Religious Symbols, War, and Peace-building

This is Christ the Savior Cathedral, which stands on the campus of the University of Pristina in Kosovo. It is odd for a church to be on this campus – the university is secular and 95% of the people of Kosovo are Muslim.

How it Came to be There

Kosovo fought a war with Serbia in 1998-1999 later declaring independence in 2008. Tensions were high during the decade before the war, Kosovans wanted greater autonomy and the Serbian controlled government resisted their demands.  In the midst of that turbulent era, the Serbian Orthodox Church started construction on a new cathedral, Christ the Savior, in the middle of the campus of the University of Pristina.  Construction began in 1995 and was never completed because of the war.  Building the church there was an affront to the Muslim, Albanian population.  Yet, it was legal.  The title to the land belongs to the Orthodox Church (indeed, they controversially own most of the land on which the University of Pristina sits).

The timing and location of this particular religious building make it presence less than irenic. Serbs, and everyone else in Kosovo, should have the right to freely express their faith and meet together for worship. Yet, as is clear from other countries, the peaceful practice of multiple religions demands sensitivity to image and intent.

And now….

The church has remained unfinished, deserted, and boarded up – an icon of the conflict and ongoing religious cleavages in Kosovo. Then this month, some Orthodox Serbs started to clean the church. Students reacted immediately, staging sit-ins and protesting the presence of the church on campus.

Religion and Reconciliation

One of the characteristics of the Serbian Orthodox faith is the way in which church spaces – interiors and architecture – educate those present about the relationship between God and human beings. The mosaics and paintings recount biblical stories and historic events; the temporal links to the spiritual through the aesthetics of space and beauty.  Worshippers have a full sensory experience in services through the paintings and icons, music and incense.  For a tradition that places such value on place in its worship, it is a pity that this space of worship has become so politicized.

As others have noted before me, there is an ambivalence to religion’s role in conflict. Religion can resolve and ameliorate conflicts or make them worse. In this case, the latter is the accurate description. The church reminds people of the dominance of Serbia over Kosovo and the dark days leading up to the war. There are few Serbs left in the city after the war who could use the cathedral as a place of worship even if it were to be completed.

Orthodox religious leaders could model the reconciling nature of Christ should they use the occasion of the recent demonstrations to build peace, rather than reinforce the existing divisions. It would be healing if Orthodox Church leaders would initiate an open and public discussion about what should be done with the unfinished cathedral, acknowledging the manner and context in which the church was built and considering alternative purposes for the building, such as museum, lecture hall, or campus gathering space.

Serbian Orthodox churches are designed to connect the temporal and spiritual. This cathedral could serve as a symbol of healing and reconciliation in a divided and politicized society, rather than a symbol of the conflict.

World Humanitarian Summit

I had the pleasure of attending the World Humanitarian Summit in May on behalf of Bread for the World.  While I attend a lot of academic meetings, this certainly was a lot different from the American Political Science Association Annual Meeting.  First, there was art – visual and performing art woven into the conference.  That was an unexpected pleasure and very well done.  Second, I walked past both Angela Merkel and Sean Penn in the hallway, enough said.  Third, there were all sorts of small ways in which the experiences of individuals in need of humanitarian assistance were incorporated into the conference from the lunches that were based on the rations given to refugees in different countries to the emphasis on the terrible choices that people have to make in humanitarian emergencies.  Sometimes this became a little extreme; at the innovation fair I had some people talking to me in detail (which I will not share because it is gross) about why the body bags they had just started to make were better than the standard UN body bags.

 

Hunger and Faith-based Organizations

There were several high points for me.  One was hearing a rousing speech by Irish president Michael Higgens on ending hunger by 2030.  He emphasized the fact that food security – three nutritious meals a day – underpins efforts to achieve all of the Sustainable Development Goals.  Another high point was participation in the faith-based organizations meetings which were very focused on getting the UN to take faith based organizations seriously as humanitarian actors.  This is particularly important since local faith-based organizations are usually on the ground before a crisis, endure through it, and stay afterwards.   The Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities has compiled five research briefs documenting the evidence related to the positive role that faith-based organizations play in humanitarian emergencies.  You can find them here.  The outcome document – Charter for Faith-Based Humanitarian Action is also available and very interesting reading.

Advocating for Justice

 

Some friends of mine recently published a wonderful book entitled Advocating for Justice.  I was an outside reviewer for the text and got to speak at the book launch last week.

 

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I thought I would post here my three favorite things about the book.

  • We not me

There are quite a lot of books on Christian advocacy which follow the narrative arc of individual transformation in which the author was ignorant of a particular subject (religious freedom, AIDS, trafficking), has an experience which reveals the subject matter, and is then transformed and becomes an activist on the particular subject.  This is not that book.  This book focuses on advocacy as appropriately embedded in Christian communities – something that we all do together – in  local churches, para church organization and denominations so that advocacy can become a form of discipleship.  By embedding it in community we can get to the place where the church is a witness to the state and to society.

 

  • Theological grounding of advocacy

I loved the focus in the book on the trinity as a model for us in our advocacy for others.    This is not just a call for us to act on behalf of the suffering; this is an advocacy in which we try and conform to the image of God.  Advocacy not as a technique but as a theology -something Christians do to faithfully image Christ in the world.    At one point the authors argue that God is the subject of our advocacy.  I read that as saying that advocacy is a form of worship not of charity, though charity is not discounted.  Those with a theological bent are going to love the way this argument is made in the text.

 

  • Politics as multilayered

The reader is compelled to look beyond the suffering of particular individuals and the problems that exist in localities to think about the structures that enable suffering to occur.   I am a political scientist and I appreciate the fact that local and national political structures are not neutral, but form and enable behaviors which can cause harm.  These structures need to be challenged and the church can do that if we think differently about the church.

This is a book which motivates us to give voice to the concerns of others, but also reveals a different imagination as to why we should do so, and why we should do so together as Christians in community.