Are we losing our identity?

St. Sava of Serbia.
St. Sava of Serbia.
When several Serbian Orthodox parishes recently invited me to come be their guest speaker, I was very pleasantly surprised because, lately, some Serbian Orthodox parishes prefer to invite non-Serbian speakers and educations.

One may wonder why it is so. Is it because, as we read in the Bible, "A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and in his own house?" (Matthew 13:57, Mark 6:4, John 4:44). Or is it because, at least in the course of the past [several] years, the Serbs have been demonized and satanized in the media all over the world and some people, even those of Serbian origin, are either afraid or reluctant to associate with anything Serbian? Maybe, but that is not the only reason.

Another reason is that we have been exposed for quiet some time to the proselytizing propaganda of a particular Orthodox church, which has convinced at least some of our faithful and, alas, some of our clergy, that our being Serbian prevents us from truly being Orthodox. In 1989, at the celebration of the first millennium of the Christianization of Russia, on a pier in Chicago, in the presence of one Serbian bishop and several of us Serbian priests, a clergyman of that church preached a sermon. He told us that he had just returned from the former Soviet Union. There, he said, he saw many former Orthodox churches which had been converted into warehouses, gasoline stations, offices and clubs. Nevertheless, he said, he felt the presence of God more in those desecrated churches than in the "ghetto churches" in this country. By "ghetto churches," he meant all ethnic Orthodox churches in this country, including ours, which refused to give up their ethnic identity and submit to the rules, administration and practices of that particular Orthodox church.

I wonder whether that clergyman and his like realize what it is they are asking us to give up. The independent Serbian Orthodox Church has been in existence since 1219, whereas his particular church was formed only a few decades ago. He also may not know that the Serbian Orthodox Church and her national hierarchy were essential factors in the contemplation and actualization of the Christianization of the Serbs. National consciousness among the Serbs, whether those who live in Serbia or others scattered throughout the world, depends very much on their religious consciousness, but their Orthodoxy also depends on their national identity. Further, without the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Serbs may not have been able to preserve their Christianity or to survive as a nation during the perilous period of the Turkish occupation, which lasted for almost five centuries. The history of the Serbian Orthodox Church, from her inception until the present day, has been the history of a heroic struggle for the preservation not only of religion, but also of national identity, and of cultural and ethical values. Furthermore, it is the history of a Christian church that, even under the most adverse circumstances, has remained faithful to her Lord and the Orthodox faith. Throughout her history the Serbian Orthodox Church has been tried by sword and fire, by martyrdom and suffering. During World War II, almost a million Serbs were slaughtered in Croatia simply because they refused to give up Orthodoxy! We are the descendants of those martyrs and all other Serbian martyrs who throughout Serbian history accepted martyrdom rather than give up their Orthodox faith! We are descendants of saintly kings who adorned the Serbian land with scores of monasteries and churches. It does not matter that we live on another continent. Those martyrs and those kinds are our ancestors, and we must never renounce the heritage we received from them. They were good Christians, and there was nothing wrong with their Orthodoxy, as there is nothing wrong with our Orthodoxy.

We should ask ourselves, is it true that we would be better Orthodox Christians if we and our Serbian Orthodox Church gave up our identity? In order to reach a correct answer, let us remind ourselves that the loss of identity is a malady. Persons afflicted with this illness do not know their own name, their date and place of birth, their parents, relatives and friends.

Loss of identity can also afflict whole groups of people. In fact, I believe it has afflicted some ethnic groups, especially those who have left their national territory and settled in countries with a multi-national structure. I am afraid that our Serbian ethnic group, too, is in danger of losing its identity.

Loss of identity among individuals of the first Serbian generation of immigrants to this country is unknown, or at least it is a very rare phenomenon. However, the loss of identity among their children, and especially their grandchildren is more acute. Among the reasons for this phenomenon is the fact that some individuals identify the culture and religion of their ancestors as something "foreign," and they over-zealously desire to be "accepted," and to be "full-fledged" Americans. They seem to believe that they will be "true Americans" by casting off all ties with the religious, cultural and ethnic heritage of their forefathers. Yet, one has to ask them: What is a true American? Race, creed, color and ethnic origin are not factors in determining who is an American and who is not. In fact, American culture is multi-national, comprised of the cultural values of various ethnic groups. This diversity of ethnicity, religions and cultures actually represents the American nation and American culture. Consequently, we, the Orthodox Serbs in America, could and should contribute to the multi-ethnic and multi-religious American culture, not by abandoning our cultural and religious heritage, but by making it a part of American culture. Moreover, no matter how paradoxical it may sound, it is absolutely true that the better Serbs we are, the better Americans we shall be.

Yet, how can we bring or contribute anything to anyone if we do not know or care about our own cultural and religious heritage? Who else would consider adopting our cultural and religious values if we ourselves do not care enough to preserve them?

We are fortunate to live in this country which does not exert any pressure on any of us to abandon his or her ethnic, religious and cultural heritage. As far as the policy of this country is concerned, a person who speaks Serbian, as well as English, who maintains Serbian cultural values, and who belongs to the Serbian Orthodox Church, yet is loyal to this country, is as good an American as anybody else. Our famous scientists, Nikola Tesla and Michael Pupin, were loyal and highly respected Americans without abandoning their Serbian language, Serbian culture and Serbian Orthodox religion. Furthermore, in view of the fact that there is no "pure" American, that everyone belongs to some ethnic group, should we have to become Irish, or Italian, or Polish, or Russian, or German, or Ukrainian, or part of some other ethnic groups in America in order to feel like "true Americans?" One has to realize that, unlike a state, which has to have its own geographic territory in order to have an identity, an ethnic group, as well as an individual, can have and preserve its identity in any state and on any territory. The best known example of this is the case of the Jews. They have preserved their ethnic and religious identity in the course of several millennia, although they have been scattered throughout the world and have only had their own state for the past 50 years.

There are some other factors contributing to the danger of our losing our own identity. A major factor among them is our limited knowledge of Serbian national and ecclesiastical history and of our Orthodoxy. Religious education in the Serbian Orthodox Church in America appears not to be a major concern of ours. For the past 50 years alone, at least 50 new Serbian Orthodox churches have been built in America. Yet, how many textbooks for our church schools have been printed in that period of time? In our church schools we use textbooks prepared by other Orthodox churches, which contain little or nothing about our church and national history, our customs, our national saints, our religious practices. Million dollars have been spent on building Serbian Orthodox churches in this country (and on some others matters better not mentioned here), but how much do we spend on the religious education of our children, of our youth, and of our adults? What will happen to these magnificent church buildings if we do not preserve the faithful who attend them? I think with sadness of the fate of the Serbs in Hungary. In the past they have built 47 churches, six of them in Szentendre alone. Once these churches used to be overcrowded, but now they are empty and abandoned. Only five of the 47 church buildings are still in use. Will that happen to us, American Serbs?

Our religious education is unsystematic. Our church-school teachers cannot and should not be blamed for this situation. They are, in most cases, volunteers who bring to our church schools enthusiasm and as much knowledge as they are able to acquire without much guidance from those who are supposed to guide them. Yet, they cannot teach children whose parents do not bring them to church schools. And they have to use textbooks of other Orthodox, and even non-Orthodox, churches since we do not have our own.

Brethren and sisters, if we are not good Orthodox, it is not because we are Serbian Orthodox; it is more likely because our Orthodoxy is for some individuals a formal affiliation, rather than a way of life. A German theologian, Konrad Onash, himself a Protestant, stated that the supreme goal of Orthodoxy is "Christ-likeness." Do we, Orthodox American-Serbs, or Orthodox in general, really strive to attain some likeness to Christ? I could spend hours, even days, citing examples showing a tragic disparity between our professed faith and our way of life. Just think of what is the most important item in our church, diocesan, and parish meetings and assemblies. The emphasis, from the top to the bottom, is on our financial rather than spiritual obligations.

Yet, there are many pious, generous, sincere Orthodox Christians among us. But there are also some who are not. The former and the latter could, without casting off their Serbian identity, become better Orthodox if Orthodox spirituality became a primary concern of our religious activities. In order to be enjoyed, to be loved, Orthodoxy has to be an active living experience, rather than a passive and formal nametag. As I mentioned to [a certain person], our Serbian Orthodox religion is like a Cadillac that we own but do not use. I may also compare Orthodoxy to a beautiful, deep ocean, in which we occasionally dip a big toe, but seldom if ever swim. If, therefore, some of us are unhappy with the Serbian Orthodox religion, it is not because our religion is at fault, but because we do not live it as a way of life. Is it not sad and embarrassing that to our neighbors of different faiths, our churches are better known for their social and athletic activities, rather than for their religious endeavors?

In conclusion, let me repeat that there is nothing wrong with the Serbian Orthodox religion. It is not inferior to the Orthodoxy of any other group. We do not have to cast off our identity and assume the identity of someone else in order to be true and good Orthodox. All we have to do is learn what Serbian Orthodoxy is, and make it our way of life.

© 1998 by Fr. Mateja Matejic. Reprinted with permission.

The Saint Gregory Palamas Outreach

Fr. Mateja Matejic

28 мая 2012 г.

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