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Orthodoxy, Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict

Paschalis M. Kitromilides


Developments in Eastern and South-eastern Europe during the last decade of the 20th century, following the collapse of the communist regimes in 1989-91, appeared to confirm a long tradition of prejudicial thinking about the eastern half of the European continent, and especially about the Orthodox Balkans as a region of extremes, recurring confrontations and endemic violence. 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 20th-century British anthropologist of the Balkans, Mary Edith Duhram, who characterized Balkan history and politics as "an opera buffa written in blood" (1) .

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 (2) . Among the protagonists in the "opera buffa " and one of the main contributors to multifaceted conflict and disorder in the Balkans has been considered to be 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 behavior and ideological statements to general and all-encompassing theories and interpretations concerning the bellicosity of Orthodoxy and the propensity of the Orthodox Church towards 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 from a religious perspective, but from the perspective of cultural history and from the vantage point of the historical 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 judgment, 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.


1. 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 vicissitudes experienced by the Church in medieval and modern 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 (3), 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 mostly a product 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 (4) .

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 clergy, 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 obvious human submission of its members to the temptations of history.


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

The multifold forms of submission to the temptations of history to which I referred above essentially make up the content of the ecclesiastical history of Eastern and South-eastern 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 modern period. In the case of the Middle Ages, the religious behavior 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 (5) . 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 behavior of imperial states such as Russia or in the case of 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 (6) .

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 behavior 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 them selves. Indeed part of the process 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 20th centuries as an integral part of the articulation and affirmation of the national identity of the newly independent states that sought to consolidate their social cohesion and to affirm their presence against the multi-ethnic empires from which they had seceded. And it was the powerful and captivating rhetoric of national historiography that was cultivated as part of the affirmation of the national culture of these new states that colored the whole earlier historical record and recast the interpretation of the past in order to fit the new ideology of nationalism. Again it must be pointed out, especially to those who see a propensity towards nationalism as germane to Orthodoxy, that the involvement of Christian churches in projects of national affirmation cannot by any stretch of the imagination be considered an idiosyncrasy of the Orthodox world in view of the role of Catholicism in Ireland and in Poland, of Protestantism in Germany and Scandinavia, to say nothing of the role of Anglicanism as a state religion and of imperial Catholicism in Spain and Portugal and in their overseas empires.

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 (7) . Nationality and ethnic claims were not on the Church's cultural agenda before the 19th century (8) .


3. The local national Orthodox churches on account of their discourse and action in the world are not free of responsibility for misjudgments 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 behavior and to earlier, especially 19th-century, phenomena in the Orthodox world. Among recent forms of behavior, 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 for 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. Examples could be multiplied. The role of the Orthodox Church in articulating national identity among the Romanian-speaking population in 19th-century Transylvania is a case in point (9) . Perhaps the epic role of the Russian Orthodox Church in the great patriotic war against the Nazis during the second world war represents the most prominent and heroic expression of the supposed propensity of Orthodoxy towards 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 modern 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 (10) . 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 at the dawn of the new millennium invites the churches, their hierarchies and their lay faithful 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.


(1) Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, New York, Oxford UP, 1997, p. 15.

(2)For effective historical criticism of the stereotype of the Balkan propensity to violence see Mark Mazower, The Balkans: A Short History, New York, Modern Library, 2000, pp.145-56.

(3) A good example of the confusion which derives from basic ignorance of the fundamentals of the historical record is reflected characteristically in Julia Kristeva, "Le poids mys-terieux de l'orthodoxie ", in Le Monde, 18- 19 April 1999 . Similar confusions can easily arise from Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1996, which is open to many misreadings . It has elicited an interesting response by Francois Georges Thual, Geopolitiques de l'orthodoxie, Paris, Dunod, 1994, a work, nevertheless, not entirely free of anachronistic thinking. (4) For a learned and lucid synopsis of Orthodox teaching see Demetrios J. Constantelos, "Ethnic Particularities and the Universality of Orthodox Christianity Today", in Journal of Modern Hellenism, 7, 1990, pp. 89-105.

(5)E.g. D. Obolensky, "Nationalism in Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages", in idem, The Byzantine Inheritance of Eastern Europe, London, Variorum, 1982, study no. XV.

(6) For a classic statement of this view see George G. Arnakis, "The Role of Religion in the Development of Balkan Nationalism", in Charles and Barbara Jelavich eds, The Balkans in Transition, Berkeley CA, Univ. of California Press, 1963, pp.115-44. Also Charles Jelavich, "Some Aspects of Serbian Religious Development in the Eighteenth Century" in Church History, 23, 1954, pp. 144-52.

(7)For further elaboration on the character of pre-modern Orthodox society and on the content of the life of the faithful in it before the age of nationalism may I refer to P.M. Kitromilides, "Balkan Mentality: History, Legend, Imagination", in Nations and Nationalism 2, 1996, esp. pp.176-79.

(8) On this transformation see P. M. Kitromilides, "'Imagined Communities' and the Origins of the National Question in the Balkans", in European History Quarterly, 19, 1989, pp. 149-92, esp. pp. 177-85 (=John Hutchinson and A.D. Smith eds, Ethnicity, Oxford Oxford UP, 1996, pp.202-208).

(9) This episode in the history of nation-building in Central Europe has formed the object of a classic study by Keith Hitchins, Orthodoxy and Nationality, Cambridge MA, Harvard UP, 1977.

(10) Cf. Stevan K. Pavlowitch, "A propos de l'Eglise serbe. Considerations d'un historien orthodoxe sur le malheur d'être une agence, un monument ou un revetement ", in Deltio Kentrou Mikrasiatikon Spoudon, 13, 1999-2000, pp.353-62. This is a very important text that puts the whole question of the interplay of Orthodoxy with politics in its appropriate perspective. On the specific problem of the role of religion in the Yugoslav conflicts of the 1990s, see the testimonies by religious leaders in Paul Mojzes ed., Religion and the War in Bosnia, New York, Oxford UP, 1998, an important work whose significance is borne out in the commentary by Stevan Pavlowitch in The Slavonic and East European Review, 77, 1999, pp.576-79. The same historian's pertinent remarks in Serbia: The History behind the Name, London, Hurst, 2002, are fundamental for understanding the relevant issues.


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