Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Kosovo: Pandora's Box

In light of the recent US sanctioned declaration of independence by Kosovo, I thought the following essay by John Couretas at the Action Institute's Powerblog worth reading. I will confess my grasp of Eastern European politics and history leaves me unprepared to offer any substantive observations.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Nearly two years ago, in "Who Will Protect Kosovo's Christians?" I wrote:

Dozens of churches, monasteries and shrines have been destroyed or damaged since 1999 in Kosovo, the cradle of Orthodox Christianity in Serbia. The Serbian Orthodox Church lists nearly 150 attacks on holy places, which often involve desecration of altars, vandalism of icons and the ripping of crosses from Church rooftops. A March 2004 rampage by Albanian mobs targeted Serbs and 19 people, including eight Kosovo Serbs, were killed and more than 900 injured, according Agence France Press. The UN mission in Kosovo, AFP said, reported that 800 houses and 29 Serb Orthodox churches and monasteries - some of them dating to the 14th century — were torched during the fighting. NATO had to rush 2,000 extra troops to the province to stop the destruction.

All this happened despite the presence of UN peacekeeping forces. According to news reports posted by the American Council for Kosovo, Albanian separatists are opposing the expansion of military protection of Christian holy sites by UN forces. A main concern of Christians is the fate of the Visoki Decani Monastery - Kosovo's only UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Now that Albanian separatists have declared the Serbian province of Kosovo to be an independent nation -- and won backing from President Bush -- a chain of events has been put in place that EU lawmakers are already describing as a Pandora's Box.

Why? Because the secessionist move in Serbia is likely to kindle others in places like Georgia, Moldova and Russia (which now much entertain similar aspirations from places like Abkhazia, South Ossetia, or Transdniester). This explains Russia's opposition to the Kosovo breakaway, but it's not alone. Spain, which has contended with Basque, Catalan and Galician separatist movements for decades, refused to recognize an independent Kosovo, saying the move was illegal. Then there's Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Cyprus. Some Asian countries also view the Kosovo split as a dangerous precedent. Sri Lanka said the move was a violation of the UN Charter. Canada has officially remained mum on the question so far.

For a good balanced look ahead for Kosovo, see "After Kosovo's Secession," by Lee Hudson Teslik on the Council of Foreign Relations Web site, and the online debate between Marshall F. Harris, Senior Policy Advisor, Alston + Bird, and Alan J. Kuperman, Assistant Professor, University of Texas, LBJ School of Public Affairs.

But I am a skeptic, in case you were wondering.

In a recent Washington Times commentary titled "Warning Light on Kosovo," John Bolton, Lawrence Eagleburger and Peter Rodman argued that partitioning Serbia's sovereign territory was not in the best interest of the United States:
The blithe assumption of American policy — that the mere passage of nine years of relative quiet would be enough to lull Serbia and Russia into reversing their positions on a conflict that goes back centuries — has proven to be naive in the extreme.
Recognition of Kosovo's independence without Serbia's consent would set a precedent with far-reaching and unpredictable consequences for many other regions of the world. The Kosovo model already has been cited by supporters of the Basque separatist movement in Spain and the Turkish-controlled area of northern Cyprus. Neither the Security Council nor any other international body has the power or authority to impose a change of any country's borders.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the current policy is the dismissive attitude displayed toward Russia's objections. Whatever disagreements the United States may have with Moscow on other issues, and there are many, the United States should not prompt an unnecessary crisis in U.S.-Russia relations. There are urgent matters regarding which the United States must work with Russia, including Iran's nuclear intentions and North Korea's nuclear capability. Such cooperation would be undercut by American action to neutralize Moscow's legitimate concerns regarding Kosovo.
In "Let's Avoid Another Kosovo Crisis," Ruth Wedgwood, a professor of international law and diplomacy at Johns Hopkins University, wrote in the Wall Street Journal:

Kosovo has been part of the territory of Serbia since before the First World War, and its ancient monasteries are iconic to the Serbs. Belgrade's government coalition is already in crisis on the issue.

It is a dangerous precedent to tear apart the territory of a member state of the United Nations. And the timing could not be worse. No one needs a Kosovo crisis, while NATO remains short of troops in Afghanistan and maintains 16,000 troops in this autonomous province of Serbia. A Kosovo blowup would provide an easy excuse for gun-shy European allies to reduce their Afghanistan contingents.
And what of the Serb Christians? Orthodox Bishop Artemije of Ras and Prizren issued the following statement on Jan. 31:

Should Washington and its followers make good on their current threats to recognize Kosovo, Serbia would never accept it. Not only Russia but many other countries, especially those outside of Europe, would reject recognition. Kosovo would never become a member of the United Nations. We would regard the international presence in Kosovo, including the mission now being considered by the EU, as an occupation force. We Serbs have suffered many occupations in the past and triumphed over them. If necessary we would survive this one as well. Despite any intensification of the terror to which we Christians have been subjected since 1999, my flock in Kosovo has no intention of leaving their homes.

I do not welcome having to direct these critical words at the United States. Serbs have always regarded America as a friend and continue to do so. Americans and Serbs were allies in both World Wars. We are not the ones who are pursuing a confrontation today. But it is impossible for America to profess friendship with Serbia while demanding the amputation of the most precious part of our homeland.

Mercy and Justice

The last two Sunday sermons (the Sunday of Zacchaeus and the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee) have focused on the theme of mercy and justice (you can hear these sermons on the parish web site here and here). My thesis, which I will continue develop this coming week on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, is that far from being opposed to one and other, mercy and justice represent two facets of what the "shalom" or the peace that comes from our right relationships with God, others and self.

As I outlined last Sunday, mercy is how I respond to my neighbor in his or her need. Mercy in this sense reflects my willingness to lift up my neighbor. Thinking about those times in life when we have experienced mercy, we see that, common to all of them, is a felt deficiency of one kind or another. The person who extends mercy to us does so precisely in response to our need. Likewise when we are merciful to others, for example when we forgive, we do so in response to a real lack either in the other person or in our relationship.

To help people understand justice, I asked them to think for a moment about when they have felt unjustly treated. Injustice is more than simply not getting what is due me it has as well the quality of denying me something I need to continue to grow and develop. One of the sins that cry to heaven, withholding wages due a worker, is so horrible because, like murder, it undoes or undermines the future. Injustice betrays our need for a hopeful future, which is to say that justice, grows out of, and completes, mercy.

But where mercy reflects my response to my neighbor's need, justice is concerned with his or her potential. A just relationship is one in which I commit myself to adding my neighbor in the realization of his or her abilities. The inter-dependence of mercy and justice as well as their centrality in the Christian life, or so I suggested in the sermons, are much misunderstood by many contemporary Orthodox Christians.

Too easily we dismiss the works of justice in favor of what we imagine to be the works of mercy. But mercy, responding as it does to human need, has a transitory quality. Once I identify and met my neighbor's need, I'm done. Justice, one the other hand, is open-ended and commits me to a rather more demanding relationship. Why? Because unlike mercy's commitment to make up that which is lacking either in my neighbor's life or between us, just requires from me the willingness to travel with him or her from "glory to glory."

Precisely because justice is a response to human potential, it has a more dynamic, and this demanding, quality. At what point can I really and truthfully say that I have fulfilled my commitment to help another human being grow more fully into his or her own unique likeness to the Thrice Holy God?

Starting as I did on the Sunday of the Zacchaeus, I also highlighted in the sermons that both the works of mercy and justice also make demands on our material wealth. Zacchaeus committed not simply his excess, but the substance of his wealth both to the care of the poor (that is, the works of mercy) and the restitution of anyone that he harmed (that is to say, the works of justice). So too I argued, we how are Christian must commit the substance of our lives to the works of mercy and justice. This of necessity includes, by the way, our material wealth.

Personally and communally, a life of mercy and justice requires from us first of all an attention to our neighbor not only in his or her need, but also in his or her potential. It is not enough to simply say no one around me is in need, is suffering a lack. I also must take positive action to help the person discover and develop their own unique gifts.

This in turn requires from me (and I hope to develop this more this coming Sunday) that I renounce envy and jealousy.

Too many Orthodox Christians, as I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, set mercy and justice against each other. While there is a certainly biblical and patristic witness that supports this position, I suspect that the "justice" that is condemned is not justice as I have articulated it here, justice as grounded in mercy. Rather what is condemned is an understanding of justice that is used to excuse, or worse blesses, our lack of a generous spirit. It is this deficient sense of justice that Christ condemns in the Gospel:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone (Mt 23.23).

Certainly there are some who appeal to an understanding of justice that is static and narrow. But it is also worth noting that there are also those whose understanding of mercy is sentimental, manipulative and debilitating of others. In both cases what is lost is the healthy balance; there is a necessary and in this life irreducible tension between mercy and justice as the two facets of the biblical understanding of shalom.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory