On Unity: Moving Beyond Spiritual Tribalism

On Unity: Moving Beyond Spiritual Tribalism

OCF Theme PhotoThis year’s OCF theme is Unity, centered around Psalm 132:1 (OSB),
Behold, what is so good or so pleasant as for brothers to dwell together in unity.
This week is part four of a six -part series centered around Orthodox perspectives on unity. The series will consist of reflections from student leaders and College Conference workshop speakers, leading up to College Conference at the end of December.

It’s hard to believe that the reality game show Survivor has been around since 1997 and appeared in 60 countries! Regardless of country, the goal is the same—be the sole survivor. In the early stages the tribe is all important in helping people survive to the next round, but in reality, even the tribe is just a means to an end—something to be used. Everything in the show serves the ultimate goal of one person “surviving.”

How totally different is our Orthodox Christian faith? St. Seraphim of Sarov (d. 1833) taught, “Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved.” In Christianity, unlike the TV show Survivor, the goal is not just our own survival, using others so that we win. In working out “our own salvation in fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) we participate in bringing our fellow brothers and sisters back to God.

In 1985 I attended a Lenten retreat with Bishop Mar Makarios of the Malankara Indian Orthodox Church in Houston. The Bishop looked at the 35 or so Orthodox clergy and parish lay-workers gathered and said:

If you are in the New York City area these days you will see something quite odd—Indian nationals standing on street corners with clip-boards in hand looking for other Indians. They are trying to enlist them to go home to India for summer vacation by signing them up for a charter flight. They are working very diligently knowing that if they don’t fill the plane – don’t enlist enough others for their flight – the plane won’t fly and they won’t get home!

Seeing the blank looks on our faces His Grace realized that his message was not getting through. Somewhat frustrated he burst out:

My dear brothers, don’t you get it, Christianity is a charter flight! If we don’t bring others with us, we won’t fill the ‘plane’ and we won’t get home to Jesus Christ!!

Over 30 years later, that story remains indelibly etched on my mind. Certainly it was one of the catalysts for my nearly three years as an Orthodox missionary in East Africa, but more importantly it solidified the fact that our Orthodox Christian faith is for all people regardless of race, status, gender, etc. As St. Paul writes, “In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female” (Galatians 3:28). However, the Bishop’s story could be misunderstood. Some might argue that the charter flight is only for those of Indian ancestry. In other words, to be an Orthodox Christian one has to be Greek or Russian or Serbian or Arab. In other words, some would argue that the tribe is what is most important.

Orthodox SurvivorIn theological parlance, this is called phyletism from the Greek “phyle”—meaning tribe. Phyletism is spiritual tribalism and diminishes the universal/catholic nature of the Church. It limits the fullness of the Church, rendering meaningless the words of St. Paul to the Ephesians (4:4-6): “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.”

While our Orthodox faith invites different cultures and ethnicities to embrace the faith and make it their own, it doesn’t require that one become part of that culture or ethnicity to be Orthodox. As an Orthodox Christian we can walk into any Orthodox Church—anywhere in the world—and know that we are one. We might not understand the language or some of the local cultural and liturgical expressions (like crossing our arms while taking Holy Communion), but it is our church.

As an Orthodox college student I encourage you to:

  • Embrace the diversity found in the unity of Orthodoxy;
  • Attend different Orthodox jurisdictions knowing that it is “your” church;
  • Embrace and enjoy the different customs;
  • Be humble and avoid comparing customs, or acting like one is better than another;
  • If it is a parish using a different language, learn a few liturgical words in that language;
  • Be an example of the words in Psalm 132, dwelling in unity as brothers and sisters;
  • Even if someone might not be welcoming, don’t be discouraged. Show that you are part of the Body;
  • Above all, let your Christian love shine through.

In the end it is not about “me” or my tribe, but about our common adoption as sons and daughters of God—being part of His body.

About the Author

Dan Christopulos is the U.S. Country Representative for International Orthodox Christian Charities where he has worked for over 12 years. He has a M.Div. from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Seminary and a MSW. Dan has taught at the high school and college level, managed federal grants in the health field, as well as participating in parish work. He also spent almost three years in Nairobi, Kenya teaching at Archbishop Makarios III Seminary and doing mission work throughout East Africa as the first long-term U.S. Orthodox missionary to Africa.