His Eminence Metropolitan Vitaly’s article “White Negroes” may be the only extant example of an emigre Russian hieararch’s writing on the charged racial issues of the late 1960’s and early 70’s. A contemporary reader might note the expression within the article of attitudes that would today be perceived as racially insensitive. A more sympathetic reading will also reveal the attitude of compassion which, in spite of the Russian-Canadian hierarch’s limited experience of African-American culture, informs his assessment of their spiritual plight.
The main historical value of this piece, however, lies in the clarity with which the Metropolitan describes his view of the relationship between culture and faith. His Eminence Vitaly is often remembered as one who considered ethnic and cultural heritage to be indespensable aspects of the Russian Orthodox Faith: one could not lose one without losing the other. Whatever our final assessment of such of a view, it is useful and enlightening to see the Metropolitan explain it for himself, in a context that provides a broader picture of his thought on spiritual nature of nationhood.
This article “Belye Negry” is translated from Church Messenger [Tserkovnyi Vestnik]: Monthly Magazine of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in Canada, February 1971.
The negro question in the United States has become almost an unresolvable question for the government. In order to approach it properly, we must understand it properly. It seems improbable to us that in such a large country, no one at all will be able to properly understand it. But even a proper understanding does not suffice for a proper resolution.
Thus, from the start we would like to determine the principle causes of the of the disturbance of the negro masses, so that thereafter we might attempt to find the prescription for the healing of this disturbed negro sea.
First of all, no sin comes for free. It always demands a heavy price of the one who has committed it. Sin punishes the sinner. This is an ancient truth. As today’s practical Americans say: “Crime does not pay.” As we Orthodox say, “The devil pays in buckets.” The sin of the slave-masters is punishing the former masters of the negro slaves. This is a spiritual cause, of which we are being newly convinced. But the punishment for sin does not go on forever. It continues until it fulfills its measure, known to the only God.
There is no doubt that the Communists are using this sin to their own ends, artfully playing upon the self-love of the negroes, stirring them up to rebellion, and especially giving to their whole movement an organized character for which the negroes are not at all apt according to their own nature.
This is a political end. But it is artificial and it will come to nothing, no matter how the Communists from Moscow and Peking might strive to infiltrate the United States with propaganda and money, for the simple reason that everyone’s eyes are opened. The fall of the Russian Empire has opened everyone’s eyes.
In the eyes of the intelligent class of Russians this fall has been a great woe, misfortune and tragedy. In the eyes of Russian Orthodox Christians it is a punishment for the sins of our fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers. But for the whole world, the fall of the Russian Empire has been a powerful lesson for all thinking and governing people. The recent attempt to start a revoulution in the province of Quebec (and then to spread it to all of Canada) was cut off at the root by the Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau, who immediately and almost literally declared that he was not at all willing to play the part of Kerensky. At that time, this hapless name was on everyone’s lips and in everyone’s mind. This was when they remembered Russia, and could not at all forget, because the size of the lesson corresponded to the size of Russia. Then it was impossible not to see, even if one didn’t want to, because there was nowhere to avert one’s eyes from such a large educational picture.
Only a trusting and guileless Russia could have allowed it to happen that her own sailors, in every port of the world, should distribute a voluminous literature in which they cursed the Tsar, the whole government, and Russia herself. Only a guileless Russia could have allowed it to happen that in her own capital foreign interests should fund the walk-outs of the workers. This was by nature so improbable that Russia was simply unable to believe that it could happen.
But now everyone understands that it is entirely possible. Russia has given herself as a lesson to everyone, so that in our days everyone knows that you can’t get anywhere with subversive political turmoils. Everyone is watching so that a thief will not break in, since he knows that he is being closely watched. And so, the political cause is not the chief cause of the turmoil of the negroes, but something else is.
The United States constitute a new world. From all the countries of Europe and Asia people come to this rich land. But once they have flowed into this great melting pot of nationalities, each ethnic group, by a pure instinct of the will, survives in its national character. It establishes its own centripetal force, carefully guarding its own personality. Thus in Boston a group of Frenchman survives. In Pennsylvania the so-called “American Aristocrats” have settled, comprised of English, Irish, and Scotch immigrant pioneers. Every state has its own national groups with their own clubs, committees and centers. While making use of all of the technological achievements and civilization of America, each ethnic group still retains the root of its national culture, by which it lives, and which stimulates it toward the separate life of its still unforgotten traditions, of its historical past. Everyone wants to be a personality, not a number; a human being, not a cog.
The culture of each nation is, first of all, its view of heaven, its relation to divinity in general, to the Holy Trinity if it be a Christian nation. This orientation toward heaven impresses its own deep mark on the activities of a given nation: on its life, its habits, its productions in any field, science, music and art. Every nation strives toward the Unembraceable, Boundless, Uncircumscribed God. The nation follows its own path, establishes its own heaven: Russian, German, French — but invariably its own. And God opens their heaven to them. Here we have the highest value of any nationality, the window, as it were, of every race into heaven, into the Kingdom of Heaven. There is no man without a nation or tribe, nor is there a religion without a nation, just as there is no nation without a religion. These two phenomena are mutually dependent and cannot be separated either in time or in composition.
Every internationale is in fact a struggle against the nation, a struggle against the God of a given nation or against that nation’s religion. But even the internationale, while by its nature it struggles against God, by the same token acknowledges Him, since it is impossible to struggle against what does not exist. So every internationale has its own relation to God, although let us say a negative relation, a relation of denial — but a relation nonetheless.
But the negroes have no such national root; they do not have their own heaven. They will not be able, through purely external circumstances, to cohere into a nation with its own culture, its own relation to God — in a word, its own religion. When they were taken from Africa, they were divided according to the names, houses, and farms of their taskmasters. Thus they had to adopt a religious worldview that had been brought out of Europe, a worldview that had already been complicated among the masses of Western Christians (already separated from the truth) under the influence of rationalism, which is completely foreign to all of the southern nations.
The negroes are not a nation, but merely representatives of the black race. They do not have their own religion, their own history. They are without tribe or genealogy, without a historical root. They are in tumult because having been freed from slavery they have received nothing except for social freedom, which cast them onto to the streets and made them feel their status as faceless pariahs in all of its acuteness. New houses will not help them, nor will integration of the schools, restaurants and buses, just as they were not helped by all the Christian religions of Western Europe.
For the negro, who is more a man of the heart than of the mind, these all appear as a strange and foreign heaven, artificial — for what can the negro have in common with these rationalistic, emasculated, and neatly dried worldviews?! For negro to be, for example, a Methodist, an Evangelical or a Lutheran (not to enumerate the three-hundred and ninety varieties of Western-European religion) is simply incomprehensible, a spiritual antithesis, an anomaly. In the missionary work of all these groups one sees with striking clarity how not one of them has taken root in the souls not only of the negroes, but of all the savages of Africa, Australia, Polynesia, and so on. These faiths have not become united to these people by blood, organically.
The reason for this is that all of these religions are distinguished by a mark of falsehood. Let us use a word that is not in fashion because of the reigning ecumenical influence: heresy. Heresy is contrary to every human soul. It is not natural, but even contra-natural to human nature. And so the only way out of this spiritual jam into which the negro question leads is the illumination of the negroes with the light of Holy Orthodoxy, which is not one of the Christian religions, but the only true Church of Christ.
They will tell us that this is utopian vision. This is not a utopian vision at all, but in all probability it is not yet the time. Let us pray to the Supreme Archpastor to show us an apostle for this negro field. Then the grace of God shall calm the hearts and minds of this unfortunate race, and the Lord will take from them the mark of Ham, which none of the hands of these already half-Christian religions have been able to take away, held in the bosom of ecumenism, already almost not Christian at all.
The government of the United States is doing what it can and what it is able to do. It waits with great patience, it bides the time, trusting that in such a great question, one which involves the life or death of twenty-five million negroes, draconian measures can accomplish nothing, but one must only endure, wait and hope that time will be the best physician. Such a politic of the goverment is not at all Orthodox, not very Christian, having such meager means. It is the most succesful, the only right course, but at the same time for the negroes it seems the most regrettable, the most harmful. After the era of virulence, of passionate outbreaks of rebellion, there will come an era of complete corruption of the negro masses, demoralization, degeneration — physical, moral, psychic and spiritual degeneracy. It will end with the almost complete extinction of the negro race in the U.S.A. Who is thinking about the eternal salvation of these pariahs? In fact, only Christ Himself “desires to save all,” as does His Holy Orthodox Church, in which He shall remain until the end of the ages.
But let us not think that this negro question, in that aspect in which we have tried to present it to you, is entirely foreign to us Russians. Consistently, a number of souls are leaving us, just as with every national group in the U.S.A. and Canada. Enthralled by easy lucre, submitting themselves to their simplest and most animal instincts and desires, many Russian Orthodox people are leaving the Church, forgetting their native Russian language, and adding themselves to the masses in the streets, to the black, faceless human herd. In fact, they are turning into white negroes, also without nation or tribe, useless both to the U.S.A. and to Canada. Sooner or later they will sit down alone on the defendant’s bench for having committed capital crimes, and will become a scourge for all of society.
The negroes are disturbed and are disturbing others because they are looking for themselves, looking for their God, for their root. But these apostates of ours are not looking for anything. Having been rich vessels of the grace of God, inheritors of the Kingdom of God, when they apostasize from the table of divine gifts they become great transgressors, manifest scoundrels, outstanding evildoers. A great ship takes a great journey — whether to the Kingdom of God or to utter hell, it is always a great journey.
Russian Orthodox People, think about these things!