Race and Orthodox Christianity
Preliminary notes by Gavin James Campbell
There is an assertion to the effect that human beings exist in discrete categories, that these categories can be understood according to a taxonomy, and that these discrete taxonomic
categories are sub-species of the human species, designated as race. The assertion often goes beyond a mere taxonomy of physical attributes to assertions that members of said “race” as more prone to violent crime, more prone to lack of intelligence,
and many other assertions. And the assertion that said “races” are real typically comes with moralistic adjurations for members of said “races” to be treated with disdain or even outright contempt on the basis of alleged proneness
to violence, lack of intelligence, sexual profligacy, or laziness. The assertion of there being race also comes with an insistence that said “races” are to be kept separate, again with moralistic adjurations that such separateness is beneficial
to such groups.
Orthodoxy Christianity is a religion that almost entirely centers itself on a belief that God became a human being, and that said human being is Jesus Christ. This is the doctrine of The Incarnation. Coupled with this is a belief that God became one of us that we may become as much like God as possible. This is the doctrine of theosis. Theosis is crucial to understanding the veneration of the Mother of Christ and His saints, seeing that we only venerate them for having achieved theosis, and only regard their prayers as efficacious for the same reason. Likewise for the veneration of icons. The icon is essentially a declaration of Christ as God Incarnate, and of His Mother and All His Saints as theosized.
Orthodox Christianity also largely centers itself on a belief that God is essentially one, but three in persons. Those persons being the Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit. That the action of the Holy Spirit is essential to the conception of God Incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary. And that as Christ, as God Incarnate, submitted His will to that of His Father, so too does the Christian submit their will to that of the Holy Spirit. That the salvation of the Christian is a synergy of the believer’s will and the Will of the Holy Spirit. This synergy or co-operation is called a theandric operation, being the work of both God and man. Everything done by Jesus Christ is a theandric operation, His Baptism, His Miracles, His Preaching, His Transfiguration, His Sufferings and Death, His Resurrection, His Ascension, His Sending of The Holy Spirit, His Second Coming; all of these are theandric operations. That Mary consenting to bear the Christ Child was a theandric operation, that the lives of the saints tell of their own theandric operations, and that the Orthodox Christian is take up their own theandric operation.
All of this is crucial to understanding the asceticism of the Orthodox Christian, in that it is to be understood as a theandric operation, a co-operation of the believer and the Holy Spirit. This also is the way to understand prayer. The Doctrine of the Trinity is crucial to understanding the ecclesiology of the Orthodox, that it is understood as being one in essence and many in persons. That the Church is one in spirit, that Spirit being the Holy Spirit, and many in individual believers. While the doctrines of The Incarnation and theosis are essential to understanding human nature. The human being is made in the image of God; while theosis is the transformation of the human nature into the likeness of God. It is not paramount to this theological anthropology to decide whether or not the human being is a highly-evolved primate. Even if we are highly-evolved primates, God, in His Providence, has still made us in His Image by arranging things so. And still calls us to instantiate His Likeness through theosis. And these doctrines of the Incarnation and theosis are crucial understanding ethics. “God is Love”, writes the Apostle John[i]. While the two great commandments are to love God and love one’s neighbor as oneself[ii]. This means then to love you neighbor is to be like God. Being made in the Image of God is to be made in the Image of Love. The fall of Adam is a fall from the ability to love perfectly, while the ability to love is the continuance of the Divine Image. Theosis, which is to attain to the likeness of God, is an attaining of a deeper ability to love one’s neighbor and to love God. Christ’s resurrection is the most powerful demonstration of God Incarnate being Love Incarnate, seeing that “Love is as strong as death”[iii].
Let us then consider the assertion that race is real in the light of central doctrines of Orthodox Christianity, especially seeing so much of it bears on how much one understands human nature. That so much of Orthodoxy theology and doctrine is a spiritual anthropology. To begin with, it is understood that Christ, in becoming incarnate as a man, took on the entirety of human nature. “The unassumed is the unhealed, but what is united with God is also being saved”, writes St. Gregory of Nazianzus aka St. Gregory the Theologian.[iv] St. Gregory also tells us the entirety of human nature must be assumed by Christ in His Incarnation. “But you have the nerve to speak of a semi-human: for what has been assumed has not been saved.”[v] St. Cyril of Alexandria explains further: “Suffering in the flesh, and rising from the dead, He revealed our nature as greater than death or corruption”.[vi] This is reflected in the Epistle to the Hebrews, in which we read: “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”[vii] Thus, if race is real, then Christ should have taken a race upon Himself. But He could only redeem what is specific to the race He took upon Himself. Which means then that His Incarnation can only be salvation for whatever race He incarnated Himself into. He can only sympathize with those weaknesses of His race, and was only tempted with whatever temptations are specific to it. Especially if we are to assert that certain races are more prone to certain sins, such as violence. Such races have temptations specific to them, which Christ would not have resisted. Which means other races should need an incarnation specific to them. But Orthodoxy is not Hinduism, with a multiplicity of avatars. The Church only recognizes one incarnation of God. Christ, in His Incarnation, is salvation for all. We are not Calvinists, with limited atonement. His sympathy with our weaknesses is sympathy with the weaknesses of all. So that the human nature He took on Himself, is a human nature shared by all. Thus, if race is real, it is utterly inconsequential to salvation. While another conception of race would balk at the notion of there being one and only one human nature, and would understand it to be effectively a denial that race even exists. For, if one race is more prone to violence, stupidity and laziness than another, then it should follow that is possesses a nature specific to it. So an assertion of a single human nature is either a denial of race; or if race exists, it is without consequence.
The question then to be asked at this point is, what do we mean by ‘nature’? There are understandings of nature appropriate to science, specifically to biology. But there is an understanding of appropriate to theology, as explained by St. John of Damascus, albeit one heavily grounded in philosophy:
“[T]he pagan philosophers stated the difference between ousia, or substance, and fusiV, or nature, by saying that substance was being in the strict sense, whereas nature was substance which had been made specific by essential differences so as to have, in addition to being in the strict sense, being in such a way, whether rational or irrational, mortal or immortal. In other words, we may say that, according to them, nature is that unchangeable and immutable principle and cause and virtue which has been implanted by the Creator in each species for its activity – in the angels, for thinking and for communicating their thoughts to one another without the medium of speech; in men, for thinking, reasoning, and for communicating their innermost thoughts to one another through the medium of speech; in the brute beasts, for the vital, the sentient, and the respiratory operations; in the plants, for the power of assimilating nourishment, of growing, and reproducing; in the stones, the capacity for being heated or cooled and from being moved from place to place to another, that is to say, the inanimate capacity. This they called nature, or the most specific species – as, for example, angel, man, horse, dog, ox, and the like. For these are the more general than the individual substances and contain them, and in each one of the individual substances contained by them they exist complete and in the same manner. And so, the more particular they called hypostasis, and the more general, which contained the hypostases, they called nature, but existence in the strict sense they called ousia, or substance
“The holy Fathers paid no attention to the many inane controversies,
and that which is common to and affirmed of several things, that is to say, the most specific species, they called substance, and nature, and form – as, for example, angel, man, horse, dog, and the like. For indeed, ousia, or substance, is so called from its einai, or being, and fysiV or nature, is so called from its pefukenai, or being. But einai and pefukenai both mean the same thing. Form, also, and species mean the same thing as nature. However, the particular they called individual, and person, and hypostasis or individual substance – as, for example, would be Peter and Paul.[viii]
This definition of nature is then one that understands a thing in terms of its attributes, and in terms of its actions. Regardless of its utility for biology
or social science, this linking of nature with a philosophical understanding of substance is the approach of Orthodox doctrine, seeing the Symbol of Faith uses such language to describe Christ as being “of one essence with the Father”. Nowhere
does St. John present the nature of man in terms of nationhood or a racial taxonomy. He instead delineates man according to his use of language and his ability to reason. Neither does he present some groups of men as being more inclined to intellect
than others. Instead, this is his understanding of what it is to be human. The most important aspect of St. John’s understanding of human nature that he does not have an intervening category of sub-species or race. He instead jumps
straight from species to individual. “[M]an is divided into Peter, Paul, John, and all other individual men, who are not species but hypostases.”[ix]
It might be objected at this point that if race is not real, then surely that becomes ground for denial of gender. The response is two-fold. First, that race and gender are not tantamount to each other. Otherwise, the only marriages that are not interracial are those of two people of the same sex and same skin color! The second is that yes, human nature does indeed have a feminine and a masculine aspect to it. The feminine side of human nature is redeemed by The Theotokos consenting to bear Christ. But there are no theandric operations specific to each so-called race. There is no theandric operation specific to blacks and none specific to whites. The only specificity to theandric operations are those theandric operations that are specific to the individual. The only prototypes are those of The Theotokos agreeing to bear the Christ child, and especially those of Christ Himself.
Let’s now return to the insistence that members of a so-called race are more prone to certain kinds of sins that other so-called race. If members of a so-called race are more prone to violent crime, profligacy, and laziness than those outside of that so-called race; then, they must be more fallen than the other so-called races. But this cannot be reconciled to Christian understandings of the fall. The Apostle Paul states “There is no distinction: since all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God”.[x] Note well St. Paul’s words: no distinction. Nothing at all to indicate that anyone of a different skin color, ancestry, nation, or attempted taxonomy is more prone to sin than another. St. Cyril of Alexandria writes: “The effects of God’s anger passed into the whole of human nature as from the original rootstock, that is Adam: ‘For death has had dominion from Adam up to Moses, even on those who committed no sin in the manner of Adam’s transgression’ (Romans 5:14). In the same way, however, the effects of our new first-fruits, that is Christ, shall again pass into the whole human race.”[xi] While if one is going to suggest that a so-called race has a biological predisposition to certain vices or sins, then they have effectively asserted that the bodies of such persons, and the physical matter that makes them up, are inherently evil. Which is then the error of the Manichaeans, and which has been explicitly condemned by Orthodoxy. St. John of Damascus writes: “Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. God has made nothing despicable. To think such things is Manichaeism.”[xii] And he also writes: “You despise matter, and call it contemptible. So did the Manichaeans, but the Divine Scriptures proclaim it good, for it says, “And God saw everything He had made, and behold, it was very good.”[xiii] To insist that the very physical makeup of a man or woman makes them prone to sin, especially if the insistence is also that such proneness is concurrent with their skin color or an alleged taxonomy (or their nation or their ancestry); is to insist upon a blasphemous assertion that God has made them to do evil. If such race realism is not an insistence that God made the so-called races to do evil, but instead a claim that it is the work of the Devil; then such an assertion is a blasphemous claim that the Devil has powers that rival those of God. It should amount to some kind of Gnosticism with the Creation being the work of an evil Demiurge. Or again, another variation of Manichaeism. “Evil is not a substance, but an accident”, writes St. John of Damascus.[xiv] Likewise if one is to claim that the proneness of so-called races to certain sins is a result of the fall; that it should make God so impotent that His physical creation can be so undone by the sin of Adam. But as has been noted, that is not the Scriptural or Patristic understanding of the Fall, anyway.
Someone will doubtless object by attempting to invoke Acts 17:26-27, in which St. Paul says “And he made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth , having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him.” (NRSV). But that is to take the verses grossly out of context, seeing that it is St. Paul, a Jew, addressing the pagan Greeks at the Areopagus in Athens! The Apostle Paul transgresses the boundaries that the false god of the white nationalists has ordained!
Other verses taken out of context are those that forbid marriages between the Israelites and neighboring nations, such as Deuteronomy 7:1-5. What persons who fall back on such verses conveniently don’t mention is that the marriages are forbidden out of a concern that the Israelites should apostasize. “For they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods” – a crucial part of the Old Testament injunctions that never gets mentioned by the racists.[xv] Phineas did indeed slay a man for taking a Midianite wife (Numbers 25:6-15). But the context shows that he did it to prevent apostasy (Numbers 25:1-5). While Moses himself married a Midianite (Exodus 2:15-22), and does not provoke the wrath of a jealous God for it. If the Midianites are a separate race from the Israelites, then both of Moses’ marriages were interracial! (Numbers 12.) Note also that whenever the Old Testament gives a list of nations that the Israelites are forbidden to marry, there is never a description given of the physical appearance of either the Israelites or their neighbors. These are essentially forced interpretations.
To conclude, a notion of race, in which there are sub-species of human beings that can be categorized according to discrete taxonomies, is one that is not reconcilable to Orthodox Christianity. If race is a biological, verifiable, scientific theory, it obviously can only be such as a way of understanding variations in physical appearance. But no further. It can’t have political or ethical consequences. And even then, race, as mere physical appearances, cannot be discrete, but is continuous. Race, if it is real, can only be a series of mere resemblances, and nothing else. Above all, it is of no consequence at all for Orthodox Christian theology – if it is real. Christ, as God Incarnate, died and was resurrected for all. In His Incarnation He takes up a single human nature, united in Him. Anyone who wants to be united to the Orthodox Church should discard notions of race as something discrete, as something of ethical consequence, and must especially discard notions of race as a basis for nationhood. Such views cannot be reconciled to Incarnational theology and Orthodox Christology. And such views cannot be reconciled to basic Christian ethics, that one love one’s neighbor as oneself. Persons who find themselves excommunicated for holding such views should avail themselves of the opportunity to repent and be reconciled to the Church. If they will not do so, then they should have the decency to admit that they are not Orthodox Christians. Persons who hold to such notions of race but who flirt with Orthodoxy need to stop limping between two irreconcilable opinions, and make a decision.
[i] I John 4:7, 16.
[ii] Deuteronomy 6:5, Leviticus 19:18, Mark 12:28-31.
[iii] Song of Solomon 8:6
[iv] St. Gregory of Nazianzus: Letter 101, First Letter to Cledonius the Presbyter, 5. From “On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius”, translated by Lionel Wickham. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002. Page 158.
[v] St. Gregory of Nazianzus: Against Apollinarius. From “God and Man: The Theological Poetry of St. Gregory of Nazianzus”, translated by Peter Gilbert. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001. Page 82.
[vi] St. Cyril of Alexandria: “On the Unity of Christ”, translated by John Anthony McGuckin. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995. Page 130.
[vii] Hebrews 4: 14-15. NRSV
[viii] St. John of Damascus: The Fount of Wisdom; The Philosophical Chapters, chapter 30. From “Saint John of Damascus: Writings”, translated by Frederic H. Chase. Catholic University of America Press, 1958. Pages 55-56.
[ix] Ibid, chapter 10, page 34.
[x] Epistle to the Romans 3:22-23. NRSV
[xi][xi] [xi] St. Cyril of Alexandria: “On the Unity of Christ”, translated by John Anthony McGuckin. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995. Page 106.
[xii] St. John of Damascus. From “On The Divine Images”, translated by David Anderson. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1980. Page 24.
[xiii] Ibid. Page 60.
[xiv] Ibid. Page 51.
[xv][xv] Deuteronomy 7:4. NRSV