Orthodox Christianity and Nationality

by Fr. Alexander Garklavs

The Lord will judge between the nations, and decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2.4)

This is a difficult topic! It is exceedingly complex and unpleasantly sensitive. It is also extremely relevant. Religion and nationality can form a combustible mixture. There is a serious need for all Christians, and Orthodox Christians in particular, to consider this problem in an intelligent and spiritual manner.

The recent political developments in Eastern Europe, where religious and ethnic prejudices have erupted into bloody conflicts are of grave concern to all good-willed people. The tragic events in Yugoslavia are horrible manifestations of inhuman evil and destructive political ambitions, in which all participating parties are guilty. In addition, for Orthodox Christians the Kosovo conflict brings out deep and conflicting emotions. Somewhat indifferent to the injustice going on in Kosovo before the bombing, we Orthodox became acutely concerned when NATO began its immoral military intervention. The bombings in Yugoslavia escalated the violence against the Kosovars, killed innocent people and only increased the animosity between the opposing sides. We sympathize with our Serbian Orthodox kinsmen and mourn the loss of life and destruction of their country. We have no less sympathy for the sufferings of the Albanian Kosovars. It is only right and just to express mutual compassion.

Curiously, in so doing an inner, anxious feeling arises. Are Orthodox Christian attitudes somehow responsible for the atrocities committed in Kosovo? Is there something in our way of thinking that made this conflict inevitable? These are not just theoretical questions. In fact, the questions became accusations from some commentators. What is our response?

The problem of religion and nationality, as it relates to other religions and nationalities, is universal (for example, Israel, Northern Ireland, etc.) It is a complicated dilemma for Orthodox Christians because religion, culture, social and political life have been so intertwined in native Orthodox nations. There are many examples of how Orthodoxy and nationality have come together. We venerate a number of patriot-saints, who have been canonized because of their military valor and nationalistic victories. In the history of Russia and the Balkans, the Orthodox Church was directly involved in wars of liberation and territorial security. We are familiar with the classic slogans such as "Czar, People, Orthodoxy," or "Holy Russia," or "the sacred ground of Kossovo," etc. There is a sense in native Orthodox lands that the nation and the Orthodox Church are one and the same.

However, Orthodox Tradition also has an opposite view, that Christianity and nationality are distinct areas. We venerate saints who were pacifists or non-violent passion-bearers. We believe that Jesus Christ came to save the entire world and we pray that this may be accomplished. We encourage and promote missionary activity, which, when successful, implants an Orthodox witness in a nation that could even be at war with the Orthodox land (for example, Japan during the Russo-Japanese war). While the Church's role has contributed to nationalistic pride, the alliance of religion and state has also had shortcomings. We know all to well how a "Holy Russia" or "the sacred ground of Kossovo" become, almost overnight, a "Militantly Atheistic Russia" or a "living hell of Kosovo." There have always been strong sentiments in Orthodox Christianity that decry the Church's role in national and political concerns.

This apparent dichotomy, in fact, represents the wide range of Christian tradition. Without getting into the particular differences implied in "nationality" (a cultural community, an ethnic group, a political state, a geographic territory, etc.), we would like to briefly look at the history of the current attitudes of Orthodox Christians in regard to the idea of nationality (as a particular people in a country or countries).

The concept of nationality, as a people comprising a nation, that is a sovereign state with a common cultural and linguistic base, and with recognizable territorial borders, has existed for only several hundred years. In the Old Testament, the idea of nationality was connected to a particular tribal or ethnic group, which may or may not possess a particular home land. The idea of the Jews as people "chosen by God" certainly meant nationality. Furthermore, it was an idea that had a divine sanction, which gave nationality a sense of moral authority and psychological power.

However, that a nationality would possess their own land was far from self-evident. Throughout the history of the Old Testament the Jews would achieve territorial independence only briefly. Their nationality was always subject to other, stronger and hence politically superior nationalities. By the time of the Incarnation of Our Lord, the Jews were as "nationalistic" as any people on earth, meaning that they had a common culture, history, language, etc. Yet they possessed no autonomous homeland and were in an adversarial relationship with their Roman overlords. Their attitude to nationality could be summarized as this: God had set the Jews apart for a special purpose, they had a distinct sense of their nationality which is to be tenaciously preserved and, at the same time, they were often in opposition to the political-geographic nation in which they lived.

We find a different approach in the New Testament. Jesus Christ, in the few instances where he revealed any political thinking, indicated support for the existing political state ("give unto Caesar what is Caesar's" - Mt. 22:21). The apostles would basically restate this ideology ("Fear God. Honor the emperor" - 1Pet. 2.17). At that same time, Jesus and His followers proclaimed the transitory nature of the earthly empires and emphasized another, permanent homeland, the Kingdom of God. "For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come" (Heb. 13.14). As it developed in the early Church, the idea of nationality was important but relative. One's nationality, culture, language, history, are to be observed and honored, but they are surpassed in value and importance by spiritual concerns. "They are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ" (Col. 2.17). There are absolutely no nationalistic restrictions in Christianity, there is "neither Jew nor Greek" in Christ (Gal. 3.28). The apostles took their preaching "to the ends of the earth" not excluding any nationality, and the Church continues to do the same.

Orthodox dogmas and teachings, have consistently proclaimed the New Testament vision. This is part of our faith: we are to be courteous, decent, honest, law-abiding citizens of the land in which we live, unless the laws of that land directly contradict or threaten our existence as Orthodox Christians, and in which case, we are to take appropriate, non-violent, non-destructive measures to try to correct such laws, or give up our lives if necessary. At the same time, we believe that all lands, countries and nationalities are temporary and perishable realities which are subsumed by the reality of the Kingdom of God, of which we have a preview in the catholic and ecumenical (supra-national and universal) Church, and of which we become eternal members through the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit.

However, a different attitude also appeared in Christian tradition. The "new Israel" adopts some of the thinking of the "old Israel" and the notions of "holy nation" and "holy nationality" begin to coincide with the "Kingdom of God." Christians, mindful of their heavenly and spiritual objectives, nevertheless become concerned about "holy" places, divinely-appointed rulers, a Christian empire, etc. These attitudes come into existence with the imperial recognition of Christianity in the fourth century, grew during the Middle Ages, and became an unquestionable part of Christianity. So we see the emergence of a variety of "holy" nationalities with their respective territories and the resulting conflicts with other such entities (for example, the Holy Roman Empire, the Holy Crusades, the holy defense of Russia from the Teutonic knights and the Tatars, the religious war of the Reformation, the holy wars of liberation in the Balkans in the nineteenth centuries, etc.). What is important for us today is to realize that the development of this religious-political thinking takes place with participation and even input of the Christian Church, both East and West. The sacredness of place, land, rulers, people, political ideologies comes to exercise a dominating influence in the course of the growth of nations. The Orthodox Church, no less than the Western Churches, becomes identified with given nations in a symbiotic, quasi-mystical union (recall the "two-headed eagle"). We could say that the religious-nationalistic element has been a more powerful political force during this past millennium than economic or social inequality.

There is a truth in this that we need to recognize, even if some of the historical events have been questionable or unfortunate. Nationality, culture, language, customs, etc., are all valuable components of humanity. A spiritual dimension exists in these components. Nationality consists of shared patterns of behavior including those connected to religious belief, all of which constitute a human community. A person's spirituality and psychology necessarily are formed and nurtured within such communities. One's religious life cannot exist outside of such structures and that is why the Church instinctively allied itself with political systems, culture and ethnic customs. The concepts of "God-loving people," or a "divinely-consecrated emperor," or a "holy fatherland" are noble expression of the highest order. A spiritually sound and healthy relationship between a person and his nationality is a necessary condition of a good and normal life. As the philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev said, "One cannot love mankind unless one loves his nationality first."

Troubles arose when these noble qualities masked greed, ambition, lust and even madness. Because Christianity and nationality became so closely connected, clever and corrupt leaders could manipulate people to undertake dubious projects under the guise of high-sounding moral principles. An amoral, agnostic, vain but talented politician can always drum up support for a cause by appealing to "God, shed-blood of ancestors, holy motherland or fatherland." Young men who go to battle and die because "God is on our side" would be less enthusiastic if they were also told that "God is on the other side" as well. How truly tragic then that decent Serbian Orthodox soldiers, God-fearing Kosovars, and loyal American airmen all prayed to God, for the same thing, as they encountered each other in the conflict.

We cannot deny that among Orthodox Christian people there are strong nationalistic feelings. Often this nationalism is a blind worm-hole leading to folly, fanaticism or destruction. Orthodox Christians, like Christians in general, need to remember the Gospel-inspired attitudes of the early Church regarding kingdoms of this world and the "Kingdom not of this world"; there is simply no other pattern for a life that is honest, good and pure. But the real problem is not nationalism or lack of it (this latter can also be a demonic delusion, as we saw among the artificial Communist regimes). The problem is that the die-hard nationalists are simply not Orthodox Christians, or they are so in name only. No sincere Orthodox Christian, who prays daily, reads the Bible, participates in the Sacraments of the Church, learns about the Church and the spiritual tradition, would ever dream of committing genocide, murder, cruelty or injustice. The curse of nominalism, that is being something half-heartedly or in name only, has made it possible for "Orthodox" people to appear to be endorsing and committing horrible acts.

When considered in a true Christian sense, a nationality can never be offensive to another nationality. Rather, a Christian nation appreciates and learns from other nationalities. The Orthodox Church possesses an inherent capacity for adapting customs of a particular nationality into the texture of its religious life. This is, in fact, a profound example of social impartiality. The Church is always open to engage a surrounding nationality and assimilate whatever is beneficial spiritually.

Today, as the world becomes a smaller and smaller place, the openness should extend to non-Christian nationalities as well. With Christ in our hearts and good-will on our minds, there is nothing to fear in encountering non-Christians and finding positive aspects in their cultures. "Christ, in his humble condescension, is hidden throughout all mankind" (Metropolitan Georges [Khodre]). All Christians are to manifest that receptive nature; it is a mark of spiritual maturity. If the passing millennium was an era of religious-nationalistic hostility, could we possibly hope that the next one will be a time for nationalities to come to a respectful appreciation for each other? What an incredible witness it would be if Orthodox nationalities would assert the Gospel-based, charitable and prudent attitudes towards other members of the human race!

The present crisis in Yugoslavia is not due to anything that is properly speaking Orthodox Christianity. It is due, in part, to sinful actions of some people who pretend that they are Orthodox. It has been inspiring to see that the Serbian Orthodox Church's opposition to their regime's policies have finally been publicized. For Orthodox Christians throughout the world, prayer and charitable help are the order of the day. The cessation of the bombing only means that the difficult work of reconciliation and rebuilding has begun, and it will take years. Our constant hope must be that charity, patience and wisdom will prevail and that all involved will find the common ground of peace.

The crisis in Yugoslavia should also alert us to the dangers of careless and ill-willed manipulation of religion and nationality. Orthodox nations have been susceptible to these dangerous movements in the past. The end result of such movements has always been destructive for people and harmful for the Church. For the Orthodox Church in America ethnic plurality has become rather common, but we need to be conscious of the essential principle at state. Nationality and culture cannot be dismissed or ignored. They need to be accepted in the context of Christian values. "The Church can express herself only in those cultures which accept Christ as the ultimate criterion of what is just and good. It rejects divisiveness and tribal warfare" (Fr. John Meyendorff).

As long as the world remains there will be nationalities. The Church too will exist until the end of time. Orthodox Christianity can provide humanity with that most important of keys, an understanding about the way of the spirit in the life of man. Religion and nationality, when existing in a mutually productive relationship, are the foundation of humanity's fulfilling and meaningful existence.


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