Does Racism Have a Place in Orthodoxy?

“All sins have some “extenuating circumstances”, but injustice has none. Injustice draws the wrath of God.” St. Paisios of Mt. Athos.

In 1872, the Council of Constantinople declared that phyletism, or the notion of dividing the Church up based on national, or more specifically, racial lines was declared to be heresy.  What underlay this decision, I wondered?  What teaching from the fathers of the Church would support this decision?

It begins, in many ways, in the Acts of the Apostle’s, at least explicitly so.  In the tenth chapter, St. Peter states that, “Truly, I perceive that God does not show favoritism, but in every nation, whoever fears him and works righteousness is acceptable to him.”  The word we translate as nation, taken in a modern context (or at least since the thirty years war of the 17th century), would seem to indicate the nation-state, or at least that is how many of us would interpret it.  However, the Greek word in question is εθνος, or ethnicity.  St. Paul transmits a similar thought in Galatians 3:28, the famous passage about their being neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female.  There is a unity of persons within the Church. Generally speaking, prior to the rise of the Christian Church, religion tended to exist among roughly ethnic lines.  The closest modern equivalent to this is Hinduism.  True Hinduism, as I understand it, is the religion of a specific ethnic group, and so the idea of other races becoming Hindu is foreign.  With Christianity, God’s revelation to the Church was that He was not the God of a specific ethnic group, but rather the God of all mankind.  Anyone could become a Christian, unlike Judaism where a Gentile could become a believer, but was always relegated to second class status.

In later writings, we see that this notion developed further.  Writers such as Clement of Alexandria in the Stromateis refer to the race, or εθνος of Christians[1].  No longer is there Jew, Greek, White, Black, etc.  Rather a new race has been formed, and it is the Christian Race.

Tomorrow we celebrate the feast of Pentecost.  One of the many hymns we will be singing says, in part, “When the power of the divine Spirit came down, it divinely united in one harmony the voice divided of old…”. The separation of mankind so long ago, into separate races, it brought to an end.


[1] Denise Kimber Buell, Race and Universalism in Early Christianity

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