21 June 2016

More thoughts on Orthodoxy and nationalism


It is common enough in Latin (and, sadly, even some Orthodox) polemics, particularly in light of the recent Great and Holy Council being held as we speak in Crete, to see Orthodoxy as a backward religion hopelessly mired in, and in thrall to, the brutish political vagaries of nationalistic feeling. The advocates of the Council have made it one of their most bandied-about critiques of those churches which have withdrawn from it (well, one in particular), that they are being guided not by the Holy Spirit but by concerns which are all-too-earthly. Leaving aside the questionable justice of these critiques, particularly as they concern the Patriarchates of Antioch and Georgia whose withdrawals from the Council were not motivated at all by nationalistic feeling, it cannot be denied that they do proceed from some basis in truth. As with all polemical characterisations, it is indeed based on a kernel of reality, and it is needful to recognise this fact: nationalism in Orthodox countries, and indeed in Orthodox churches, is indeed very strong.

There are two very important historical and ecclesiological reasons for this tendency toward nationalism in majority-Orthodox polities. Firstly, Orthodoxy has historically cultivated a very close relationship – too close for comfort for many in the West who are used to thinking about a ‘wall of separation’ – between the Church and the state. This ideal was articulated by two emperors of the Eastern Roman Empire, Emperor Saint Constantine the Great and Emperor Saint Justinian, as the ideal of symphoneia, or ‘harmony’ between Church and state. Secondly, Orthodoxy recognises as a matter of praxis the natural solidarity that exists between people who speak the same language, and validates and celebrates this natural solidarity by embedding the Church in the life of the common culture, rather than keeping the knowledge and participation in the Church on the rarefied level of the learned intellectuals. Hence, why the Russian, Serbian and Bulgarian churches hold their liturgies in Church Slavonic or English; why the Phanar, Greek, Antiochian, Alexandrian and Jerusalemite churches hold their liturgies in Greek or Arabic; why the Georgians Georgian; why the Romanians Romanian; why the Finns Finnish; and so on.

It should be remembered clearly that in the times of the Eastern Roman Empire, the Church’s relationship with the state was something distinct and separate from its relationship with the common people of the nation, with what the Slavs with their typical insightful linguistic concision call simply the narod. The Roman government oversaw a large number of distinct and separate narody, each of which had a subject relationship to that government, rather than being the sole legitimating force for that government. Nationalism, as such, did not exist. There was no practical basis for it. Nationalism arose in the West, specifically in England and France, also on account of two factors. The first and less immediate was that the Western Church had been vying for political power with the state for several centuries. The second and more immediate was the concentrated effort on the part of the kings of these countries to build for themselves a popular dimension of legitimacy which could bolster war efforts that were being waged largely by common people.

Nationalism as a political doctrine did not become popularised, however, until the advent of mass communication and mass politics which followed in the wake of the French Revolution, and thereafter spread to all the countries affected by the wars of expansion undertaken by Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. When nationalism struck the Orthodox world, however, it struck with full and disproportionate force. Rebels and statesmen among Orthodox nations sought, largely with admirable intentions, religious freedom, political sovereignty, economic and social liberation for ethno-linguistic and religious minorities (such as the Greeks and the South Slavs) from the tyranny of the Ottoman Empire – in short, they sought the creation of their own nation-states. The Orthodox Churches, closely tied as they were to the nation and open as they were to active collaboration with the state, became enthusiastic supporters of various nationalist projects, particularly in the Balkans. Likewise, for their part, secular leaders (such as Ioannis Kapodistrias in Greece or Nikola Pašić in Yugoslavia) made ample use of popular Orthodox piety and strong affiliation among the peasantry for the Church as a social cement in their nation-building projects.

This much is common knowledge, of course, but I highlight it here to show that the doctrinal and ecclesiological conditions for support of nationalism among Orthodox Christians, which are real enough, are in fact historically contingent and conditioned rather than an essential or built-in component of Orthodox theoria itself. Indeed, Orthodox hierarchs have been quick to disavow and condemn the more noxious forms of nationalism that began to surface in the nineteenth century: the go-to example here is the 1872 Council of Constantinople which condemned as heretical the idea (ethnophyletism) that each nation is entitled to its own jurisdiction on the same political territory. In such ways as this, the Orthodox Church has proven doctrinal precedents for distinguishing clearly between the separate claims of the nation – the narod – and the governing authorities, military and legal bodies which constitute the state. It is worthy of note also that the Russian Orthodox Church, which is too often unfairly accused both by the Latins and even by her sister Orthodox churches of nationalism, actually separates out its social approach to the nation on the one hand, and to the state on the other.

This is a particularly-crucial insight when it comes to examining such concepts as the ‘Russkiy mir’, which is so often wilfully misunderstood and vilified in the West. The ‘Russian world’ and the ‘Russian idea’ is not a nationalistic concept – that is, it is not tied to any one particular political expression, to any one state or governing power – but is instead a civilisational concept that belongs exclusively to the narod. One may, with some justice, look askance at its being propounded directly by agencies of the modern Russian state under President Vladimir Putin, but it is both unjust and historically naïve to consider the concept itself a nationalist concoction. When the Slavophils, or the French-Ukrainian existentialist-personalist philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, or the Soviet dissident author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, talked about the ‘Russian world’ or the ‘Russian idea’, as often as not they were using it to criticise and oppose the designs of the Tsarist or Soviet state in its consolidation of power, and to empower in its stead a more local, more distributist, more human-scaled, more familial, more participatory, more (for lack of a better word) narodniy expression of Russian public life. The ‘Russian idea’ is one which pertains to the role of the Russian people, civilisation and culture, rather than the Russian state and government, in the world.

It would be wrong even to call the ‘Russkiy mir’ a wholly religious concept, although (and because) religious concerns and convictions permeate it at every level. The practice and theory of sobornost’, of free fellowship through love, is implicit in the Eucharist; it is implicit in the fellowship of Christ and His disciples. And sobornost’ is at the root of the Russian idea. Far from being an ‘Orthodoxy without Christ’ (as the First Things crowd might tell you), an Orthodoxy embedded in the life of the narod after the manner of the ‘Russian idea’ is a leaven, one local culture (pun intended) of it, in precisely the way Christ told His followers to be, within the warp and woof of society rather than withdrawn from it or above it or apart from it. Or, if I may borrow and somewhat reductively reverse-engineer a certain counter-modern Daoist conceit which runs parallel with the Russian philosophical experience, the ‘Russian idea’ is a cultural yin (naturally not the only such culture, but a unique and uniquely valuable one) which receives and contains the yang of Our Lord and His Church.

As I have remarked before, secular nationalism is an ideology of the nation-state which, at its most dangerous, welds together Pilate’s self-interested calculation and pride of power and the raw passions of the crowds yelling ‘give us Barabbas!’ – the same forces which stood in judgement of Christ and had Him crucified. It is something to be resisted at the deepest level. Yet it is important to remember also that Our Lord was incarnate, both as ‘an Hebrew of the Hebrews’ and a Roman by citizenship; He never called upon His followers to resist the Emperor with violence; still less did He renounce Jerusalem or its people, His own people, whom He had come to save in spite of their rejection of Him. Well are we advised both to respect the right purposes of the state, and also to love our neighbours, even to the point of laying down our lives for our friends. It would be a mistake to silence the witness of any Church, most of all the Russian Church which has put such great creative thought and energy into the nature of the Orthodox witness in the world.

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