After the catastrophes of the 20th century, the relationship between religion and politics is now of profound importance for the Serbian nation. Following liberation from the Yugoslav illusion and communism, Serbia has discovered that it needs something beyond forgotten traditions and the remembrance of historical achievements: it needs a spiritual renewal. The Serbian novelist Miloš Crnjanski said that Serbia had to rediscover the Serbian point of view—but what is that point of view? The answer can only be found in the nation’s history and in its traditions.
Every culture is a “song to God,” to quote the Serbian philosopher Božidar Knežević. The preservation of Serbia’s culture, therefore, is an attempt to remain faithful to God. In a sense, every nation must go back to those traditions that have formed and protected its existence down the centuries. For Serbia, it is no different.
To understand Serbian history, it is necessary to grasp the role of St. Sava (1175-1236). His official title in the Serbian Orthodox Church was ravnoapostol, which means ‘apostle-like’ or “equal-to-the-apostles.” He was the son of a Serbian ruler, but as a young man he ran away from his father’s court to the holy mountain of Athos. This event had a decisive effect on Serbian cultural development, ultimately forming the spiritual life of the Serbs. St. Sava’s main idea centred on the imperative to conform to Christ and foster the spiritual order in this world to make of it a foretaste of the next. His message was that the life of our nation must be based upon the firm foundation of the Christian worldview.
St. Sava held that a sovereign nation represents an independent spiritual body and consequently needs its own Church. In short, political unity presupposes spiritual and cultural unity. The Orthodox Church has always been sensitive to the need for national independence, carving out a way for the state and Church to serve Christ together. National freedom is the freedom for Christ. In one of his speeches, Patriarch Varnava (head of the Serbian Orthodox Church from 1930 to 1937) said that, since the time of St. Sava, the Serbian nation and the Serbian Church have been inseparable.
The second important event in Serbian history that deserves mention is the Battle of Kosovo (1389). There are two main reasons why this battle is important to the Serbs. First, it marks the moment of the ‘Kosovo Testament,’ the essential folkloric principle that gave rise to the Serbian identity as a people of the Christian God, willing to give their lives for Him. Second, it was the beginning of the foreign Islamic occupation of Serbia during which the existence of the Serbian nation ceased to be recognized, with the Serbian Church remaining as the only existent national institution.
The Serbian Church preserved its people as well as Serbian culture during the time of occupation. The distinction between the foreign invaders and the local population was very clear and evident in their culture, language, traditions, customs, religion, and origins. The Serbs who converted to Islam were seen by their fellow Serbs as foreigners or traitors. During the occupation, the Church became even more nationalized, and the nation became strongly identified with Orthodoxy.
Consequently, wherever Serbs have lived, their churches have been the centres of their social life. Bishops and priests are not only pastors but national leaders who take care of national interests. The Church has protected the faith, but also national traditions and cultural pastimes. Naturally, it also had an educational function, and monasteries had schools where the memory of Serbian national history was kept alive and passed on. Since the time of St. Sava, Church and school were inseparable institutions.
Serbian Orthodoxy is understood as a mystical connection between the Serbian national soul and the soul of Christ. This means that Orthodoxy is nothing abstract, but becomes concretized in a national form, with the Christian faith being received as the foundation of true patriotism and the decline of faith leading to indifference towards the nation. This patriotic union is always—for Serbs—a spiritual one. In this way, the particular idea of the nation and the universal idea of the Christian deposit are not in opposition, but harmoniously complement each other. The universal is realized in history in the form of the nation. This is another way of saying that every nation has its own apostolic mission. Without Christian love for God and man, national independence and national self-consciousness can easily degenerate into chauvinism and a mere nationalist will to power. The national Church is not a religion towards the nation, as St. Nikolaj Velimirović insisted.
Whoever forgets about St. Sava also forgets everything that constitutes Serbia as a nation. As soon as a Serb abandons his faith, he becomes a rootless man. He becomes, from the Orthodox point of view, a nobody, and tends to adopt every possible novel and ephemeral identity.
A view of the interior of the Church of St. Sava (groundbreaking: 1935; consecrated: 2004), located on the Vračar plateau in Belgrade. The church, built on what is believed to be the location of St. Sava’s grave, was planned as the episcopal seat and main cathedral of the Serbian Orthodox Church.
This understanding of Serbian identity has direct political consequences. The Orthodox Church as a national church cannot be indifferent to the issues of national freedom or the constitution of the state. This has a huge effect on the reality of freedom as experienced by Serbs, because Orthodoxy has always resisted centralization and uniformity, whether it came from the West or from the East. “The nation of St. Sava represents not only resistance against the Imperium, but also against every imperial idea, be it artistic, metaphysical, or theological,” Serbian historian Žarko Vidović has argued.
After the enslavement of the Serbian soul, which was worst during the reign of the atheistic communist ideology, modern Serbs face a choice: either they can opt for secularism, which would necessarily lead to spiritual destruction and possibly the disappearance of the nation; or, they could choose spiritual renewal and the recovery of Serbian tradition. If Serbia wants to live it must go back to its traditions, which means the renewal of the Orthodox tradition and a return to Christ. The nation without Christ can only be a body without a soul, that is, a corpse.
The Church, for such a renewal to be possible, must resist modernization, and any compromise with the spirit of the times—it has to stay loyal to the teachings of the fathers of the Church. In the words of canonized theologian Justin Popović, the church must be “God-manly conservative,” which means subordinating the temporal to the eternal.
Any state lives by prerequisites which it cannot guarantee itself. No state can survive if it consciously chooses to ignore these prerequisites. Even economic life needs a firm spiritual and moral basis beyond mere supply and demand. For the Serbs, the basis of their political life can only be found in the teachings of St. Sava. If the Serbian nation and Serbian Church are one, as patriarch Varnava has insisted, and if Serbian Orthodoxy is the foundation of Serbian national identity, then the teachings of St. Sava remain at the heart of all that is Serbian. In the Serbian context, religion can never be an entirely private matter; secularization and the privatization of religion can never be a viable option for us. As long as Orthodoxy is true to itself, it will always be a national matter.