“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 . . . we, too, are the espousers and the fighters in a struggle for which we must be prepared to risk our all.” (Archbishop Iakovos, Selma, Alabama, 1965)
Americans will pause tomorrow (Monday) to honor the memory of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who challenged us to see every person as created in the image and likeness of God and worthy of equal treatment under the law. Archbishop Iakovos’ courageous decision to march in solidarity with Rev. King in Selma, Alabama, is one of the most beautiful and proud moments in the history of the Orthodox Church in this country. Archbishop Iakovos affirmed that the Orthodox faith is not a museum of history but a way of living in the world that must be carefully cultivated and acted upon. The highly visible presence of the most distinguished bishop in American Orthodoxy marching with Rev. King serves as a bold witness and challenge to every Orthodox Christian to work for social justice in America and in the world.
Rev. King’s leadership of the American civil rights movement was deeply rooted in his Christian faith. Archbishop Iakovos’ words in Selma echoed this view: “A Christian must cry out in indignation against all persecution.” His words and example remind Orthodox Christians of their responsibility to strive for justice by working to overturn any laws that discriminatorily deny equal rights and protections to any person. Taking a stand for justice and equality is often met with opposition and censure; Archbishop Iakovos faced considerable resistance to his marching with Rev. King from elements within his own flock.
Rev. King turned the tables on his critics with the following words: “But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you.’ Was not Amos an extremist for justice: ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.’ Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ . . . So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?”
“Letter from Birmingham Jail” is not just a call for social action; it is also a critique of Christianity, including our own Orthodox Christian witness today. Rev. King has some harsh words for Christians who place more value on social order and acceptance than on being icons of truth and justice. “Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.” Armed with faith, Rev. King forever changed the United States; Archbishop Iakovos challenged us to fight for justice for those who suffer and to give voice to those who have none.
The words of Rev. King and the image of Archbishop Iakovos marching with him in Selma, Alabama are not mere nostalgia from a bygone era. Their witness is not confined to history books. They represent an urgent question for every Orthodox Christian. What type of Church will we be? Will we fearfully and selfishly choose to turn inward or will we courageously turn outward, embracing the virtues of love, equality, and justice that led Archbishop Iakovos to Selma, Alabama in 1965?