Are We Living in Diaspora?

 by Archbishop PETER (L’Huillier)  

[Fall, 2003]

   Although the term Diaspora is often used in Orthodox ecclesiastical milieus, it is difficult to find an accurate definition of its meaning.  The literal translation of that term into English is Dispersion; however, one can find the word Diaspora in dictionaries with three closely related explanations: 1) the dispersion of the Jews after the Babylonian exile; 2) the Jews thus dispersed; 3) in the time of the Apostles, Jewish Christians who lived outside of Palestine (Webster’s Dictionary)

     In the Old Testament, it firstly refers to the situation of the Israelite people in exile after the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. Later Jews are found everywhere around the Mediterranean Basin and in the Middle East up to Persia.  But for all the Jews, the country of Israel was the Promised Land and the temple of Jerusalem was the only legitimate place of sacrifice.  So we can understand the sadness of the Psalmist who proclaims: "How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?  If I forget you, O Jerusalem , let my right hand wither!  Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth" (Psalm 137:4-6).

    For the believers in Christ, the position is different.  They remember very especially the prophecy of Jeremiah:  "Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and the house of Judah; not like the covenant which I made with their forefathers . . . But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them and I will write it upon their hearts and I will be their God and they shall be my people" (31:31-32, 33-34).  This prophecy is obviously mentioned as fulfilled in the New Testament.  It is quoted in the epistle to the Hebrews, 8:8-10, and is the theme of that entire letter.  One of the most salient characteristics of the New Covenant is its universality based on the command of Christ before His Ascension:  "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you, and lo, I am with you always, even to the close of the age" (Matthew 28:19-20).  

   Those words of Jesus were something so new that it took some time before their significance was fully understood and implemented.  This was essentially, but not exclusively, the work of St. Paul , the Apostle of the Nations.  He proclaimed the axiomatic principle of the absence of discrimination in the evangelical spreading:  "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).

    In primitive Christianity, there was a strong consciousness of the fact that the Church was the messianic community of the end times and it is noteworthy that St. Peter, in his address to the crowd on the day of Pentecost, affirmed that this event was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel 2:28-32.  This expectation of the second coming of Christ is expressed in the last article of our Creed:  "I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come."  As it can be expected, this fundamental tenet of our Faith has been reflected not only in the thought, but also in Christian vocabulary even if, more than often believers ignore, or don’t pay attention to, this reality.   

   Notwithstanding, the reading of Holy Scriptures and Patristic literature is evidence of this fact.  For example, St. Peter addresses his first epistle: "to the exiles of the Diaspora in Pontus , Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia (I Peter 1:1).  Later, he calls the believers “aliens and exiles” (ibid 2:11).  Such a terminology is common place among Christian writers of the early centuries.  Besides, until now, we frequently use terms which, etymologically, refer to our condition on earth; it is sufficient to mention the word Parish, coming from the Greek verb Paroikein which means to sojourn in a place as a pilgrim.

    From what I have just expounded, it is obvious that the contemporary trend to use the term Diaspora to characterize the Orthodox communities established outside territories where the Church had been present in Antiquity or during the middle Ages is inaccurate and often tendentious.  Surely, the term Diaspora can be correctly used to designate the immigrants of a certain country and they are entitled to keep their language, their customs, and preserve their cultural heritage.  In this area, the local Orthodox community must bring its useful contribution in organizing liturgical services and cultural activities, within the framework of parishes, and the diocese.  Insofar as the unity, or the unity on the level of the diocese is respected, it is perfectly acceptable. 

    This principle was expressed in Antiquity by the people of Rome when the emperor Constantius proposed that the office of bishop was split between two bishops.  The Christian people proclaimed: "Only one God, only one Christ, only one bishop."  It is worthy of note that this ecclesiological principle was strictly observed until the second half of the nineteenth century and when it was infringed it was officially condemned as a heresy.  It is only in the twenties of the last century, as a consequence of the Bolshevik revolution, that this anti-canonical situation has affected America and thereafter other parts of the world.  Needless to say, this odd situation raised, and continues to raise, numberless, unsolvable problems of Church order.

    It happens that a misconception sometimes exists in some places about the unity of the Church universal:  Unity is viewed as necessarily implying jurisdictional subordination.  Actually, nothing was more alien to the thought of ancient Christianity.  I will give only one example drawn from Church History.  It is an account of a persecution which took place in 177 in Gaul .  It starts with the address:  "The servants of Christ dwelling at Lyons and Vienna in Gaul to those brethren in Asia and Phrygia , having the same faith and hope with us; peace and grace and glory from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord."  It is noteworthy that there is no canonical subordination of the Church of Gaul vis-à-vis that of Asia Minor , but there was full communion in faith, love, and sacramental life, and that constitutes the model of unity which must always prevail in the entire Orthodox Church.

[Other articles by Archbishop Peter on this site.]

 

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