Letter from Kosovo
By Steven R. Ford
Nearly everywhere I’ve gone on this earth I’ve stumbled across evidence of people harming each other in God’s name. Often the evidence is fairly ancient, like the medieval citadels in Syria, fortified to defend their residents from Christian crusaders. And sometimes the evidence is more recent, like bullet-scarred buildings in Belfast and firebombed Christian churches in West Africa and South Asia. Religious people, I’ve discovered, can have a peculiar propensity toward nastiness.
If Britain at the coronation of Edward VII was the Land of Hope and Glory, Kosovo, where I am writing this reflection, has been until very recently a land of despair and shame. In the late 1990s, in fact, this country was the world’s epicenter of religiously sanctioned atrocities.
Once the center of Serbian culture and faith, Ottoman rule produced an Islamic power elite. With the coming of persecution, many Christians migrated northward to Belgrade, their places taken by Albanian Muslim immigrants. The perceived apostasy of Kosovans has never sat well with Serbian Christians. In addition, nationalist aspirations of ethnic Albanians, taking root early in the 19th century, came widely to be considered a threat to Serbia, of which Kosovo had become a province.
Post-World War II Yugoslavian strongman Josip Tito brought peace to the region through granting a degree of autonomy, but his death in 1980 ended this and led to a boiling over of long-simmering resentments. Kosovans were increasingly identified as dangerous counter-revolutionaries, and through their religion they became, in the popular mind, the “seed of Satan.” Serbian Orthodox church leaders, moreover, fanned the rhetorical flames, effectively giving their blessing to the demonization of Muslims.
In 1989, Serbia’s Slobodan Milosecvic embarked on a program of ethnic and religious “cleansing” to solve the problems once and for all — with a supposed divine mandate, of course. The subsequent mayhem led to NATO airstrikes in 1999, evidence of which remains everywhere. Serbian troops were driven out later that year, and a decade of interim U.N. administration followed. Today, Kosovan independence is recognized by more than half of the world’s sovereign nations.
As I’ve wandered Kosovo’s countryside, I’ve witnessed firsthand the results of unchecked religious hatred — the ruined buildings and the graveyards and the barbed wire. And while visiting the city of Prizren, an infamous place of atrocity and deadly reprisal in which businesses and churches and lives have been rebuilt, I’m amazed that things ever got this far. Rebuilding should not be necessary, as the widespread destruction of Kosovo should never have occurred.
The path toward religious cruelty begins, it seems to me, when folks identify their own political agendas as the clear will of God. And that’s easy to do, since arrogance is a major part of our fallen nature. Rare is the person, however, who derives political views from direct divine revelation. Most of us bring our agendas to our faith, where we have them blessed and sanctified.
Political beliefs made holy can easily entice people to move to another level: denegrating and even dehumanizing those who disagree with them. I recently heard a priest claim in a homily that the prophet Muhammad might have been the Antichrist. I’ve heard Episcopal Church leaders vilify their political opponents as somehow being agents of evil. And while demonizing others does not necessarily end in violence, the experience of Kosovo suggests that it’s certainly a step in getting there.
“If I am … King,” stutters Bertie in the film The King’s Speech, “where is my power? May I form a Government on my own, appoint or dismiss a Prime Minister … or declare war? None of these things. Yet I am the seat of all authority. Why? Because when I speak, the nation believes I speak for them. Yet I cannot speak!” One can almost hear God’s own lament in this.
The path toward harming others in God’s name is impossible to walk, or even to set out on, for the truly humble. Perhaps we need regularly to remind ourselves that most of our political opinions are probably not as divinely inspired as we like to think. Far more likely, they’re just our opinions.
The Rev. Steven R. Ford assists at St. James the Apostle, Tempe, Arizona.