Dimitri Klepinin was an Orthodox priest, a Russian emigre in Paris. The 35 year old husband and father of two went to aid a remarkable and dynamic nun, Maria Skobtsova in her work among the poor, outcast, and marginalized in the city. On June 14, 1940, this ‘flock’ of homeless people, poor families, mentally ill, addicts, prostitutes, opened its doors and arms to a new group of people in need – Jews and Russian refugees fleeing Nazi persecution.
Presumably Father Dimitri had safer options than to serve in a warzone. To provide shelter, and, as later evidenced, ‘papers’ (including fake Christian baptismal certificates) to Jews, was a choice to actively engage in a dangerous path. It was not inevitable for Father Dimitri or Mother Maria to take such an extreme action. It is true that their affiliation with the Russian Orthodox Church put them much more at odds with the Nazi occupiers than members of other Christian confessions. However, the opportunity to not speak, to not act, even to cite extreme arguments of some within their tradition was an available path. Even if one did not justifying the killing of Jews, one could at least justify a Christian ‘not getting involved’ in the ‘Jewish problem’.
But Fr. Dimitri did not choose the route of ethnic or religious isolation for his own safety.
He chose the Gospel. He chose Christ.
An account of the fateful day, when the gestapo arrived at 77 Rue De Lourmel, the location of Mother Maria and Father Dimitri’s community, describes an agent, Hoffman, interrogating the priest.
Father Dimitri, to Hoffman’s surprise, quickly stated all he had done, without regret.
Hoffman gave the priest a choice to make: “And if we release you, will you promise never again to aid Jews?”
Dimitri answered, “I can say no such thing. I am a Christian, and must act as I must.”
Hoffman stared at him in disbelief for a moment, and then struck Dimitri across his face. “Jew lover!” he screamed. “How dare you talk of those pigs as being a Christian duty!”
The frail Dimitri recovered his balance. Staying calm, he raised the Cross from his cassock and faced Hoffman with it.
“Do you know this Jew?” he said quietly.
The blow he received knocked him to the floor.
(a full record of this account, along with a biography and letters can be found in the excellent book Dimitri’s Cross by Helene Arjakovsky-Klepinine, Conciliar Press, 2008)
Father Dimitri (later canonized St. Dimitri) and Mother Maria (St. Maria) were taken to concentration camps, where they were martyred.
I tremble when I think of the witness of St. Dimitri and St. Maria. I do not know if I would have the courage to speak and act as they did. I tremble especially because the argument used by the gestapo agent was not explicitly to ‘deny Christ’ but rather to appeal to a false Christ or false Christianity that was being co-opted by the Nazis. Upon acceptance of this false Christ, Dimitri’s life would have been spared, his life with his wife and children extended, his priesthood intact. “How dare you talk of those pigs as a Christian duty?!” is precisely the words of antichrist. It is not an obvious choice to deny Christ, it is an appeal to comfort, to safety, to nation, to family, to race. It is a proposition that says “Those people are not like you” “Those people denied Christ! They crucified him!” “Those people are a threat to your way of life!” “They are not even really people!” “How can you sacrifice your pure Christian life, your wife, your nation, your children, to these dogs?”
It is a lie that says one can turn away from the least of these,no matter who they are, and still have Christ.
Yet St. Dimitri’s answer is simple, “I am a Christian, and must act as I must.” This answer led to his unjust, cruel death. Just like His Lord’s.
I also tremble because I have seen, of late, a spirit, similarly as seductive and sinister as the one that spoke through Hoffman, speaking again. I have seen a resurgence of racial nationalism, overt and covert, attempting to adopt the language, symbols, and tradition of the Church. I see three-bar crosses, like those worn and held in holy resistance by St. Dimitri, appearing side by side with swastikas, images and words of racial segregation, anti-semitism, and appeals to racial and religious ‘purity’. I see overt examples, like a member of one of these groups standing, wearing an Orthodox cross smiling in front of a picture at the Holocaust museum of Nazi’s marching all while holding a sign “Guess what Jews? We’re back!”
But I also see less obvious examples, and perhaps those are the most chilling. This looks like good Christian folks I’ve had conversations with where ideas put forth by the same groups that stand next to neo-nazis in Charlottesville and push black women at Trump rallies are met with ‘well… I think they have some good points.’ Usually this has to do with a perceived loss of ‘tradition’ or ‘morals’ ‘safety’ or ‘family’… ‘Christian values’……. ‘Order’.
“Order is all now,” St. Maria lamented in 1941.
I saw what happened in Charlottesville last year, an event that ended with a terrorist attack from a radicalized white nationalist, an event that was partially organized by a leader in a group that uses Orthodox Christian symbols and rhetoric, met with a subdued response from clergy and faithful in my own tradition. I thank God my own jurisdiction, the OCA, responded, but it was a minority in the Orthodox world. In many circles I saw the haste to, if not justify, at least to sweep under the rug, to minimize and to equivocate the horrible actions of that day among otherwise good Christians. This was certainly a moment I trembled. And wept. And struggled.
I have seen Christians embrace, or at least minimize undeniably drastic, threatening words used towards Muslims, immigrants, refugees, ‘illegals’ by an administration elected by and large by the Christian vote. Leadership that ran on promises and language that consistently preyed on fear of the other, and promised a return to order and prosperity. Leadership that appeals to allegiance to nation, family, security, all wrapped in the suggestion that all of this is connected to being a good, patriotic, even ‘pro-life’ Christian.
I am not equating our current administration to Nazi occupiers of Paris. I am not suggesting the other ‘side’ politically has the answer. However, I would ask the question – in a climate where an increasing number of immigrants, muslims, refugees, LGBTQ people, homeless and minorities are feeling the existential shadow of rhetoric and policies from our current leadership, what do you think St. Dimitri and St. Maria would be doing?
Perhaps I want to ask the following questions of myself, with genuine fear and trembling, and to anyone reading this who claims to follow Christ:
Is there a situation where you would choose nation, family, or even religious affiliation in order to be safe rather than to save a life?
Are there any groups in the list I mentioned above that you, in your heart of hearts, could be convinced are ‘pigs’ especially if defending them meant losing your life, your safety, your comfort, your family, your nation?
Let me mention that list again: muslims, immigrants (so-called illegal and legal), refugees, gays, lesbians, transgender, queer. Let’s put jews back in that, too. And blacks, latinos, asians, whites, native peoples, homeless, disabled, any other ‘group’ you can think of to classify a group of people.
Do you appeal to your faith tradition to justify some people not receiving the full dignity and protection you would afford to others?
Do you know this Jew?
Additional reading about St. Maria of Paris and St. Dimitri Klepinin can be found at: http://www.incommunion.org