Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos

Bishop Demetrios (GOA) Speaks on Sanctity of Life Sunday in Chicago

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Below is the address given by Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos at the Pan-Orthodox Sanctity of Life Vespers held in Chicago on January 22, 2012. To his credit, Bp. Demetrios has been unequivocal in his support of the sanctity of unborn life, including participation in the March for Life in Washington, DC four or five years ago.

Bp. Demetrios is also opposed to the death penalty and spoke about that as well. Thankfully he avoids the politically correct shibboleths. He came to his position when counseling a death-row inmate who was subsequently executed. His argument that the application of the penalty can be arbitrary is compelling (I have deep misgivings about capital punishment for the same reason), but the morality of capital punishment remains an issue about which reasonable people can reasonably disagree. I’ll leave the rest for the discussion.

Source: Greek Orthodox Metropolis | His Grace Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos

His Eminence Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos was invited by the Orthodoxx Christian Clergy Association of Greater Chicago to give the keynote address at the 2012 Pan-Orthodox Vespers Service on January 22, 2012. In a deeply felt address, His Grace advocated for the sanctity of all life, even in those of whom we believe we can discern nothing good whatsoever. He reminded those present that Christ demands this of those who wish to bear his name – who call themselves Christians – and that we as His faithful servants have been called to follow His example of self-less love towards all.

Photographs of the event can be found in the Greek Orthodox Metropolis Photo Gallery.

Orthodox Christian Tradition, Social Justice and the Sanctity of Life

Offered by Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos

January 22, 2012

A recent report on FOXNews after Christmas focused on the life of a young Palestinian woman living in Gaza under the Palestinian Authority. She was studying at university to be a journalist and, unlike most residents of Gaza who live in relative poverty; she was a member of a comparatively affluent family who owned a retail store. What made her story so interesting was the fact that she was recently released from an Israeli prison along with hundreds of others in exchange for a single Israeli soldier being held captive by Hamas. She was imprisoned because she had attempted to detonate an explosive vest she was wearing at an Israeli checkpoint but the explosives failed to detonate. Now, back at school and studying to be a journalist, she calmly tells her interviewer that she is awaiting the opportunity to repeat her suicide mission, looking forward to the day she can kill her enemy and enjoy martyrdom.

In a recent documentary on Cook Country Prison, a young adult’s numerous scars from gunshot wounds are revealed as the young man admits that he simply does what he needs to do until the day he dies: “That’s just the way it goes.” With nothing to live for, he has nothing to lose; when his time comes, he admits, it will not be “any big loss.”

A recent article in the Greek Star, a local Greek-American publication, written by John Vlahakis, implicitly suggests abortion as the appropriate means to control world population now that seven billion people inhabit our planet, straining our resources and affecting our shared environment.

And just as recently, the introduction of a new version of the Air Jordan shoes, on the day before Christmas, resulted in several acts of lethal violence in the competition to gain footwear. Apparently the $200.00 shoes were equated with the value of a human life.

I begin with these descriptions that are only indirectly connected to my topic to illustrate an underlying issue of concern to all of us who have gathered at this Church of the Holy Apostles in the interest of the apostolic proclamation of the Gospel, the proclamation of eternal life, sacred life, for which our Lord was born, ministered, taught, died, rose from the dead, ascended into Heaven and sent to his disciples the Holy Spirit.

The underlying issue is the degradation of life’s sanctity exhibited in some form by all these examples: from distorted religious fervor, from what is essentially philosophical nihilism, from political relativism, and economic priorities for our standard of living. All these examples, among a host of others each of us could probably recall, subordinate the gift of life to other concerns. Interestingly, except for religious zealots of the world, very few propagators of what has rightly been called the culture of death commit suicide; those who espouse—in some form or another—the value of death are usually unwilling to die themselves. They do not, however, object to others dying: the undesired enemy, the unwanted or inconvenient preborn, the criminal, persons who live far away and who do not look, talk, or think like we do. This is, of course, hypocrisy.

One writer recently defined hypocrisy as, “the art of affecting qualities for the purpose of pretending to an undeserved virtue.” He add, “Imagine how frightful truth unvarnished would be” [Benjamin F. Martin, “France in 1938,” 2005]. Many of the issues that we, as Americans, have come to argue so passionately are not immune from our collective hypocrisy. Our political discourse has become immersed in it.

On the political left, they euphemistically talk about a woman’s right to choose when they really mean her right to kill her preborn child, and certainly not about the right to choose to abstain from those behaviors that result in the conception of an unwanted child. Self-control is a virtue if it involves killing someone else; it is not a virtue if it involves moral behavior: a frightful truth unvarnished. On the political right, they will condemn this “culture of death” and espouse a “right to life” while advocating for capital punishment in the name of public safety and denying that right to persons deemed criminal, no matter how corrupt the system, no matter how many persons have been proven to be erroneously convicted. Christian politicians of the right routinely invoke moral values as originating from our Creator, court the Evangelical Christian vote, and protest the current administration’s “war on religion,” but also, as at a recent debate, routinely espouse the supposedly evangelical ideal concerning our enemies: “Kill them” [Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry]. Truth unvarnished is indeed frightful.

The positions of both political parties, of course, can be reduced to self-concern and, indeed, selfishness. Political conservatives live up to the specific etymology of the word, serving themselves and their own interests; liberals have devolved, in many cases, to moral libertines. The two dominant political parties take diametrically opposed and un-Christian positions on two issues which, for Orthodox Christians, are inherently related since they both concern the execution of life.

Undoubtedly, most Americans who claim to support the so-called “right to life” or “sanctity of life” position do so with abortion in mind. Indeed, public opinion polls consistently show a majority of Americans are against the idea of elective abortion on demand. A far greater number assumedly would consider abortion “wrong,” but hesitate when making discussion turns to making it illegal due to largely hypothetical circumstances (such as rape, incest, or threats to the life of the mother). This is why so many “pro-choice” advocates so urgently resist the label “pro-abortion.” In our culture, it is so much more difficult to argue against free choice. In any case, with some important exceptions—such as the Terri Schiavo case in Florida back in early 2005—a broad coalition of activists and supporters has successfully managed to make “right to life” and “anti-abortion” almost synonymous.

Public opinion polls regarding another right-to-life and sanctity-of-life issue, capital punishment, are likewise consistently high in the United States. Politicians who publicly vow to put an end to abortion routinely espouse the necessity for the death penalty. Among Evangelical and Free-Church Protestants, the overwhelming majority is opposed to abortion, but more than half support the death penalty in some form, in some cases. In some regions of the country, support is far higher. Through casuistry and sophistry, it would appear that many persons, claiming to respect the sanctity of life on moral or religious grounds, reason that the preborn are “innocent,” while those who have been found “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” have somehow either forfeited a right to live or, perhaps worse, they have decided that the general principle of life’s sanctity must be modified due to circumstances that are ugly, uncertain, or repugnant in and of themselves; it is as if disrespecting the right of others to live renders a convicted criminal’s life un-sacred in the eyes of God. There seems to be some type of cognitive, if not spiritual, dissonance at work in such minds.

I raise this point because when it comes to my main concern this evening, there is often an emotional, even visceral, reaction to the concept of capital punishment. The intentional causing of the death of the preborn as a matter of convenience—freely chosen murder—is always unjust and unrighteous (a distinction to which I will return). Yet there is often a sense that capital punishment is somehow necessary—however lamentable—for a just society. While not an exact analogy, the killing of Osama Bin Laden—a punishment for the horrific murders he ordered in our nation—aroused enthusiastic cheers across our land. Perhaps this can be rationalized as an act of war, so perhaps a better example would be an actual execution of a convicted criminal, by any comparison to others a true monster. A sigh of relief was heard around the world when Sadaam Hussein was hanged after his trial in Iraq, an outcome little in doubt at its outset for a man we have learned may not have had weapons of mass destruction, but either personally killed or ordered the deaths of literally tens if not hundreds of thousands of his own citizens.

There is a basic, well-ordered logic and rationale for the existence of capital punishment, at least as a response to some crimes. This is, in fact, part of its appeal—not to mention biblical warrant for it in the Old Testament. The United States is one of the few nations to retain it, though we would probably not like to be compared as a nation-state to the others such as China, Syria, Iran, and so forth. Nonetheless, in the context of retributive justice, there are times when capital punishment makes logical sense according to human reason. Opposition to the death penalty in all cases is rather incomprehensible and non-rational. And that is precisely why I am opposed to it.

Before proceeding, let me clarify one terminological distinction that I believe is quite important for Orthodox Christians. In the Bible, the Greek word δίκαιοςδικαιοσύνη and its cognates, such as δικαιοσύνη, is often translated “just,” “justice,” and so forth, as in the description of Joseph the betrothed of Mary: “a just man.” The word can also be translated as “righteous.” Indeed, when Joseph is introduced to us as a “just” man, the application is paradoxical in the context of Joseph’s Jewish culture and piety. We are told that he resolved to “divorce” Mary quietly or discreetly when she was found to be pregnant during their betrothal before their actual marriage and “coming together.” Under the Law of Moses, “justice” would have been far stricter with Mary. Strictly, she should have been stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22:22-24) since there is no indication she was pregnant due to rape. As far as Joseph knew, this was a violation of the Law. Joseph was actually violating the law in seeking to avoid the harsh penalty for Mary’s condition which, of course, was an act of God in the Holy Spirit as he is informed in a dream. Yet the Evangelist, in noting that He is δίκαιος, actually shows Joseph was concerned about “righteousness,” not justice as defined in his culture. In other words, Joseph—and not the letter of the law—was right.

In our culture, justice is ideally “blind.” Equality under the law is a basic principle, and identical (or nearly-identical) crimes are punished—in theory—with identical punishments. Yet we can clearly understand that “justice” being blind sometimes gets the story wrong. Justice and truth do not always coincide in our Western culture, not even ideally. There is widespread agreement that justice does not concern “truth,” but rather certainty beyond a reasonable doubt. Serving justice does not mean serving the truth. Sometimes the two might coincide; at other times they do not; and certainly sometimes what is just is simply not right: it is clearly wrong. As an example, we can return to the so-called constitutional right of a woman to abort her preborn child: it may be no injustice in our society, but it is clearly wrong.

In an Orthodox Christian context, we serve the truth who is Jesus Christ. Our concern is not about justice in the normal, we might say “human,” sense of the word, but about being right and righteous. The concept of justice might be ambiguous in our culture, but being right—and righteous before, with and in God—is never ambiguous: either we are or we are not. Either we are on the mark and right, or “off the mark” which is exactly what the Greek word signifying “sin” means: ???????.

There can be no doubt that, even in a biblical sense, the imposition of capital punishment in some cases is just. The Law came through Moses, but originates in God. There can also be no doubt that in the same biblical sense it is always wrong, and even the authors of the Pentateuch presume this since death itself, in any form, is always wrong and contrary to the will of God for His creation. It is the result of sin. Of course, this is more explicit in the Christian scriptures and I will return to this thought later in my presentation. Let me return to the subject of capital punishment.

I have long been an advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. My active involvement began when it was made personal. Prior to my personal involvement, it was theoretical: while I was vaguely aware of the issue and was always opposed to it in principle, I confess that my views were largely shaped by the injustice of capital punishment.

By this I refer to the fact—one that was vividly demonstrated here in Illinois—that the ultimate penalty of death can be, and often has been, imposed on those who were later proven to be innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. It goes against reason that those vindicated while on death row and subsequently released were the only examples of the miscarriage of justice: when a just sentence is simple wrong. We cannot know how many have been executed when actually innocent.

However, the injustice of our justice system continues beyond this. Rather than equal penalties for equal crimes, the death penalty is disproportionately imposed upon the poorest, darkest-skinned and most shoddily represented among us. Rather than saving the state an expense of life imprisonment, implementing the death penalty costs at least three times as much as the costs associated with sentencing a convicted criminal to life without possibility of parole. Rather than being a deterrent to crime, states with the death penalty actually have higher homicide and overall crime rates. Rather than providing victims or their families any timely sense of retribution, vengeance or closure, the condemned typically spend well over a decade awaiting execution during a complicated appeals process that often causes continued pain and anxiety for survivors.

The injustices of the system have all been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. They provide compelling reasons to abolish the death penalty, and this is why an Orthodox Christian clergyman such as myself was able to work with a broad coalition of persons and organizations to organize against the death penalty. During my presidency of the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty, I worked with persons who often held very different religious or even moral views from the Church, and some were opposed to capital punishment for reasons unrelated to any specifically Christian moral principle, such as for economic reasons. Nonetheless, I became involved because I saw this as both an opportunity to work toward a new moral awakening in our nation, to work for the cause of righteousness and not simply social justice. But above all, I felt it imperative to do what I was able to save lives. In fact, one specific life.

I met the “notorious” Andrew Korkoraleis at the Pontiac Correctional Institution, just weeks before his scheduled execution. Although I had visited inmates before, this was the first time I was to meet with a death row inmate. After encountering the institutional and callous prison personnel as well as enduring a body search, I passed through several gates, which seemed to close out the world behind. I was then taken to a cold, concrete visiting room and was instructed sit in one of four chairs around a bare table. All of them were bolted to the floor.

Andrew, with his hands shackled together, was escorted to my table by a prison guard. Of course, I will not reveal the details of our discussion. However, I need you to know that instead of encountering a monster I found Andrew to be a person of great faith, who was at peace with himself as well as with his accusers.

For all the 17 years he had been imprisoned, Andrew had maintained his innocence. On the basis of that first visit, and many other direct experiences I had with Andrew, I firmly believe that he was indeed innocent of the crime for which he was ultimately killed. Notably, others convicted as accomplices in the same crime (the so-called Chicago Rippers) were either not executed due to subsequent events, or were not sentenced to death. In any case, I cannot communicate to you what it felt like to have bonded so deeply with a person who had spent all of his adult life imprisoned.

Nor can I describe what it felt like to have seen Christ face to face in prison, shackled, alone, with no family or friends. His only remaining family was his Church. His Greek Orthodox Church stood by his side as his family and galvanized the wider religious community in the face of the great social evil of capital punishment. We felt it incumbent upon ourselves to stand decisively for clemency for Andrew and to stand in opposition to the death penalty in general. Even though our pleas fell upon insensitive and even deaf political ears, we knew that we had to do what was Christ-like.

And we tried – with letters, with demonstrations; with all the moral authority we could bring to bear. We publicized the fact that not a single shred of physical or scientific evidence existed that tied Andrew to the crime for which he was to be executed – no fingerprints, no DNA, no eye witnesses. In fact the only evidence against him was a confession obtained by police that Andrew almost instantly recanted.

As the fatal day of his execution approached, we gathered many religious leaders in the Greek Orthodox Cathedral to offer the then-governor our collective wisdom and prayers in his struggle. Former Governor Ryan, as you know, had turned a deaf ear to the religious community in general, and in particular to the religious community of which Andrew Kokoraleis was a part.

On March 17, 1999, our brother-in-Christ Andrew was put to death by the state of Illinois. Two days later I returned home from a very emotionally draining and difficult day at my office and received an ominous letter in the mail. It was from Andrew. With great care I opened the envelope and read the enclosed card. I absorbed every word into my being. I took what Andrew told me to heart and I clearly heard his every word as a personal calling. Andrew’s correspondence gratefully asked and hoped that somehow by his execution others might be spared a similar fate and that all executions might be terminated. He thanked me for the support I had provided him and told me that we would certainly see each other again in the Kingdom of Heaven.

I live everyday with the prayer that Andrew’s dying wishes will be granted. As it happened, two weeks after Andrew’s state-sanctioned homicide, Former Governor Ryan indicated a reduced obstinacy toward the religious community by making a public appearance at a Prayer Breakfast. Later, as we know, he publicly announced he regretted the various decisions he made in regard to the implementation of the death penalty in Illinois and placed a moratorium on executions, although in theory it was temporary until reforms for “fairness” and to ensure “just” executions occur—in other words, so that innocents not be put to death mistakenly, as so many in Illinois almost were, and perhaps—as I believe—actually were. Of course, more recently, under Governor Quinn, the hopeless broken system has been finally abolished—at least for now. Of course, there is still work to be done. Indiana, Iowa and Missouri, three states in which our Holy Metropolis has parishes, still maintain the death penalty. Obviously other states do as well, as does our Federal government. Working for abolition requires a long-term commitment. But after the United States, we will continue on to eliminate it in all corners of our world.

It is one thing to be an advocate for the unjustly accused or convicted. There is a generally recognized nobility in such a struggle. It is another thing—more difficult—to be an advocate for the guilty. Inevitably, this is what those who work for the abolition of capital punishment are—in part. And in our society, there is usually only scorn for those who seek to prevent even the guilty from being put to death by the state.

In Orthodox sacred tradition, every human being is created in the image and likeness of God. We are each of us an icon, an image of Christ and a mirror to one another of God’s living presence in the world. No human being – no murderer, no governor who in essence flipped the switch, nor the citizens whom she or he represents – no one is a “monster.” And every human being, including Andrew and every other death row inmate, is of value and worth as a person. This is true even for those who seem most evil, and this is a mystery and perhaps the ultimate challenge of our Faith.

Saint Paul mentions in his letter to the Corinthians a “more excellent way,” the way of love. In the Bible and in theology, love is not a sentiment or feeling or emotion. It is a manner of existing. The Greek word in the New Testament for love ?????, literally derives from ?ἄ-ἐγώ, “not me.” Thus, to love means to live in such a manner as to not be concerned with the self, but only with the one we love. Of course, the teaching of Jesus Christ is that we love everyone, and this without condition. It means to be concerned with the life of the one we love, and this of course precludes ending that life. Love is always an act of freedom, a choice we make: to love or not to love. And the New Testament is clear, that if we love, we love because God first loved us (1 John). In other words, the capacity to love—and we each have this capacity—comes from God.

But as an act of freedom, love brings us to a place that is really beyond our conventional sense of justice and our commonly shared social ethics (what we ought to do or not do) and system of law. Love is not about law and ethics, but is all about our ethos, our way of being in the world. The simple text of the Bible is that we should love our neighbor (and this really means everyone as the Parable of the Good Samaritan shows). But Jesus Christ takes this one step further: “as you did to the least of these, so you did to me.” And this means precisely that we must treat each and every human being as we would treat Christ. This sounds rather simple, but is in fact the most difficult of teachings. For if we truly love, there is nothing that we would not do for our beloved. And this moves us beyond what “ought to be” done. It moves us beyond categories of right and wrong into the realm of self-emptying for the sake of the other person. It is sacrifice of our life, plain and simple, for another—whoever that may be.

Obviously, such a calling, such a vocation and ethos is simply impossible to legislate and is, as Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon states in his recent publication, Communion and Otherness, “inapplicable in a justly, that is, morally, organized society. It would be inconceivable to regulate social life on such a basis [of unconditional love for our neighbor], for there would be no room for law and order” (Zizioulas). Love is not a law (an infringement on freedom) nor can it be “ordered.”

The prescriptions of the Sermon on the Mount, such as the one to turn the left cheek to someone who strikes you on the right (Mt 5:39) is certainly a far cry from our society’s sense of justice. The call to love our enemies in the Christian tradition is another example of an ethos that is largely inapplicable in the American justice system or, frankly, anywhere in the world. But then the problem, from an Orthodox Christian point of view, is the very idea that justice can be systematically administered in a manner that is “righteous,” a standard that means for us consonant with God’s unconditional, self-emptying and self-sacrificing love and example.

One may point out that I have been an activist for seeking to reform our system of justice. This is not because I believe that the system can be reformed in such a manner as to be consistent with this ethos of love. It cannot. We live in a society of laws, a society of systems, a society where justice requires the payment of debts, not the forgiveness of them (unless you have extremely good political relationships with the U.S. Congress). It is a society where the death penalty still exists because it does, in fact, hold a certain logic of it own, consistent with the lex talionis: an eye for an eye, a life for a life. It also, paradoxically, perhaps, appeals to feelings and sentiment of grief and anger.

Yet as a bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ, I fight against the injustice of capital punishment precisely because the Church cannot abandon or betray or distort the Gospel, and present to society at large an ethos different from that of Christ’s life. In the final analysis, the Church is in this world, but it is not of it (Jn 15:16). Despite the “way of the world,” the Church must persevere in converting the ethos of the world, and this we can only do with acts of love, one at a time.

And so at a very basic level, to change minds and hearts (and the meaning of the New Testament word we usually translate as “repent”, μετανοεῖτε, literally means to change one’s mind), to change minds we begin at a common denominator of language—those elements on which we can agree. These are the practical and moral (because there certainly is a right and wrong) aspects of the calls to abolish state-sanctioned murder of human beings created in the image and likeness of God. On these, all rational minds can agree (whether they will or not). From this point, what I have called our new moral awakening, we can move to the more excellent way, and for Christians this is always the way of love in Christ Jesus.

We will never be capable of healing all the hurts of the world, and fixing all the problems. We are actually told this. Yet to live together as a sign and icon of the Kingdom means to endure in this age and fight against, as Saint Paul so aptly phrases it, our final enemy, death.

The images I presented at the beginning are indicative that there is still a great need for the proclamation of the sanctity of life in all cases and all forms. Perhaps, unlike ancient times, the message of hope that we proclaim at every Pascha rises to a place above where most hearts and minds can comprehend the Good News of the Resurrection. The success of Saint Paul and the Church in ancient times was predicated on a certain cultural perspective of life and death, one that has largely changed in our contemporary, western, technological, scientific and largely urban setting. The Church cannot simply offer words of encouragement to a world immersed in death and corruption. We must be actively seeking to put into action the annihilation of death and the wages of death within our own broken world in an obvious and practical manner. I, and others, will continue advocating in ministries revolving around social justice, for if we can achieve some measure of justice we can move on to righteousness, the “more excellent way.” By this, we can transform our culture from one where the execution of life—abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment—is commonplace to one where the goal is, indeed, the execution of death.

Greek Star: Bishop Demetrios Attends Signing of Death Penalty Abolition Bill

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Bp. Demetrios Kantzavelos

Source: Greek Star

On March 9, Governor Pat Quinn signed legislation to end the death penalty in Illinois. In attendance was Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos, Chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago, and spiritual advisor to the last prisoner executed in the state. Bishop Demetrios praised the decision of the Governor to sign the bill and commute the remaining sentences of 15 death-row inmates as a victory for all Illinois citizens and a major moral accomplishment.

“This is not only a political and legal achievement, but a spiritual triumph of the conscience for all those opposed to capital punishment,” His Grace said in a statement.

Bishop Demetrios is a staunch advocate for abolition of the death penalty, and has worked tirelessly in this effort. He was spiritual advisor to Andrew Kokaraleis, the last prisoner executed in1999. Following Kokaraleis’ execution, Bishop Demetrios became more active in the movement to end the death penalty. He has served as President of the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and is still a member.

Following Kokaraleis’ execution, and well-publicized exonerations of death-row prisoners, Governor Ryan announced a moratorium on the death penalty and commuted many sentences. The moratorium continued under Gov. Blagojevich. Bishop Demetrios has remained active in the effort to make the moratorium permanent. Now that effort moves forward.

The bishop praised Gov. Quinn. “On behalf of the leader of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago, Metropolitan Iakovos, and all our faithful, we may give thanks for this major change in public policy.Yet the struggle for justice and the sanctity of all life is not over. Illinois is just one of 16 states that have abolished the death penalty, so there is much work yet to be done in our nation and, indeed, around the world.” He noted that the Metropolis of Chicago spans six Midwestern states, and he pledged to continue working for abolition, specifically in Indiana and Missouri, “so that along with Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota, every state where we have parishes will be death-penalty free.”

A Greek Orthodox Response to Rabbi David Rosen

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Bp. Demetrios Kantzavelos

This article rebuts Jewish charges of anti-Semitism in the the Greek Orthodox Church after Greek Bishop blamed Jews for Greece’s financial collapse in public comments last month. I wish it went to an editor first (the story of Archbishop Damaskinos should have led the piece) but overall all it’s a serviceable editorial.

Source: Greek America Magazine

Exclusive to Greek America Magazine, His Grace Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos, an auxiliary bishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and Chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago with extensive experience in interfaith and ecumenical relations offered the following response to Rabbi David Rosen, who claimed that “…anti-Semitism is alive and well within the Greek Orthodox Church.” Rosen’s remarks were in response to a Greek bishop’s televised interview during which he made several anti-Semitic references and accusations.

By Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos

One cannot combat bigotry and hate by promoting it at the same time. In his reaction to obviously offensive words, Rabbi David Rosen, International Director of Inter-religious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee, has resorted to the same tactics he regularly denounces. For his protest against the remarks of one Greek Orthodox Christian, offensive to Jews all over the world, Rabbi Rosen has chosen in turn to offend Greek Orthodox Christians all over the world, indicting their Church with an anti-Semitism that is “alive and well.”

Rabbi Rosen rightly objected to recent remarks by a hierarch of the Church of Greece made during a television interview last December. The remarks were clearly derogatory to the Jewish people and obviously based on a profound ignorance of history along with conspiratorial paranoia. Indeed, the Jewish people were not alone in their offense, and Greek Orthodox Christians around the world were shocked and embarrassed. Unfortunately, Rabbi Rosen went too far in his call for “church leadership to condemn and uproot anti-Semitism” when he prefaced this by noting that “anti-Semitism is alive and well within the Greek Orthodox Church.”

Fighting fire with fire in this instance, making gross blanket statements attributing bigotry and prejudice to a whole group of people, does nothing but perpetuate the conditions that lead to mistrust, distance and ill-will among peoples—the very conditions that Rabbi Rosen should be seeking to alleviate.

After all, the Greek Orthodox Church around the world does not routinely indict the Jewish people or faith as “anti-Christian” when the Israeli government or Jewish religious groups and sects in Israel harass or impede the work of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, or cause problems for Orthodox Christians living in Israel or within the territory of the Palestinian Authority. Similarly, when a member of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect literally spit on me during a recent visit to Jerusalem, I did not assume that anti-Christianity was “alive and well” in Judaism. Instead, I recognized the act for what it clearly was: the act of a prejudiced and bigoted Jewish person clearly at odds with the majority, including my Jewish hosts.

Such actions on the part of the Israeli government, religious groups or persons do not and should not be the occasion for an accusation against the venerable Jewish faith. Likewise, the pathetic comments of one clergyman in Greece should not be an opportunity to smear the Orthodox Church.

Rabbi Rosen, in seeking to combat the “outrageous bigotry” demonstrated by Metropolitan Seraphim of Piraeus, called on the Church of Greece’s Archbishop Ieronymos II and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to condemn the remarks. That would be fine, except to note that Archbishop Demetrios of America, as the Patriarchal Exarch (representative) in the Western Hemisphere, did condemn the remarks immediately in the strongest terms: “gravely offensive and totally unacceptable.” Before the end of December, 2010, Metropolitan Emmanuel of France, officially responding to Rabbi Rosen on behalf of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, wrote, “You are well aware of the respect and sincere cooperation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and of His All Holiness, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew himself. I would therefore like to take this opportunity to ensure you that such unfortunate comments have no place in our hearts and minds.” He concludes, noting, “Incidents such as the aforementioned will unfortunately take place, and the language of hate and mistrust will find ways to be heard. This, however, should not become an obstacle in our sincere and fraternal cooperation.”

Furthermore, since Metropolitan Seraphim is not under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, it is, formally and morally, a matter for the autocephalous Church of Greece to address. Yet, it clearly reveals Rabbi Rosen’s misunderstanding of Greek Orthodox Church polity as well as his effort to associate all Greek Orthodox with the unfortunate and offensive remarks of one person.

Undoubtedly, there is anti-Semitism in Greece, as there is in the United States and, unfortunately, elsewhere in the world. What Rabbi Rosen forgets, in his indictment of the Greek Orthodox Church, is that not all Greek Orthodox Christians are within the jurisdiction of the Church of Greece.

He also seems to forget an important part of history. There are specific examples of courage and heroism among Greek Orthodox clerics during the Nazi occupation of Greece in defense of the Jewish population. Far from demonstrating anti-Semitism, Greek clergy during World War II acted for the defense of their Jewish neighbors.

Indeed, when asked by the Nazis for a list of Jews on the island of Zakynthos, the Mayor consulted the local bishop, Metropolitan Chrysostomos. He told the Mayor to burn the original and actual list, then wrote his own name on a piece of paper and submitted it as the list to the German commander. Unable to thwart the Germans’ plans, despite his act of defiance, he warned the Jewish residents to hide in the mountains, where they were actively assisted by Greek Orthodox residents. Similarly and shortly before, Archbishop Damaskinos of Athens had denounced the deportation of Greek Jews to the concentration camps though threatened with execution.

This is not simply anecdotal or legendary. The Jewish organization, Yad Vashem, The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, specifically awarded Archbishop Damaskinos (1969), Metropolitan Chrysostomos and Mayor Lukas Karrer of Zakynthos (1978), with the honor of being numbered with the “Righteous Among the Nations” for their efforts on behalf of the Jewish residents of Greece.

Certainly, the Jewish communities in Greece, like elsewhere in Europe, were decimated by the Nazis as part of the Holocaust. Yet examples abound in Greece of Christians warning, hiding or assisting their Jewish neighbors in light of Nazi plans to deport them. There are documented cases of Jews being discovered in Greek households, though some remained in hiding until the Nazis left the country; along with support given to Jews who fled to the mountains, this certainly cannot be the foundation of a widespread anti-Semitism. Could more have been done? Yes, but that does not justify the denigration of the Greek Orthodox Church, and many adherents of the Church—often inspired and actively led by clergy—risked their own safety to assist their Jewish neighbors. These persons lived up to the ideals of the Greek Orthodox Church and her true “head” who taught that we are to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 19:19; Mk 12:31; etc.) echoing the Hebrew Scriptures (Leviticus 19:18).

One might argue that this is all in the past, and Rabbi Rosen is addressing current anti-Semitism in the Greek Orthodox Church. While I cannot speak directly to the status of relations between Jews and the Church Greece, I can speak with personal knowledge about Greek Orthodox relationships with Jewish persons in the Ecumenical Patriarchate generally and in the United States specifically. The positive working relationship that Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has with Jewish leaders around the world is well known, and hierarchs of the Ecumenical Patriarchate around the world typically have excellent relationships with Jewish clergy. Likewise, in the Archdiocese of America, there have long been many examples of common efforts with segments of the Jewish community, religious and otherwise. In the Chicago area alone, the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago for many years participated in an annual retreat with Christian and Jewish clergy, and continues to work alongside religious and civic leaders of the Jewish community in the region through the Council of Religious Leaders, with the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

There is no doubt that there are persons who identify themselves as Greek Orthodox Christians who do not abide by the teachings of Jesus Christ. Anti-Semitism is one of a number of “gravely offensive and totally unacceptable” attitudes that such persons may display, along with a host of other sinful attitudes as well as actions. This is the reality of the broken world in which we live. Thus, the ugliness of anti-Semitism may, indeed, be alive within the formal “boundaries” of the Greek Orthodox Church as Rabbi Rosen suggests. But it is by no means “well.” Along with every other form of hate, it is routinely condemned—and never condoned. The shocking statements of a bishop in Greece should not be mistaken as a revelation of Church doctrine, but rather as the sad, ugly and hurtful rant of someone who deviates from what the Church actually teaches.

I certainly do not blame Rabbi Rosen or any of my Jewish colleagues or friends for being offended by the rant of the Metropolitan of Piraeus—I was likewise offended, even outraged. Yet it is precisely the practice of judging all persons of a group based on the misdeeds of one or a few—guilt by association—that leads to stereotyping, prejudice and bigotry. This was in the “background” of very offensive comments by a Greek Orthodox cleric. Unfortunately, it appears to be somewhat contagious, for it prompted Rabbi Rosen to respond in kind.

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