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Towards a Balkan Theology of Political Liberation

The Institute for Theology and Politics (ITP) is conceived to be a generator for establishing the first Balkan, i.e., post-Yugoslav contextual theology with a political-theological and theological-liberation orientation.

The Institute for Theology and Politics (ITP) is conceived to be a generator for establishing the first Balkan, i.e., post-Yugoslav contextual theology with a political-theological and theological-liberatory orientation. Along with this, the priority task of the ITP is to create a theological discourse capable of effectively addressing the consequences of the uncritical merging of ethnonational and religious aspects, which, in the mentioned regions, takes its most radical form in what we recognize as the phenomenon of ethnoreligiosity.  Ethnoreligiosity is the combination of ethnic and religious elements, where religious institutions involved become part of an ethnonationalistic agenda as its sacred representation. Although the ITP’s engagement primarily stems from the Yugoslav experience, it should be seen in more than just those frameworks. Namely, in a time when the religious narrative is gaining strength, especially as the rise of its fundamental variations merged with the national one or manifested in the form of political religions, it’s evident that this entire engagement holds global significance.

In this sense, the ITP’s work can be considered integral to a unified, universal struggle, manifesting as another specific place within (it) this effort put up by other political and liberation theologies. This place has, until now, been vacant. Despite the nearly thirty-year analysis of the Yugoslav case, within which many meaningful things have been said and written, the endeavor to analyze the Balkans’, i.e., the former Yugoslav’s reality constructively still lacks a clear theoretical foundation adequate for practical confrontation with socio-religious and sociopolitical issues. The issue, therefore, is not a lack of quality but rather a failure to constructively shape and formulate the constructive and practical useful theory, specifically these two levels – the religious and the political ones. That is because the political situation in these areas cannot be effectively resolved without including the religious element in the discussion, given that the role of churches in the life of post-Yugoslav societies is considered constitutive. This comes more to the fore, especially when we count that, as shown, the only concrete division among the peoples in the former Yugoslavia consists neither of cultural divisions nor of linguistic divisions but solely as a religious one.[1] Consequently, Croats are exclusively identified as Catholics, Serbs as Orthodox, and Bosniaks as Muslims, thereby keeping these communities mutually opposed.

The problem is even more significant because this conviction, which started at the level of mere manifestation, has evolved into a kind of categorical thinking, taking on an ontological dimension or a fateful character for the people in question. This leads us to the point that in confronting this ethnonational-religious concept, we must approach it more concretely. In other words, we must refrain from engaging with this concept as if it is a classical secular ideology before we strip it of its religious packaging, which it has taken on as a mimicry. More precisely, it serves as a trap into which all critics of this ethnonational-religious amalgam fall, who are unable to discern that the religious dimension in this entire story is nothing more than a facade behind which the realization of private interests takes place, according to the demands of ethnonationalist policies. As a result, every criticism, no matter how constructive it may be, is unquestionably denounced as being directed against the faith itself, as in odium fidei.

In this sense, establishing an institute like the one discussed here is presented as imperative. On the one hand, its role is translational, which means, on a theoretical level, it (purifies) distinguishes religious discourse from ethnonational elements and vice versa. On the other hand, its function is liberating, which means that on a practical level, it directly confronts ethnonationalist ideologies sanctified by religious institutions. Within this framework, a series of arguments are developed, step by step, forming a roadmap for establishing a new contextual theology. As per present experiences, this theology, in its DNA, contains the genes of a new political theology and theologies of liberation. Thus, it is considered a procedure of deprivatizing faith from ethnonationalized religious structures and confronting social evils, primarily the consequences of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

When we contextualize this narrative more precisely, in the case of deprivatization, it involves a critical examination of the misuse of the idea of God within ethnoreligianic communities emerging within the framework of Croatian Catholicism, i.e., Serbian Orthodoxy, each of which identifies itself with Jesus and his sufferings, while identifying their enemies, i.e., each other, with his executioners. Simultaneously, in the case of the confrontation with social evils, it involves suppressing the narrative that glorifies and blesses criminals from one’s people while simultaneously demonizing and showing contempt for the victims of other people. This is paramount to address, as the current socio-religious and sociopolitical reality in post-Yugoslav territories testifies to living within what is described as “the killing culture,” a culmination of the “national renewal” that has been ongoing since the nineties. This “renewal” aimed to maximize ethnic homogenization of the national territory, achieved through the expulsion of others or the complete erasure of their heritage and cultural legacy from one’s own living space. In this process, some religious structures played a dishonorable role as significant instigators of the abovementioned process. Consequently, there has been a considerable rise in ethnototalitarian ideologies and ethnoclerical aspirations on post-Yugoslav soil. The former is an ideology that, organically, aims to gain control over all territories inhabited by a particular ethnicity, even if part of that ethnicity resides within the region of another state. The latter is an aspiration by the clergy living in an ethnically homogeneous national community to establish an ethnic church while concurrently imposing themselves as secular leaders. Precisely, these two factors have led to the radical fusion of ethnonational and religious aspects, later recognized as the phenomenon of ethnoreligiosity. Hence, the confrontation with ethnoreligiosity becomes an inevitable task for the ITP, as it brings about a series of problems for a religious organization and its community in terms of politics, theology, identity, and social context, whereby the whole process of interlacing the secular and sacral aspects of human life leads to a state of intense crisis and a potential breakdown. Indirectly, this also leads us to confront “the killing culture,” the societal modus vivendi of the post-Yugoslav territories.

The theological narrative here, of course, becomes much deeper and more complex, and this is precisely the starting point of the scientific research engagement of the ITP. It emphasizes that the normalization of the mentioned region will only be achieved if the religious dimension is stabilized and   from ethnonationalist ideological influences. The importance of the ITP’s work is even more significant because the stability of the Balkan region dramatically influences the strength of the concept of European unity. Thus, delving into the Yugoslav experience and drawing conclusions from it is not just a good opportunity but an urgent necessity, especially when religious discourse is increasingly becoming fundamentalized and more closely tied to the ethnonational politics of a specific sociopolitical context.

Currently, figuratively speaking, Christian Europe conflicts with Islam and the proponents of Islamic State with the values of the Christian West, but if we focus on specific segments of the world, we will soon realize that the division becomes more and more concrete, such as the one among Croatian Catholicism, Serbian Orthodoxy, and Bosniak Islam. Indeed, it’s essential to consider that this type of division is less radicalized in some other environments. Still, it’s equally important to understand that what emerges as a marriage of convenience between a particular ethnonational and religious aspect can only lead to the building up of the combative capacities of the same.

The ITP continually emphasizes this point, as it believes that the only way to prevent such situations is by keeping people in a state of preparedness. However, in that sense, the ITP also develops constructive capacities alongside its critical approach. As part of its work, it has opened up the possibility of training through the Academy for Theology and Politics. While the foundation undoubtedly carries a distinct Balkan character, its intended application is universal. This means that the education offered by the Academy is not one-sided but specific. It aims to provide insights by focusing on a particular problem in a specific part of the world, which, when recontextualized, can be used as an effective tool for recognizing and thwarting issues in other parts of the world. In line with this, many are called to participate, for the ITP encourages other surroundings to establish similar educational initiatives. The goal of the ITP is, among other things, to create a network of Academies for Theology and Politics through partnerships worldwide. This would be a mission to extend inter-Christian cooperation (but indirectly the inter-religious one as well), for these academies should enable collaboration among staff and the exchange of students to apply the idea of ecumenism more concretely. In this sense, the main aim is to foster the emergence of contextual theologies capable of confronting sociopolitical and socio-religious issues in its life environment and to exchange those experiences with others further. This is a form of “receptive ecumenism from the bottom,” achieved through a combination of education and social engagement. We sincerely hope to find partners and support for this endeavor. In addition to the scientific research and educational concept itself, the ITP has also launched the “Sraz” library, which, in its initial phase, is oriented towards publishing works of domestic authors whose content, as mentioned, contributes to the creation of Balkan, i.e., post-Yugoslav contextual theology of a political-theological and theological-liberation kind. Of course, the ITP’s ideas are not exhausted by those above. Still, the current capacities at our disposal are limited, which, for now, whether we want to or not, forces us to focus on the existing, and that is certainly no small matter.

[1] Snježana Kordić, Jezik i nacionalizam (Zagreb: Durieux, 2010), 209–10, 238–40.; Neven Budak, Prva stoljeća Hrvatske (Zagreb: Hrvatska sveučilišna naklada, 1994), 57.; Sima Ćirković, Srbi među europskim narodima (Zagreb: Golden marketing-Tehnička knjiga, 2008), 9–10, 36.; Irina Ognyanova, „Religion and Church in the Ustasha Ideology (1941-1945)“, Croatica Christiana periodica 33, izd. 64 (2009.): 161.

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