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Vol. 3 No. 3 - Dormition 2008

The Empire Strikes Back:
Cultural Imperialism and the Heart of Orthodoxy

"Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and thy dominion endureth throughout all generations." - Psalm 144 (145):13

What is the essential quality of an empire? Or, more precisely, what makes an empire different from a nation, a country or a tribe?

Throughout much of modern history, and certain periods of the ancient world, tribes (whether in the form of small groups, or in the form of nation-states) have dominated the landscape. Tribes define themselves based on sameness and uniformity, an identity based on ancestry and territory, language and local custom. It is from tribalism that political divisions are drawn, and by which nations are often defined in earthly, political terms. The divisions of tribalism are the building blocks of conflicts of all kinds, in the state or in the Church.

The concept of empire transcends tribalism. While a tribe divides cultures, setting up one culture as superior to another, empires have historically called all their members to the highest expressions common to all cultures: language, learning, the arts, and higher levels of wisdom. Empires unify diverse peoples, based on an identity that is higher than the tribe, and identity that transcends petty tribal politics.

Ancient empires understood this idea. Early empires such as the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and Chinese introduced the concept of one empire, combining a variety of cultures, with loyalties transcending tribal identities. When one tribe sought to assert itself against the unity of the empire, the power of the empire united to put down rebellion.

Such an imperial ideal was heavy-handed, and varied in its effectiveness to create a higher culture on human terms (the Chinese are perhaps the best example of an enduring empire which preserved such high culture from ancient times until the Maoist revolution). Yet it was arguably not until the Roman Empire that nations of the western world were finally united under the broad banner of one imperial ensign. Yet for all its glory, the Roman empire, with its corrupt gods, brutal military campaigns, and bizarre coliseum games, could not offer an enduring spiritual identity to civilize the human soul. Thus, the glory of Rome as the first pre-Christian empire of the west was doomed to failure, its territory carved up by squabbling tribes, its symbols and forms left for later adoption by others.

It was on the ruins of pagan Rome that the basis of a true Christian empire emerged. The Byzantine Empire[1] married the outward structures of Imperial Rome with the interior life of the Christian faith. For all its failings, Byzantium presented to the world something new, something brilliant, something precious: an empire that transcended tribalism, offering unity not simply based on imperial citizenship, but on the enduring unity of the shared Blood of Christ, the citizenship of Heaven. The scholarly merits of the universal Greek language allowed the transfer of the achievements of all Christian cultures to all their brothers in Christ. The identity of citizenship extended beyond the tribe to all Christian Orthodox people. To be a Christian in Byzantium was not to be a "Greek" in the narrow sense (since the empire was multicultural and multi-lingual), but to be something much more: a Christian Roman.

With the later decline of the Byzantine empire, the growing Slavic Christian empire of Rus took on the mantle of this universal Christian imperial identity. To be a "Russian" in the Orthodox Empire did not mean that one was born into a Slavic family in Moscow or Saint Petersburg: it meant that one was a member of the Orthodox Church, whether from a Slavic, Scandinavian, Asiatic, Balkan, Hellenic, or another background. Where the imperial identity was Christian and Orthodox, land claims, language, and folk customs were secondary: Orthodox faith came first.

While it is the madness of the French Revolution that fueled the rise of the modern nation states of Europe[2], Canada's sense of imperial identity was garnered from a different source: the British Empire. While many would debate the various merits of that Empire, history demonstrates that the Empire of which Canada was part (not to mention its current successor Commonwealth) had not completely cut itself off from the best features of other historic empires. The best aspects of Canada's own multicultural policy are derived from the notion that many cultures and languages can exist within an empire, that an empire transcends nation and tribe. Orthodox Empires understood this, offering the Church as the Imperial identity for all citizens, regardless of culture or language[3].

The rise of the nation state - the idea that every self-identified nation deserved its own separate, distinct, and independent regime, attacked this notion of the universal citizenship of Orthodox Christians. It attacked the notion of Orthodox monarchy, substituting the secular, western construct of individualism, placing the nation before faith in Christ and His Church. Thus, tribalism trumped Christ as the measure of identity.

Perhaps the greatest victims of this distortion were Orthodox Christians themselves. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Orthodox Christians were increasingly adopting the alien notion of the nation state, a notion which formed the basis for a new Europe, a New World Order, and a new concept of Orthodox identity in North America. Whereas Orthodox Christians in past centuries would have viewed other Orthodox Christians as brothers, in far too many cases, Orthodox in the twentieth century began to view each other as denominations based on tribe. Thus, hyphenated Orthodox identities - Greek-Orthodox, Ukrainian-Orthodox, Russian-Orthodox, Serbian-Orthodox, Romanian-Orthodox, etc. - began to emerge, with the distinct emphasis on tribal identity. From this poisoned root, jurisdictional chaos grew, resulting in the splintering and disunity that plagues Orthodox Christians in almost every corner of the world today.

In recent years, certain Church factions have bought into this distorted idea, using tribalism as a context for the mission of the Church: we must make other nations more like us, they argue, in order to make them Orthodox. This is clearly seen recently in Alaska with attempts to "Russianize" native Alaskans who have been Orthodox for over two centuries. It can be further seen in one Patriarchate trying to Hellenize Africans and Chinese Orthodox Christians. Such distorted notions of Orthodox identity, which hold up Greek or Slavonic as languages most suitable for the spiritual education of new faithful, firmly reject the inheritance of multi-cultural empires such as Byzantium and Rus, losing the essential Orthodox identity in a morass of tribalism[4].

Whenever cultural imperialism triumphs, the identity of universal Orthodox Christian identity - the Orthodox empire - is lost. In losing this, we abandon the wisdom of great Byzantine saints like Constantine, who had a sense of the potential for multi-cultural Empires, held together not by uniculturalism, but by shared Orthodox Christian faith. This ignores the lessons of great Byzantine missionaries like Saint Cyril and Methodius, who delivered the most traditional Orthodox teachings and liturgical life to the Slavic people, by first creating a written Slavic language in which to do this. It turns its back on holy men like Saint Innocent of Alaska, who managed to evangelize numerous Alaskan nations in their own languages - nations who often despised each other - and to unite them in the brotherhood of Orthodox Christianity.

The heart of Orthodoxy, the survival of the faith among men, lies in the concept of the Orthodox empire, a brotherhood that transcends tribalism. For those who betray Orthodoxy, in favour of their own tribe, the loss is not only evangelical. This loss extends to their own children, who lose not only the precious Orthodox Christian faith, but their own tribal inheritance as well, swallowed up in the cultural imperialism of modern secular culture. For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, the heart of Orthodoxy is clear. Orthodox Christianity is its own imperial culture. It is its own citizenship. It is the universal Orthodox Christian brotherhood which provides for both personal salvation, and the salvation of local nations and tribal cultures, which may be either fed in the fertile soil of the Church, or left to become lifeless in the dry winds of modernism, and to perish in the sands of time.

[1] The use of "Byzantium" as the name for the Eastern Roman Empire centered in Constantinople is a modern invention by historians who used this to more easily distinguish between the pre-Christian united Rome and it's legitimate Christianized successor in the East. During its lifetime, people did not refer to the Christian Empire centered in Constantinople as "Byzantium", but rather simply as "Rome". Today's "Roumania" and "Romanians", or the Bulgarian province known as "Rumelia", attest to this nomenclature. Furthermore, Arabs refer to Orthodox Christians as "Rum Orthodox", i.e. Roman Orthodox. Also, Jews refer often to the Greek-speaking Byzantines as "Romans", or to the Romans in general as "Greeks". Also the Russian Empire, modeled after "Byzantium", was often referred to as the New Rome or Third Rome, rather than the New or Second Byzantium. See also http://www.romanity.org/index.htm.

[2] See Saint Clotilde vs. the Revolution, Orthodox Canada Vol. 3, No. 2, Pentecost 2008.

[3] In modern times, Canada's loss of an authentic imperial identity has left a vacuum that has been replaced with multicultural segregation below, and with a common imperial culture of commercialism and pleasure-seeking from below. One might argue that Canada has maintained the lowest qualities of cultural diversity, while losing the highest ones of vitality and co-operation between cultures, while embracing the worst qualities of the French Revolution - unlimited freedom to seek money and pleasure - as the nation's new imperial identity.

[4] In fact, this concept of Orthodox brotherhood did exist in North America until the 1920s, when the breakdown of Russia after the Communist revolution disrupted the administration of the Church, and gave rise to the multi-jurisdictional tribalism that exists today.

Special thanks to Father Alexander Tefft of the Antiochian Church in London, England, for his inspiration and encouragement in promoting an understanding of Orthodox identity and brotherhood, and for inspiring many of the thoughts expressed in this article.

Father Geoffrey Korz and Zoran Radisic, (Dormition, 2008)

© All Saints of North America Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America, 2008.