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religion tribalismA couple of nights ago, I found myself at a soirée in Nashville in the company of several Russian academics. If my memory serves me correctly, one taught Russian literature, another political science, and the third microbiology. I found all three of them thoroughly pleasant and embracing company. Naturally enough, much of our conversation centred on the life and legacy of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, enabling me to share my own cherished memories of meeting the great Russian writer at his home in Moscow. Later, from yet another Russian at the same soirée, I learned that one of my three interlocutors had expressed anger at the Catholic Church because of the alleged targeting of Russian Orthodox churches by western Ukrainian forces in that country’s very unpleasant and uncivil war.

Regardless of the relative merits of each side’s claims in the Ukraine, it struck me as unfair to blame the Catholic Church for the actions of western Ukrainian forces. It is true, of course, that the people of western Ukraine are mainly Catholic whereas those in the east are mainly Orthodox. In this sense, it can be conceded that the war is “ethnic,” in the sense that two different cultures are struggling for dominance or for separation. It is, however, not fair to categorize the war as “religious.” It would be much more accurate to describe it as political in the sense that it is a clash of nationalities: ethnic Ukrainians in the west and ethnic Russians in the east. The western Ukrainians blame their eastern neighbors for their suffering under the Soviet system; the eastern Ukrainians blame their western neighbors for their collaboration with the Nazis and the hated SS during the second world war. There are communist “conservatives” in eastern Ukraine who long for the patriotic “glories” of Soviet imperialism, and there are many neo-Nazis in positions of power in the western Ukrainian government.

It is, however, not fair or accurate to describe the struggle between the two warring parties as religious, except in the decidedly irreligious sense of its being a sectarian struggle in which religious affiliation is little more than a badge worn in the service of tribalism.

I happen to be particularly sensitive to this crucial distinction between that which is genuinely religious and that which is merely tribal. Many years ago, back in the 1970s and 1980s, I was heavily involved in the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland between the so-called Catholics and the so-called Protestants. In those days, long before my conversion to Catholicism, I was on the side of the Protestants, even though I had no religion. I was technically, I suppose, an agnostic. I was not an atheist because God was not important enough to me. Frankly I did not care whether He existed or not. I was a Protestant, not because I cared about the way that Luther or Calvin differed from the Catholic Church but because I hated the IRA.

The Irish Republican Army was planting bombs in English pubs and I hated anyone who supported its terrorism. My response was to join the Orange Order, an anti-Catholic secret society, and to become involved with the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the Protestant terrorist organizations in Northern Ireland. I had a knee-jerk eye-for-an-eye mentality. If the “Catholics” of the IRA were planting bombs in my country, I would self-identify with the “Protestants” of the UDA and UVF. Needless to say, or at least it should be needless to say, none of this had anything to do with religion in any meaningful sense. It had nothing to do with the Prince of Peace, whose birth we will be celebrating soon, except that my hatred and the hatred of the warring parties was nailing Him to the Cross.

This distinction between genuine religion and religious tribalism is best expressed in the telling of a parable masquerading as a joke: Many years ago, at the height of the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, an American visitor to Belfast got lost and found himself in a run-down ghetto. Knowing of the terrorism in the city, he was fearful for his life. Then, as a group of menacing youths emerged from the shadows, his worst fears seemed to be coming true. This group of thugs approached him and asked him whether he was a Protestant or a Catholic. Realizing that this was a very dangerous question, the answer to which was a matter of life and death, he answered that he was actually an atheist. As the group of thugs looked at each other in bemusement, confused by his answer, he prided himself smugly for the quickness of his wit. Then, scratching his head and still looking a little puzzled, the leader of the thugs asked him whether he was a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist!

Grim and gallows humour aside, there is a great deal of truth in this scenario. I was a Protestant agnostic and some of my “comrades” were indeed Protestant atheists. Our hatred had nothing to do with God or religion and everything to do with our prideful and bigoted hatred of the other tribe.

The applicability of this scenario to the situation in Ukraine is clear enough. True religion, i.e. Christianity, which spurns the notion of an eye-for-an-eye, is always the bringer of peace. The absence of such peace is usually the absence of true religion. One can hope and pray that the presence of true Christianity in the minds and hearts of Catholic and Orthodox believers in  Ukraine will serve the cause of peace and reconciliation in that tragically divided land.

As we approach the joy of Christmas, we should remember the Christmas Truce of a century ago in which British and German soldiers emerged from their trenches, meeting in no-man’s-land to exchange food and gifts. Such a love for one’s enemy is not an option for the Christian but a Christ-given Commandment. It is nothing less than the peace that passeth and surpasseth all hatred and which is present every year in the manger at Bethlehem.

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7 replies to this post
  1. Thank you for sharing this story.

    Was the gentleman refering to Roman Catholics, or Ukrainian Greek Catholics? Perhaps the latter? Roman Catholics are about 2-3% of the population, so he couldn’t have been talking about Roman Catholics.

    In any event, there is also a division within the Orthodox Church itself. After all, there is the Russian Orthodox Church with a patriarch in Moscow and a Ukrainian Orthodox Church with a patriarch in Moscow and a Ukrainian Orthodox Church with a patriarch in Kiev.

    Kiev’s armies are indiscriminate in their bombing. Roman Catholic Polish nuns in Donetsk were forced to flee because of the war prosectuted by Kiev, but in terms of religious conflicts – there is quite a bit amongst Ukrainian Orthodox believers themselves – in the East, some are trying to force clerics loyal to the Kiev patriarch out of their parishes and get them replaced by those loyal to the Moscow patriarch.

    As an aside, Petro Poroshenko, the President of the Ukraine now – is Ukrainian Orthodox under the Moscow Patriarche – so…. it is hard to say that he is of a religion that is far from Russian Orthodoxy – since the Russians have the same patriarch as he does. Certainly Poroshenko is not a “Catholic” – he is Ukranian Orthodox under the Moscow Patriarche (one hopes this helps at the negotiating table in Minsk to some extent – any extent – anything that brings peace helps)


    Prime Minister Areseniy Yatesnyuk – he is Ukrainian Greek Catholic – and THAT might be the “Catholics” that your colleague was blaming? Particularly since Yatsenyuk has been a firey advocate of war with Russia and war against the east.

    Of course, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is liturgically consistent with the Russian Orthodox Church BUT is in communion with the Roman Catholic Church (and thus – it is possible that your friend was referring to this). So – while it is a stretch – you can “blame” Roman Catholics insofar as we are in the same communion as Ukrainian Greek Catholics.

    That is the only connection to Roman Catholicism that I can see…

    In fact – I get the feeling that since Yatsenyuk has been there from the begining of the Maidan, installed right after the revolution as Prime Minister, and been the principle voice for war against the East – then this is the “Catholic” that your friend was accusing.

    It is not an accusation leveled at Roman Catholics – it is an accusation leveled at a Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church which is liturgically Russian Orthodox but in Communion with Rome (sort of like High Anglicanism in in communion – here and there – with Rome).

    Terrible mess of course – and yes you are right, it has nothing to do with true religion, more with politics. But that does not change the fact that those who propagated the Maidan revolution and persecuted the war against the break-away East are to blame for the hostilities.

    As to us Roman Catholics – while you are right in your analysis about how sometimes people use religion as a label in conflicts having little to do with religion – I think we who call ourselves Catholics (in Poland at least) have failed to live up to our Catholicism.

    In the 1980s, Polish national Catholicism served truly universal and thus humain aims which changed Europe and the world for the better.

    Now – where is the famous Polish Roman Catholicism? We have a cross in our parliament and the majority of our political parties call themselves Catholic and Christian – yet we do not pursue peace with Russia and instead fan the flames of war in Ukraine?? We proclaim loudly and proudly that we are Catholics and won’t let the European Union undermine our religion and our Christian culture – but then we do not display our religion and Christian culture in our dealing with the East.

    In this sense – we can always find cause for improving ourselves.

  2. Gallows or otherwise, humor is a wonderful teacher. Christianity is the most exhausting faith because its commandment to love one’s neighbor takes sustained energy to uphold against the instincts of aggression and hatred. Minutes after Mass on any given Sunday, my impulse is to “flip the bird” at the first person who cuts me off in traffic; most times, my awareness of where I have just been reacts quickly enough to keep both hands on the wheel. If traffic is my greatest test in good old U.S.A., how would I do in Ukraine? How would I have done in Belfast?

  3. There are two points to make here. First, one doesn’t have to use a parables to explain tribalism for tribalism has to do with loyalty. My own definition of tribalism is when loyalty to group trumps commitment to principles and morals. At that point, then what is right and wrong depends on who does what to whom.

    The second point is a contradiction to something this blogpost claimed. When Pearce writes:

    I was a Protestant agnostic and some of my “comrades” were indeed Protestant atheists. Our hatred had nothing to do with God or religion and everything to do with our prideful and bigoted hatred of the other tribe.

    he could not be more wrong. The scriptures often point out that our true feelings for God are revealed by our feelings for and treatment of our fellow image bearers of God. For example, in the parable of the two men praying, the Pharisee’s superior attitude toward the publican who was praying showed the pharisee’s pride to both God and man. As the one Scripture talks about the impossibility of loving God and hating those made in His image. We also have the parable of the sheep and the goats where entry into God’s eternal kingdom rested on how they treated the ‘least of these.’

    If we are following God, then we are striving to love our neighbor as ourselves. And here, we should note the Biblical definition of the word ‘neighbor’ because, according to the Good Samaritan parable, a neighbor is someone in need who crosses our path.

  4. I heard a different version of the joke about the American lost in the streets of Belfast. When asked whether he was a Catholic or a Protestant, the American thought fast and said “I’m Jewish”, whereupon, one of the menacing thugs replied, “Sure and begorra! If I’m not the luckiest Arab in Belfast!”

  5. The tragedy of the “Christmas Truce of a century ago in which British and German soldiers emerged from their trenches, meeting in no-man’s-land to exchange food and gifts” is that after Christmas day they all went back to their respective trenches. May we all learn to stay out in “no-man’s-land” and not go back to our trenches.

  6. You know, i’ve had many an argument with atheists over their claim that religions cause wars. I like your distinction between tribalism and religion. I’ve tried to argue the point of tribalism as the culprit for conflicts but I lacked that term in my lexicon. Tribalism characterizes the phenomena precisely. Thanks.

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