June 18, 1999
The Serbian Orthodox Church: Responses and Identity
-- Martin E. Marty
Isolating American religion from the global scene is impossible in these times. The Serbian Orthodox Church in the United States, for instance, has been much in the news, both for its links with Serbia--at least in memory and sentiment--and for Serbia's being on the moral spot in American consciousness.
The Serbian Orthodox Church in the United States, last reporting in long ago 1986, claimed at that time 67,000 members in 68 parishes served by 60 clergy. There is reason to believe it has grown slightly, thanks to the accession of recent immigrants from the troubled Yugoslavian scene.
The American expression of the Serbian Orthodox Church may actually rival in vitality the Serbian homeland version, since there only about 5 percent of the Serbian people are believed to be practicing the faith of the church. But there the church has power, having been long established in the state. There the symbolism of Serbian Orthodoxy colors life. Milosevic legitimated policies we call "ethnic cleansing" in part by trying to reclaim old Serbian churches and other sacred sites that had been lost to Muslims in the fourteenth century.
So in Serbia Tuesday, when the Serbian Orthodox Church called for--even demanded--Milosevic's resignation "in the interest and the salvation of the people," there was more than a 5 percent version of clout behind the action. The call may serve somewhat to weaken Milosevic, and it should strengthen the Serbian Orthodox Church and improve its image in the rest of the world and its respect within the Christian circle.
Frederica Mathewes-Green on "All Things Considered" radio clearly spelled out the situation of the Orthodox Church, and as an evangelical convert to Orthodoxy and as an "evangelical Orthodox," she spoke in language that non-Orthodox Americans could understand: of the grief, sorrow, mourning, sense of guilt by association, and need for distancing that colors the majority in American Serbian Orthodox Church life, critical though they were of U.S. policy.
This is not the place to appraise the inner life and record of that church. What Americans will be doing as they sort the stories of atrocity in Kosovo will be to rethink the situation of ambiguity and the price connected with identification by citizens here with brothers and sisters in the faith elsewhere. Some commentators chide believers here for not automatically coming to the aid of their kin-in-the-faith at war elsewhere. But during World War I, for example, church people of German descent here found how futile and misleading it was to do such aiding, no matter what the moral situation of those with whom they shared creed but not political ideology. Their response became a lesson for others, one that Serbian Orthodox Americans are only now having to learn.