Saturday, February 19, 2011

“ATHENS WITHOUT JERUSALEM CANNOT STAND”: Political Implications of Christian Theology

Third installment of my paper "Ideas Have Consequences: The Theology of Politics & Identity Construction in the Former Yugoslav Republics". See all installments here.
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“For behind all the shortcomings of Byzantium can always be discerned the great vision by which the Byzantines were inspired: to establish here on earth a living image of God's government in heaven.” – Metropolitan (then Bishop) Kallistos of Diokleia (1)

For a variety of philosophical and historically contingent reasons, the West tends to conceive of the civic and religious spheres as distinct and separate. As many have pointed out, the notion of a secular society was completely alien to the East for a very long time. James H. Billington notes that during the “golden age” of medieval Serbia, Stephen Dushan “assumed the titles of Tsar, Autocrat, and Emperor of the Romans; styled himself a successor to Constantine and Justinian; and summoned a council to set up a separate Serbian patriarchate. … To sustain his claim he leaned heavily on the support of Mt. Athos and other monasteries that he had enriched and patronized.” (2) Likewise, “the Orthodox Church in Byzantium...saw no reason to cultivate and incorporate secular culture into its own teaching.” (3) While certainly by the 20th century the Balkans had developed secular culture, there were no catalysts (like the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, for example) in its history explicitly pulling apart the political and the theological.

Peter J. Katzenstein and Timothy A. Byrnes have observed that “because they are expressions of rationalist thought deeply antithetical to religion, the silence of realist and liberal theories of international relations on the role of religion in Europe and world not surprising.” (4) In the Balkan case in particular, there seem to be two approaches to Christianity: one which abstracts away its distinguishing features and understands it as just another irrational attachment detracting from peace and progress, and one which attempts to understand its intellectual content and perceives it as an ideology hostile to democratization and modernization. The former is an outgrowth of instrumentalist theories of identity, and the latter primordialist. Both leave much to be desired.

“Religions and their traditional symbols and rhetoric remain important and extremely persuasive elements of contemporary national and political mythologies. Although latently present all the time, they are particularly exposed during the critical periods in a nation's history. As such, they must not be treated as something that is neither a priori tolerant nor militant; neither in advance conciliatory nor destructive; neither necessarily oriented toward friendship nor enmity; neither a priori zealous nor well-intentioned. In short, religions are neither hateful nor peaceful in advance: their current interpretations and practical activities make them become such.” (5) Here Velikonja epitomizes the first approach, believing apparently that because “the cross and the crescent are easily transformed into the sword,” (6) it would be a fool's errand to analyze any religion on its own terms, Christianity included: “any creed can be transformed into a ruthless beast.” (7)

He relegates religious motivations to the realm of “the irrational, mythical, and symbolic causes,” and asserts that to focus on them would merely distract from the “rational” causes of aggression and obfuscate the “main motives and causes which, in chronological order, are as follows: first, the plan to reunite Yugoslavia under the leadership of the nonreformist segments of the League of Communists and Army hard-liners; second, prompted also by the ineffective policies of the international community, the great-national policies and aggression toward Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.” (8)

While it would be naïve to suggest that the Church is never manipulated by strong states or that its ideas are never employed deceptively or in bad faith, the Balkan Wars can actually be understood as, at least partially, an outgrowth of irresponsible theology. For example, Velikonja discusses “Christoslavism” as the belief that “Slavs are Christian by nature and that any conversion from Christianity is a betrayal of the Slavic race... In short, Christoslavism represents radical Orthodox Pan-Serbian or Catholic Pan-Croatian mythology, whose ultimate goal is a monoconfessional, nationally (and preferably politically) homogenized state.” (9) What Velikonja fails to realize is that he's actually tapped into a belief condemned as heresy by a pan-Orthodox Synod in 1872: phyletism, the subordination of one's church to one's race. (10) “What is remarkable now, in the opening years of the 21st century, is the extent to which phyletism has come to be regarded as natural, normal and even acceptable throughout the Orthodox world... Reasons for this are not hard to find. Particularly since the fall of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe, phyletism has been encouraged by what might be called “hegemonism” – that is, the efforts of various churches to strengthen their own global position. Sometimes these efforts have been justified by reference to the need to provide more effective pastoral care for a dispersed flock. But all too often, these efforts amount to little more than self-aggrandizement and self-assertion at the expense of others.” (11) Recognizing this dimension of the wars opens up more possibilities for dialogue and conflict resolution.

Likewise, he condemns “the false and dangerous logic that there exists only one type of conflict, namely, between faith and nihilism, and that Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus, reappeared,” (12) and points to the fact that “in the Balkans, historical and contemporary developments were interpreted in religious terms,” (13) as an example of the instrumentalization of religion. This further illustrates the tendency in political science discourse to misunderstand Christian societies: bringing religion into the political sphere (or, more properly, understanding the political as indivisible from the theological) and regarding one's entire society in religious terms is legitimate and theologically sound (from, at the very least, the Orthodox standpoint), not an abuse of Christian symbolism or rhetoric. Understanding this helps explain why the Vatican, with which Orthodox Christendom often has a contentious relationship, still hasn't recognized Kosovo as an independent country. In early April 2010, Cardinal Walter Kasper of the Pontifical Council said that “We, of course, know that Kosovo is a heavy wound and pain for the SPC [Serbian Orthodox Church]. We also know that it is the cradle and centre of Serbian Orthodoxy in Kosovo. We understand that and wish to have consideration for it." (14)

However, the blending of the religious and political spheres, and confidence in the universal truth of one's faith, does not, as Velikonja asserts, automatically lead to the conclusion that “if one's faith is the only right and righteous one...the elimination of other faiths—religious and ethnic cleansing—becomes a religious duty; killing is no longer...homicide, but...'malicide,' the liquidation of evil.” (15) One need only to look at Patriarch Irinej's 2010 Paschal (Eastertide) Encyclical to refute this mischaracterization:

“We pray to God that, through the prayers of Saint Sava and Saint Tsar Lazar, peace and freedom are returned to our suffering Kosovo, our spiritual cradle and our Jerusalem, the place of our greatest holy shrines, which are pearls of Orthodox culture and the common treasure of all Christendom. … At this time of the Resurrection, the Church always stresses the value and holiness of human life, from the beginning of conception to the full maturity of every unique and God-like human person, objecting to every form of violence against them. To this end, we are not only reminded by God’s command: Do not kill!, but even more so by the Resurrection of Christ, because it reveals to us the deepest meaning of creation and of the existence of the world and man, which is the salvation 'of all and everything' in the Crucified and Resurrected Christ.” (16)

To ignore the philosophical justifications for integrating faith and society is to doom discourse to irrelevance before it's even begun.

Adamantia Pollis's paper, “Eastern Orthodoxy and Human Rights,” is exemplary of the other approach. In it she puts the intellectual tradition of Orthodoxy on trial and finds that “a consequence of Orthodoxy's cosmology is that it cannot serve as a meaningful and relevant guide to contemporary European life nor to its social and political problems.” (17) Sadly for Ms Pollis, and perhaps happily for the Orthodox peoples of Europe, her conclusions are grounded in profound misreadings of Orthodox theology.

She returns repeatedly to the idea that Orthodox theology “negates the importance of 'man on earth'” (18) and argues that “while Catholics and Protestants combine the spiritual nature of man with his individual distinctive personality and while their concerns include the needs of the living, the Orthodox reject the person qua person and his or her rational faculties and recapitulate traditional, pre-Renaissance, pre-Enlightenment dogma.” (19)

It would be difficult to exaggerate how completely wrong this analysis is. She in fact seems to be summarizing some kind of iconoclast ideology, which was condemned as heresy by the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787 AD. (20) As John T. Koyzis explains, “although the second commandment does prohibit us from attempting to portray the invisible, uncircumscribed God...the fact that God became man in Jesus Christ (i.e became visible and circumscribed) means that he can now be portrayed in an icon. If we prohibit icons it is ultimately because we doubt the Incarnation... Iconoclasm went father than merely to proscribe painted images and embraced a generally negative view of the human cultural endeavor itself. This denial of culture led to a concomitant denial of the goodness of the physical world as created by God. By contrast the Orthodox affirm that the world itself has a sacramental character.” (21) Or, as Saint John of Damascus said in the 8th century: “I do not venerate matter, I venerate the fashioner of matter, who became matter for my sake and accepted to dwell in matter and through matter worked for my salvation, and I will not cease reverencing matter, through which my salvation was worked.” (22)

She goes on to say that because “it is man's spiritual being that is of importance and not his earthly the history of the Orthodox Church any extant political regime has been acceptable as long as it has not challenged the spiritual authority and power of the Church.” (23) Again, she creates a distinction between the physical and the spiritual that Orthodox do not observe: “the whole of God's creation, material as well as spiritual, is to be redeemed and glorified.” (24) “ grasp the aesthetic character of Christian thought is also to understand the irreducible historicality of the content of Christian faith: the kerygma that Christ enjoins his disciples to preach is not some timeless wisdom, an ethical or spiritual creed fortified by the edifying example of its propagator, a Wesen des Christentums, but a particular story, a particular Jew, a particular form. ...worldly beauty shows creation to be the real theater of divine glory...” (25) “The whole man, and not just the soul, is redeemed in Jesus Christ.” (26) Pollis's argument that Orthodox societies can neither conceive of or respect human rights is therefore rendered non-sensical.

Orthodox theology in fact presents an opportunity for just the opposite. As Koyzis explains, “the kingdom of God cannot be seen as merely a transcendent or future reality. … Much as God became man in Jesus Christ and much as an icon communicates heavenly realities to the worshipper, so also is the kingdom of God capable of having an earthly manifestation... God's kingdom is not, after all, Plato's Republic, which is incapable of realization in the world and remains merely an ideal to be emulated. It is rather a present reality.” (27)
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1. Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church. London: Penguin Books, 1997. 42.
2. Billington, James H. The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture. New York: Vintage Books, 1970. 56.
3. Bushkovitch, Paul. Peter the Great. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 2001. 53-54.
4. Katzenstein, Peter J., and Timothy A. Byrnes. "Transnational Religion in an Expanding Europe."Perspectives on Politics 4.4 (2006): 689.
5. Velikonja, Mitja. "In Hoc Signo Vinces: Religious Symbolism in the Balkan Wars, 1991-1995." International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 17.1 (2003): 34-35.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid., 27.
9. Ibid., 28.
10. Stylianopoulos, Theodore G. "The Orthodox Church in America." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 387 (1970): 44.
11. Preconciliar Commission. "Orthodox Relationships." 14th All-American Council of the Orthodox Church in America (2005): 3. Web.
12. Velikonja, Mitja. "In Hoc Signo Vinces: Religious Symbolism in the Balkan Wars, 1991-1995." International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 17.1 (2003): 33.
13. Ibid., 31.
14. Barlovac, Bojana. "Vatican on Kosovo and Serbian Orthodox Church." Balkan Insight 13 Apr. 2010. Web. .
15. Velikonja, Mitja. "In Hoc Signo Vinces: Religious Symbolism in the Balkan Wars, 1991-1995." International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 17.1 (2003): 33.
16. Gavrilović, Miroslav. "Patriarchal Paschal Encyclical 2010." Serbian Orthodox Church. 1 Apr. 2010. Web..
17. Pollis, Adamantia. "Eastern Orthodoxy and Human Rights." Human Rights Quarterly 15.2 (1993): 354.
18. Ibid., 341.
19. Ibid., 344.
20. Louth, Andrew. Greek East and Latin West: The Church AD 681-1071. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2007. 61-62.
21. Koyzis, John T. "Imaging God and His Kingdom: Eastern Orthodoxy's Iconic Political Ethic." The Review of Politics 55.2 (1993): 271-72.
22. Louth, Andrew. Greek East and Latin West: The Church AD 681-1071. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2007. 53.
23. Pollis, Adamantia. "Eastern Orthodoxy and Human Rights." Human Rights Quarterly 15.2 (1993): 347.
24. Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church. London: Penguin Books, 1997. 34.
25. Hart, David. The Beauty of the Infinite. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003. 16-21.
26. Koyzis, John T. "Imaging God and His Kingdom: Eastern Orthodoxy's Iconic Political Ethic." The Review of Politics 55.2 (1993): 272.
27. Ibid., 274-275.

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