The Non-Alignment of the People of God

The Non-Alignment of the People of God October 13, 2018
My icon corner, in preparation for the canonization of Archbishop Oscar Romero in the Latin Church – photo by me

Tomorrow, Archbishop Oscar Romero, the martyred Latin hierarch of El Salvador in the 1980s, will be canonized in the Latin Church. I am in the habit of asking for his intercession already, as well as for his friend Rutilio Grande SJ, and the Jesuit martyrs from the university too.

However, friends of mine in the Latin Church have recently pointed out to me that my writings of late, while insisting on our full communion, have waxed critical of the Latin Church, particularly of her sex abuse scandal, but also of her propensity to think of her bishop in Rome as having supreme governing power over a church described as universal. One who unfriended me over this even called my stance anti-Latin. I am sure that my sisters and brothers in the Moscow Patriarchate will sympathize, as they might think of me as anti-Moscow even though I use a Prayer Book from the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) for my daily prayers (ROCOR is now in full communion with Moscow). In this sense, one might think my veneration of these holy women and men (the women are the ones martyred alongside Ignacio Ellacuría and his companions) to be puzzling. If I insist that I am not in the Latin Church (I am not, as I am in the Kyivan Church), and if I insist that my relationship to the Bishop of Rome is not submission (it is full communion), then why would I be venerating Latin saints in my regular prayer life?

I suppose the bafflement would continue on all sides if I then disclosed that in addition to the holy martyrs of El Salvador, I also regularly pray to the Holy Bishop of Rome John Paul II, our Venerable Mother among the Saints Teresa of Calcutta, the Holy Monastic Clare of Assisi, the Holy Priest Anthony of Padua, the Holy Monastic André Bessette, and the Holy Confessor of the Faith Basil Anthony Mary Moreau. Not all of the Latin saints I pray to were nice to each other. I fully recognize the cognitive dissonance, for example, of praying to John Paul II and Mother Teresa in one breath and then the martyrs of theologies of liberation in El Salvador in the other. Likewise, my friends under the omophor of Kirill of Moscow might be troubled that in addition to criticizing them, I also ask for the regular intercession of the Holy Wonderworker of the Latter Times John of Shanghai and San Francisco, the Holy Fool-for-Christ Xenia of St Petersburg, and the Holy New-Martyr Elizabeth the Merciful. I also have an icon of the Romanov New-Martyrs in my bathroom. If that’s not enough, wait till I tell you about the Anglican one of Julian of Norwich that’s coming in the mail.

The saints I pray to, the devotions I offer, the prayers I practice, the liturgies I attend — these are supposed to give an indication of which side I am on in the fractured Body of Christ. That I might be seen as promiscuous might indicate for some that I really am what they call a uniate, someone whose spiritual inferiority complex leads to the mixing and matching spiritualities in hopes of convincing a colonizing church that one is not a second-class citizen, which almost always results precisely in people who practice uniatism being relegated to second-class status.

Here, the words of my bishop in the St Nicholas Eparchy of Chicago, his Grace Benedict Aleksiychuk, on the question of Ukrainian autocephaly are relevant. I reflected on the gist of his comments yesterday, but there is a point in the interview where he makes a truly radical point that I feel needs more extended reflection. In telling the interviewer that we Greek Catholics already have a Tomos of autocephaly and that Rome is the guarantor of our independence as a church, he expands on his point by saying that we are therefore free to seek out traditions of prayer that augment our Kyivan sensibilities. Autocephaly, as Bishop Benedict understands it, is not meant as a statement of exclusive nationalism, binding the church to a nation governed by a secular state. It is the reception of a true freedom, an ability to go out into the world to seek the truth. If there are practices that we might glean from, say, the churches of Rome, Constantinople, Moscow, and even Canterbury that help the people of the Church of Kyiv understand what we are really doing in our tradition, then why not lean into the freedom to encounter the Lord in the fullness of his enrobed majesty?

The relevant word for this kind of freedom, drawn from the practices of liberation that include work done in Latin America, is non-alignment. As the Cold War heated up in the 1950s (it really was never that cold, given all the pockets of war that there have been since Korea), a group of world leaders who were neither totally on the side of the United States nor of the Soviet Union got together in places like Belgrade and Bandung to propose a formulation that came to be known as the Non-Aligned Movement. The general idea was that the vast majority of the world didn’t neatly fit into the First World of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its capitalist apologetics or into the Second World of the Soviet Union and its Stalinist and post-Stalinist manifestations. The problem for much of the second half of the twentieth century was that these superpowers demanded that nation-states around the world had to be aligned in their orbits, which is what the geopolitical phenomena of the Iron Curtain and the American wars of containment were about. Non-alignment was risky: it meant that your government could get toppled and changed and pushed around by the Great Powers vying for global domination, which is exactly what happened in Vietnam, Chile, and Afghanistan. In contemporary discussions of what happened with the Polish Solidarity Movement, we can see that the eventual alignment of folks like Lech Wałesa with the neoliberal capitalism of the United States over against the Soviet Union led to the decimation of the movement after Polish independence, leading scholars like Stephen Beyer arguing now that the spirit of Solidarność has to be recovered and the editors of the journal Pressje contending that in the capitalist remodeling of Poland, John Paul II’s critiques of capitalism had been muted. We have killed a prophetPressje titles that special issue.

The premise of non-alignment was national self-determination. It is easy to criticize this concept now in a time when we might say that the transnational social fields of everyday people and their migratory circuits undermine the nation-state as an entity, until of course those governments cave to far-right populist pressures to secure their borders, kick out the migrants, and detain new ones. It is harder to see that its proponents, including the revolutionary Frantz Fanon, were not interested in the nation for the nation’s sake. In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon argues that most non-aligned countries usually don’t work out because the people in power are the same class of bourgeois capitalists that held sway over the market before, and they usually work out deals with power players from their old colonizers to build the national infrastructure. In this way, the people in those countries don’t usually get to be involved in their own home country’s rebuilding because if they were, they’d all be employed and probably linking arms with their working-class counterparts in Europe too. In other words, non-alignment has not only not worked out in most cases, but it also has seldom been tried because the whole point of being non-aligned is to be among the people themselves who make up the body politic. The people who actually have to live their everyday lives in formerly colonized countries should get a say in how they want to build the infrastructure that circumscribes their lives. That is what self-determination is.

The martyrs of El Salvador, including Archbishop Oscar Romero, gave their lives for that kind of self-determining non-alignment. Their government, a private class of landowners that kept the land within their fourteen families, were aligned with the United States, and in terms of Cold War politics, they might have even been framed as the good guys, the capitalists, people whose governance would lead to democracy from a temporary transitional moment of dictatorship for the sake of stabilizing the market. That kind of ideological rationalization was screwing the peasants who had to work the land, so in turn, Grande, Romero, and the Jesuit martyrs organized the people to fight for their basic rights. That is why they were killed. They were uncooperative with the alignment. They were more interested in people and their everyday lives.

Cold War habits, I think, have a way of manifesting in a kind of zombie state in the church, particularly in these perilous times marked by totalitarian liberal capitalist dictatorships claiming to be democratic but governing based on the mode of rule by law, adjusting the laws to suppress the citizenry while shoring up authoritarian power. The notion that the local Church of Kyiv, which has a distinct liturgical tradition and practice of the faith, should always be aligned by Rome, Constantinople, or Moscow is one of these instantiations. That the Moscow Patriarchate then links the question of autocephaly to a ‘uniate’ plot to establish an ‘illegitimate’ Ukrainian government that mobilized on the Maidan in 2013 and 2014 is an example of how such alignment thinking dies hard, or is even undead.

Non-alignment, in turn, might turn out to be a way to think about both the Maidan and the request for autocephaly from the Poroshenko government beyond the chess games between NATO and the ‘Russian World’ about which we so often hear. The Maidan, after all, was a Revolution of Dignity because the people of Ukraine were tired of being taken for fools, and perhaps the best description of its politics is from my friend Julian Hayda. It was, in Hayda’s words, anti-colonial, an assertion of the self-determination of Ukrainians who do not need to decide where their geopolitical loyalties lie. As Fr Myron Panchuk acknowledges in his dissertation on depth psychology and the neocolonialism that contemporary Ukrainians experience from ‘Russian World’ ideology, Hayda is also a close reader of Fanon as a liberation psychoanalyst, rooting the fight for autonomy in the psyche. That some neoconservatives from the United States attempted to use this moment to shore up power, while other American liberals practically aligned themselves with Putin at the time, does not say anything about the way that the people who have to live in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities and towns live, work, eat, sleep, worship, and fall in and out of love. The same goes for those in the churches of Ukraine. For all the saber-rattling from out east about how all Ukrainians are actually neo-Nazis attempting to start a neo-fascist church, one must wonder how it is that the people whose lives are circumscribed by the borders of a fairly sizeable nation-state, even if its eastern parts are being invaded by a military dictatorship that has no one’s borders but its own in its vocabulary, could all subscribe to the same ideology. Alignment thinking is not only oppressive; it is nonsensical and stupid.

Following my Chicago eparch’s free approach to Christian spirituality on the basis of Kyivan autocephaly, I look forward to the canonization of Archbishop Oscar Romero in the Latin Church on Sunday because his martyrdom highlights this non-aligned dimension of the prayer of the Church of Kyiv. Alignment, it turns out, is what our church has been calling ideological colonization, the imposition of utopian fantasies onto people living their everyday lives and engaging in the prayer of the heart that end up ruining their lives. Our existence does not depend on us being aligned with Rome, Constantinople, or Moscow, and we trust neither in NATO nor the Kremlin nor Beijing’s Belt-Road Initiative for the secular basis for our protection. Non-alignment, however, does not mean being closed off to the world. It means instead to engage with the world while knowing that we are home in who we truly are. It also requires taking seriously that the world is composed of people, that every single person has dignity, rights, and political agency, and that the history of colonization will require a process of conscientization to get most folks to a place of non-aligned inner strength.

The people of God, I am beginning to argue, are non-aligned for the simple reason that we are people. We are, in the words of Holy Irenaeus of Lyons, human beings fully alive and in this way reflect the glory of God. Gathered with the local church of Kyiv, I engage the holy ones in their universal sense, whether they were gathered with Rome, Constantinople, Moscow, Antioch, Jerusalem, Harbin, Xi’an, Shanghai, and so on and so forth. Non-aligned, our intellects are drawn not to the fantasies of ideology offered by institutions that seek to bind us, but to the real lives of our sisters and brothers on this earth whose hearts are open to love. Love with a full heart is the core of a non-aligned spirituality. It is what I have found in the Church of Kyiv, and it is with heart speaking to heart that I prepare for Oscar Romero’s canonization in our sister church.

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