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Byzantium, Orthodoxy, Democracy

Byzantium, Orthodoxy, Democracy

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Published by: Zurab Jashi on Nov 16, 2012
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Byzantium, Orthodoxy,and Democracy 
Aristotle Papanikolaou
Aristotle Papanikolaou is an assistant professor of theology at Fordham University, New York, NY, 10023.I would like to express my thanks to William Schweiker and Charles T. Mathewes for their com-ments on an earlier version of this article. Responsibility for whatever mistakes, omissions, and defi-ciencies that may appear in the argument is clearly my own. I would be remiss if I did not also thank my students in the “Orthodox Christian Social Ethics” class that I taught at Holy Cross Greek Ortho-dox School of Theology, in Brookline, MA, from 1997 to 2000. Their interest and insights, togetherwith their probing and incisive questions, did much to shape this article’s form and content.
 Journal of the American Academy of Religion 
March 2003, Vol. 71, No. 1, pp. 75–98© 2003 The American Academy of Religion
This article addresses the question of the compatibility between EasternOrthodox Christianity and modern understandings of democracy. Re-cent images in the press suggest at worst hostility toward democracy andat best ambivalence on the part of the Orthodox churches. The source of this hostility and ambivalence lies in part with Orthodoxy’s Byzantineheritage. The influence of this heritage is especially evident in a recentdebate between two contemporary Orthodox ethicists, Stanley Harakasand Vigen Guroian, over the proper role of the Orthodox Church in re-lation to the American democratic state. Through an analysis of thisdebate this article argues that there does not exist a “clash of civiliza-tions” between Orthodoxy and democracy and that Orthodox supportof communitarian forms of democracy is warranted on inner theologi-cal grounds. This article also intends to offer a concrete response to aninevitable question regarding the relation of religion and empire: Are re-ligious traditions whose own thinking on political philosophy was shapedwithin the context of an empire inherently incompatible with moderndemocratic principles of church–state separation, multiculturalism, andreligious pluralism?The church’s ideology is common to that of all authoritarian ideologies.. . . It was because of the Orthodox Church that this society was easily con-vinced that it had to become obedient followers of the Communist Party.—Miladin Zivotic, former philosophy professorat Belgrade University (in Hedges 1997)
76Journal of the American Academy of Religio
The Roman Catholic Church announced in the Second Vatican Councilthat it was the duty of believers to support democracy and human rights.. . . But the church in the east has never addressed these issues and founditself unprepared with the fall of Communism.—Mirko Djordjevic, retired literature professor (in Hedges 1997)
HE ABOVE QUOTATIONS shape one of the questions that this ar-ticle hopes to address: Are Eastern Orthodox Christianity and democracy incompatible? Recent images within the press might suggest a positiveresponse to this question.
Recent writings by Orthodox theologians ex-press a more ambivalent view of the relation between Orthodoxy and de-mocracy. In the early part of the century the Russian theologian SergiusBulgakov, known for his political writings, argued that there “is no dog-matic bond between Orthodoxy and any particular political system” (inHarakas 1976: 408).
Such a statement gives the impression that the Or-thodox Church gives tacit approval even to the worst forms of totalitar-ian and oppressive governments. More recently, Thomas Hopko, former
See, for example, the, by now infamous, “Russian Law on the Freedom of Conscience and Reli-gious Association.” For discussion on the law, see Witte and Bourdeaux. There is also the recent ses-sion of the Joint Russian–Iranian Commission on the “Islam–Orthodoxy” Dialogue held in Moscow in June 1999: Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, the chairman of the Department of External Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate and considered the number two person in the Rus-sian Orthodox Church, and Aya Mohammed Ali Tashkiri, the president of Iran’s Culture and IslamicRelations Organization, expressed their unified stance in protecting their traditions against what they perceived as an attack from western liberal values (reported by Andrei Zolotov Jr. in “Moslems, Ortho-dox Find Common Foe?”
The Moscow Times 
, 8 June 1999; available at www.moscowtimes.ru/stories/1999/06/08/008.html; accessed 18 December 2002; for the communiqué issued at the end of the session,see www.stetson.edu/~psteeves/relnews/9906a.html; accessed 18 December 2002). Some might also pointto the response by the hierarchs and clergy of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) during the wars inBosnia and Kosovo. During the Bosnian war the responses by members of the hierarchy and clergy of the Orthodox churches in Bosnia and Serbia were confused and contradictory. For such responses, seeSells and Mojzes. Since the publication of these writings, and in the midst of revising this article, theSOC has more consistently declared publicly its opposition to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milošovi
and its support for the implementation of democratic reforms and structures in Serbia itself and through-out Bosnia and Kosovo (see Gall). The SOC’s (2000a, 2000b) recent position culminated in its immedi-ate acceptance of Vojislav Kostunica as the legitimate president of Yugoslavia (for the statement of sup-port for Kostunica issued by the Holy Synod of the SOC, visit www.orthodoxnews.com). Although thereexist extreme nationalist and fanatical elements within the SOC, the conflict in the Balkans during thepast decade is a manifestation of an Orthodox Church being “unprepared” to deal with the consequencesof the fall of communism and of a church in search for an understanding of its proper role in relation toa state and culture whose identity it has played a constitutive role in forming. This article hopes in partto give the SOC’s more recent pro-democracy stance theological grounding.
The Russian Orthodox Church took a similar position in August 2000 in the publication of itscomprehensive social document,
The Orthodox Church and Society: The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church 
. The document reaffirms a 1994 Bishops’ Council of the RussianOrthodox Church, which declared that “the Church does not give preference to any social systemor any of the existing political doctrines” (3.7). This article argues that on inner theological groundsOrthodox churches can and must give “preference” to existing political philosophies.
Papanikolaou: Byzantium, Orthodoxy, and Democracy7
dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, has written, “Asthe grandson of Carpatho-Russian immigrants to the United States, Icannot imagine my life in any other society except with gratitude for my personal destiny. As an Orthodox Christian . . . I also cannot imagine away of life more insidious to Christian Orthodoxy and more potentially dangerous to human being and life” (364).The source of this ambivalence is, in part, Orthodoxy’s past and, morespecifically, the Orthodox Church’s self-avowedly proud link to the heri-tage of the Byzantine Empire. For the Orthodox Church, the ByzantineEmpire is not a passing moment in its history but, rather, a formativeperiod for its thought and practices. Within the empire itself, Orthodox Christianity was culturally and politically dominant. The current andtimely question of Eastern Orthodoxy and democracy is also a questionof the lingering effects of a past in which a particular religious traditionwas the dominant cultural and political force within the context of anempire. At issue is the relation among religion, empire, a theology of thestate, and a theology of culture.The first part of this article attempts to show that within the specificcontext of the Byzantine Empire, in which Orthodox Christianity wasthe established religion and the primary principle of unity within theByzantine culture, religion did not simply give theological support toimperial structures. The structures of the Byzantine Empire, with Or-thodox Christianity as the state-sponsored religion, also influenced theform and content that theologies of state and culture would assume inEastern Christianity. In the diverse manifestations of the relation be-tween religion and empire in human history, it is certainly not uniqueto the Byzantine Empire that religious beliefs shape and justify particu-lar conceptions of empire; what is unique is that with the conversion of Constantine I, an inconsistent and undeveloped Christian theology of state and culture assumed definite form.The present-day Orthodox churches are the inheritors of the Byzantinetheocratic legacy. The Orthodox Church’s encounter with modern democ-racy raises the broader question of how a religious tradition, whose owntheologies of state and culture were shaped within the context of an empirein which it was the state-sponsored religion and, hence, the primary prin-ciple of cultural unity, is able to accept democratic forms of government anda multicultural society. The Orthodox Church was unprepared to face is-sues of democracy and human rights because its own theologies of state andculture were formed within a context in which democracy had no meaning.The question is whether there are resources within its theological traditionthat would allow it to give unequivocal support to democracy and the demo-cratic principles of church–state separation and multiculturalism.

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