Only Orthodoxy Can Save America - A Sermon for the Sunday of All Saints of North America (2020)
Today we celebrate All Saints of North America. Gazing at the icon of the saints before us, perusing the list of their names and accomplishments, we learn a great deal about Orthodoxy in America. In certain respects, we see that Orthodoxy has not been a very American phenomenon at all. In the 226 years since the first Russian mission to Alaska in 1794, there have been 22 officially canonized saints of the North American lands. Of them, only 4 were born on American soil; only 9 ended their lives there; none of them were of the Western European or African peoples that eventually settled the land, and have been the dominant cultural force in the development of the nation. Among those who may be canonized in the future, there are a couple of exceptions to this last rule—Fr. Seraphim Rose, Abp. Dmitri Royster, or others known only to God—but this does little to change the fact that, as far as the history and development of the American nation goes, Orthodox Christianity comprises little more than an interesting historical footnote.
Accordingly, we may find ourselves somewhat discouraged by the disparity between our present feast and the one we celebrated last week, All Saints of Russia, whose icon comprises three panels full of countless multitudes of saints from every walk of life—the fruit of a millennium of sanctity in a land steeped in Orthodox tradition and Church life, a sanctity achieved by men and women who gave themselves wholeheartedly to Christ’s holy Gospel and sought to manifest its teachings in every facet of their society. Indeed, every land of the Old World that has historically been Orthodox—Serbia, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia—can boast a similar multitude of saints, and a national life and character that is inseparable from Holy Orthodoxy.
But even though Orthodoxy does not penetrate America’s national identity, even though from the historian’s point of view, it is of marginal significance, we should not think that we have little to celebrate and give thanks for on this present day. For though they are comparatively few, the saints of our land are undoubtedly some of the greatest and most remarkable saints of the last two centuries—St. Herman of Alaska, St. Innocent, Equal of the Apostles, St. Tikhon, Enlightener of America, St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, and St. Nikolai Velimirovich, to name the most prominent of them. Most of the North American saints were missionaries, bishops or parish priests who served the Church in this land for a time, organizing parishes, translating services, laying down the rudiments of Church life where before there was nothing. These were men who uprooted their lives and their families, and traveled halfway across the globe to a foreign land, with a foreign tongue and foreign customs, at great personal risk, in order to carry the torch of the ancient faith into the New World. Such Church life as we have in this country—and for all of its irregularities, is there anything more precious?—we owe to the tireless sacrificial labors of these zealous missionaries, who understood that their task was to do more than just minister to the Orthodox immigrants that came to this country in great numbers beginning in the second half of the 19th century, but also to bring the light of the Apostolic Faith to those of heterodox belief.
Such missionary zeal is what brought the first group of Valaam monks to Alaska, and St. Juvenaly even found a martyric death for his evangelical labor. This labor was not without fruit. Many thousands of native Alaskans received holy Baptism, and their Orthodox descendants can still be found in Alaska to this day. Later in the 19th century, the apostolic labors of St. Alexis Toth reunited tens of thousands of Uniate immigrants to their ancestral faith. Many of these parishes still exist today. St. John Kochurov almost single-handedly organized the Orthodox community in Chicago. St. Raphael Hawaweeny helped establish it in New York, in addition to traveling throughout the country and establishing parishes for the Syrian and Lebanese immigrants, including St. George Cathedral in Charleston. St. Sebastian Dabovich labored similarly to organize the Serbian community in America, under the presidency of the Russian bishop. St. Tikhon, who would later become Patriarch, helped consolidate and organize the American Church during his time in this land (1898-1907), and also planted the first seeds of Orthodox monasticism in America with the founding of St. Tikhon’s Monastery in Pennsylvania. Later, after the turmoil of the Russian Revolution, St. John Maximovitch made incredible efforts and sacrifices to obtain asylum from our government for the Russian émigré community in China, and having ended his life during his episcopal service in this land, continues to exercise untold spiritual influence through his holy intercessions, through the presence of his relics in one of our major cities, through his own writings, and through the legacy of his most famous convert, Fr. Seraphim Rose.
Almost all of us here are converts to Orthodox Christianity, and we stand on the shoulders of these men. Without their efforts and zeal, there would not have been a local parish in our hometowns when we first took an interest in Orthodoxy. Without them, even had we wanted to, we would not have been able to join ourselves to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Christ. Without them, none of us would be here today.
For this much alone, we ought to feel a unique joy on this feast, and cherish a special devotion to each one of these holy men who have graced our land. But there is another story told by the lives of the North American saints, one that deserves our special attention. Almost half of the officially canonized American saints were martyrs. The first two were St. Juvenaly and St. Peter the Aleut, and they remain the only two who have been martyred on American soil. The rest of these martyrs were faithful clergy who served in the American mission for a time, and then returned to their home countries in the Old World, only to meet with persecution from two of the most barbaric totalitarian regimes of the 20th century—Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. The best known of these is of course St. Tikhon of Moscow, and, to a lesser extent, St. John Kochurov, the protomartyr of the Bolshevik Revolution, and St. Alexander Hotovitzky, who was killed later in 1937 during the Stalinist purge of the clergy. But there are several others who are much less well-known—St. Anatole of Irtkutsk, St. Seraphim of Uglich, and St. Teofan Beatovich, who all suffered from the Communists, and St. Bogolyub Gakovich and St. Matej Stiyachic, killed by the Nazis. Their martyric deaths demonstrate to us the terrible consequences that result when radical ideologies seize the reins of power. Their sacrifices are an inspiration to us, but likewise, a sobering warning.
I mentioned in my previous homily a certain holy man’s prediction that, “What began in Russia will end in America.” As it turns out, it was not Fr. Seraphim Rose who said this, but a clairvoyant elder among the Russian émigrés in Harbin, China—Elder Ignatius. He spoke those words in the 1930s, and as far as I know, there is no further context or clarification surrounding them. But their fulfillment seems ever more plausible in the current atmosphere of uncertainty in our country, amidst the unrest that has arisen in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. This was a despicable and heinous crime. There are many legitimate and understandable responses to the sight of a uniformed police officer pinning a black man to the pavement, with his knee on his neck for almost nine minutes, looking coldly and defiantly into the cellphone camera of the bystander who was berating him for his cruelty, all while his victim begs for his life—“I can’t breathe; I’m through; Everything hurts; Mama.” There is justifiable outrage over such a callous disregard of one man for another man’s life. One is apt to feel any number of different emotions in response—anger, fear, horror, sorrow, pity, shock, contempt, indignation.
But the collective response to Floyd’s death in recent weeks has become about more than just George Floyd or police brutality. Ideologues, once confined to the halls of academia, have been capitalizing on the public outrage to advance their own narrative. According to the proponents of critical race theory, America is an inherently racist country, whose political, social, and economic institutions were all formed with purpose of establishing, legitimating, and perpetuating white supremacy, while at the same time suppressing the lives of black, indigenous, and people of color. Despite dramatic reforms, they continue to do so even today. George Floyd was just another casualty of systemic racism in our irremediably racist system of policing and governance. White people in such a system are unjustly privileged and, though they may bear no personal animus against non-whites, are racist—guilty of complicity in the violence against people of color—unless they actively and vocally take up the mantle of “antiracist,” and work positively to dismantle the system of white privilege and supremacy created by their forebears. The primary moral imperative of this ideology is the wholesale dismantling of the existing structures of civil governance and their replacement with one that is ostensibly not racist. Such is the logic behind ideas that on their face seemed preposterous before this crisis began, such as defunding the police. Such is the logic behind the mobs tearing down and defacing statues—those tangible symbols of the old order and old values—and not just statues of Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee, but even figures central to America’s founding mythology like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Even Abraham Lincoln is being asked to go in some places, because despite the fact that he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he once expressed the view that whites should hold a higher place in the social order than blacks. This kind of ideological purging of history, carried to its logical conclusion, necessitates not just reform but regime change.
Of course, as Orthodox Christians, we trust not in princes or the sons of men; we know that we have no lasting city on earth. But if we’re familiar at all with history of the Church in the last century, we should know all too well what happens when a nation, driven by ideological fervor, begins turning wholesale on its own past and rejecting it outright. The deception of such ideology—both communism then and critical race theory now—is that it contains elements of truth, and addresses real and legitimate social problems. But at this time when it is rightly affirmed from all quarters that black lives matter, we would do well to remember why any life—black, brown, or white—matters: because it is made in the image of God, and has been purchased with the precious Blood of his Son, and has been created for an eternal life of divine glory in communion with God and all other men. As soon as we lose sight of this truth, there is precariously little to keep a man from regarding his fellow man’s life as expendable. All the blood that has been shed in the world—from the blood of Abel to the oceans of blood that flowed during the 20th century—was shed because men, entire nations full of men, forgot the divine truth that every single human being is made in the image of God, and so we are all related, we are all brethren, our common divine sonship trumps every other identity that can divide us—ethnic, racial, national, or political. It is only on this basis that there is ever any hope of elevating the social and moral life of a nation above the sins and atrocities of the past and present. It cannot be done by any ideology devised by man, which only divides us into discrete logical categories—capitalist and communist, white and black, oppressor and oppressed—and offers no hope of forgiveness, mercy, reconciliation, and unity, but only an inflexible retributive justice.
And so even though historically, it has exercised very little visible influence on American history, only Orthodoxy can save America. Only Orthodoxy can save America from the fracturing it has been experiencing and which seems only to be accelerating with each day; because only in the Church of Christ is our union with God, and thus with one another, accomplished. Given Orthodoxy’s marginal role in American life, and the divisions that exist even among the Orthodox in America, it is an open question whether this is a realistic hope. The answer is ultimately in God’s hands, but we have a sacred obligation to shine the light of Orthodoxy to the world around us. For if we don’t shine the light of Christ, who will? If we don’t salt our land with the grace of Christ, who will?
For those who live in the world, this might seem like a more obvious task. But I think for us living in this monastery, it is perhaps even more urgent and important. Monastic prayer for the world invisibly sustains the world. We have to follow Christ in taking on the sins of the world—our own sins, our brother’s sins, our ancestor’s sins—of taking them to heart, accepting responsibility for them, and offering our repentance up to God. This is our missionary task, and in this we follow in the footsteps of St. Herman, the original monastic missionary to our land. Through prayer and repentance, we can shed the light of God’s grace on the broken world; and also by living among ourselves in the firm and unbreakable bond of charity, strengthening and preparing ourselves for whatever will come from these uncertain times in our nation’s history. Let us do these things, relying on the prayerful support of the saints that have lived in our land, and asking for their intercession on behalf of ourselves, and of all Americans. Amen.
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