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  • Mehari Worku

What Can the Oriental Orthodox Church Really Contribute to Anti-Racism Movements?

The Oriental Orthodox Church and her communities are newcomers to the West. Their economic as well as political role in the world, particularly in the West, is not entirely comparable to other Christian groups. In the US, they are often invisible from “mainstream” media corporations. I still remember when I was talking to an American seminarian friend about the Ethiopian church, his face became shrouded with the cloud of confusion; the churches are just outside of their sphere of knowledge. So, what can such a seemingly powerless, money-less, and invisible group do to help heal the gaping wound of systematic racism in the US? They can serve as models for freedom and thanksgiving in overcoming such trauma.

Freedom From and For

The Oriental Orthodox churches, I believe, can serve as great models of freedom. Here, it will be legitimate to ask “freedom from what?” This question can be informed through the experience of the Ethiopian church which has undergone multiple eras of societal trauma. We can mention three major traumatic periods: The Yodit Trauma, the Gragn Trauma, and the Mussolini Trauma. The first happened in the 10th century, the latter followed five centuries later, and the last happened in the 20th century.

Since the first half of the 4th century the Ethiopian church was closely associated with the ruling political apparatus of the Ethiopian Empire and, therefore, contenders for political power often saw the Church as part and parcel of the enemy state. Hence, during their struggle to seize political power church buildings were burnt, Christians were massacred, and the Christian cultural production weaned. The folklore around Yodit, the Futuh al- Habasha of Arab Faqih, as well as all the plethora of documents about the ignominy of Fascist invasion in Ethiopia depict the excruciating pain and suffering that Ethiopian Christians had undergone. For the sake of clarity, let me just focus on the most recent trauma. Here is a quote from Bruno Mussolini who wrote about his air raid “adventure” in bombing Ethiopians:

We had to set fire to the wooded hills, to the fields and little villages,... it was almost diverting… The bombs hardly touched the earth before they burst out into white smoke and an enormous flame and the dry grass began to burn. I thought of the animals: God, how they ran...after the bomb racks were emptied I began throwing bombs by hand...It was most amusing: A big Zabira surrounded by tall trees was not easy to hit. I had to aim carefully at the straw roof and only succeeded on the third shot. The wretches who were inside, seeing their roof burning, jumped out and ran off like mad. Surrounded by a circle of fire about five thousand Abyssinians came to a sticky end. It was like hell.

It is more than likely that the Zabira which Bruno is mentioning here is a church building. According to the ancient Ethiopian Christian custom, the church is a refuge for creation. Trees around churches are not cut. Persons who take refuge in the church are fully protected, following the Biblical custom of Cities of Refuge. The church seems to be considered a sacred pocket where one finds refuge from the chaotic order of the outside world. It is the absolute frame of reference that holds the mind from losing its mind in nominality. This is the ground where everything is held together. Therefore, bombing such a site is not just an attack on a physical building, but an attack on the foundations of the Ethiopian world view. When the absolute is under fire everything else is combustible. Humanly speaking, it is very difficult to see how any society could recover from such physical and mental shatter.

Nevertheless, after the Fascist Italian invaders were kicked out of the country, the Ethiopian church was nothing but weak and defeated. In less than 20 years after the invasion, the church became an autocephalous church with its own patriarch. The church worked hard to reorganize its structure in a much more efficient way. Edition, translation, and publication of liturgical texts flourished more than ever. Youth were sent abroad for higher eccelssiastical education. Some of these would later become renowned academics and hierarchs.

Fascist Italian invaders massacred thousands of people with mustard gas and concentration camps. In just one day, 449 monks of Dabra Libanos were executed under suspicion of collaboration with an assasination attempt. The history books y are filled with the stories and the pictures of the degrading and demonic actions of Fascists in Ethiopia. Nevertheless, Ethiopia was able to move beyond the trauma rather quickly. On Nov. 6, 1970, when Emperor Haileselassie (the same emperor who had to flee his country for five years during the occupation) visited, the Italian community living in Ethiopia was as large as 15,000. The past is not forgotten; it is recognized. It is still remembered. Yet, it is not allowed to dictate the life of the future. When one becomes free, one becomes free to build bonds in faith, to plant hope in trust, and to heal wounds in love. This is the life of an actor with full agency, which is far from the way of life of a reactor. How is this possible?

Eucharistic Life

The church in Ethiopia has made the life of the society one extended thanksgiving (Eucharistic) liturgy, though many wouldn’t be conscious of this. God is at the center of the acts, the words and the deeds of the society. God is in the greeting, each day of the month is named after a saint, the hours of the day are counted or the months are calculated liturgically. When an Ethiopian mother opens the bread basket to prepare food for her family, she doesn’t simply throw her hand into it. You will see her mumbling the name of the Holy Trinity as she opens the cover of the basket. She might not be able to explain the mystery of the Trinity, but she never starts to make the dough without calling the Triune God.

Among Ethiopian Christians one doesn’t wish you a good morning or afternoon. Instead, she asks you how your night or day was. You are expected to reply, no matter how agonizing the night or the day was, “Thanks be to God.” For you are greater and better and more wonderful than what happened in the past. You are asked about the past because it matters. Recognition. Yet, you are invited to move beyond its successes or limitations. The past has passed away; you are still standing. Existing. Being. You affirm your being by graciously praising the source of your existence: God. Your life is not made up of its problems, but it sprang from its source: God. You are loved into existence and no earthly problem can undo that. Hence, THANKS BE TO GOD! (I sometimes think of this greeting as the Ark that carried Ethiopians through their painful historical moments.)

Nonetheless, the other side of such a continuous recognition of God’s presence is judgment. Living under the perfection of God makes one see one’s own imperfection. Seeing the Father of lights makes one recognize the dark corners inside oneself. Knowing the holiness of God deflates any sense of human entitlement and arrogance for God doesn’t owe me anything. Yet, He lavishly showers his love on His creation. His faithful love (mercy) endures forever! Because his mercy endures on me, I will have the humility to forgive. Humility makes forgiveness possible.

God-centered definitions of the human person and freedom are then, I believe, what the Oriental Orthodox churches can and should bring to the anti-racism movements of the US; by bringing the Cruciform of their history and the Eucharistic life as the indispensable perspectives of freedom and the human person. With this they shall redeem the movement from going into another egocentric political bickering that traps society in the vicious cycle of victimhood <---> violence of ethnocentric politics.

Author: Mehari Worku

1. Sergew Hable Selassie. Ancient and Medieval Ethiopian History to 1270. University of Michigan, United Publishers, 1972. See also Taddesse Tamrat. Church and State in Ethiopia 1270-1527. Hollywood, Tsehai Publishers, 2009.  

2. Arab Faqih. The Conquest of Abyssinia. Translation Paul Stenhouse and Richard Pankhrust, Tsehai Publishers, 2003. 
3. Cited in  Russel, Bertrand (1938) Power: A New Social Analysis.

4. Deut 4: 41

5. In one of the Ethiopian languages when one forgives, one doesn’t just say “I forgive you!” as if one is capable of forgiveness by herself. Instead, she says “ይቅር ለእግዚአብሔር” “May it (the harm caused) be forgiven for the sake of God!” This  is most likely related to the formula of absolution in the Ethiopian church where the priest says “May the Lord release you!” (እግዚአብሔር ይፍታሕ!)


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