Orthodox America

  Neither Greek Nor Jew

     The unity of the Faith, my brethren, and the knowledge of the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ our Saviour, unites two men in one, unites thousands of men in one. Unity of faith in Christ the Lord, and a true, Orthodox knowledge of Christ the Lord, unites men more closely than blood, more closely than language, more closely than any external circumstance or material bond. When many people have one thought one will and one desire, then these many people are as one soul, one great and mighty soul. Physical differences in relation to this are of little importance and deserve little consideration. Thus the united souls are built up into a perfect man; the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. Bishop Nicholai Velimirovich, The Prologue of Ochrid

     People come to us, to the Church and the to clergy, asking to be given something spiritual. Yet instead of something rare and exalted, the lessons we need are often the simplest and plainest first steps---the things we should have known, it would seem out of ordinary common sense.

      Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky, the first primate of the Church Abroad, wrote in a Russian article reprinted this month at Jordanville, '"We as Orthodox Christians are obliged to believe in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. And the word 'catholic' here has to be understood as 'belonging to all peoples'. The Church is not the property of any one nation or ethnic group, but includes all who believe rightly." The article goes on to explain Church membership in much greater detail and fullness, but surely the basic point--that the Orthodox Church is for everyone is easy to grasp.

     There were ages when wars were fought over dogma. Today, above all in the re-emerging world of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, the conflicts are ethnic, and even where religion is an important issue, it seems hopelessly mixed with nationalism. Thus in the Western Ukraine the militant resurgence of the Uniates has very little to do with doctrine, but has to be viewed as something inseparable from nationalist politics and ethnic hatred. Many other examples could be cited.

      Several months ago an elderly lady in our parish brought me an anonymous letter she had received--it managed to be doubly anonymous since it was an open letter to Fr. Alexander Men'. The letter began (in Russian) approximately as follows: "You do not know me, we have never met and I have neither heard your sermons nor read your writings. But this I know, that you serve as an Orthodox priest but are an agent of Zionism..." Fr. Men', who was se brutally murdered a short time later, had never practiced the Jewish religion but was proud of his Jewish ancestry. He claimed there was no conflict between the Hebrew nationality and the Orthodox Christian faith. From an intellectual standpoint such views make perfect sense, but such is the mentality of many in our day that Fr. Men's frankness may have cost him his life.

       The problem of our time is not that people think one has to be a Greek or a Russian to be part of the Church of Christ, but that they fail to see the Church at all as a whole: Many see only the parish, or only the national Church. While they may well have a vague idea that "the Church as a whole" is something bigger, they may not be able to explain what that greater Church consists of. And in Europe, the decades with no religious instruction have made the confusion much worse.

       There can be no doubt that it is easier to be a true patriot than a person committed to a creed: the creed, after all, is something one has first to know and be able to explain. But if you say, 'I am a Frenchman, and I stand for my country's honor,:' no further arguments or proof are needed.

      Now the Orthodox Church has traditionally taken a very democratic approach to the question of nationality. In each local or national Church, it was permitted to use a language the people understood and so far as possible they were able to follow their own traditions and customs. The difficulty today comes when through emigration the "local Church" becomes an ethnic island or haven in a foreign country, or else when local feeling becomes especially intense and is superimposed on the Church. I should point out how closely Fr. Alexander Men's case is tied with our situation in America: for the elderly lady who brought me the anonymous letter had supposed Fr. Men' was a convert priest in some Russian emigre parish here!

      The difficulties facing ethnically mixed parishes have been stated many times. Various solutions have been tried, and none seems fully satisfactory. What is needed is a change in thinking, of course, but even education cannot always produce that result. But those who already have enough of an understanding of the nature of the Church to see past ethnic and racial differences, carry a certain responsibility--a responsibility for trying to find a common language with the others.

      There is no doubt that "ethnic problems'' can and do cause a very great deal of needless trouble in our communities, nor is there any doubt that this trouble is the result of a lack in understanding of what the Church really is--on the large scale. The only solution is a bringing of that correct understanding into tangible day-by-day human contact and love. This is what Fr. Alexander Men' did in his work in Russia--in his parish where he was known and loved, in the mission he had opened in Moscow, and elsewhere. We are not by any means all of his caliber, nor have we all his abilities, but his practical example should not be lost on us. His terrible death has made it vivid for us. What remains for us is to try and use our resources and our freedom here to implement the words of St. Paul and to further the work of Christ's Church. 

Archpriest John Shaw Holy Protection Cathedral, Chicago