There are different degrees of racial and ethnic prejudice. For many, it is very unconscious, but it is manifested by a desire to stick with those of your own kind, and to exclude others... at least in certain contexts. There are some, however, in the Orthodox Church who are overtly racist and antisemitic, and have ideological reasons for their views. Such people are thankfully a tiny minority, but while we should not make too much of them and blow the problem out of all proportion, we should not make too little of them either. As with any sin, we have to be clear where the Church stands. Furthermore, we have to fight even unconscious forms of racism and ethnocentricism because these things are barriers that prevent people from coming into the Orthodox Church.
Even the most unabashed racists that claim to be Christians generally have enough sense to know that they cannot admit to hating anyone and still make such a claim with a straight face, because the Bible is very clear on the subject (e.g., Leviticus 19:17; Luke 6:27-28; 1 John 2:9-11). However, they will often argue that while they do not hate other races, their love for their own race is what motivates them, and that they want what is best for them -- and they see some form of racial separatism as a necessary part of their "love." But is such a view consistent with Scripture and the teachings of the Church?
The Bible makes it clear that all men have a common origin in Adam and Eve, and so we are all part of the same human family. The Israelites certainly maintained some separation from Gentiles, but not for racial reason, but because of their faith in the one true God, which their neighbors generally did not share -- and also because of the depravity of the pagans on the one hand, and the weakness of the Israelites in being able to resist falling into their sins. Racial separatists point to Ezra forbidding the Israelites from having foreign wives (Ezra 10), but the issue there was the fact that these women were pagans. However, Gentiles could become part of Israel, if they embraced the faith, and this often happened. There is the case in which the Prophet Moses married an Ethiopian woman, for example. King David's own grandmother Ruth was a Gentile who embraced the faith of Israel, and an entire book of the Bible is dedicated to telling her story, which shows her to have been a virtuous woman, whose conversion was completely sincere. And not only was she an ancestor of David, but also of Christ Himself. That same genealogy (of both David and Christ) also includes Rahab the Harlot, who was a Canaanite.
The modern idea of race is not even found in the Bible. You do find racial characteristics noted in some cases, and there certainly is an awareness that the human race is divided into nations which speak different languages, but this is a result of sin. At the Tower of Babel, God confused the languages of men and divided them, to limit the spread of sin (Genesis 11). But these division are undone in Christ, as the Kontakion of the Feast of Pentecost teaches us:
"Once, when He descended and confounded the tongues, the Most High divided the nations; and when He divided the tongues of fire, He called all men into unity; and with one accord we glorify the All-Holy Spirit."In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave or free -- we are all one in Him (Galatians 3:28).
Had the early Church functioned on the basis that racial separatism was acceptable, the Jews would never have mingled with the Gentiles, and there probably wouldn't be much of a Gentile Church to speak of. However, the record in Scripture and in history shows that this was not what was encouraged or even allowed by the Apostles. There certainly were many issues that came up in this regard, because Jews had a long tradition of keeping their distance from Gentiles, but St. Paul constantly admonished both Jewish and Gentile believers to set aside their differences, and to have fellowship with one another. Within a couple of generations there ceased to be any distinction between Christians who came from these different backgrounds.
One of the great desert fathers of the Church is St. Moses the Ethiopian. He was called "the Ethiopian" for the same reason that St. John the Russian was called "the Russian", and St. Maximus the Greek was called "the Greek" -- he was a foreigner to the people that he lived among, and St. Moses was noticeably different from those around him because he was black. Yet not only was St. Moses allowed to live among the other monks who were not black, he was eventually made a priest, and was one of the most respected spiritual fathers of his time. Stories about him, along with his sayings are preserved in "The Sayings of the Desert Fathers," which is one of the most important spiritual classics of the Orthodox Church.
There is nothing in the Tradition of the Church that supports a racist or separatist view. There are canons, for example, that prohibit an Orthodox Christian from marrying a pagan or a non-Christian Jew, but none that even consider the issue of race. A mixed marriage in the Orthodox Church is when a non-Orthodox Christian is allowed to marry an Orthodox Christian.
In 1872, a Synod in Constantinople specifically condemned as a heresy "phyletism," which was the idea that the Church should be divided along ethnic lines:
"We denounce, censure, and condemn phyletism, to wit, racial discrimination and nationalistic disputes, rivalries, and dissensions in the Church of Christ, as antithetical to the teaching of the Gospel and the Sacred Canons of our Blessed Fathers, "who uphold the Holy Church and, ordering the entire Christian commonwealth, guide it to Divine piety"" (Τὰ Δογματικὰ καὶ Συμβολικὰ Μνημεῖα τῆς Ὀρϑοδόξου Καϑολικῆς Ἐκκλησίας, Vol. II, pp. 1014–1015, Quoted in The Œcumenical Synods of the Orthodox Church, A Concise History, by Fr. James Thornton, (Etna, CA: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 2012), p 152).The Russian Orthodox Church's position on this issue is clearly stated in "The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church":
"The Old Testament people of Israel were the prototype of the peoples of God — the New Testament Church of Christ. The redemptive feat of Christ the Saviour initiated the being of the Church as new humanity, the spiritual posterity of the forefather Abraham. By His Blood Christ «hast redeemed us to God out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation» (Rev. 5:9). The Church by her very nature is universal and therefore supranational. In the Church «there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek» (Rom. 10:12). Just as God is not the God of the Jews alone but also of the Gentiles (Rom. 3:29), so the Church does not divide people on either national or class grounds: in her «there is neither Greek, nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all» (Col. 3:11).
...Being universal by nature, the Church is at the same time one organism, one body (1 Cor. 12:12). She is the community of the children of God, «a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people… which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God» (1 Pet. 2:9-10). The unity of these new people is secured not by its ethnic, cultural or linguistic community, but by their common faith in Christ and Baptism. The new people of God «have no continuing city here, but seek one to come» (Heb. 13:14). The spiritual homeland of all Christians is not earthly Jerusalem but Jerusalem «which is above» (Gal. 4:26). The gospel of Christ is preached not in the sacred language understandable to one people, but in all tongues (Acts. 2:3-11). The gospel is not preached for one chosen people to preserve the true faith, but so that «at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father» (Phil. 2:10-11)" (The Church and Nation, II, 1).Do we have national Churches? Yes... and no. We have local Churches. The boundaries of these local Churches often corresponded to national borders, but not necessarily. In the Roman Empire, you had several local Churches within one nation, and several of these local Church extended beyond the bounds of the Roman Empire. But while a local Church may have a predominant ethnic character, they do not exclude those outside of the ethnicity of the majority. In Russia, for example, you have a large number of ethnic groups which are all Orthodox, and which are all welcome to commune and fellowship in any parish.
Aside from the fact that racial separatism is contrary to both Scripture and Tradition, it also has a very practical problem, which is that it has the effect of excluding people from the Church. Our great responsibility as Christians is to fulfill Christ's great commission:
"Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen" (Matthew 28:19-20).
The word translated "nations" here, in Greek is a plural form of the word "ethnos," from which we get the English words "ethnic" and "ethnicity". How can we make disciples of every ethnic group, and teach them to observe all the things that Christ has commanded us if we separate ourselves from them because of their ethnicity? It is not possible. And because it is not possible, it is also not Christian.
For More Information:
Sermon: Hate and Racism
Moses' Black Wife
Stump the Priest: Where do the Races Come From?
A discussion on Ancient Faith Radio: "Ethnocentrism in the Orthodox Church"
Orthodox History: The “Bulgarian Question” and the 1872 Council of Constantinople, Part 1 (which is followed by 6 more parts, linked at the end of each part)