Monday, March 8, 2010

Fr. Touma (Bitar) on Nationalism and Orthodoxy

The original can be found here.

Orthodoxy and Nationalisms

I do not wish to speak about the history of nationalisms or their development. Most of that would be research and information from documents, and that is not the purpose of this article. Most talk, in this age, is disconnected from reality. Hear something, and you’ll be happy, but look at it, and you’ll be sad! It’s always disappointing. Existentially, the Son of God is the Word because there is no separation between his reality and his word. The two are the same. Among people, it is different. People’s thoughts are hopes and imaginings and rationalizations, but their realities are lurking passions that are sometimes perverse. For this reason, I will limit myself to talking about the reality of nationalisms and human groups in general, in the current reality of Orthodoxy here and there.

To belong to a single cultural heritage, in every aspect—intellectually, historically, geographically, linguistically—to have a sense of rootedness, comes automatically to groups of people. It is not harmful in itself for people to feel sympathy for each other in this way. People have families, large and small, and they all have, despite it all, their values and customs. There is no escaping the reality of the tribe or the group. No man is an island, and whenever people join together, even if it is for an idea or a single vision, then a tribe or a group forms, even if it is liable to break apart after a time. But in a tribe there are things that enrich and things that damage, noble things and shameful things. Experience at all places and times has shown that groups will bury their head in their own collective selfishness, and then psychologically cut themselves off from others and then restrict relations with other groups to alliances with them, in order to seek their mutual interests, or enmity towards them, in order to protect their own interests. This is an experience—no, a reality—that all have surrendered to. Outside of this framework, doubtless, there have always been practiced on a personal level and are deviations from the rule for groups. This state of mind has ruled and dominated mankind and continues to rule and dominate mankind to a large degree. This is the inheritance of the Fall. Mankind rarely speaks the language of a single heart. What attracts them oscillates between individual egoism and group egoism. In this view, there is no place for expressing love. There are only interests. And groups grow or shrink or are eliminated, constantly to absorbing each other or melting in the crucible of their interests.

Christ the Lord alone confronted, in the deepest sense, this unhealthy natural reality in man and in groups. His sympathy for the Samaritan woman, the Canaanite woman, the centurion—all foreigners to Israel—and likewise for the tax collector and the adulteress in the face of those with personal righteousness was a clear blow against Jewish nationalism and the partisanship of the Pharisees and other parties of the ancient Hebrew mosaic of Jewish groups. Then, when the Apostles went out into the world preaching the Word of God, the Church became the perfect family of the Heavenly Father and of the Heavenly Father only. All mankind came to it, after having been dispersed since the beginning of history. Jesus announced that he came to separate son from father and daughter from mother, and daughter-in-law from mother-in-law, and that a person’s enemies are his own family (Matthew 10:35-36). Additionally, Jesus pointed out that the heavenly Father of all is one, and that the teacher is one, Christ, and that all are brothers (Matthew 23:8-10). In this way, the Lord Jesus made himself a foreigner in Israel- foreign to its egoism, to its vainglory, to its nationalism—and also foreign to all the tribalisms of the people of the world in general. In this way he also made himself close to all the peoples and drew them in to himself. A new concept of kinship took root: I make my kin by the mercy of God! The Church became the replacement [to earlier ideas of kinship]. In the Church, all nationalisms and tribalisms and individual or collective egos were extinguished. By the Spirit of love, mankind became a heavenly nation facing the kingdom of heaven. It is a mistake to imagine, after this, that tribes and nationalities, with their selfish divisiveness, are still acceptable. Christ has overthrown their spirit! Their existence outside the Church is a constant threat to the Church and their existence within the bounds of the Church is an even greater threat! Any taint of nationalism, wherever it is allowed in the Church, pierces the spirit of the Church at its core. It is not true that there is a Greek or Russian or Ukrainian or Arab or Romanian or Bulgarian church. There is One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church in a single location, regardless whether that location is in Greece or Russia or Ukraine or the Arab countries or Romania or Bulgaria or elsewhere. This single location refers to the place where those who follow the single faith in Jesus gather, not to the dependence of the Church on a particular nationality, whatever that nationality may be. The Church is not a vehicle for nationalisms and tribalisms! When the Church is dominated by the spirit of nationalism it dies, no matter how fine it’s cultural heritage! There is no spirit left in her! She becomes a temple of bones! It is given to us to lead every thought towards obedience to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5) and not to lead Christ into the service of the egoisms and nationalisms of the sons of this age! For this reason, nationalisms are to this day the greatest threat to the stability of the Church, to her purity and continuation. We must renounce them and combat them with all our might so that the truth of the Gospel remains our only frame of reference and Jesus our only teacher and the Father our only master and all of us brothers in the Spirit of the Lord.

In light of the above, it shames us that the Church of Jerusalem is today a battlefield between Greek nationalism and Arab nationalism! Do we not see the crimes committed in God’s name, during the course of this, there? Those with Greek nationality terrorize and oppress the Arabs and suffocate them, while those with Arab nationality despair and murmur and bear a grudge?! Souls are filled with doubt and uncertainty, rage and indignation, antipathy and enmity. Through our opinions and behaviors we have made the Church of Jerusalem into a den of noetic thieves where we sell the words of God and the services, the canons and the holy places and the charities in order to feed our individual and collective egos?! Is this the Church of Christ?! Is this the Church for which Christ gave himself?! Is this the bride?! No. Never. This is not the Church of Christ in Jerusalem, in the strict sense of the word. Unfortunately, it is only some isolated parts and aspects, here and there, that preserve the faith of the Church of the Apostles and Saints. The majority of people, including those in charge, sold their souls to their passions and to this age and have made themselves, without knowing it, servants of the antichrist.

Likewise it shames us that the Church in America becomes a group of branches for the national churches in the Old World. The national Orthodox churches have become in some American cities something closer to ecclesial or even political embassies for their mother churches or for the countries that they are in! Do you not see that it is not true Orthodoxy that gathers us together in America, but rather egoistic nationalisms within pagan tribes?! We understand that in some churches services are held in national languages for recent immigrants, but what about those who have been in America for fifty or more years?! Do we not see that hearts are not united and hands are not joined together in the service of God and that goals are not coordinated in order to witness to Orthodoxy and that no one pays attention to proper Orthodox churchliness? Every man for himself! Do we not see the churches being exploited for tribal or political or economic ends?! Why is there one church for the Antiochians (that is, Lebanese and Syrians and Palestinians), and another for the Greeks and another for the Russians and another for the Romanians, all only a few minutes away from each other?! Why can we not join together in worship and love and frequent teaching, since we are all within one Orthodoxy and one earth and one language?! Why can we not cooperate to preach Orthodoxy within a milieu that is hungry for it?! Why this fragmentation? Why this distance between hearts?! Is it too much to ask for Orthodoxy to be our sole umbrella, rather than nationalisms and tribalisms?! Vain, ingrained nationalisms in the American churches are not from God—they are against God! They are the causes of schism and weakness and despair and scandal for the Church of Christ, especially for the youth, the newly-illumined, and those being guided to Orthodoxy! Nationalisms, in all their forms, must be combated in every possible way in America so that the Church remains the bride of Christ alone! Orthodoxy of Spirit and Truth never aligns itself with nationalism! Either we lead every thought towards obedience to Christ or Orthodox nationalisms will entrench the worldly church in this world and we will cease to exist as a Universal Church!

What is said about America and Jerusalem can be said of other nationalistic, tribalistic Orthodox churches- the Russian and Ukranian and Greek and Romanian and Serbian and others. Its entrance into the members wounds right to the core! Most Orthodox Lebanese in Kuwait go to the Maronite church because most of the people at the Orthodox church there are Syrians, including the priest!!! Enough of this vanity! The normalization of nationalisms in the Orthodox Church is a manipulation of Orthodoxy for worldly purposes! And we wonder: is there a way out of this dark tunnel? There is-- by the grace of God and fasting, prayer, wisdom, purity, a sincere united striving and a voice crying out, even if it sometimes is in the wilderness, we can do all things believing in the truth of the Gospel. Our enemy, at this evil time, is still mostly from within, not from without! Thus the call to us is always, “And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them (Ephesians 5:11).” To stay silent about clear sin, in this evil time, is to be a mute devil!

Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)

Abbot of the Monastery of St. Silouan the Athonite- Douma

January 17, 2010


DNY said...

Please, Lord, let Archimandrite Touma be the next Metropolitan of the "Self-Ruled" Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America!

The Anti-Gnostic said...

No. Patriarch, if God wills it.

Collator said...

Good stuff, but I'm concerned that Fr. Touma's insistence on the theological unacceptability of nationalism (or, more properly, phyletism) keeps him from coming to grips with the facts on the ground. What we need is not so much one more denunciation of ethnic fragmentation, but an understanding of its historical development (even inevitability) and the formulation of a way forward that both rediscovers Orthodox unity and preserves those elements of the ethnic tradition that are beloved and constructive. As I'm sure anyone who pays attention to the reality around us here in N. America realizes, we can't just get up in the pulpit one Sunday morning and abolish all languages other than English (nor would that be desirable, in my opinion).

Samn! said...

Well, certainly I'll agree that there is a place at least in some situations for using languages other than English (or Spanish, French, and the native American languages). I very, very often wish there was an Arabic-language liturgy near me, and when there briefly was one, that is where I went. But then, I'm eccentric. Honestly, when I hear someone within North America talk in the way Fr. Touma does, I don't really pay much attention. But, to say such things in Arabic is to put the argument within a rather different discourse..... thus the interest.

Collator said...

Touché, Samn!

The Anti-Gnostic said...


This issue is the tip of a very big iceberg.

Historically, the "nation" has been the geographic redoubt of those people who shared common ancestry: England, Ireland, France, Germany, Iran, China, Japan, etc.

The West is forging ahead with a bold experiment in propositional nationhood. This is in the face of centrifugal forces in the other direction. The former propositional nations of the Soviet Union, the former Yugoslavia, national devolution in Britain, Italy and Spain, the failing states of Iraq, Afghanistan and Mexico (Iberians vs. Meso-Americans) are all examples.

America is at the vanguard of this modern experiment. Not everybody is on board for it and not least of whom, the immigrants themselves.

In contrast to earlier immigration phenomena, the new reality of global communications and safe air travel means that one's ethnic homeland is only a mouse-click or couple of thousand dollars away. Increasingly, people no longer think of their nation in terms of the geographic redoubt where their ancestors lived. They find it comparatively easy to carry their nation with them wherever they go.

Ironically therefore, the Western democracies find themselves lagging behind this new reality, attempting to impose a homogenous order in a geographic area that now holds a variety of constituent nations. This implicates the cultural (of which religious practice is a subset) as well as the political. For that matter, American 'nationhood' is an increasingly inchoate concept. Or was there ever such a thing?

I don't know what the answer is. It does seem that the prevailing trends are strongly against Orthodox unity on the American continent.