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How ought we deal with Racism and Xenophobia as Orthodox Christians?

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January 24, 2019

Have you ever witnessed or been subject to racism and ethnic discrimination before? How did you deal with it? Ever wonder what the right Orthodox Christian approach to it should be? Let’s take a look at this together! 

Today my beloved we take a look at a most devastating thing that has divided humanity against itself for the longest of times. It continues to plague us even today in the 21st century although we describe ourselves to be more “civilized” and “tolerant”. I am speaking of the human being’s capacity to be racist, intolerant, and xenophobic! To believe that another person of different race, nationality, and ethnicity can somehow render them inferior. For today’s purpose, lets discuss two different, but equally dangerous ideologies: racism – the discrimination against another person of different race based on the premise that one’s own race is superior; and xenophobia: the dislike or intense disfavor of people from other countries.  

Now it’s easy to make the claim that “obviously” this is wrong and immoral. But why? How do we as Christians make the claim that the belief in the Christian Trinitarian God obligates me to view all of humanity at equal footing? Why are racism and xenophobia sins against God and man in the understanding of the Orthodox Christian Church? Let’s take a closer look.  

 As per scripture and proper Christian Theology, all of humanity is both created and blessed equally by God. The great gift that God bestows upon humanity is mentioned right at the beginning of the account of creation where we read in Genesis chapter 1:26 “Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”. And so, at the core of all Christian Theology, is the fact that all of humanity, without exception to race, ethnicity, language, gender, or even worldviews, all of us bear the image of God inside us. Scripture does not say that some nations have it more than others, or the a few elect groups have it only to themselves, rather it makes it clear that all of humanity, from Adam until present time, all of us bear the image of God.  

And what does this mean that we bear His image? Are we speaking of physical traits and ethic features? Surely that can’t be right. Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself took on the flesh as a Jewish man who belonged to a certain nation, language, and even creed…and yet we dare call Him the Lord and Saviour of the whole world! And so it is not merely a matter of relating to Him at the level of human expressions of culture and nationality – this is not what saves us! Rather all those who confess that they are created in His image and that they will dedicate their lives to growing in His likeness – it is that framework of Salvation that renders them His – not any physical or cultural aspects of their lives!  

Now some may argue that the Lord God in the Old Testament did have a specific group of people in mind as His own people – and yes indeed, the Lord chose to work in and through the people of Israel after he had established his covenant with Abraham. However, this does not translate into the Lord belonging to them and them only. The Lord was and will always be the God of all creation. And this exclusive mindset is precisely what drove the people of Israel ever so often away from God and ultimately led them to turn away from Him.  

When commenting on the passages of John 6 – the bread of life narrative – St Cyril of Alexandria comments on this precise idea that somehow only Israel could have been chosen. And so he gives the example of the manna that was given to them for food versus the bread from heaven which the Lord offers to all:  

You foolishly suppose that the manna is the bread from heaven, since it merely fed the people of Israel in the wilderness while there were countless other nations throughout the world. You suppose that God wanted to demonstrate his loving kindness so narrowly as to give food to only one people? [] Let no one think, says Christ, that the manna was truly the bread from heaven; but one should rather choose that which is clearly able to feed and to completely give life to the whole world. [] The only begotten of God the Father is the true manna, the bread from heaven, given to all rational creatures by God the Father. COMMENTARY ON THE GOSPEL OF JOHN 3.6.24  

 So, what this means is that if all of humanity is called to Salvation and relationship with God, to the belief in the Lord Jesus Christ and the worship of the All Holy Trinity, then this must translate into our understanding that God is the God of all Nations, Races, Languages, and all Peoples alike! And if we believe in a God who declares and renders Himself accessible to all, without prejudice or discrimination, then this sets the standard by which we must all treat each other as His children!  

 In the book of Acts we read of a very interesting vision that Peter the holy apostle had before visiting the gentile Centurion called Cornelius. In this vision, while Peter was in a trance, he saw a large sheet filled with all sorts of animals. A voice from heaven invited him to arise, to kill and to eat as he liked. However, Peter, being a good Jew, objected to the fact that he could not possibly defile himself by eating anything that is profane or unclean. However, the voice from heaven then told him “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” (Acts 10:15)  

Peter later realizes that God is preparing him to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to all nations, including the gentiles whom many would categorize as impure and inferior to the race of the Jews as the gentiles are not ‘the people of God.’  

When Peter finally comes face to face with those God had prepared in the household of Cornelius, he opened his mouth and said the following:  

 “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. […] “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. […] 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10: 28 & 34-36 & 42-43)  

This powerful statement by the Great Peter the Apostle is a testimony that we can have no room in our hearts, in our homes, and in our communities for any form of hatred or discrimination towards another brother or sister, created in the image of God. It is for this very reason that the Church considers racism xenophobia, or any other sort of discrimination a direct sin towards God. To somehow believe myself superior than a fellow brother, simply because of a visible or cultural difference, is to neglect the grace of God that was freely given to us both. My beloved we must stand against any form of hatred and violence that would tear apart the body of Christ. We must speak the truth in love at all times in order to uproot any forms of discrimination from among us: whether it be racial, cultural, ethnic, or of any other sort… We must place before us this same Jesus Christ, who allowed all of humanity – young and old, Jews and Samaritans, believers and Gentiles, saints and sinners – all of these were loved and cared for by Him. Let us be a reflection of His love in all that we do in our lives.    

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