The New Nationalism & the Gospel Witness: Western Tolerance vs. Christian Repentance

Article excerpt

Early in the summer of 1990, I visited Armenia for the first time. This was on the heels of the massive protests and rallies of 1987-88 and the terrible earthquake in December 1988. In Armenia the expectation was that Gorbachev's days were numbered--as indeed they were--and talk everywhere was of independence. Even the cautious and conservative Armenian church had begun to shift its position and support the popular nationalist movement.

How could I help but embrace these Armenian hopes for sovereignty and self-determination, having been raised knowing how much this meant to my grandparents? And when I returned in the spring of 1991, it looked as if their dreams were coming true. Still, I was wary of the excesses of the nationalist fervor in Armenia, dangers that I had identified even before my visits and that looked even more serious when viewed up close.

I was especially troubled by the behavior of the Armenian church. The diversity of opinion on the national question within the political realm gave reason for a cautious optimism--a genuine civic life and political culture seemed to be emerging. However, the unmistakable mark of expediency in the church's shift from cooperation with the Communist regime to sacralizer of the new nationalism was worrisome; its neglect of the spiritual needs of the people was conspicuous and unforgivable. The gospel pure and simple needed to be preached and practiced in the cities and in the remotest villages. The hierarchy and clergy seemed more comfortable wearing ethnic pride under gold filigreed ecciesiastical robes.

The attitude that the Armenian church (and other churches like it in former Soviet lands) takes toward the new nationalism is a critical matter. Western observers obsessively try to take readings on how well democracy is doing in the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe. The central question raised: Is this nationalism compatible with liberal values? Certainly the development of democratic institutions is essential, but I submit that the more important and immediate struggle is a spiritual one.

What are the possibilities for the self-professed Christians of these Orthodox Christian lands to practice virtue and love their neighbors during a time when nationalism is on the rise and violence common? In Armenia people are struggling with the tangled religious and moral question of the relationships of faith, identity, and Christian love. It is important to try to understand the nature of the new nationalism in Armenia and how it exists in tension with Christian witness to the gospel, for Armenia is a microcosm of the nationalist struggle and turmoil that affect much of the old Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Before proceeding, something needs to be said about the Western analysis of the ethnic, religious, and nationalistic struggles going on in the East. From an Armenian, Russian, or Ukrainian perspective, Western observers all sound remarkably alike, judging the struggles of peoplehood always from the insistent secular and political criteria of whether the outcome will be liberal and democratic in a recognizably Western way. Pluralism and tolerance are not incidental concerns for many people in the emerging democracies. But there is a kind of Western blindness in easy assumptions about multiculturalism and nationhood that is historically naive and patronizing as well as morally obtuse. As Benjamin Schwarz has recently written in the Atlantic Monthly (May 1995), "At least as much as other countries, the United States was formed by conquest and force, not by conciliation and compromise .... The ideas of foreign-policy experts about finding reasonable solutions to internal conflicts are distorted by an idealized view of America's own history."

That doesn't mean conquest and force are to be condoned. But it does mean that Americans should not expect democracy in the East to look exactly like democracy in the West or that pluralism and tolerance have been easily achieved anywhere. …