Saturday, September 6, 2008

Conflict Tests Ties Between the Georgian and Russian Orthodox Churches

Saturday, September 6, 2008

On September 6, 2008, on page A5 of the New York edition of the New York Times this article (<-- click) "Conflict Tests Ties Between the Georgian and Russian Orthodox Churches," by Sophia Kishkovsky appeared. In it Kishkovsky explains the struggle and sorrow experienced by Orthodox leaders of the two respective Churches over the recent military aggression between the Russia and Georgia.

Today, blood is being shed and people are perishing in South Ossetia, and my heart deeply grieves over it,” Patriarch Aleksy said in a statement on Aug. 8 as the fighting raged. “Orthodox Christians are among those who have raised their hands against each other. Orthodox peoples called by the Lord to live in fraternity and love are in conflict.”

This article and this development is important at least for two reasons:

  1. We see potential signs that religion can serve as a harmonizing force across warring boundaries

  2. We see signs that media analysis and reportage is maturing beyond debilitating bias of secular parochialism

The struggle and lamentation of both Georgian and Russian, Orthodox Church leaders demonstrates the potential for religion to serve as a unifying factor, a voice of conscience, and an impetus to move states and militaries away from nation state habit of killing people, harming nature, and destroying property.

In this particular case, the sensibility and concern happened to be because all victims and targets were from the same religion (Orthodoxy). But isn't it possible for us as a species to evolve beyond the archaic shackles of religious parochialism, so that this type of despair suffered and expressed by these Orthodox leaders, would equally arise in the hearts of all religious leaders any and every time any believer from any religion suffers from political and military actions? Or for that matter, couldn't religious leaders grow to feel the same sense of the unconscionable, not only when a co-religionist, or a even a believer suffers, but even when when human beings degenerate to the point of killing, harming, and destroying life, the earth, and property?

Perhaps the solidarity and lament seen this time in the confines of denominationalism, for believers who happen to be of just one sort can serve as an example and as an ideal for the emergence of a broader, greater, and more expansive spirituality that draws from the same basic impulse and sensibility.

If international diplomatic efforts had less of a tin ear for clues from the universe of religion and religious identity, one might have recognized an opportunity in this “cross-enemy” solidarity so rarely found in the midst of this sort of dangerous and horrible war. Could not this Christian (albeit denominational) high-mindedness be seen as a window through which higher, less divisive positions and provocations might have been seized by the United States?

GOP presidential nominee John McCain (perhaps feeling a campaign wedge in the offing) outpaced his own government to rattle US sabers against Russia. Soon thereafter reports came in of a a rare Dick Cheney sighting, this time as he surfaced in Georgia itself to threaten and further sour US-Russia relations.

Might not a more elegant and holistic foreign policy approach to such an intensely sensitive international breakdown, benefit by recognizing a rare and pre-established harmonizing force through these Orthodox leaders? Why not trade on the so-called “Christianness” of American identity and stand in solidarity with leaders from both countries who in unison are calling on conscience and community to rise above the geopolitical forces that led to this tragic and dangerous conflict? Could not “America” have stepped through this door, to engage the leaders on both sides of this dangerous conflict?

We must note and indeed celebrate in this article an occasion in which a writer from mainstream, liberal media has done a fine and impressive job making religious matters, and religious history clear and comprehensible for a popular readership.

Let us hope that the secular bias that has so harmed and diminished the fullness of analysis and human understanding is starting to turn the corner, and fair and solid reporting like this can become a more frequent staple in the news we consume daily.

Frank Kaufmann is the director of the Inter Religious Federation for World Peace. These opinions are his own.


William said...

Thanks Frank

I am astounded by the attitude of the West generally. Wouldn't the US have been rather put out if the Soviet Union had tried to recruit Mexico or other American countries to be signed up members of the Warsaw Pact? If Russia started becoming actively involved in the Americas today I think the US would be pretty miffed.

I think the west should shut up. After illegally, immorally and stupidly invading and unleashing the Iraq and dismembering Serbia I don't think it they have a leg to stand on. For Cheyne and Milliband to lecture Russia is the highest hypocrisy.

Georgia of course was stupid in what it did - they fell for the Russian bait. Instead they should have cut their losses earlier and allowed South Ossetia and Abhazia to join Russia removing any justifiable excuse for the Russians to intervene in Georgia proper. After all those 2 republics were tacked on to Georgia by Stalin for just such a purpose.

It is interesting that the ROC leaders mentioned fighting in South Ossetia and not Georgia. In doing so they were treating it as independent entity and not as part of Georgia thus taking the geo-political perspective of the Kremlin.

Best wishes


LB said...


Very interesting article. Great opportunity for proactive intervention if an organization were more prepared.

Like minded church leaders of all denominations each with a network of political leaders with whom they have influence.

Launch CPRs (Caucuses for Proactive Reconcilliation) to revive the hearts of forgiveness in each of the national assemblies, and have a political constituency poised to respond to reconcilliation deals brokered from the religious side. Great alternative to the "Oslo" process.

Good communication and coordination among those church leaders.

Identify trouble spots and communicate with religious leaders on both sides of the trouble spots.

Develop a platform for reconcilliation with the religious leaders on both sides, and circulate that platform to the religious leaders of the organization, who in turn push it to their political networks. Go public with international political support for reconcilliation.

Who knows, you might prevent a war here and there!


Rowena said...

Dear Frank,
Interesting indeed. Your desideratum that political powers take into account the spiritual dimension of the lives they lead reminds me of the very ancient concept of ma'at [ancient Egyptian, to be exact!]. This principle of harmony in the cosmos was the responsibility of the kings/pharaohs to maintain. How often I am minded of the need to look to the past for guidance to the future [spoken like a true historian, I know!]. I find the perspectives provided by being a scholar-teacher in pre-modern European history do often make me shake my head at what the news brings us some days. Still, hope does spring eternal [at least in some hearts], and I really like both the idea and the double-entendre of LB's CPR suggestion. The first step toward proactive work might simply be prayer. God willing, spirit might move the mountain(s) to a location where they won't topple and destroy either side.

Gene Hart said...

Frank, You mention the “debilitating bias of secular parochialism” and the “secular bias that has so harmed and diminished the fullness of analysis.” I think it’s true that without including the high-ground of religious unity, finding resolutions to political conflicts remains merely wishful. Unfortunately, the article you mention does not indicate a significant level of religious high ground coming from the Orthodox church, at least nothing capable of providing a vantage point for peace. Members of the same religion cannot even agree. Having a common enemy (the scourge of war) is about the only thing I could see here; yet, any religionist who doesn’t lament the killing of human beings is not even worth calling one, so this “unity” is a flimsy fa├žade.

I agree, definitely, with your call and observation for bringing the religionists to the forefront for peaceful resolutions of these types of conflicts. Until, however, the “secular” leaders see something different from the thoughts and actions of these kind of religious leaders, they cannot and will not ever get enlightened. Could it be, as was hinted, that the Orthodox religious leaders really are being used by the entrenched political forces, instead? Eek. Man. Just looking at this situation shows me how much work has yet to be done. Keep it up. Let’s empower the religionists to get real. Only then can the “bias” of secularists be overcome. God bless.


Larry said...


It is clear you have a burning desire for religious cohesion to be a mitigating factor in Georgia. I applaud that, but I don't see it happening.

I think Christians in America and Europe are not that plugged into one another solidarity-wise.

The Russians, of course, have continually shown themselves to be the coarsest barbarians of the world, going on two centuries -- knuckle-dragging troglodytes who haven't evolved jack since Rasputin.

Meanwhile Cheney, McCain and all may show up to do lip service or shake a saber from some hotel ballroom podium, but the Kremlin and the White House both know we are more than occupied elsewhere.

Georgia could not have picked a worse time to misjudge the Russians, nor a bigger geopolitical crack to fall into insofar as getting help from abroad is concerned. To whatever degree we encouraged Georgia in this direction, we are culpable for being finger-pointed-at by the ghosts of Cubans who found themselves standing naked in the water at the Bay of Pigs.

Thank you for having one of the more stimulating blogs I encounter.

Larry Moffitt

Anonymous said...

I winced when I read this from Larry:

"The Russians, of course, have continually shown themselves to be the coarsest barbarians of the world, going on two centuries -- knuckle-dragging troglodytes who haven't evolved jack since Rasputin."

Having lived in Russia for 7 years I disagree completely. While having a marked tendency to national paranoia and zenophobia the average Russian is much less parochial than the average Briton or American in my experience. Most are far better educated and Russia has literary, artist, scientific and musical traditions to be proud of.

There are many problems in and with Russia but it has come a long way. It also has legitimate interests for historical and other reasons but since the collapse of communism these have often been ignored by the US and Europe.


Dave Tranberg said...

Dear Frank,

I enjoyed reading your article about the current tensions between Georgia and Russia.
Of all the types of human endeavor, perhaps only that of Religion truly deals with, and therefore offers some answer to, the human proclivity towards violence. Even the much touted field of psychology only deals to a lesser degree of 'what stimulous leads to what possible response', rather than the deep reasons for the conflict itself. It is tragic that most policy makers in the world, following America's lead, refuse to engage this most useful element of our human family for the purpose for which it is intended- that of peacemakers.
This is not surprising, since anti-religious elements have viciously attacked the credibility of an internal, religious life and it's corollary, external public life, for over a half century. The religious world has hardly helped it's case by being so small-minded as to be used by political entities varying from the strife makers in Ireland to the misuse of the religious impulse in the violence ravaged middle east of today.
The policy makers of the west do little to aid thier cause of peace making as well when they bow down to the strident cat calls from the humanist left to ostracize the religious voice, however.
A new vision of a broad range of religious voices is needed to give voice to what you alluded to in your comments. It is time for sincere religious voices to rise up, together, and beyond any divisions to address the suffering of their flocks which are beyond national borders, racial creeds, or any other divisions. Only when this happens will the world have the hope of real peace.
America can aid the creation of this voice, but only if it's leaders go beyond "using" people and religions as simple "tools" and begin to facilitate the emergence of an authoritative, internationl, inter-religious and inter-denominationalist entity that would give voice to the best aspects of the religious heart- that of bridge building and peacemaking- beyond any self limiting barrier.
To do this would require a great vision and great effort, to overcome the furious opposition of secularists. There are elements, historically that need to be repented for by religionists of any stripe, but there is far more to be proud of in all religious cultures. It is time, and more than time for such an emergent voice.

All the best, Dave Tranberg

gordonpwpa said...

Frank, From what I have seen the issue is sovereignty and power. If you ultimately want a peaceful society, it needs to be built from the bottom up, starting with familes, then communities, provinces, nations, and finally the world. In every instance, the higher level needs to be built on the foundation of the lower.

Our Declaration of Independence holds the ability to secede as a natural right when the ruling power is acting unjustly. This was our claim when the United States wanted to secede from Great Britain.

As I understand it, most South Ossetians believed that joining with Russia would be better for them than remaining part of Georgia. I would support their right to do this, and believe the doctrine of inviable state sovereignty, which has been a prominent feature of international law, has created all sorts of excuses for the misuse of national power.

In Kant's "Perpetual Peace," Kant makes the point that higher levels of government are necessary and that groups and nations will find it is to their advantage to join them and accept the necessary price of joining in order to receive the benefits in terms of security and trade. He terms it "the cunning of history." However, this needs to be a voluntary joining in order to keep the higher government honest.

The United States, in my opinion, can call Georgia an ally in terms of geostrategic interests. But it is wrong to hold it up as a model "democracy" when it kills 2,000 of its own residents in order to hold the nation-state together by force. The freedoms enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights were to protect citizens from governments.

But, I risk the charge of heresy, because the United States violated this principle when the Union invaded the South after it sought to secede and transformed the United States from a voluntary association of states into a nation bound together by force. The United States, in its infancy, could have played a lot of cards differently. But, as they say, "hindsight is 20/20."

Nevertheless, I think that if international law adopted a right to secede combined with the rights of all citizens, of even small communities, to be protected against abuse by their governments, we could see a lot of progress towards world peace. Let national governments compete for provinces, and you will find much better national governments emerging.

Larry said...

I do understand what you mean, William. But you are talking about Russian citizens, who are beautiful. I am speaking of political Russia.

Having lived in Russia off and on since 1982, including during the kidnapping of Gorbachev and the subsequent fall of communism (but not having lived there during the past 10 years), I love the Russian soul.

I am inspired by the Russians' common love of allegory -- which shows up in seemingly every artistic expression. In literature, they surpass all, save perhaps overeducated members of the French Academy, and Arabian poets.

But I do not trust their government. The old ways die hard. The government and military still has the mindset described by Nixon, of probing with a bayonet and pulling back only when they hit steel.

Part of me envies you living in Russia, William. I have so many wonderful memories and friends there, although I understand it has gotten rather expensive. They used to have a jazz club called "Bluebird." Now they probably have many of them. An artistically free Russian people are a blessing to the planet.

Best to you,

Samvel Jeshmaridian said...

Georgia-Russia military conflict shows how feeble religious organizations are in global matters. Just the approach declaring that people of the same religion should not fight is amazingly depressing and negatively striking. The Priciple DO NOT KILL is not saying "Do not kill your religious brothers" but is saying "Do not kill any other human being as well as yourself." If the OLD TESTAMENT had said: "Do not kill others because it means killing YOURSELF," it could have turned ununderstandable perhaps for everybody. Even "Do not kill" remains ununderstandable for today's religious leaders!
Once again it occurs to be that religious leaders are no better than unpopular and complexed politicians.

Laura said...

Wonderful reflections - comments. Yes, it is great the secular media wants to value religious input.
However, it sems a bit late. In working with many young people, it seems many of our young are rather fed up with the hypocrisies they perceive within politics and religion. Your desire for unity beyond borders of all kinds makes sense, but lacks the practicum.

Let's participate in service and acts of kindness. When people of different opinions can actually do work in this world together, amazing things start to happen. Bridges get built.

At the recent Global Peace Festival in Washington DC, I met many young people I have mentored, many who helped stage the event. When I asked them, "What are you learning?" they almost universally said "I am learning about MY FALLEN NATURE!" We laughed. And yet.....if only the leaders of the world continued their individual spiritual practices with such diligence! When leaders are people who truly care about integrity and character, the world can change.

Politics and Religion can have hope when peopled with such young people. Let us continue to make opportunities for their voices to be heard. Orthodox YOUTH can connect well to youth of probably any religion or background.

Supna Zaidi said...

You mention the following pts:

1. We see potential signs that religion can serve as a harmonizing force across warring boundaries.

2. We see signs that media analysis and reportage is maturing beyond debilitating bias of secular parochialism

3. nation state habit of killing people, harming nature, and destroying property.

4. religion has the power to encourage pacifism in foreign policy?

While I agree with your overall point that religion has the power to harmonize, I disagree on how. In my view, secularism is the umbrella under which all people of no faith or the most orthodox faith can come together under the principles of pluralism, tolerance and mutual respect. Secularism has not failed because of un-checked capitalism. But because citizens have failed to teach subsequent generations what secularism is.

Secularism is not and never was under the founding fathers atheism, anti-religion or an avenue to subjugate God by any means. Rather, it is meant to protect religion by keeping it apart from the dirty politics in everyday society. It is the mistake of secular individuals to move away from their respective faiths so much that they identify secularism with a "whatever" attitude towards morals and society.

This failure to recognize that secularism is needed to prevent orthodoxy from rising to the level of extremism has allowed religion to re-enter the public space. This is a mistake.

Religion would never have entered foreign policy concerns until Islamism hit the US on 9/11. Many now argue that you have ot fight islamism with revived judaism and christianity, not secularism. I think that is taking society back not forward IF Secularism was implemented as it should be where all faith is respected not belittled.

Putting religions against each other takes us back 3 centuries.

Lastly, the concerns of religion offer no answers to pragmatic questions of resource control, fights over land and regional dominance, which is what the fighting between russia and georgia involves.

BUT, if the universal morality from religion could be tied to the language of civic culture and democracy it would be strong ally in fostering peace. I think that is the value of interfaith programs, cultural exchanges, and any other efforts to better understand individuals of other faiths. Such exchanges would in the long run diminish the power of Islamists who seek supremacy over other faiths globally.


Asst Dir of Islamist Watch at the Middle East Forum and
Editor of Muslim World Today.

John M said...

To Dr. Frank Kaufmann, “Article on the reaction of Orthodox Christian leaders to the conflict between Russia and Georgia.“

Dear Frank,

I congratulate you on this fine and thought-provoking article. You have squarely hit the nail on the head. What you say is definitely the case that: “The struggle and lamentation of both Georgian and Russian Orthodox Church leaders demonstrates the potential for religion to serve as a unifying factor.” Potential: absolutely yes. But “unifying factor” with what regard: the Churches, the states involved, or the people in general?

Both political Russia and Georgia have been shaped and impacted upon by religion, mainly the Orthodox Churches. And that in itself has had a unifying role as far as the traditions of the two Churches go. But the religious factor has no direct say upon the political factors in the conflict. Conflict functions at the level of state (political) decisions. State politics does not recognize the relevance of any religious traditions however these might be identified with the nations concerned. That is the brutal reality. The religious (Orthodox Churches) could not call a halt to the war, even if they would have agreed on the need to stop the killings and destruction. They would have agreed on the issue of peace. But they were impotent to order and implement a truce and withdrawal of the fighting forces. The most we could hope for is the Orthodox leadership from both sides to navigate the way of peace and reconciliation, inevitably (but perhaps unwillingly?) accepting the new political set up, which has ensued. Naturally, what lies within the powers of these two Orthodox Churches, Russian and Georgian, is to educate their countries away from a war-mentality, to a peace mentality, from war traditions, to peace traditions. More, the two Churches cannot do, since the main players are politicians and not bishops, and war is deeply ingrained in the histories of these and other countries.

You rightly plead “for us as a species to evolve beyond the archaic shackles of religious parochialism” and beyond “the point of killing, harming, and destroying life, the earth, and property.” The whole world would agree with and yearn for that goal. You see the possibility of “recognizing a rare and pre-established harmonizing force through these Orthodox leaders.” You are right about the Orthodox Churches. They have strong enough traditions to play such a role, and thereby make a great contribution towards building people for peace and reconciliation.

You raise the question of American “Christianess” being supportive to these Orthodox Churches. You ask: “Why not trade on the so-called ‘Christianness’ of American identity and stand in solidarity with leaders from both countries?” That is a very valid question to pose. I would wish the same as you do. However, I cannot see American ‘Christianness’ making an impact upon the “Orhodoxness”, let alone the politics, of Russia and Georgia. Does or can American “Christianness” wield any direct political power within America itself, let alone internationally? I wonder.

John M., Switzerland, 11 September 2008

tom kando said...

I agree with your analysis of the current conflict between Georgia and Russia, as well as with some of the points made by your commentators.
The knee-jerk response of some American officials is unfortunate (the White House, McCain): They are saber rattling against Russia again, reverting to the Cold War. Old habits die hard. As if we did not have enough enemies - real and imaginary. Terrorism, two wars, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, you name it. Now don’t misunderstand me, I don’t think that Putin is a nice man. But Georgian President Saakashvili is also a hothead. The way he handled South Ossetia, etc. Surely the US has enough on its plate, and surely starting another shouting match with one more “enemy” isn’t helpful.
As to religion, of course it should play a positive role in international relations. However, we have seen the worldwide Jihad of the last few decades. How religion can become a more important unifying force and a force for peace, rather than a divisive factor, that’s the $64,000 question. I wish someone would study this topic.

Tom Kando

Faisal said...


Your Idea is so creative, deep rooted, has political as will as social analysis. What you wrote has combined the academic, politics and social features.
I am so happy to read it.