Ethnic conflicts and the Orthodox Church

by Metropolitan John of Korça

Symbol of lost tolerance: A postcard photo of the Mostar Bridge, built in 1566 to span the Neretva River in Bosnia-Herzegovina, destroyed in 1993 by fire from a Croatian tank in order to prevent contact between communities on opposite sides of the river.

The 21st century, with its globalization, new technology, loss of traditional values, and cultural and religious pluralism, presents a variety of challenges for the whole human community. Undoubtedly, the Orthodox Church cannot exclude herself from these challenges. She must confront them, not merely to defend herself from them, as has been the case so often, but in order to find original and creative solutions as part of her global responsibility. In this, she must be rooted in her doctrine, history, and rich tradition without ceasing to be a creative, living organism, invigorated by the Holy Spirit, who has inspired and continues to inspire her life.

Generally speaking, the Orthodox Church often is viewed, measured, judged and evaluated by its own members primarily on the basis of her history over the last two centuries, that is, as a church closely tied to a single culture in a specific geographic location and interested only in the past. Viewing the Church chiefly from that perspective has done a great injustice to the Church’s rich tradition.

In fact, historically, the Orthodox Church was born, developed and lived in an ecumenical and pluralistic milieu. In the Roman Empire and later in the Byzantine Empire, ecumenism and globalization, although regional, were common. The Orthodox Church had a global mission, not only in the doctrinal sense, but also as a member of a global and ecumenical community. The people of the Balkans, where a large portion of the Orthodox Church was concentrated, lived in a commonwealth with close ties to each other. In addition, they had cultural and commercial connections with other parts of Europe, Africa and Asia. Up until the time that St. Kosma was preaching and carrying out his apostolic ministry in the Balkans, the self- understanding of the Orthodox population was global and ecumenical.

What is more, at an even later period, if someone was asked what he was, he would first answer that he was a Christian. Only after the third or fourth question would he give his ethnic identity. People identified themselves from the perspective of faith. The words elinas (Greek) and turk were understood to refer to one’s faith, not one’s ethnicity.

Nationalism and a narrow ethnic understanding are something new to the Orthodox people of the Balkans and are closely tied to the emergence of the nationalistic ideas of the 19th century secular intelligentsia which saw the Church merely as a means of achieving nationalistic goals.

As these movements emerged, the Church was not enthusiastic about them because she felt that they were not in accord with the universal nature of Orthodoxy, but, as Fr. John Meyedorff observed, she “lacked the intellectual strength, the theological discernment and the institutional structures which could have exorcized the demons of the nationalistic revolution … So patriarchs, bishops and indeed parish clergy sometimes enthusiastically, at other times wearily joined the sweeping nationalistic movement, becoming directly involved in its political success but also more dangerously accepting its ideological positions.”

Unfortunately, sometimes this continues today.

Ruins of the Mostar Bridge after its destruction in 1993

In the beginning, these new ideas the awakening of the national consciousness helped the struggle of the Orthodox people of the Balkans to rid themselves of the Turkish yoke. The Church, by supporting her people in this struggle, started to have more and more of an ethnic character. Because all members shared a single religion, faith and nation were tied closely together and began to be indistinguishable, creating a confusion of categories. Later, this nationalism, that in the beginning was seen as a liberating force, became an impetus for division and hatred: everyone against everyone else. Moreover, this nationalism was not directed solely against people of another religion but against people of the same faith as well, because a particular nationalism is deaf towards other forms of nationalism. The national rights claimed by each nation are mutually exclusive, resulting in an ongoing ethnic conflict. In the words of Patriarch Bartholomew, in the Balkans as well as in all parts of Europe:

Nationalism… turned out to be a double-edged sword; in the hands of tyrants, it has been destructive indeed, the most destructive force in human history, killing 75 million human beings between 1914 and 1945 alone. We must ask ourselves boldly and honestly: Is it not time to rein in the excesses of nationalism?

After the fall of Communism, in the institutional, economic, and political collapse and the moral and spiritual vacuum that resulted from it, extreme nationalism found fertile ground. Different political groups attempted to use national and religious feelings to achieve their political goals, thus creating an immense whirlpool of hatred, confusion and suffering. The great hatred that characterized the struggle of the classes was replaced by another hatred: ethnic hatred. It is interesting to note that the ranks of extreme nationalists were filled in large measure by the same people that previously had instigated class hatred. Also, at times they attempted to give to their wars a religious character, wanting to exploit the powerful emotions that are triggered when one believes that his religion is in danger. Many people in the Balkans ironically have dubbed these wars “the religious wars of the atheists.”

So, one of the most difficult challenges that has confronted and continues to confront the Orthodox Church is her position regarding ethnic conflicts. In the past decade, the need to find a solution to this challenge has become more and more urgent because some of the most bloody ethnic conflicts have occurred in Balkan and Eastern European countries where the Orthodox population is in the majority. During this time of crisis, the Orthodox Church, as a result of the long persecution, was found to be weak and unprepared. In some cases, the Church itself was drawn into the conflict. She was found more or less in a similar situation when the nationalistic movements of the 19th century began. Now, however, the situation is more sinister because the enthusiasm of national liberation, which first motivated the Church’s involvement in that movement, has been replaced by extreme nationalist hatred.

We have to keep in mind that this is a complex issue that cannot be judged simplistically and superficially because when we speak about the Church we have to remember that she consists not only of the ecclesiastical hierarchy and believing members with different levels of faith and experience, but also of many purely nominal Orthodox.

The relationship between Church and nation is complex and the two are inseparable because the members of the Church are also part of the nation. This becomes even more complicated when all members of the nation are members of one Church. Although much has been said about this issue, there are many unanswered questions about the relationship between national identity and the Church. As A. Kartachov wrote:

From a dogmatic and mystical point of view, the issue of Church and national identity is only a part of the great question of the relation of the Church with human history and cultural creation. However strange this may seem, after two thousand years of Christian history this question, notwithstanding its greatness and its actuality, has not yet found a conciliar answer within the Church. It has not found it, because it has not been raised in the Church. It has not been raised, because it has not been envisaged.

Therefore, in the great challenge of ethnic conflict, the Orthodox Church must speak openly and clearly, unfolding her precious teaching to all her believers. She must make them conscious of the Orthodox understanding of church, nation, and war in order that these issues not remain within the closed circles of academics and theologians.

Let us pause to consider the Orthodox understanding of nation and war because ethnic conflicts are a corrupt compound of the two.

Christian anthropology is based upon divine revelation which says that “God created man in his own image and likeness.” (Gen. 1:26, 27; 5:1) The incarnation of the Lord and his soteriological work demonstrate that God is not the God of the Jews alone, but also of the Gentiles. (Rom. 3:29) The Church which is built upon this foundation does not divide people on either national or class grounds: in her “there is neither Greek, nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.” (Col. 3:11) Hence, the Church by her very nature is universal and, therefore, supranational. In the Church “there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek.” (Rom. 10:12) This is the basis for the Christian understanding of nation and race. The witness of Holy Scripture as well as various apostolic and post-apostolic texts are evidence of the self-understanding of the early Church. The Epistle to Diognetus is not only one of the oldest witnesses of this self-understanding but also one of the clearest:

For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind either in locality or in speech or in customs. For they dwell not somewhere in cities of their own, neither do they use some different language, nor practice an extraordinary kind of life. Nor again do they possess any invention discovered by any intelligence or study of ingenious men, nor are they masters of any human dogma as some are. But while they dwell in cities of Greeks and barbarians as the lot of each is cast, and follow the native customs in dress and food and the other arrangements of life, yet the constitution of their own citizenship, which they set forth, is marvelous, and confessedly contradicts expectation. They dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners; they bear their share in all things as citizens, and they endure all hardships as strangers. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign. Their existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.

An overemphasis on the nation, sometimes even above the Church, not only is a new phenomenon but is a flagrant violation of the ethos of Orthodoxy and a denial of it. This overemphasis of nationalism has caused much damage to church life and to the internal unity of the Orthodox churches because it has often caused these churches to be more focused on their national interests than on the Orthodox Church as a whole. Alexander Schmemann writes:

Admitting the positive value of nationalism in Christianity, we must not fall into the trap of idealizing history, fixing our eyes on the light, and shutting out what is dark. The progress and earthly life of the Church is not an idyll. On the contrary, it requires struggles and a vigilant ecclesiastical conscience … The danger of nationalism lies in its subconsciously altering the hierarchy of values, so that the nation no longer serves Christian justice, truth or itself, and no longer evaluates its life in accordance with these qualities. Instead, Christianity itself and the Church begin to be assessed and evaluated by the extent to which they serve the state, the nation, etc.

The Orthodox Church has condemned officially nationalistic rivalries within the Church of Christ. In 1872 a Synod held in Constantinople condemned the sin of phyletism, saying:

We renounce, censure and condemn racism, that is racial discrimination, ethnic feuds, hatreds and dissensions within the Church of Christ, as contrary to the teaching of the Gospel and the holy canons of our blessed fathers which “support the holy Church and the entire Christian world, embellish it and lead it to divine godliness.”

In confronting today’s nationalisms, the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church must renew this condemnation.

We can say without exaggeration that the Church of the New Testament was built upon the bloodshed that resulted from the conflict between nation and universality. The pan-human, universal, and messianic mission of Christ was not understood by the leadership of Israel. Caiaphas said: “You know nothing at all, nor do you consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish.” (John 11:49-50) “Then, from that day,” the Evangelist tells us, “they plotted to put Him to death.” (John 11:53) And so, to save the nation, they crucified the Lord himself. The pretext of saving the nation put the Church of the Old Testament and her high priest in confrontation with God.

This event tells us much: We must take care to say to our people that many of the things alleged to be for the good of the nation can make us the enemies of justice, and perhaps even of the Lord himself. It is not uncommon that certain means used to defend the nation, and, in the short run, to benefit her, have caused crimes and injustices to be done toward other individuals and nations. Any crime and injustice is a re-crucifixion of the Lord of justice. All those that crucified the Lord found good reasons to do so: Caiaphas for the nation; Pilate for the state; the people for piety; the soldiers for military discipline. And so together they all murdered a man in whom there “was found no fault.” But no reason, no motive, no goal can justify the killing of innocents, and oppression and injustices done to others.

In contrast, the Apostle and Evangelist of the Church of the New Testament answered to the prophecy of Caiaphas that Christ didn’t die “for that nation only, but also that he would gather together in one the children of God who were scattered abroad.” (John 11:52) The members of the human race were seen as children of God, and no specific nation could have a monopoly on virtue and holiness. The taking on of human nature by God called all nations to participate in the mystical body of Christ, in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Christ has taken into himself all of humanity, not only that which exists today, but those that were and those that will come after. He is not a tribal leader whose authority should facilitate national unification, but God who saves us from sin and death. A Christ limited to one ethnic group or several ethnic groups, or to one period or several periods of history would be a mutilated Christ. Those that limit Christ so crucify him again.

To love one’s nation does not mean to hate and exclude the others. You cannot serve one nation at the expense of another. The interests of a country cannot be above justice, otherwise that nation becomes an idol. “What are the interests of our country,” said Lactantius in his Divine Institutes, “but the inconveniences of another state or nation?” Footnote Not only is the nation not helped by this, but on the contrary this will turn to his disadvantage. The letter of Patriarch Tikhon addressed to the Orthodox faithful of Russia in 1919 Footnote shows that the position of the Church regarding the relation between the nation and justice has not changed, despite all the atrocities that have occurred.

From the Orthodox point of view, war and the understanding of it is wide, complex, and multi-faceted. Although in all times, the Church has called upon her children to love their homeland on earth and not to spare their lives to protect it if it was threatened, and although the Church has honored warrior-saints whose icons were carried into battle by soldiers chanting “grant victory to the Orthodox Christians over their adversaries,” nonetheless, in the Orthodox Church the idea of a “holy war” has never been accepted not even a “just war.”

In the Fathers of the Eastern Church and in the canonical tradition of the Orthodox Church, you cannot find any ethical explanation for a “just war.” From an Orthodox point of view, war is a sin and an evil, and the Church should fight against it. In the best of cases, war can be a “necessary evil,” although this term is not precise and can be misleading. Let us remember that even in the Old Testament, which was full of war and bloodshed, God didn’t allow David to build his temple because he had shed so much blood, thus revealing that in bloodshed there is nothing “holy” or “just.”

In the canons that regulate the life of the clergy, the Church held to an ideal standard that often was difficult for lay people due to human weakness. Hence, the canonical exclusion of the clergy from all military duty, which was permitted to lay people, demonstrates the ethical position of the early Church towards war. Footnote

Early Christianity did not condone any use of violence. In the writings of Tertullian, Origen, and the writings of the apologists in general, the non-use of violence is clearly stated. St. Basil imposed an ecclesiastical penance on military personnel who had taken part in war. Footnote And although killing in war was not considered as murder in the juridical sense, as we see from the canon of St. Basil, war was not seen as something “holy” or “just,” and those who participated in it were not allowed to take communion for three years to show that there was still a need for purification before they could meet the Lord. Christianity preached that one ought to conquer evil with good, and in the place of war to draw on prayer and the power of God. In the Christian empire, although the army was kept to protect the state and to fight against the barbarians, war was seen as a “necessary evil” and the doctrine of a “just war” was never developed.

After the fall of the Byzantine Empire, and later of the Ottoman Empire, when national autocephalous churches were formed under the influence of nationalistic feelings, war was seen in a more positive light. Although the Orthodox Church didn’t hold to any doctrine of holy or just war, it did not have a strong voice against war because there was confusion about the categories of nation and religion.

In recent years many voices have been raised against the use of religion in the ethnic conflicts of the Balkans. One of the strongest voices is that of Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, whose motto has been that “the oil of religion must never be used to flame the conflicts of hatred but to sooth hearts and heal wounds.” This has become a classic statement, not only in the Orthodox Church worldwide, but in wider circles as well.

In this time of globalization (and, unfortunately, of uniformity, as well), many traditional values are at risk. One of these is the feeling that national identity is being lost, and this often breeds a fear of outsiders and increases nationalistic feelings. National sentiments can cause such sinful phenomena as xenophobia and inter-ethnic enmity, leading often to the restriction of the rights of individuals and nations, persecutions, wars and other manifestations of violence.

The preventative to this can be found within the Christian message. The mission of Christianity and its values is a global mission and should not fear any type of globalization. The cure for the sickness of secular globalization and the loss of values is found not by withdrawing into an ethnic and national refuge, but through administering the medicine of its universal mission. The true Christian cannot feel threatened ethnically because a Christian globalization doesn’t deny ethnicity. The global mission of Christianity is not uniformity, but unity.

The Church does not deny ethnicity because to deny it would be to deny the mystery of personhood and the particularity of each individual; instead, the Church transcends ethnicity. The Church must consider the nation and war according to her absolute and eternal values: all other values, whatever they may be and no matter how worthy their motives may be, are lesser and relative. Divine revelation and life in Christ through the sacraments of the Church are absolute; therefore, any other relative value that impinges upon these absolute values cannot be accepted by the Church the heavenly homeland is above any earthly one. The holy righteous John of Kronstadt wrote this about love of one’s earthly homeland:

Love the earthly homeland… it has raised, distinguished, honored and equipped you with everything; but have special love for the heavenly homeland… that homeland is incomparably more precious that this one.

In ethnic conflicts, the Church should have a strong prophetic voice, and, when she observes that among her people or others that sick nationalistic movements, motivated and fed by hatred, are taking place, she should diagnose the illness with discernment and love. The Church must not tolerate ethnic hatred, out of which are born racism and fascism. She must fight unswervingly against this demon of hatred. A true love for the nation means a desire to cure its sickness. As a devoted doctor seeks to cure sicknesses without worrying about what the sick will think of him, so also the Church, motivated by a true love for the nation and its people, and with the prophetic power of the Holy Spirit, must give the diagnosis and administer the appropriate medicine without regard to what people will think. The prophetic role of the Church is to say what God is saying.

On the basis of a Christian anthropology that believes that God “has made from one blood every nation of men” (Acts 17:26), the Church sees that human unity is deeper, and ethnic divisions superficial and nonessential. The only legitimate division will occur when “all the nation will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from goats.” (Matt. 25:32)

I would like to conclude with words of Nicholas Berdyaev:

There have always been two races in the world. They exist today, and this division is more important than all other divisions. There are those who crucify and those who are crucified, those that oppress and those who are oppressed, those who hate and those who are hated, those who inflict suffering and those who suffer, those who persecute and those who are persecuted. It needs no explanation on whose side Christians should be.

Metropolitan John has been the bishop of Korça since 1998. He was the first Albanian to be consecrated bishop since the 1960s. He is the former rector of the Resurrection of Christ Theological Academy near Durres in Albania. He has translated a number of books into Albanian including On the Holy Spirit by St Basil, The Orthodox Faith (a catechism) by Father Thomas Hopko, and a collection of writings by and about St Silouan of the Holy Mountain. He is at work on a three-volume introduction to dogmatic theology. There is a profile of him in Jim Forest’s recent book, The Resurrection of the Church in Albania.

From the Winter 2004/Theophany issue of In Communion, the quarterly journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. The text is copyrighted by the author and should not be published or reproduced on another web site without the author’s written permission.