Why did Matthew Heimbach happen, and what can we do to make sure this sort of thing never happens again?
Let me sum up the situation for those who do not know it. Matthew Heimbach is a white nationalist with his own profile page at the Southern Poverty Law Center. He was also recently received into the All Saints (Antiochian) Orthodox Church in Bloomington. He was almost as quickly excommunicated once this photo of him (holding the cross) drew widespread attention to his views.
This is not exclusively a convert problem. I have met my fair share of racist “cradle” Orthodox over the years. But in Heimbach’s case, it is a convert problem. Apparently a growing number of white nationalists are beginning to think that the Orthodox Church is the church for them. I have some thoughts about this, but first a little background is in order.
Heimbach’s archdiocese (the Antiochian Orthodox Church) is ethnically diverse. It came across the Atlantic with Syrian immigrants and grew to include a number of different Arabic-speaking Christians. But in 1989, large numbers of evangelicals joined the Antiochians en masse when the Evangelical Orthodox Church converted to canonical Orthodoxy. Heimbach’s own priest was part of that movement as a child. So today, some churches feel a lot like “the old country.” When my wife and I visited an Antiochian parish a number of years ago, an old woman joked, “It’s nice to finally have some white people around here.” Other parishes have a strong evangelical “vibe.” Heimbach’s is the latter. He probably did not have a lot of firsthand experience with Orthodoxy’s ethnic diversity. Rather, he looked around, saw a lot of ethnic segregation, and thought, “Neat!”
Orthodoxy in the United States is pretty segregated. Greeks worship with Greeks. Serbians worship with Serbians. The Russians get two different jurisdictions. That’s what happens when you bring your priests over from the old country. The canons say all our different archdioceses should be united, but it is easier to follow the canons when power and money aren’t at stake.
Obviously, Matthew Heimbach got Orthodoxy very wrong, but I do not think he is the only one at fault. American Orthodoxy failed, too. We need to take steps to address our failures.
1. End our non-canonical jurisdictional divisions. We seem to be waiting for everyone to get on board before we start to merge. Why? Some jurisdictions are going to have an easier time merging than others, so they need to go ahead an merge. The Antiochian Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Church in America seem like good places to begin.
2. Refocus our social priorities. My initial reaction to the Matthew Heimbach story was to wonder what the chances were that someone would not know where the Orthodox Church stood on gay marriage. There is a pretty good chance that Heimbach heard people in his parish complaining about those liberals down the road at Indiana University. Did he hear anyone complaining about how people of color are more likely to receive the death sentence than white folks who commit the same types of crime? Maybe the Orthodox Church should start being as obsessed with poverty and social justice as it is with sex.
3. Evangelize less; catechize more. Matthew Heimbach would have learned more about the church he joined if he had spent a bit longer in catechism. Converts bring a lot of enthusiasm into the Orthodox Church, but we also have a lot to learn. God knows I am hardly qualified to judge when a person is ready to be chrismated! But I do know that in some early churches there was a three year minimum. That seems like a good rule of thumb.
It may take a long time for Heimbach to repent of his racism if he ever does! Excommunication is always a last resort. It is certainly less preferably than never joining in the first place. I do not wish Matthew Heimbach would never have converted. I wish he were not a racist! I wish he would not have brought shame upon the Orthodox Church. If nothing else, a little time would have helped to keep that from happening.