Liberation psychology and the Kyivan Church’s anti-colonial study group (My conversion to liberation theology #9)

Liberation psychology and the Kyivan Church’s anti-colonial study group (My conversion to liberation theology #9) December 21, 2017
Bishop Benedict and Fr John at St Michael's in Chicago - photo by Julian Hayda
Bishop Benedict and Fr John at St Michael’s in Chicago – photo by Julian Hayda

This is the ninth in a series of posts testifying about my conversion to liberation theology. For previous posts, here are the firstsecondthirdfourthfifthsixthseventh, and eighth.

When I first moved to Chicago, my worst fears about Eastern Catholicism were realized. I had been warned by friends of mine that ‘Eastern Catholicism’ was not at all the image I had in my imagination at our ‘Chinese mission’ in Richmond – open to Chinese people, aligned with Chinese democratic movements, able to evangelize by claiming that it was only natural that Chinese people should be ‘Eastern Catholic.’ They said that, for the most part, Eastern Catholicism remains very ‘ethnic,’ and however you slice and dice the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church’s (UGCC) official line that it is not a church for ethnic Ukrainians, but from Ukraine for the world, you cannot change the fact that there are a lot of ethnic Ukrainians in the UGCC and that a number of them want to keep it that way. In fact, my first week in Chicago was a trial by fire: I attended the funeral services of Bishop Richard (Seminack), and there was a lot of Ukrainian that went on indeed.

The question was – what to do? Admittedly, there is a lot to be taken advantage of when one is Eastern Catholic. I can, for example, go to confession and mass at the Latin Church, and my favourites in Chicago have been Holy Name Cathedral and the Madonna della Strada Chapel on the Loyola University campus featuring ‘Disco Jesus’ on the altar and the best Gloria jingle I’ve ever heard in a mass setting. I can also act within bounds on my convictions about ‘double communion‘ and attend Orthodox services (especially All-Night Vigil with the Orthodox Church in America, as well as special services like Theophany and the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete) while not taking communion out of respect at Divine Liturgy. Of course, I know some cradle Kyivans who insist that because they are Kyivan, they are Orthodox even if they are in communion with Rome and are offended when they are refused communion. I’d never get away with it, though. I can also attend the liturgies in my own church, but only some of these are in English – but they require me to trek out either to Ukrainian Village or O’Hare Airport, and that can be quite a journey from Evanston.

Still and strangely enough, I have managed to find community. There’s an old UGCC parish on the far south side of Chicago called St Michael’s, and it is there that I, as well as a group of younger people, have laid claim to our home temple, especially when some of us can get rides there. About six Ukrainians with an average age of eighty attend there every week, singing the liturgy in Ukrainian. The priest there doesn’t speak Ukrainian, but he does it anyway by sounding it out while reading the Gospel and delivering the homily in English. The cool thing about this guy is that he used to be a Byzantine Catholic priest out in San Mateo, California, where his most famous parishioners were Patty Hearst’s family. Unfortunately, his beautiful parish got shut down by a new bishop for being ‘too Orthodox,’ so he jumped across sui juris sister churches to the UGCC, where he is now serving out his days telling corny jokes to us over coffee after liturgy.

The few of us young people who go are a bit ridiculous because most of us do not speak a lick of Ukrainian beyond Hospody pomylui. Our ringleader, of course, is a Ukrainian priest’s kid who is well-connected in the upper echelons of the Kyivan Church. His name is Julian Hayda, and he is infamous on the Eastern Christian interwebz as a contentious figure for reasons that I’ll elaborate on by the end of this post. He brings his girlfriend most of the time. She is not Ukrainian, although I think she’s comfortable becoming one eventually. Along the way, an Asian American blogger also showed up, especially after she converted to the Latin Church from evangelicalism because she liked how weird we were and how she could still take communion after not understanding most of the service. She occasionally brings her friend, a Filipina evangelical seminary graduate whose parents were Protestant missionaries in Ukraine, which means that she is able to speak Ukrainian, charm all the Ukrainians there, talk personally about her participation on the Maidan in 2013, and vent to us about how fed up she is with evangelical Protestantism. We are still working on our friend from Hong Kong, whose Cantonese evangelical connections in Chicagoland are impeccable. We also have friends whose Mandarin evangelical connections in Chicagoland are impeccable, but they are even tougher nuts to crack. We were also very blessed to be the first temple that Bishop Benedict (Aleksiychuk) stopped by when he came to Chicago.

After participating for a while in this temple, I learned from Julian that my writing was creating a minor stir in some UGCC circles. I am sure that a good deal of it is negative, as one very weird guy I had never heard of started trolling me for being an intellectually dishonest ‘Orthodox sage’ lying about my views about human sexuality just like (as he imagined it) Fr James Martin SJ even though I do not really write about sexuality on my blog.

However, some of it also seemed encouraging. In particular, Fr Myron Panchuk, a practicing psychotherapist and reblogger extraordinaire on Virtual Borscht, has taken an interest in my work. Fr Myron happens to be disabled, so he has some people living with him to take care of him. It turns out that these folks are also intellectuals in their own right, as no one can survive a conversation with Fr Myron without their heads spinning and hearts bleeding. On this last point, I am not joking, as some of them have been appointed to fairly visible places within the Kyivan Church themselves recently.

Fr Myron’s favorite thing to do seems to be eating pizza and drinking beer. That is virtually what we have done at every meeting I’ve been to with him. The other thing he likes to do is to talk about his dissertation, which he successfully defended recently at Pacifica Graduate Institute. The title is Shattered Images, Broken Lives: Social Dreaming in Healing Ukraine’s Historical Trauma, and it is a fascinating work of depth psychology. Focusing on young professionals and intellectuals in Kyiv, Fr Myron held a five-week dream sharing group at one of the local universities, where he asked his research participants to share their dreams and explore what they might mean. He also shares some of his own dreams and probes his experience of being in Ukraine after spending his entire life having grown up and working basically as a white man in North America, albeit with a unique Ukrainian heritage of which he could never quite make sense. The dreams were all quite political: most of the research participants said that they experienced deeply in their dreams a feeling of the world of their families in Ukraine being taken from them again. The collective trauma in their remembered past, he showed vividly, was the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl. This coincided with the disappointment of 2004 Orange Revolution’s aftermath, in which a hopeful Ukrainian leadership under Viktor Yushchenko descended into chaos and eventually culminated in the 2010 election of the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych to the presidency. They described how it felt like their hopes were being taken away as they were being absorbed into a Russian economy and the rule of oligarchs and how this despair sometimes felt overwhelming.

And then, after the five weeks were over, just as Fr Myron was about to go home to Chicago, the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv began. It was as if the dream sharing group had anticipated them. The dream had become reality. The Revolution of Dignity had begun. Yanukovych was soon out, but not before the militarized Berkut police beat the protesters and snipers killed the Heavenly Hundred.

Fr Myron is not so dramatic over pizza and beer. In fact, he has a very dry sense of humor. The moment I walked into his house the first time, for example, he asked about my background and wanted to tell racist jokes with me the way that Slavoj Žižek would. That’s the thing about our church: I feel like all the cool people, including the non-academic ones, have read Žižek, so we have a lot of fun with each other. Fr Myron had read my writing on Žižek and knew that he could have some fun with me. Of course, he engaged with Žižek in his doctoral work because of the psychoanalytical stuff. I told him that I have a Cantonese evangelical background, and he asked me why on earth I’d want to associate myself with colonizers. I knew exactly what he was doing, so I told him that I was Eastern Catholic now, and he said that that was better because those Protestants are really colonizing overlords. I assured him that I was not one anymore – I only study them – and he asked me why I would do such a thing when they are the real agents of colonization in Ukraine, pretending like they are what religion is supposed to look like while invalidating Kyivan traditions.

After a little bit more pizza and a lot more beer, I confessed to him that I had no regrets joining such a colonized church. The truth is that I love how messy the Kyivan Church is, but this led to a much deeper conversation about Ukrainians being a colonized people and not knowing it. Of course, some will object to the characterization of Ukrainians as colonized because of the bad practices that some Ukrainians have taken to Carpatho-Rusyns and Jewish people. However, this was part of the point of our conversation: people who are colonized who cannot admit that they are colonized wind up colonizing other people in even worse ways. The other thing that happens, someone said, was that you might grow up to have some mysterious feeling of existential despair. It might come from some trauma in your family that might go back generations. It might have been passed down through the smallest of practices. It might also end up making you kill yourself.

I kept this conversation in my mind for a long time. It all came back to me when I was reading Fr Myron’s dissertation recently, where he describes the dream-work and generational trauma in his research in Ukraine. Then he writes something interesting:

Recently, I had an insightful conversation with a graduate student in international studies on the topic of Ukraine’s colonial past. It was with Julian Hayda who accompanied me to Chornobyl and filmed our encounters with the elderly who had returned to the zone of exclusion. Julian asked poignant questions. “Why don’t we have our young people read literature on colonialism? Are we denying the deleterious psychological effects of colonialism on the psychological well-being of the Ukrainian people? By not addressing these issues can we ever truly be free?”

Julian’s conversations with me have gone even further. He is indeed a graduate student in international studies at DePaul University, and in one of his classes, he read through Frantz Fanon’s four published books all in one go: Black Skin, White Masks (1952), The Wretched of the Earth (1963), Toward the African Revolution (1964), and A Dying Colonialism (1965). After reading them, he began to use the word anti-colonial to describe Ukrainian politics, especially its oftentimes mischaracterized nationalism. Debate as anyone might about the comparisons between Algeria and Ukraine, what Julian is developing in his work is an interesting fit with Fr Myron’s: before Fanon was a revolutionary, he was a psychiatrist and presented poignant psychoanalyses of black women and men in relation to white people. In Fanon, the psycho-affective disorders of his patients of color seemed to have a lot to do with some kind of image of whiteness in their minds and dreams. In fact, in one scene in Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon even recounts a depth psychology exercise where someone is asked to participate in a dream therapy exercise about black men. The session drives the patient insane because blackness is the symbol of evil, virility, and untamed wildness.

The real trouble, Julian says, comes when Ukrainians pretend that they are white. It is just like, as Artur Rosman has also told me (also over beers), how Poles are not white. I don’t know if Julian or Artur have read Nell Irvin Painter’s History of White People, but their remarks are uncanny. The larger story that Painter tells is that the term Caucasian originated from descriptions of the beauty of sex slaves from the Caucuses. Later, slavery became more profitable in Africa, so the racial stereotype of whiteness kept the image of beauty but lost the ‘sex slave’ dimension. All in all, what this means is that Slavs have an awkward relationship to whiteness, and as Slavoj Žižek never tires of reminding us, racism toward Eastern Europeans is the last acceptable form of racist discourse practiced by otherwise tolerant Western Europeans who purport to celebrate multiculturalism.

But they can pass as white, and that for Julian is the problem. For someone who is not white to imagine that they are white means that they are not only erasing their own history of being colonized, but also acting as colonizers in their own right while denying that they have any psycho-affective trauma. That can lead to a number of bad things. For example, it can lead to an attempt to be more American than the Americans, which makes them very susceptible to catchphrases like ‘Make America Great Again.’ It might produce a phenomenon like Faith Goldy, a Ukrainian Canadian (and fellow member of our Kyivan Church to boot!) who got so far right in her white nationalism and her participation in the Charlottesville protests that she got herself booted from the already-pretty-far-right alternative Canadian news outlet Rebel Media. It can also lead to unintelligible bouts of depression. When some people can’t handle it, they commit suicide.

The key for Fanon is to identify the problem behind the unintelligible psycho-affective disorders, crazy sexual fantasies about copulating with white people, deluded imaginations that one is white when one is not, and suicides that cannot be explained. That problem is colonization. But the point of colonialism when it can cause so much psychological pain is for it to be invisible. The idea is that you should not be able to figure out that you’re sick or sexually crazy or suicidal because you’ve been colonized. Once you figure it out, you might actually start to get free.

We might call this, as the Israeli psychoanalyst Nissim Avissar doesliberation psychology. As Avissar points out, the project that both Fanon and Paulo Freire started was to identify the conditions of colonization in their patients and students in order to work from there toward liberation. In fact, both Avissar and Fr Myron point out that in this sense, Sigmund Freud himself is talking about freedom from colonization: Freud himself was a Ukrainian Jew, and it was because he was discriminated against on racial terms that he couldn’t get work in a hospital and had to open his own clinic. Many of his patients shared his background, so the crazy dreams that he describes in his work are also the dreams of the colonized. The anti-colonial literary critic Edward Said also makes quite a point about this in his last book, Freud and the Non-Europeanshowing that Freud probed his own Jewish identity all the way to the bottom in Moses and Monotheism and posited Moses as an Egyptian in order to undermine an identity politics and to crack open any attempt to colonize based on a racial ideology. Similar things can be said of the work of the conductor and composer Gustav Mahler, who was also Jewish, includes quite a bit of folk music in his wide-ranging symphonies that plumb the depth of human emotion, and famously consulted Freud for his own personal problems. Strangely enough, I have been a Mahler fan since I was a teenager.

In other words, the point of all the dream work, depth psychology, and primal analysis is to identify the colonization at work in causing the psycho-affective disorders. It is, in the deepest sense, what Freire means by conscientização, the dialogical educational processes by which one becomes conscious of one’s consciousness.

This, in turn, has everything to do with church. Julian is serious whenever he tells me that I literally became Ukrainian in an ecclesial way. But even deeper are the words of the theologian Johannes Madey in talking about the work that Eastern Catholic churches have to do in light of our own experience of colonization: ‘There is still a default of conscientization, especially among those Orientals whose Churches have been most latinized in the past. For them, the Roman Catholic Church seems still to be the model Church in which they are trying to adapt themselves out of an inferiority complex inculcated in them in course of a Latin training, especially in seminaries run by Latin missionaries’ (Orientalium Ecclesiarum: More Than Twenty Years After, p. 32). Mirroring Madey, Julian often tells me that the problem with Eastern Catholics across churches is that we don’t know that we are colonized. We have not become conscious of our consciousness. We don’t know that we are not only facing modern secularization, but also large ecclesial structures that instil in us an inferiority complex about our practices as Byzantines, Copts, Syriacs, Ethiopians, Armenians, and Chaldeans. No wonder one of our church’s leading theologians Adam DeVille has also turned to psychoanalysis in his recent work: it turns out that there is a close link between our praxis of the spiritual journey to sainthood in Orthodoxy of all sorts and the work of psychoanalysis.

At this deepest level, Julian’s insight in Fr Myron’s dissertation pops. If one can be ecclesially Ukrainian, then it follows that Eastern Catholics across the board share in this problem of the Kyivan Church not knowing the state of its own colonization. In the doing of theology, the idea is for us as a church – as ecclesial Ukrainians in our particular case – to become conscious of our own consciousness, to recognize that we have theological agency in our own right and that this is constantly being invalidated. Realizing this, we not only recover our own ways of speaking about God and the supernatural, but also find ourselves aligned with colonized peoples, especially peoples of color and indigenous peoples, around the world to seek the liberation of their theological agency as well. Such are the seeds of an Eastern Catholic liberation theology. For me, it goes hand in hand with an Asian American anti-orientalist politics, a radical Catholic personalism, and a rigorous negative critique of ideology.

The last piece of this puzzle, then, is whether I have the right to put this in practice. Where have I come from? How did I end up here? Do I really have any right to talk about liberation theology when I am actually a middle-class kid from the suburbs whose Chinese parents were doing pretty good? With that, we are hurtling into the finale of this series just in time for Nativity.

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