What shall virtue do to meet brute force?

What shall virtue do to meet brute force?

September 8, 2013

Life Magazine, March 26, 1965

As Americans take a moment to consider that historic day, as well as the recent tragic past in the fight for equality, it is also important for Orthodox Christians to remember the Church’s role in fighting for the full rights of all US citizens. On the cover of Life Magazine dated March 26, 1965, there is an iconic photograph of Archbishop Iakovos (Koukouzis), the leader of the Greek Orthodox Church in North and South America, standing with Martin Luther King Jr. Archbishop Iakovos who led the Church in Western hemisphere for 37 years (1959-1996), went to Selma, Alabama to support the cause of African-Americans in the aftermath of the beating of Rev. James Reeb. Minister Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist cleric, was brutally beaten by white segregationists while marching for civil rights in Selma, Alabama in 1965. He died two days after the beating at the age of 38. The photograph on the cover of the popular magazine made a very vital, but dangerous statement in 1965, that white Christians were actively willing to support the cause African-Americans were fighting and dying for, not because the cause was an African-American cause but because it was an American one: equality under the law. The portrait reveals a very stoic looking Archbishop in his black robes and kalimavkion and veil (head covering) standing with great determination next to King. It certainly was a brave and courageous move for the Archbishop to support King, who at the time was under FBI surveillance, yet an action he believed was a bold, moral imperative. His presence was indeed virtue in the face of brute force.   

In his autobiography, Archbishop Iakovos divulged that his own priests as well as Greek Orthodox Christians from the South advised him not to travel to Selma to be seen as an active supporter of King and “civil rights agitators.”  In his own words, the Archbishop remembered the difficult pressure and opposition from his own people that he experienced. And yet he went to Selma “against the advice of his clergy and staff, who worried correctly that he would be called traitor to the quest of marginalized Greeks for full acceptance as Americans. Not a single member of the Orthodox community…appeared for scheduled events at his next stop, and he found himself alone in a Charleston hotel room…”[1]

“He found himself alone…” It might be argued that the Archbishop was not alone, he was supported by his faith and his conscience that he was on the side of right. In the face of ridicule, shunning with the possibility of being punished by a lack of support, including financial, from his fellow bishops, clergy and archdiocese, the Archbishop stood up for what was morally right.  In his eulogy for Rev. Reeb, the Archbishop made a point that he was always in total support for equal rights for people of all races.

 I come to this memorial…to show our willingness to continue this fight against prejudice, bias and persecution. In this God-given cause, I feel sure that I have the full support of our Greek Orthodox faithful…Our Church has never hesitated to fight, when it felt it must, for the rights of mankind…there are times when we must risk everything, including life itself, for those basic American ideals of freedom, justice, and equality, without which this land cannot survive. Our hope and prayer, then, is that we may be given strength to let God know by our acts and deeds, and not only by our words, that like the late Reverend James Reeb, we, too, are the espousers and the fighters in a struggle for which we must be prepared to risk our all.[2]

Perhaps in order to save face, because he knew that he did not have the moral support of his flock, the Archbishop said that he had the full support of the Greek Orthodox community. I imagine that he knew that he had his work cut out for him, to convince those under his pastoral care (omophorion) that the fight for equality for all races was a Christian one, a righteous one.  What courage it must have taken for Archbishop Iakovos to stand alone, offer his support in deed, and commit himself to lead the “change he wished to see in the world.”[3]

Where is the Iakokos of today who is willing to stand up for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Orthodox Christians who are being killed, beaten, maligned, and persecuted?  Where is the virtuous bishop in the face of the use of brute force against gays and lesbians in Russia, Georgia, Moldova, or Ukraine? How is it possible that Orthodox bishops remain silent as they read about the capture and torture of innocent gay men? Does not a single bishop in the “Holy Synod” of the Russian Orthodox Church have the courage to stand up for those oppressed without cause? Is there not a single bishop in the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North America with a backbone willing to say “enough is enough”?  These bishops are men who are themselves either gay or have siblings, or relatives or friends who are gay or lesbian and yet they remain silent in the face of Orthodox Christians denied basic human rights, simply because it is safe and convenient or politically expedient. Where is their virtue in the face of brute force? Shame on them!

[1] Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-1968 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006) p. 106

[2] The Complete Works of His Eminence Archbishop Iakovos, Volume Two, Part 1, 1959-1977 (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1999) pp. 198-199.

[3] This quote is often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. george Plagianos

    Thank you very much for writting and posting this. It is very will written. Were archbishop Iakovos would standup for civil rights of all races but that does not include us folks. Sadily. I remember reading an interveiw with him in the New York Daily News color Sunday section say back around 1970. I saved the interveiw somewhere. It was in the hight ocf the hippie and other alternative experenances. Towards the middle when asked about distructive behaviors the archbishop said something that people would go as far as trying homosexuaitly. That still strikes me. He’s never outreached yo us in Axios not even during the ongoing Aids crisis. God many of us could really usesomething suppotrtive back then . They all knew about Axios then we would go yo the clergy /laity conferences and do some outreach in the 80 ‘s til 2004 not eveny one only those in nyc and in philly. Btw: thi October at the ny greek catheral they are have a conference on relationships and the dean there wants yo include gay relstionships by invitîng Axios .its open yo all of us here. I want many yo come especily the gay russian group hre in ny. And should were invite various orthodox? clergy ???? Let me know for more info call me at axios at 212 -989-6211 thanks george plagianos

    1. andre

      Thank you very much for your kind words and support. They are truly appreciated. Your historical reference is quite interesting and I did not know this – although I am not surprised that Archbishop Iakovos did not reach out to AIDS patients. Although having said that, I do know numerous Orthodox priests who did minister to people with HIV and AIDS including participation in ecumenical worship services – I was one of them in Boston. While certainly not directly supporting gay people, these brave priests did minister who those who needed their services, many of whom were gay.
      Concerning the gathering in New York – wow – do you think that this is progress? I hope so. If done respectfully, and some priests will have to set the tone, it could be very good. I would not presume to give advice as to the particular New York needs or support or resources.

  2. Rachel

    I sometimes wonder the same thing myself: How can there not be even one who will stand up and say this is an injustice?
    Do they all agree? Or are they afraid?
    The more pessimistic side of me thinks they simply all agree, but surely that can not be so… If it is, God help us.

    1. andre

      Thank you for comment, I truly appreciate your words. In my opinion it is fear – fear of the government, (in the case of Russia) fear of reprisal by other bishops or powerful laymen, or perhaps for the worse reason – they themselves are hiding something and do not want to “push the envelope”.

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