Orthodox America

  Commentary: Kosovo, a Severe Mercy?

O most wise Lord, if we did not know Thy will we would have less to answer for. But, when Thou hast given us to know it, O most merciful One, give us also the strength to do it all the days of our life. Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich The Prologue of Ochrid

As Orthodox Christians we know that history reflects the great struggle in time between good and evil, that nothing happens without God's allowance, and that the purpose of God's economy is the salvation of men's souls. It is difficult, however, to maintain this perspective with regard to current events, such as the war in Serbia, which continues to be the focus of daily news. We may disagree strenuously with what we perceive to be biased presentations or media propaganda, but our arguments typically rest on the same plane: it is an unjust war; it has only exacerbated the humanitarian crisis that Clinton feigned to alleviate; the Serbs have fallen victim to the New World Order, NATO has no right to interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation, instead of punishing Serbs for Milosevic's atrocities, NATO should have supported Serbian opposition... Significantly, it is Kosovo, the very arena of the present conflict, that calls us to transcend these temporal considerations. While the latter are not without merit, our priority must be to view earthly affairs within the divine schema. And there are other lessons that Kosovo holds - not only for Serbs today, but for all Christians, in all times.

The "mystery" of Kosovo is rooted in the Battle of Kosovo, which took place June 15, 1389, on that part of the Kosovo plain known as the Field of the Blackbirds. The Serbs, summoned by the saintly Prince Lazar, tried to halt the Ottoman Turks, who had already advanced into Bulgaria and were bent on extending the rule of Islam into Europe. The Serbs knew that they were vastly outnumbered - the 100,000 strong Turkish forces outweighed them three to one - but they fought manfully before succumbing to defeat in the bloody confrontation. The fact that the Serbs had willed under such circumstances to resist for the sake of their freedom and their faith inspired Serbian bards to elaborate on the historical record. The result was a grand epic, the "Kosovo cycle," which came to overshadow the facts on which it was based.

The memory of Kosovo is a sacred grief, something which from the distance shines in its splendor and at the same time fills the heart with inexpressible hope. - Marko S. Markovic

In the poetic rendering, Prince Lazar is faced with a choice, posed to him from above: to fight for an earthly kingdom and to be guaranteed victory, or to fight for the heavenly kingdom, for which he and his soldiers must sacrifice their lives on the battle field. The earthly kingdom, he reflects, lasts but for a time, and so he chooses the heavenly kingdom, which lasts "always and forever." The battle results in great carnage, the blood flows "knee deep," and Lazar is mortally wounded. As he is dying, he is assailed by doubts: Did he make the right decision? Why was such an immense sacrifice of lives necessary? An angel reassures him: his choice caused great rejoicing among the saints, and he tells the prince that the sacrifice was needed for the redemption of his people. At this time in Serbia's history, many of the regional feudal princes had been overtaken by ambition and selfishness, and they  had begun breaking away from the central government. Their worldly passions, explains the angel, were infecting the people, and they, too, were turning away from God. In the highly developed religious consciousness of the folk poets,

The Kosovo battle is likened to the Holy Liturgy, where, with Lazar, the Serbian elite are sacrificed for all the people. Bathed in the blood of the Christ-like Kosovo heroes and martyrs, the Serbian people are sanctified and themselves become a Christ-bearing and God-bearing nation... The realization of the folk poet that the Kosovo sacrifice was pleasing to God allowed him to suffer defeat calmly and to elevate a national tragedy to the highest hope. Because he who suffers with Christ is saved with Christ. He who is crucified with Christ will be resurrected with Christ.1

If the "mystery" of Kosovo sustained the Serbs through the five hundred years of Ottoman rule that followed that fateful battle, it is less clear from the present situation if Kosovo, with its philosophy of Christian suffering and redemption, is still as firmly embedded in their souls. There can be no question that the Serbs have been horribly victimized, but as Orthodox Christians who sympathize with our brothers in the Faith, we cannot be sentimentally blind to the atrocities Serbs have committed in their retaliation. Are they fighting for "golden freedom," or is their struggle fueled by a nationalism that the thuggish Milosevic is exploiting for his own gain? How is the present conflict to be understood from the perspective of the divine schema? While the following excerpt from an article by Orthodox journalist Jim Forest does not address these questions directly, it points towards some answers.

...While church attendance in Serbia has gone up since the NATO attack commenced, religious faith remains barely more than a trace element in Serbian political life. Tito was extraordinarily successful in his 35-year struggle to marginalize the Orthodox Church. Throughout the Tito era, it was a major disadvantage to put one's toe in the church door. A professed Christian had little hope of a better position or the opportunity for social rewards. Those who wanted to advance in life had to join the Communist Party, in which atheism was obligatory. Tito died in 1980, but many of his social policies survived, including the view that religion belonged to the past. While Milosevic turned to nationalism in his successful bid for power in 1989, in other ways he remained faithful to his political roots. It was thus a weakened Serbian Orthodox Church that had to define its response to the events which tore Yugoslavia to shreds in the nineties. Priests I interviewed several years ago in Belgrade, Novi Sad and other Serbian cities and towns estimated that only five percent of the population was baptized, while a still smaller percentage was leading a sacrament-sustained, Christ-centered life. ... Despite occasional conversions by young intellectuals, the vast majority of Serbs continue to regard the Church as a beautiful museum with little relevance to the daily life in the modern world, though in recent years the outspoken criticism of the hierarchy in regard to the Milosevic regime has earned the Church a certain respect among those working for a more democratic society. Even among very secular people, Patriarch Pavle is spoken of as a saintly person. The Patriarch - a small, lean, white-bearded man - has a meek but determined manner. He is well known for having personally taken part in various protest demonstrations in Belgrade - in 1997 he led a procession that freed protesting students who were under police siege in central Belgrade. Pavle has touched Serbs even more deeply by being accessible to ordinary people and for significant gestures in his private life. One cleric complained to me how inconvenient it was when Pavle came to visit his parish church. "You can never say exactly when he will arrive, how late he will be. He travels by tram and bus, then walks the rest of the way. Of course we offer to drive him, but we know beforehand that his answer will always be no. He says he will get a car only when the poorest person can have one." While Pavle is far from the only cleric whose life isn't centered on career and material rewards, it is depressingly easy to find pastors who impress one as being more interested in cars than souls. Two Serbian friends of mine had to delay their wedding in Belgrade, having decided they would not allow a priest to bless their marriage whose main interest was his fee. ...

Further complicating the problem of the Church's role in post-Tito Serbia is that the Church, however crippled by past oppression, is the only institution that still incarnates Serbian identity. No other social structure is so deeply linked with Serbia's long history, traditions, achievements and sorrows. This has led Serbian nationalists, in many cases atheists, to value the Church for "cultural" reasons even while regarding its views on ethical and political matters as irrelevant. For the ultra-nationalist, ultimate values are national, not religious. An icon in someone's home can be more a sign of Serbian than Christian identity; the cross can be used as a symbol of ethnic cleansing rather than Christ's self-giving love. This often makes it harder for visitors, journalists among them, to correctly interpret what they are seeing, a confusion made more intense by those Serbs for whom superficial identification with Orthodoxy is seen as a necessary component of one's all-important national nationality. (Thus one can joke that when some Serbians cross themselves, it is in the name of the Father, the Son and Saint Sava -- one of the most revered national saints.) Yet the direction of the Church's hierarchy, while wanting to preserve all that is good in Serbian identity and tradition, has been to oppose ultra-nationalism and to speak out clearly, even at personal risk, against all that Milosevic and others like him represent. The church's pastors see the neglect of spiritual life as being at the heart of the nation's crisis. "For 60 years under communism, atheism was the official religion," Bishop Lavrentije of Sabac-Valjevo explained in a press interview in 1995. "For 50 years priests were forbidden from going into schools and from visiting the army. People were educated without any contact with belief in God, and were taught that there was no soul. Those generations [who received an atheist education] are now soldiers. That is the reason for genocide. As one philosopher said, If you take away God from man, man becomes the strongest animal."2

Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich, in his work, "The Tsar's Testament," takes the poetic inspiration of the Kosovo cycle and amplifies it to produce a work that is not only of universal spiritual value, but, in light of the above observations, a work that is prophetically relevant to the situation in Serbia today. Taking the voice of the angel speaking to the dying Prince Lazar, Bishop Nikolai expounds on the benefit of suffering as an effective means of healing from sin - one of many fundamental Christian concepts that the world finds incomprehensible and even foolish.

You yourself know well ... how Adam's poisonous smoke of the world... began also to poison the heart of your nation, extinguishing within it the flame of heavenly love, which, from the time of its baptism, had blazed splendidly over several centuries. God, Who loves mankind and desires all men to be saved, could no longer watch as your people plunged to their final destruction, into the abyss of eternal death. A way had to be found to thwart this evil and to heal your people. However, neither the examples of the Serbian saints nor the sermons of the Serbian clergy, nor even your warnings and pleadings were to any avail. As a result, there finally had to come this cataclysm, this terror and horror, this slaughter, and the slaying of the great and noble generals, and your own temporal death, O most noble Prince of them all.

Consequently, there is also yet to come a protracted period of bondage, repentance, weeping, sighing, silence, and suffering. Bitterness will follow bitterness, like step after step, so that in this way the heart of your people may be detached from the world and attached to heaven; so that it may be disappointed in worthless worldly partialities and be fascinated with the lasting love of heaven; so that it may be emptied of the smoke of hell and filled with the light without dusk; in a word, so that your people may blaze anew with love of the Creator, and so that they may be warmed from that flame with love for the souls on earth and the spirits in heaven, as creatures of the Most Beloved - and so that through this love they may once again become mighty, joyful, holy, youthful and truly alive...3

One frequently encounters in Bishop Nikolai's writings this theme of "corrective" or redemptive suffering. Furthermore, he often writes about it in the context of chastisement that God sends at the hands of unbelievers, referring his readers back to examples from sacred history, to the Babylonian captivity. How is it, one might ask, that the Lord calls Nebuchadnezzar, a pagan and idolatrous king, My servant (Jer. 25:9)? Because, explains Bishop Nikolai, "when he to whom God has given knowledge of Himself and His laws turns knowledge to ignorance: law to lawlessness, then God takes as His servant him who does not know Him, to punish the apostate. For an apostate from God is worse than a pagan ... And so, when the Christian people in the Balkans turned back from God and God's law, God took the Turks as His servants, to punish those in apostasy and bring them to their senses by this punishment."4

Nevertheless - and the current situation is no exception - how is it that hardship and defeat so often fall upon God's people, while unbelievers are left to prosper? Where is God's justice? It is a question that many innocent victims of the present conflict must be asking, even as it must have been on the minds of Serbs suffering under the Nazi occupation, when Bishop Nikolai penned these words from his place of imprisonment in the Dachau concentration camp:

When Abraham asked God whether He would destroy the sinful city of Sodom if ten righteous men were found in it, God answered that He would not destroy it, but that He would save the whole city for the sake of these ten righteous men. You say there were more than ten righteous amongst the Serbian people, so why did God not spare us? That is the word of a tempter. As if you do not know that Sodom was a pagan city, that it did not know one God, as the Israelite people did; and that it was not baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity, nor did it partake of the Holy Body and Blood of Christ as the Serbian nation did. The difference is like that between heaven and earth. That is why He Who judges in righteousness wanted to save Sodom because of ten righteous people, but would not save Israel on account of ten thousand, nor the Serbs for the sake of hundreds of thousands of righteous souls. The Sodomites did not know the one true God. The Jews knew one true God through the prophets and through many miracles. The Serbs, however, knew God, revealed to the world in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ. Punishment is measured according to the scale of knowledge of God.5

In their present hour of darkness, Serbs would do well to reflect upon these and other pertinent homilies by Bishop Nikolai, just as they would benefit from heeding the voice of their current spiritual leader, Patriarch Pavle. Not only his voice but his example. The 83-year-old hierarch is widely regarded as a "living saint." And he has suffered with his people. In 1989, when he was bishop in Kosovo, he was beaten up by a gang of Albanian youth and spent three months in intensive care recovering from his wounds. He has shown great courage recently in moving his residence from Belgrade to Kosovo, in an effort to persuade Serbs to stay in the region. Before the NATO bombing, the Patriarch supported Church efforts to promote a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Kosovo (a Serbian Church delegation made several visits to Washington DC before being denied participation in the negotiations at Rambouillet), he has led processions of thousands protesting Milosevic government policies, and he has publicly called for Milosevic's resignation, but he has also made it clear that there can be no lasting political settlement without a moral foundation. Speaking to Jim Forest in 1994 concerning the civil war then raging in Bosnia, the Patriarch said that the Church "must condemn all atrocities that are committed, no matter what the faith or origin of the person committing them may be. No sin committed by one person justifies a sin committed by another. We will all face the Last Judgment together where each of us must answer for his sins."6 A year later, his message was the same: "We must be decent people never beasts. Do not be afraid of anything except sin. ... as God's people, we must always be on the side of what is holy, honest, and pleasing to God."7

Sometimes God deals most severely with His chosen people, purifying them like gold in a crucible. Suffering, however, is not always redemptive; it can as easily lead to bitterness, vengeance, or despair. To benefit from their present trial, Serbs have only to penetrate the "mystery" of Kosovo and apply its lessons - and the victory will be theirs: "They can be even the last  in the eyes of the other earthly nations, but they will be first in the view of the immortal spirits of heaven."8

Drink, Serbs, of God's glory,
and fulfill the Christian law;
and even though we have lost our kingdom
let us not lose our souls.

"Kraljevic Marko at the Slava of Voivoda Zavko," 
from Marko's cycle.

1. Marko Markovic, "The Mystery of Kosovo."

2. Jim Forest, "The Serbian Orthodox Church: Not the Chaplain of Ethnic Cleansing," in Touchstone, May-June 1999; excerpt used by permission of the author.

3. Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich, "The Tsar's Testament, in The Meaning and Mystery of the Battle of Kosovo (see review page 12) Free Serbian Orthodox Diocese, Greyslake IL, 1989.

4. Prologue of Ochrid, vol. II, p. 196.

5. "Through a Prison Window" in Kroz Tamnicki Prozor, Reci Srpskom Narodu /Is Logora Dachau/. Himmelstur, 1985; translated by Riassaphore-nun M.

6. Forest, Ibid. 

7. Bob Djurdjevic, "Orthodox Patriarch Leads by Example," in The Washington  Times, Feb. 9, 1997.

8. Velimirovich, op. cit p. 69. - Editor

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