Christ the Grand Interpreter – Reflections on Christian Nationalism and Its Antidote

These reflections were initially presented at the annual conference of the European Academy of Religion on 22 June 2022 in Bologna, in a panel discussion on the Declaration on the Russkii Mir Teaching, published by Fordham OCSC/Volos Academy for Theological Sciences in March in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Warmest thanks to Volos Academy for inviting me to share my thoughts as the Hungarian translator of that Declaration, in the inspiring company of Pantelis Kalaitzidis (moderator), Cyril Hovorun, Kristina Stoeckl, and José Casanova.

I’m honored to be invited to contribute some reflections to the discussion on this much-needed Declaration on the Russkii Mir Teaching. The Declaration does resonate with my worldview as a member of the Hungarian ethnic minority who embraced the main religion of the Romanian majority in her country. While it is challenging to be doubly in minority – an Orthodox among the Hungarians and a Hungarian among the Orthodox – it is also therapeutic. It makes it easier not to feel too much at home, not to be rooted too deeply in this world which is our temporary lodging, a gestation period, as Fr Rafail Noica calls this life.

In this strange junction of identities, reading the Declaration was like a breath of fresh air for me. Not only due to its relevance to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but also because of its pertinence to the nationalist discourse I often encounter in Romania among both ethnicities. For example, in one of the flagship churches in my city – which has the largest Hungarian community in Romania – on the Sunday of the Veneration of the Holy Cross, the cross was presented to the worshippers on a stand covered by the national flag of Romania. In that context, bowing down before the Cross that saves me from ontological death would have implied bowing down also before the symbol of the “here below”, of a geopolitical entity that defines itself as a national state. There are similar spiritual implications to commemorating 15 March in church in the Hungarian communities. An insidious form of presenting Christ in national garments is the claim that Christianity has always been part of that nation’s identity, which makes the nation the wider category that incorporates its Christianity. The Declaration emphasizes there is no (id)entity that can make a higher claim on us than Christ. Saint Sophrony Sakharov tells us plainly that when we narrow down Christianity to nationality, we lose absolutely everything and fall into darkness. Indeed, nationalism is toxic to the soul because a national identity can be mine without any ascetical effort of repentance and introspection. More often than not, the national sentiment resembles pride. Am I expected to cherish something that fuels pride and reinforces the self that Christ tells me to deny if I want to follow Him? Saint Paul’s answer is a clear and resounding no: “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14-18).

Éva Cs. Gyimesi, a Hungarian literary scholar from Romania warns that “national collectivism disregards the dignity and freedom of the individual in the same way as communism does.” I believe the metaphysical implications of this are not trivial. Nationalism deprives the human being of his God-given face. It reduces the individual – made in the image of a personal, loving God – to being the image, or the icon if you wish, of an earthly entity, the nation. Affirming the superiority of one nation over the other not only breeds pride, a soul-rotting sin that feeds even on virtue, but also makes its members uniform. And we know from Emmanuel Lévinas that Sameness – i.e. what I am without the Other – is totalitarian. The possibility of ethics is found only in the encounter with the Face of the utterly different Other, that calls upon me to welcome the widow, the orphan, the stranger. The boundaries of my identity must not be the demarcation line of the hermetically closed bubble of the self, but the interface where I encounter the Other. It is only in this enriching encounter with Otherness that the gates of infinity open to me. In our very triune God we see infinity as love of another in action: the ever-growing love of the Father for the Son through the Holy Spirit and the Son’s unending reciprocation of that love, as so remarkably explained by the great theologian Dumitru Stăniloae. This God did not just “tolerate” His human creature’s otherness. He certainly did not invade it with “cleansing” purposes. On the contrary, He made room in His all-encompassing Self for the existence of His beloved creature, and we too are called to make room in ourselves for others in the same way. Saint Stephen, King and state founder of Hungary, recognized the political relevance of this coexistence as early as a thousand years ago when he wrote in his Admonitions to his son: “A country speaking but one language, and where uniform customs prevail, is weak and frail. Therefore I urge you, my son, to protect and treat the foreigners respectfully, so that they shall more cheerfully abide with you than elsewhere.”

Living in a bilingual environment and also as a translator, I’ve always been fascinated by the story of the Tower of Babel. “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words… Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11:1.4, italics mine). I believe that the outcome of this enterprise, the multiplicity of languages, was not God’s punishment, as is often taught. It was His merciful antidote to the totalitarian instincts of the fragile, unredeemed humankind. After all, what prevented those people from learning each other’s new and unintelligible languages right there and then? I believe God confused our language so that our communion with each other and with heaven should not be based on the ephemeral unity of the “one language and the same words”. So that we should not be the “one common, concordant, and incontestable anthill” disburdened of freedom and choice, that only knows the “firm ancient law” under a Grand Inquisitor, as depicted by Dostoevsky in his masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov. The one language was confused so that God, our loving Creator can become what unites humankind – our Grand Interpreter if you wish. It is no coincidence that the most spectacular sign of the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was precisely the ability to speak the others’ many foreign languages.

In the Holy Spirit, the boundaries of national identity are not broken down, but transformed into interfaces of love. Thus God’s “Babel therapy” is perfected. When – and only when –liturgical communion becomes a continuously transformative, authentic personal experience, we can be freed from the bondage of misapplied identity we encumber ourselves with when we project our own spiritual pathology. In the Holy Spirit, man is no longer locked in the prison of his earthly identities that were born as substitutes after sin had stained the most precious identity of all: that of being in the image of God. Andrey Kuraev compares culture to a pearl, which humanity, like an oyster, protectively builds around the wound caused by sin. Even theology is a form of this culture that would be unnecessary if we had still been capable of communicating from heart to heart with God and with each other. To compensate for the loss of this ability, God in His mercy let us develop culture. He Himself lovingly chose to learn our secular languages and speak to us in those languages in the Holy Liturgy. But in the Holy Spirit we strive to do away with these crutches and to outgrow a specific language, as well as the heritage that comes with it. Even Isaiah cries out: “Abraham does not know us… You, Lord, are our Father, our Redeemer” (Isa. 63:16). Our national heroes from the past do not know us. Salvation is not a matter of cultural inheritance. This point is affirmed by the Hungarian Declaration of Faith of 1956, written by young Reformed pastors inspired by the Barmen Declaration: “Redemption does not result in a secular human history that develops into God’s Kingdom, but the contrary: in a salvation history that grows gradually.”

The transcendence of the Church as the Body of Christ is the reason why Saint Justin Popović calls it an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Spirit “to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things.” He affirms that the Christ-given objective of the Church is to make people aware of their eternal God-human personhood, that they belong to Christ and as such, they are to become ministering servants to all. He goes so far as to say that any other objective of the Church is of the Antichrist. So I believe that Christ’s commandment to serve and love even our enemies must be an essential part of any Christian position statement. Saint Silouan, whom the Declaration cites to make this point, teaches us that my brother – meaning the other person, whether friend or enemy – is my life. The conclusion we can draw from this is obvious: when I hate, hurt and kill the other, it is my life that I’m hating, hurting and killing. And this applies to all parties in such a conflict. Self-defense is the tragic situation where I am forced to kill my brother, who is my life, so that I can live. And, lest we become like those we fight against, we must not anaesthetize the painful absurdity of this. Or, as Lévinas puts it: even the SS officer has a Face from which the ethical appeal speaks to us.

While we must fight the injustice and crime fuelled by the “distinctions of the flesh,” we must also be aware that antinationalist and similar efforts alone will not save humanity from its troubles. Everything that we can humanly do is just the symptomatic treatment of an existential ailment. John Meyendorff’s observation is painfully relevant here: “the laws of this mortal world of ours are made in such a way that their main purpose is to preserve my rights and my property. They justify violence as a form of self-defense. And the history of human society is one of conflicts and wars in which individuals and nations struggle and kill others in the name of temporal benefits which will be destroyed by death anyway.”

So how should we approach the issue of nationality that causes such discord? By remembering that whatever names we may have here, even this name “Christians,” in God’s Kingdom those who prevail will be given “a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it” (Rev 2:17). This is the end of all collective identities and a wonderful reaffirmation of the absolute uniqueness of each of us as a person. Like any fleeting and relative earthly identity, national identity too should be outgrown in Christ. Christian nationalism is the hormone-addled puberty of the soul that is pathologically incapable of coming of age – or rather, agelessness – in Christ. Ephemeral earthly existence must transcend its own transience, its own cultural and linguistic limits, by letting itself be filled with everlasting life in Christ in active mystical, liturgical communion with Him and through Him with others. We must not abandon this eschatological consciousness to any secular comfort that disguises as love, calls itself diversity, tolerance or anything else, and makes an attempt – even an agenda – to save the world. Only God, as revealed to us by Jesus Christ, can personally love the whole of humanity as one Adam. Only in Him can we, too, experience the consubstantiality of the whole humankind and love it as one Adam. Saint Sophrony leaves us in no doubt that this is the standard of love: “everything that fails to reach the level of this love falls short of the commandments of the gospel. We can say that the reality contained in Christ’s commandments is not yet actualized in historical Christianity.”

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