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Orthodoxy, Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict

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Prof. Paschalis M. Kitromolides



Developments in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe during the last decade of the twentieth century, following the collapse of the Communist regimes in 1989-1991 appeared to confirm earlier prejudices and stereotypes about the Eastern half of the European continent, and especially about the Orthodox Balkans as a region of extremes, endemic disorder and recurring conflict. This impression has prevailed for a long time in Western perceptions. Important works of Western scholarship, instead of moderating it or correcting it have often contributed decisively to it. A characteristic expression of this attitude in epigrammatic concision came in the observation of a pioneer early twentieth century British anthropologist of the Balkans, Mary Edith Duhram who characterized Balkan history and politics as "an opera bouffa written in blood".

Although a long history has unfolded in the region since Miss Duhram's peregrinations in the highlands of Montenegro and Albania, little has happened to mitigate or change mental habits in thinking and defining the character of the politics and culture of the region. Recent events, especially the civil wars that tore apart the Yugoslav Federation in the 1990s have confirmed and sharpened negative perceptions and stereotypes. Among the protagonists in the "opera bouffa" and one of the main contributors to multifaceted conflict and disorder in the Balkans has been considered the Orthodox Church, which represents the majority religious confession in the area. It would have been pointless to even attempt to sample the pertinent writing, mostly works of journalists and partisan observers who extrapolate from current practices, forms of behaviour and ideological statements to general and all-encompassing theories and interpretations concerning the bellicosity of Orthodoxy and the propensity of the Orthodox Church toward authoritarianism, intolerance, fanaticism and chauvinism. Furthermore such criticism attributes these tendencies and characteristics not to human failure and to the workings of evil in the world or to the historical circumstances that often determine the praxis and the discourse of the Church, but to the fundamental doctrines, principles and traditions of Orthodoxy and of the local churches that compose it.

I would like to challenge this view, not as an Orthodox believer, who finds these strictures offensive and unfair, but as a cultural historian and historian of ideas, specializing in the study of the Orthodox regions of Europe. I do not think that it would be profitable or edifying to attempt to refute such views and arguments by trying to show how hollow, misinformed and often not entirely disinterested they may be. It would be more constructive, in my judgement, to reflect on the historical condition of Orthodoxy and on its involvement in the world. To this end I would like to put forward three propositions as objects of reflection and points of departure for a critical dialogue.

I. Orthodoxy on a social and political level equals ecumenicity in the authentic and original spirit of Evangelical Christianity and of the Christian tradition.

Any serious consideration of the doctrinal basis and of the moral teaching of the Orthodox Church will recognize that despite the vissicitudes experienced by the Church in Medieval and Modem times and despite the temptations of history, the Orthodox Church in the East has retained in its theology and social philosophy the genuine Christian outlook, as codified in the New Testament and patristic thought. It is, therefore, rather paradoxical and certainly occasionally amusing to witness attempts by contemporary social scientists, who try to work out the "theoretical" connection between what they understand as Orthodox teaching and attitudes and the militantly secular political philosophy of nationalism, which is a product mostly of 19th century intellectual and political quests. I am referring here to the Orthodox view and understanding of social and political questions, which has remained firmly anchored in New Testament and Greek patristic theology and has added little to this body of ecumenical teaching since the Seventh Ecumenical Council.

What emerges from this heritage in connection with social and political questions, especially questions of human community and the relations between individuals and groups is the ecumenical teaching of St. Paul against all earthly distinctions of race, class and sex, of freedom and slavery, of wisdom and ignorance in the communion of the faithful. There is very little beyond this that can be found in Orthodox religious teaching. Statements and pronouncements by individual Orthodox clergymen or even by ecclesiastical bodies in particular localities and under particular circumstances can be found to diverge from this overall ecumenical teaching, but these do not express the canonical attitude of the Orthodox Church as a whole and can represent either expressions of its decentralized structure and of the dynamics of local communities or plainly the human submission of its members to the temptations of history.

II. The identification of Orthodoxy with nationalism is a product of anachronistic judgement and misunderstanding of the historical record.

The multifold forms of submission to the temptations of history to which I referred a moment ago essentially make up the content of the ecclesiastical history of Eastern and Southeastern Europe in the early modern and contemporary periods. It is this historical context that explains the identification of the Orthodox Church with nationalism. This is apparent in the writings not only of casual or superficial observers but also of serious historians, who have written authoritatively on the history of Eastern and South Eastern Europe. The identification is drawn both for the Middle Ages and for the modem period. In the case of the Middle Ages the religious behaviour of the Orthodox patriarchates of the Bulgarian and Serbian empires has been treated as one of the expressions of national or proto-national sentiment in these Medieval states. The same logic has guided the narrative and interpretation of the modern history of Orthodox societies in Eastern and South Eastern Europe: the Orthodox Church has been invariably treated as a repository of national identity and national culture either in connection with phenomena marking the behaviour of imperial states such as Russia or subjugated societies such as the Christian communities of the Balkans. The standard argument in conventional historiography has been that the Orthodox Church has preserved national identity in captivity or under the onslaught of Westernizing reform from above and saved the authentic character of the national culture and identity of Orthodox peoples in the Eastern half of Europe.

This I think is a classic case of anachronistic historical logic. It represents a projection backwards of frameworks of thought elaborated in order to sustain the ideology of national churches in the 19th century. If the necessary distinctions and abstractions are made and the historical record is read in the light of the historicity of sources and of the forms of behaviour they reflect, what will emerge is the rather simple fact that whenever we can locate phenomena akin to nationalism, ethnic affirmation and ethnic conflict, the critical factor is the presence not of the Church, but of the state, either in the form of Medieval empires or of modern nation states -projected or actual- trying to establish and aggrandize themselves.

Indeed part of the project of empire- or nation-building has been the creation of independent churches connected with regional state projects. It was this tendency that produced the national Orthodox Churches in the 19th and the 20th century as an integral part of the articulation and affirmation of the national identity of the newly independent states that sought to consolidate their social cohef sion and to affirm their presence against the multiethnic empires from which they had seceded. And it was the powerful and captivating rhetoric of the national historiography that was cultivated as part of the affirmation of the national culture of these new states that coloured the whole earlier historical record and recast the interpretation of the past in order to fit the new ideology of nationalism.

It is true that the Churches, both in Russia and Ukraine and especially in the Balkans under Ottoman rule did provide protection and solace to the Christian people and a refuge to local cultural traditions, but this was a pastoral, not a political, project of the Church in order to preserve the faith. Nationality and ethnic claims were not on the Church's cultural agenda before the 19th century.

III. The local national Orthodox Churches on account of their discourse and action in the world are not free of responsibility for misjudgements and anachronisms concerning their involvement with nationalism and ethnic conflict.

Everything that I have said so far appears to be in glaring contradiction to recent forms of behaviour and to earlier, especially 19th century phenomena, in the Orthodox world. Among recent forms of behaviour the involvement of members of Orthodox clergy and laity invoking their Orthodox identity in ethnic and civil conflicts in Yugoslavia, the fiery rhetoric in the Church of Greece over a range of political issues, the involvement of the Church of Cyprus in nationalist struggles in the island represent but a few examples. Among 19th century historical phenomena the role of the Greek Orthodox Church in the promotion of Greek irredentist projects and especially the involvement of Greek and Bulgarian clergy in the violent struggles in Macedonia constitute perhaps the weightiest evidence on the identification of Orthodoxy with nationalism and might be cited as cases of the contribution of the Orthodox Church to the inception and escalation of ethnic conflict. The examples could be multiplied. Perhaps the epic role of the -Russian Orthodox Church in the great patriotic war against the Nazis during World War II represents the most prominent and heroic expression of the supposed propensity of Orthodoxy toward nationalism -an expression, which Western critics of Orthodoxy do not like to mention when castigating the Orthodox Church for this propensity.

My argument would be that all these cases and examples, all this mass of supposed evidence, essentially points to one thing: the way modem state logic has manipulated and has been internalized by ecclesiastical institutions - to the point that one could legitimately suggest that the national Churches have undergone a considerable degree of de-Christianization in their values. This whole syndrome, nevertheless, does not tell us anything about Orthodoxy, about the character and essentials of Orthodox faith, about Orthodox social values, about Orthodoxy's attitudes in the world and especially about the Orthodox conception of human persons and of the community in which they ought to live.

Christian humility invites us to serious introspection and soul searching over precisely this aspect of the Orthodox predicament: the gradual, unconscious and unreflective substitution in the scale of values of the official churches of faith in the nation in place of faith in Christ. This should be a source of self-criticism, of a serious appraisal of the historical trajectories of the Church and of a reawakening of a Christian perspective on the Church's involvement in the world.