Five years ago, well before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the National Geographic Society had anticipated the reunification of Germany, and thus when the happy day came, it was ready for the onslaught of map revision that was shortly to follow. Prepared as the Society was then, however, it must now, like the rest of us, stagger under the weight of the challenge from Eastern Europe. Once-minute tasks, like revisions in place names, now require massive computerized shifts in orthography from Russian to Ukrainian to English. Most of us came to know world maps as sturdy planes of thick rag paper; now the computer has made it possible for nations to appear”or disappear”with the nibble of a computer mouse.
The real problem presented by the new face of Eastern Europe is not that our minds must adjust to new realities, but precisely that they must adjust to old ones. And these turn out to be the more terrifying. Among the archetypes that give shape to our fears, it is the specter of the ancient curse”the wizened mummy awakened in the tomb or the frozen cave dweller thawed from aeons of sleep”that induces the greatest terror.
Only now has America realized how comfy the Cold War had become. True, Ronald Reagan did recall from the deeps of liberal silence the names of “captive nations”; but Eastern Europe largely transcends American ethnic politics and hence has been of only glancing concern to American politicians. Moreover, “The Soviet Union” is a term infinitely more comfortable to pronounce than Kazakhstan or Ossetia or Nagorno-Karabakh. The Kazakhs, or Ossetians, or the embattled Armenians of Karabakh were there all along, of course. But in the old order, we could remain comfortably oblivious to their existence; if they suffered, the “news” knew it not.
Now that such peoples are rising up, they confront us with a real problem. They make demands. They engage in disputes with their neighbors and with us. Freed of their shackles, they sometimes kill one another, and in extremely nasty ways. Nor are they inclined to stop just because we”the people, after all, who had for so long consigned them to oblivion”tell them to. As for us, it begins to dawn upon us that these disorderly strangers might very well constitute a threat to the order of our world. A creeping war in Eastern Europe might one day even result in our sending our own boys (and girls) to die. Meanwhile we are horrified to watch the children of others dying in places whose names the National Geographic Society is now recasting.
As a result of all this, newly resurrected ethnicities, like walking mummies in a B-movie, have become a focus of our fears. For many newspaper columnists and former Sovietologists, who fed on the Old Order, these new peoples are as welcome as Godzilla in post-Hiroshima Japan. In his “chicken Kiev” speech of 1990, for example, President Bush recognized an embalmed Ukraine colorfully enshrined in museums of folklore with its beautiful Easter eggs and muscular dances. Yet he denied the country the status of a real nation when he warned it against “dangerous nationalisms”; the price Ukraine would be required to pay for the new world order, it seems, was a confinement to the bonds of the old. Once Ukraine declared its independence and established a free Ukraine as an incontrovertible fact, however, it must be said that President Bush adjusted to the new political reality”whereas academics, journalists, and Sovietologists have not. (Nor, we fear, may President Clinton. He tends to draw his advisors from the ranks of thinkers shaped, after all, by the old order.)
One journalist, Stephen Budiansky, a senior writer of U.S. News & World Report , wrote an article entitled “In the Healthy Grip of a Great National Idea.” Budiansky contrasts Americans, who so wisely show themselves capable of self-mockery, with the Ukrainians, who are said to “nurse grudges” as they venerate heroes steeped in blood. Bogdan Khmelnytsky, the seventeenth-century Cossack who murdered Poles and Jews en masse as he liberated Ukraine from Polish domination, was one such hero.
I am an Orthodox priest, and have never been a “Sovietologist.” My fields are theology and the symbolic imagination. But being a member of the Orthodox Church, I now find that I have willy-nilly become a part of the new demonology. For since the imagination of long-suppressed peoples clothes itself in both theology and symbol, such peoples’ theology often comprises the essence of their politics”a fact that secular scholars have great difficulty in grasping. During the Cold War, we Orthodox were consigned to the dustbin of history, by the West as well as the East. I well remember the conditions under which Orthodox academics labored before the momentous year of 1989–90. I myself once sought a grant to study the relationship between religion and ethnic politics in the then USSR, and thus had an interview with a secular Sovietologist who controlled the pursestrings. This scholar, who had cheerfully funded such work as the unearthing of analogues to Western feminism in the USSR, said in turning me down, “Quite frankly, we fear you will pursue a religious agenda.”
That much of Eastern Europe is now pursuing a religious agenda, notably devoid of Western feminism, no doubt now annoys my former referees. The fact is, religion”often in its Orthodox form”has become “hot,” and most analysts seem to be remarkably incapable of dealing with it. Illiterate in theology and Orthodox thought, many analysts simply engage in recriminations. Barely disguising their contempt, they wonder at Ukrainians who can spend hours droning psalms in church while their economy is in a state of collapse, or, even more persistently, profess a horrified puzzlement at peoples, as in former Yugoslavia, who can rape and murder in the name of faith. Thus faith”and above all, a faith that identifies itself in any sense with the ethnic, cultural particularity of the people who profess it”has become discredited in our time.
Even the famously religious among us can fall into the same trap. Elie Weisel, on a journey to Sarajevo to negotiate at least some preliminary steps toward peace, met first with Bosnians. Then he met with Serbs. This veteran of horrors, this philosopher who has spent his life staring at the face of death and contemplating injustice, said in an offhand remark in French, captured by a news camera as he left a meeting, “How can one make peace with such people!” “Such people.” That is what the reemergent nations have become. And the religious community in the West often approaches them with quite the same frame of mind as that of the secular powers.
We Orthodox in the West, so much affected by the new shifts in the world, are deployed in the space between polarities. Western ourselves, we are yet “of the East,” at least in theological terms. It is a frustrating place to be. The academy in the West has of late grown quite intoxicated with its efforts at pluralism, struggling, that is, to understand traditions not “of itself.” The problem is that the very act of understanding itself becomes a factor in our separation from the academic culture. For the truth is that the religious mind and the contemporary secular mind “understand” things quite differently.
In this postmodern era, deconstructionist analysis and an enshrined relativism make of every phenomenon but a ghostly apparition, dependent upon the interpreter for meaning. The interpreter, in turn, is dependent upon other interpreters. The only certainty in this plastic process is the critic, endowed with the empowering insight to realize that all meaning (except, of course, that which the critic discerns) is a chimera. Nothing could be more despotic than this “democracy of meaning,” for in it the Western critic controls the process by which meaning itself is to be discerned. The apostles of “diversity” control the processes by which thought itself is to be judged as “valid.” Thus Western secular intellectuals use the mind in much the same way as the Western news media use the camera: selectively, and with the conviction that the tool confers existence itself upon that on which it focuses.
Of course, well-meaning Western intellectuals seek to understand what is going on in Eastern Europe. The problem, as we said, is that they imagine that the peoples of the rest of the world share their own criteria. A few examples should suffice. “Ukrainian nationalism,” so often cited in the West as a problem in the new world order, is defined in purely secular terms, American intellectuals being profoundly suspicious of any metaphysical or spiritual dimensions of “nationhood.” The fact is, however, that peoplehood in Eastern Europe was suppressed according to a secular agenda; the rediscovery there of such things as national identity, spirituality, and the possibility of transcendence takes place primarily through a repudiation of the old secular order. Thus the “misguided” Ukrainians and the “backward” Belorussians and, yes, the “fanatical” Serbs derive their rediscovered nationhood in large part from theological sources.
Not that we Orthodox, especially in the West, are comfortable with this new process. We had in fact grown quite comfortable with our old status as martyrs. It was with great pain and astonishment that some of us awoke to the realization that we ourselves could with such great rapidity become parties to repression. As recently as l989 I myself published a book, The Illuminating Icon , based on the assumption that Orthodoxy would remain oppressed for a long time, and treating the Russian religious mind to the kind of liberal analysis that seems to flow naturally from such an idea. Now, a bare four years later, my friends in Moscow estimate that at least 20 percent of the Orthodox clergy have sympathies they would have to classify as “fascist.” I also went to Russia, as a deacon, assuming that Orthodoxy in Eastern Europe could survive only in the frame of a kind of “pan-Slavic” Russian Orthodox Church. My experience there, in both a seminary and a parish, carried me, much to my own surprise, into the priesthood of the Ukrainian Church. For anyone who wades even ankle deep in the spirituality of Eastern Europe, it turns out that nationalist allegiances cannot be overcome. After the death of the old order, the process of “becoming” involves commitment to a new kind of vision of who one wants to be. What the West defines as “nationalism” has there become the necessary birth pangs of a new order.
We theologically committed believers in the West can understand this process only if we look honestly at what has become of us in America. The canon of self-discovery pervades America’s spiritual landscape, with sexuality very often the key to commitment. The shelves of the country’s bookstores are packed with weighty analyses of such phenomena as cross-dressing and transsexuality as metaphors for the postmodern mind. The very enlightened Westerners who regard the nationalist, sectarian conflicts of the new order as reprehensible, then, are at the same time prepared to endorse an ecclesial community based on homosexuality or even the proclivity to wear the undergarments of the opposite sex. Economics can lie at the heart of a Western vision of sin, and a good theologian can anathematize the idea that the poor should submit to their poverty. Yet at the same time the aspiration to nationhood of a specific people is held to be a dangerous idea, an idea to be suppressed in the name of humility. Clearly, there are certain deep divisions in our ideas of what should constitute genuine community.
Now, it seems to need saying that Orthodox people in America share their fellow Americans’ dismay at the slaughter in Bosnia, at the religious hostilities between the Orthodox and the Catholics in Ukraine, and at the threatened resurgence of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe. And while it is certainly true that Western journalists and intellectuals have always been quick to judge that about which they know little or nothing, it is also true that our dismay is not enough. We Orthodox are not speaking out as we and only we should. Our publicly expressed shock at the offenses “on both sides” in Bosnia is insufficient. We are not entitled to say, even among ourselves, that our feelings should be tempered by the fact that those who are outraged at atrocities against the Bosnian Muslims were once silent at the slaughter of Serbs, or that those who condemn religious riots in Ukraine once denied the holocaust of mass starvation in that nation, or that we Orthodox have been made the scapegoats for world anti-Semitism. It is for the others to bear the weight of their offense against us: our business as Orthodox is to condemn our own, whenever our own deserve condemnation, and to join with others in the enterprise of peacemaking.
Our critics are right, then, to call us Orthodox to task for our silence. At the same time, however, they too become a party to our offenses when they fail to publicize and empower the few brave voices among us. Patriarch Paul of Serbia, a firmly traditionalist Orthodox hierarch, has spoken frequently and with great spiritual discernment of the hostilities in the Balkans. Greeted by thin and treacly American media attention, he has visited the United States for assistance in his appeals for peace. In Europe, he has joined with Catholic and Muslim leaders in making concrete proposals to stop the slaughter.
Robert Pianka, a Catholic managing Orthodox relief efforts in Belgrade, sees Patriarch Paul as the victim of tragic neglect in the West: “The only real institutional survivor in Serbia is the Church,” says Pianka. “The State could not digest it. And the only moral voice in Serbia which cannot be silenced belongs to Patriarch Paul. The West needs to hear him.” Heroically counterposed to the former apparatchiks who manage the “kleptocracy” of modern Serbia and profiteer from the war, the Patriarch is a moral giant among his own people. The Patriarch, however, is an “Old Calendar” traditionalist even by Orthodox standards; he does not attract that wand of visibility which American commentators reserve for the lights of religious liberalism. The American media ignore Patriarch Paul and inadvertently legitimize, with their cameras and wire reports, the den of thieves in the Serbian political arena. Thus Serbs feel that the Americans, yet again, blind themselves to the moral particularity of the Orthodox East. Most Orthodox Americans, well aware that America spends little sympathy on the Orthodox, respond with a defensive silence.
We Orthodox are surely permitted to ask that someone show concern when we, too, are persecuted. But that is no excuse for silence now. The fact is, our way of understanding ecclesiality, our mode of perceiving community, is the source of our greatest God-begotten belonging. It is also the case that a misunderstanding of ecclesiality and the nature of “church” can also be the source of our greatest estrangement from God. Today a conviction of who is “us” and who is “them” again leads us into a black hole of hatred of the Other. Unless we act now, when the clouds of war again gather in Europe, we can be sucked up into a vortex of hate, into communion with the Evil One.
Historically, Eastern Orthodoxy has conceived of ecclesiality, of eklesia itself, as being to some degree a function of ethnicity and nationhood. To be sure, Orthodoxy has used the term “phyletism” to describe the virtual equation of church with ethnicity and has condemned phyletism as heresy. Yet at the same time, Orthodox thinkers regard the separation of “church” and “culture” as a false separation, or at least a separation impossible to achieve in the life of a believer. Insofar as “nation” is an expression of language and culture, then, faith is an inseparable part of national and ethnic identity.
Orthodoxy takes very seriously that quality we call “holiness,” both as it applies to God and to all that partakes in God’s creation. And sanctity itself is often expressed through the medium of nationhood. As a sample, we may look to Metropolitan Ilarion (Ohienko) (1882–1972), a Ukrainian Orthodox bishop and intellectual who headed the Ukrainian Church in Canada. “The choir of saints from each nation,” he said, “serves as the strongest spiritual foundation of that nation, and a strong spiritual foundation guarantees a strong nation.” As one might expect from one whose nation is embattled, the Metropolitan wrote in defensive terms: “Blessed is the fate of the nation which knows its holy intercessors well and calls upon them for defense of land and people.” The tradition of the podvig, the ascetic internal warfare against the basest elements of the Self, becomes externalized. The podvig is a collective struggle for “holy nationhood,” separate from all other nations. The independent, “autocephalous” church is a prototype for the independent nation: “Our Ukrainian Orthodox Church is an autocephalous (independent) church. This autocephaly is sustained by our choir of saints. We must assiduously and properly compile the lives of our saints in written form, which will continue such sustenance.”
The Metropolitan wrote these words a generation ago in arguing for an independent Ukrainian Church. Other Orthodox have been painfully slow to recognize the Ukrainian Church, just as they were in the past about acknowledging other autocephalous Orthodox churches. Yet that is a part of the acknowledged Orthodox process: the recognition of the church arises in concert with the acknowledgement of the nation and the language from which it springs. In public ceremony, the celebration of “all saints” of the newly emergent nations has accompanied their reemergence into the political arena. Metropolitan Ilarion acknowledged the power of narrative, the life of the tale, when he urged that the lives of national saints be preserved and celebrated. Ukrainian believers”like Serbian believers, Russian believers, Romanians, Georgians, Greeks and others of Orthodox tradition”see their nationhood, ever renascent after oppression, as a function of their ecclesiality.
Love is a belonging that transcends the Self. Not surprisingly, then, the national church “reverberates,” all its members participating as they do in the common life of nationhood. Like the utopian vision of Marxism, the spiritual identity of state and church inspires. Unlike the Marxist consciousness, however, Orthodoxy extends its domain beyond the grave. In that sense, the people of God as embodied in a believing ethnos or nation take on a collective persona capable of sacrifice, martyrdom, sanctification, and resurrection. The political theory of Byzantium, which envisioned church and state acting in synergistic harmony through time, continues to exert an attraction in Eastern Europe. Even in the eyes of the revered western Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, it was this Byzantine vision that determined the Orthodox idea of “Christendom.”
Father Schmemann was Orthodox, and he was also a profoundly modern Christian thinker. Unlike many Orthodox in Eastern Europe, he recognized that “Christendom” as a political, juridical concept was dead. Even so, the idea of Byzantium exerted a pull upon him and his influential scholar-colleague at St. Vladimir’s, Father John Meyendorff. Father Meyendorff was the seminal Orthodox Byzantinist of the century; and Father Schmemann, in his lectures and writings, conferred a nobility upon Byzantium even as he certified its demise, calling it the “grand but failed experiment.”
Father Schmemann, did not, however, survive to see the renascence of the idea of Byzantium struggling once again to be reborn at the very funeral of Communism. Thus he had no way of knowing that for some the experiment was not over. It survives still, at least in the hopes of many modern Orthodox. KGB files tell the story of which Christians collaborated with the Marxist authorities: they cannot fully reveal the motives of the collaborators. Some, of course, sought wealth or escape from punishment. But some, I am convinced, truly sought to serve the “national Church,” temporarily encased in a cocoon of Soviet repression. They saw collaboration as the price of survival.
The apparatus of the modern Eastern European state is just now taking shape. Most of the new nations, for example, as yet have no real constitution. There is, however, a kind of timeless synergy between the civil authorities and the church. Yeltsin appears, prominently, with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, Aleksei II. Aleksei, who served in Soviet times as the very model of an urbane and compliant hierarch, apologizes for his former lapses in courage: in an interview with me in 1990, as Metropolitan of St. Petersburg (then Leningrad), he carefully explained that through cooperation with the authorities he was able to gain valuable concessions for the Church. Leonid Kravchuk, president of Ukraine, angles to preserve, promote, and protect his own preferred hierarch, Metropolitan Philaret of Kiev. Just as Kravchuk was once a Communist and is now a nationalist, his friend Philaret, too, has undergone a metamorphosis. He was an openly compliant “Russian” Orthodox bishop in Ukraine, was then deposed by the Russian synod, and has now become a champion of a new independent Ukrainian Church.
Such compromises, great and small, have become the focus of much criticism of the Orthodox”and not only in the West. The Ukrainian Catholics are a living repudiation of the Orthodox rationale for cooperating with their Communist masters, namely that it ensured the survival of the Church. The Orthodox have yet to acknowledge, in fact, that stoic resistance to the oppressive Soviet regime in Ukraine won the Ukrainian Catholics (whose liturgy and structure, by the way, is virtually indistinguishable from the Orthodox) a new and vibrant credibility. Cardinal Lubachivsky of Lviv, restored to the Ukrainian Catholic cathedral of St. George in that city, took pride, he told me during a conversation in 1991, in his church’s enduring strategy of resistance, dating from the time of its fierce persecution in western Ukraine after World War II, when Stalin annexed the area to the Soviet Union. In the mind of the Cardinal, loyalty to the Church was equivalent to, a paradigm for, loyalty to Ukraine. The Orthodox now find it difficult to acknowledge the truth that many Orthodox who did not suffer imprisonment, indeed, who relied upon the more compliant Orthodox Church for their sacraments and spiritual nurturing, later became Ukrainian Catholics”in recognition of the witness they themselves had been unwilling or unable to bear.
The whole problem of political compromise, however, can distract from the central problem, and as it happens, the Ukrainian Catholics nowadays face the very problems once endured by the Orthodox. In dealing with the apparatus of the modern state, they, too, must make compromises, and these in turn cause division in their ranks. In other words, the dilemma that has become virtually coextensive with Orthodox reality is no longer unique to the Orthodox. Insofar as a specific Orthodox church is connected to a new sense of nationhood, its modern identity is as yet unclear. The state of the Church in Eastern Europe recalls those chilling lines from Randall Jarrell’s wartime poem, “From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State, / and I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.” For two and three generations, most of the Orthodox in Eastern Europe have survived in the icy incubation of the Marxist state. Their role and identity are unclear, often even to themselves. Anyone familiar with the daily reality of believers under the old order, as well as their painful transition into the new, knows the price of a thousand compromises and indignities etched into the soul.
Having been granted the confidence of many a wizened Russian believer along with many a newly baptized one, I am certain that their crises are similar to those of believers in the other Eastern European countries. They identify the Church with a kind of purity at the center of the nation they cherish, yet they are simultaneously unsure as to what, precisely, constitutes that nation. And as we observe in both personal and international relationships, an unclear sense of self can be dangerous. One who is unsure of himself often relies for a sense of identity upon a hatred of the other. The Gospel itself approaches the “threatening other” with a sense of play and paradox: if we are to “love our enemies” and “do good to those who persecute us,” then our love has transformed the very category of enemy. In so doing, of course, it has also expanded the borders of the self.
But there is one clear problem with national churches. Love may have no limits in Christ, but nations clearly have borders. What is more, they fight and kill to protect and extend them.
For the Ukrainian Orthodox Church the dilemma is embodied in the very name of Ukraine. In Slavonic etymology, Ukraine is u-kraine, “at the border.” Ukrainians are a people, whether in their majority Orthodox or minority Catholic incarnations, who have perpetually lived “at the borders””in that creative realm which the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin called the mezhdumir, the “between world.” Some contemporary analysts, refugees from the old Sovietology, carp that Ukraine is a mere “construct” (as if any nation were not a “construct”), a modern creation. But the mezhdumir, that space at the outer reaches where Slav meets non-Slav, where the Self meets the Other, is its very environment. There has, in other words, been a Ukraine as long as there has been a border: Ukraine is a function of Slavic identity itself.
Most of the new nations in Eastern Europe are weary of being defined by others. Surely, this should not be difficult for a Western thinker to understand. Look at the a fortiori example of the battle for definition being waged on the American campus and on the shelves of American bookstores. Feminist writers, in their quest to speak on behalf of all women, strain to define themselves against the male “other,” who in their minds has heretofore been the custodian of the category of femininity. Similarly, homosexuals no longer wish to be defined by heterosexuals as practitioners of a “behavior”; they wish to define themselves as an identity, a veritable metaphysical state of which the behavior is a mere symbol. African-Americans, since they do actually constitute a people, come closest among Americans to sharing some characteristics of the quest of the new Eastern European nations. They have labored down through the generations to define who they are, and in successive waves of self-styled identity have moved from “Negro” to “Black” to “African-American,” all in a quest to claim a separate and defined “self.” The difficulty for so many of us, then, lies first in discovering who we are and then finding some way to interact with those who have for a long time been doing us injury in their identification of us.
Orthodox churchgoers would by and large insist that Orthodoxy, in the perfection of its ecclesiality, embeds within itself the kind of transcendent love that promotes perfect community. Alexei Khomyakov (1804–1860) developed the notion of sobornost, that perfect community within which all national, ethnically defined churches engaged each other in a community of love. In Khomyakov’s systematics, faith is in its very nature something not to be found in the single believing individual, but rather something experienced in the community of those who share it.
Faith is always the consequence of revelation recognized as a revelation; it is the perceiving of an invisible fact manifested in some visible fact; faith is not belief or logical conviction based on conclusions, but much more. It is not the act of one perceptive faculty separated from all others, but the act of all the powers of reason grasped and captivated in all its depth by the living truth of the revealed fact. Faith is not known or sensed only, but it is known and sensed together, so to speak; in a word, it is not knowledge alone, but knowledge and life.
“Faith is not known or sensed only, but it is known or sensed together.” This principle held great promise in a divided century. Khomyakov wrote these words as an antidote to what he saw as the imperiousness of the Roman see. The principle itself, however, was often applied by Khomyakov’s admirers in an also imperious Russocentric national context: the sharing of common culture was thus seen (and is seen still) as the mark of a theological perception.
Khomyakov’s principle, derived from Orthodox Patristic sources, is laced with ironies. His expression of universality was written precisely in reaction against the West, identifying an explicit rejection of “the Western” as a mark of the holy. This attack against “partitive thought” has served to this day as an intellectual tool for numerous Orthodox thinkers who in defining themselves have leaned heavily on their distinction from the West. On the other hand, this apology from Khomyakov, the archetypal Slavophile, was first written in French. Not until four years after his death in 1860 was it published in Russian. Indeed, one could argue that Khomyakov’s articulation of Orthodoxy depended for its very formulation on a Western intellectual context. Finally, Khomyakov was a Russian, writing in an era of profound Russification. To this day, for example, the Orthodox community has not fully extended sobornost to a manifestly Ukrainian Church independent of Moscow. Orthodoxy is caught in a modern paradox. Identified even by its confessors through its Eastern and Byzantine antecedents, it professes the universality of the Gospel. Unwittingly, Khomyakov put into the minds of those who responded to the universality of his vision a powerful weapon for divisiveness.
The Orthodox, then, have theorized eloquently about the harmonic structure of the Church, in which all local churches participate in one loving communion. This idea well expresses our ecclesiology; but there is from a practical point of view one apparent flaw in that ecclesiology: it bespeaks perfection. An adherent of Orthodoxy can envision a world within which a family of “nationally” incarnate Orthodox churches engage in Christian agape, negotiating all problems in a context of harmony. In reality, of course, conflicts abound and hatreds fester. And if hatred festers even among co-religionists of different national origin, what is there to say of those situations where the conflict is with peoples of other “churches” alien in theology, tradition, and culture?
This is not, of course, an Orthodox problem alone. But it does become uniquely ours when in asserting the theological perfection expressed through the Church, we so often ignore or deny the evil done by its custodians. It is consonant with the very nature of man that at one and the same time Serbs can be both oppressors and victims. Our particular Orthodox dilemma, however, is that we are more easily used by nationalist zealots than those who belong to other traditions. We carry within our very doctrine all the possible structures and strategies of denial. As church, we express the perfection of divine communion, whereas it is after all as members of a specific ethnic, national group that we come to see ourselves as partaking in that perfection. I am Orthodox, and I embrace my church with all my soul and commitment. But I have also observed how Orthodoxy has been attractive to tyrants, whether they believe in it or not. We are all too easily used. At times we are even eager to be used, seeing in that use the vehicle for our survival.
This is a time of profound crisis for the mind of the Church, for despite the Gospel they share, Catholics and Orthodox in East Europe often spit hatred at each other. In the Balkans Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim are drenched in each other’s blood. There are times when we exhaust language and imagery, and I believe that in this dilemma of mutual slaughter our theological language has been exhausted. Why do we kill each other so brutally? Surely, it is not because we compete for the same God: for God has forbidden us the illusion that we can manipulate Him like so much conquered territory.
The answer lies not in our territory, but in the tales we tell. We destroy each other because we occupy the same space, like rats trapped together, gnawing at one another for room to live. Nor, in truth, is it actual physical space for which we compete. Bosnians and Serbs who lived on the same block a year ago kill each other today; Ukrainian Catholics and Ukrainian Orthodox who worshipped together but a few years ago now cannot bury each other in the same ground. Rather, we compete for narrative space. We try to live in the same story, the same history, the same tale. And we cannot in our story bear the presence of the stranger.
In our Orthodox tale, we are heroes. Most often we do not even win. We are heroic, rather, in our messianic self-annihilation. Serbs together absorbed the flood of Muslim aggression: without them, their tales tell us, all of Europe would have been Islamicized in an Ottoman flood come crashing down the Danube. Russians, alone, bore the brunt of the Fascist (or Tartar-Mongol, or Teutonic Knightly) storm. Without their twenty million dead, says the Russian story, an aged Hitler might yet reign over his eternal Reich. Ukrainians starved while the world stood heedless. Without their sacrifice and nurtured dreams (and tales and dances and art), the new Soviet man might still drip his sweat over the steppes, with his hammer in one hand and sickle in another.
The century, as Elie Weisel stated, may begin and end in Sarajevo. Whatever else, it is hardly a century in which Orthodoxy has been triumphant. Our Orthodox heroism, in fact, is built on the bones of our martyrs. At our worst, however, we delude ourselves with the illusion that Christian martyrdom is compatible with revenge.
That delusion is a part of the disease of our century, bred in the dogma of “victimization.” Evil people might be able to kill out of a sheer, mad orgasmic energy in slaughter. But people who think themselves “good” can kill only when they ardently believe that they too have been victims. Serbian soldiers committed rape, fed upon stories of raped Serbian females. Armenians killed, bolstered by graphic photos of the slaughter of their children. The Orthodox of the newly resurrected nations are bearers of the heroic tale of survival. Theirs is an epic voice, and their vulnerability to evil comes to the fore when their epic drowns out the Gospel.
The epic voice is, as Mikhail Bakhtin notes, quite different from the more dialogic voice of modernity. In an epic, we hardly have individual characters whose words, laced with ambiguities, cast doubt over meaning and motive. Beowulf does not engage in wordplay with Grendel: in a hand-wrestle against his demon-foe, “sinew snaps, gristle grinds.” An arm, torn whole from its socket, is Beowulf’s bloody trophy. The epic voice declares; its utterance is uncompromising. When two heroes occupy the same narrative space, they engage in a trick called “flyting.” Flyting is still alive and well in modern rap music: in flyting, foes insult each other; they goad each other on to conflict. Its voice runs through rival street gangs struggling for symbols, like the brand of a tennis shoe or the color of a baseball cap. It is the same voice as is heard over the lines of fire in Bosnia or Kosovo.
The Western intellectual has failed to acknowledge, I think, the power of the epic voice. Males are said, in feminist critiques, to employ it as a part of their oppressive, hierarchical pattern. But in truth the epic voice is hardly confined to one gender: the most radical of feminists, in fact, engage in some hefty “flyting” of their own. Gender or culture wars, however fierce, have not yet engaged the arms merchants. But in the epic consciousness of Eastern Europe the heroic agents have in their destructive capacities surpassed Beowulf and Igor and Sviatopolk of old. They have Uzis and M-16s instead of swords. And if (God forbid) we fall deep enough into the void, they have nuclear weapons as well.
One way to deal with this competition for “narrative space” is to make of the Gospel itself an epic, an epic in which all believers share. Resurrected nations resurrect their old and sacred heroes; and Christ, the Mother of God, and the saints can participate in the epic consciousness. In Orthodox hymnography, the epic voice flourishes. It was once strong in the West as well. The epithets applied to Christ in the Saxon Gospel Heliand describe him as a Conquering King: “The Guardian of the Land, the Chieftain of Mankind, fasted for forty nights eating no meat.” The disciples, too, share in the epic heroism: “Then the warrior companions whom He chose from among the people gathered around Christ, the Ruler and Rescuer.” In modern Catholicism, the liturgical year retains some distinct epic features in the feasts of Christ the King and the devotion to Mary, Queen of Heaven.
On the whole, however, Western Christians have suppressed the Warrior King. Though He is rampant in popular places, such as the pages of C. S. Lewis’ fiction, he has been purged from the imagination of most mainstream seminaries. Revisionists, in fact, have accompanied “inclusive language” with censorship as they subject traditional hymns to a kind of arms control: “Christian soldiers” seldom march any more, at least in mainstream churches. Orthodoxy, however, takes on the blessings and problems of this kind of imagery. In its hymns and rituals, these epic attributes resound and swell and stir the imaginative spirit.
Let us take, for one example, the “Hymn to the Champion Ruler,” a song sung to the Mother of God. This is an early hymn, by tradition assigned to the medieval Romanos the Melodist. It forms the center of a powerful Orthodox archetype contained within the following legend. In the ninth century, Constantinople was besieged by hostile tribes. The army had vacated the city to fight on another front. The people, under the leadership of their bishop, marched in procession with a beloved icon of Mary around the walls of the city as they sang:
To You the Champion Leader (ipermaxos
Do I, thy city, make thank offerings of victory.
For You, O Mother of God, have delivered me
But just as You have Invincible Power,
Do free me from every kind of danger
So that I may cry to You:
Hail O Bride Unwedded.
The hymn gives Mary the formal title of victorious general, a leader of armies: “ ipermaxos stratygos. ” This is a common refrain in the Orthodox tradition. Endowed with the title “Unashamed Protector of Christians,” Mary is invoked by Orthodox peoples in times when the existence of one or another of them as a people is threatened. Her icon, in fact, often appears in Orthodox imagery as a defensive”or even an offensive”power against hostile armies.
The epic voice also contains an identification of the self with the collective. The epic hero speaks on behalf of the people whom he leads or defends. Note in the hymn above that the voice of the hymn speaks in the first person, as “I.” Yet that first person, that hymning subject, is an entire city. While the modern, dialogic voice of humankind is fragmented into a mosaic of “individuals,” the epic voice promotes a single will, a single purpose, defining itself against those who threaten it.
As we know, this epic voice can sometimes urge the collective body to burst forth in slaughter”to avert threats, or to free the Promised Land. Igor and Roland, Beowulf and Joshua had no moral qualms about “ethnic cleansing.” Yet it is certainly not true that such is the inevitable product of the epic Christian consciousness. The Orthodox mind can also spiritualize the battle and focus it on a conquest of the self. As Patriarch Paul of Serbia urges all sides in the Balkan conflict, “Each of us must now act as if we look directly upon the face of God.” The monastic podvig, which is conveyed in Orthodox spirituality to every believer, involves an epic internal battle against evil. To be sure, such a battle can become externalized and corrupted. (The Western Crusades, after all, provided the Orthodox with a rather unpleasant model of ecumenism. Yet such use of faith as a battle cry has been condemned by Orthodox and Catholic leaders together.) It is the unleashing of the darker forces of faith that we are now observing in Eastern Europe. Yet we cannot suppress the violence by suppressing our distinctive “voice of prayer.”
The epic inward battle waged against sin and all that is not of God is in truth the most aggressive and offensive of wars. Its goal is the eradication of the “old person” and the transformation of the believer, even in his or her very body, through the process of theosis or “growth unto God.” And it is here, at bottom, that the solution to this terrible problem lies. For if the Trinity is our model, we must acknowledge in Trinitarian doctrine the real God-begotten source of all human community. We need, that is, to reclaim the life-giving community that lies in the Trinitarian vision.
Each integral Person of the Godhead, as Person, gives of its “Godself” to each other Person in a movement, an eternal “processing” of Love. That is our model”a voice for us in this fallen world that places each of us, struggling, at the borders of every other “self.” In our Western culture, too, we need to be saved from ourselves. Gender, for example, is no call to sexual conflict”just as peoplehood is no call to warfare”but rather a charism calling us to engage the “borders” of another being, “other” in gender, in the sacrament of God-blessed sexuality. We struggle for sympathy, we struggle for understanding, and we must acknowledge that we struggle as well for a recognition of our identity from every other being.
Each of us is, then, metaphysically u-kraine, “at the borders” of every other person with whom we seek to enter into communion. Each of us is, in that etymological sense, “Ukrainian,” endowed with the same struggle of assertion and becoming as are the reawakening nations of Eastern Europe. The struggle has dangers. There are those in this fallen world who seek to consume, “gobble up,” in effect, all those with whom they share some facet of their history. For such among us, there is no “ u-kraine, ” for if we seek to absorb and appropriate the Other we respect no “borders” to our being. The conquering neighbor, like an abusive spouse, respects no limits to identity and personhood.
Nations that emerge from repression have a right to their own particular being: no critic, or president, should have the temerity to expect them to suppress themselves once more. By the same token, however, no nation, Orthodox in tradition or not, should employ the “epic voice” for the annihilation or banishment of the stranger in its midst. To use it so is to deny the very premise of Trinitarian life. “Ethnic cleansing” is incompatible with the Orthodox vision of synousia, “co-being” with God and with each other. As Orthodox, we must not refrain from declaring these two principles concurrently: the right to common life as a people, and the command to respect the “borders” of another person’s being.
From my own experience in the Kievan Study dialogues, an ongoing engagement between Eastern Catholics and Orthodox under the Ecumenical Patriarchate, there is one premise for loving dialogue that neither side can ignore. We must beg forgiveness for past offenses, each of the other. Paul reminds us, in Philippians, of a command that is directly counter to the wisdom of any age: “Let each of you look, not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Phil. 2:4) This counsel promotes not only charity, but also survival”survival of the person, the church, even of the nation. In valuing and pursuing our identity, once more it is vital to look “to the borders”- u-kraine ”to that place where the collective “Self” meets the collective “Other.”
Among those willing to renounce the exclusive title to victimization, there is reason for hope even in the Balkans. Alex Rondos, an Orthodox Christian who once worked with Catholic Relief Services, now directs International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) in Eastern Europe. IOCC, for the first time, is capable of coordinating often competing Orthodox jurisdictions in a coherent, professional relief effort. Throughout Eastern Europe, Orthodox institutions, unlike the corrupt residues of a failed Marxism, prove most capable of delivering aid efficiently. And in Belgrade, IOCC representative Robert Pianka, who shares his Catholic tradition with the Croats, is able to direct Orthodox aid to reach Muslims under Serbian control. “What all communities of victims need,” he says, “is to recognize that they are bound to all others in a community that transcends victimization.”
As Christians, then, we must renounce the “cult of the victim” that currently spreads not only through Eastern Europe, but constitutes one of the fundamental bases of the contemporary American epistemology of justice. The victim, even as victim, is capable of sin. If a community of victims comes to rehearse its own heroic epic removed from the transforming narrative of the Gospel, it will cry out for vengeance and thereby become a community of oppressors. A text, whether a “diversity” curriculum or a national epic, whether traditional or “liberationist” in genesis, once it is removed from the Gospel becomes a celebration of separation and division and hate. Ethnic cleansing, after all, has its intellectual counterpart in the rhetoric of the “genderist heresies” now besieging the Church as strongly as Arianism or Nestorianism ever did in the past.
There is but one answer to the victim: the cross. This is why, fretted with gold and beset with jewels, the cross has become for us the victorious emblem of our own heroic tale. It flashes forth in triumph only when we can see, beneath the gold, the blood of our own great Hero, the Hero whose sword is the act of forgiveness.
Forgiveness begins with an acknowledgement of guilt. It is pointless for us Ukrainian Orthodox to engage Ukrainian Catholics, for example, without acknowledging the injustice we did them when we collaborated with their Communist persecutors. The same applies to Croats and Serbs, to Germans and Jews. The very quest to forgive is liberating, for therein we respect not only those who may have violated our personhood, but also our own integrity as persons. Ultimately, hatred consumes all”love, self-respect, even the borders of our very identity. This is what the Gospel gives us in our own age. In this era we all dwell u-kraine, “at the borders,” where, in meeting the Other, peoples as well as individuals find their only true identity.
Anthony Ugolnik, who teaches in the Department of English at Franklin & Marshall College, is a priest of the Ukranian Orthodox Church (Ecumenical Patriarchate).