implacable enemy.”
Let us not wash our hands in the way our enemies do, but in a manner that moves us to act for “life, safety, and free expression” of all people.