“Religion is the opium of the people.”
“How much is opium for the people?”
Ostap Bender in Ilf's & Petrov's The Twelve Chairs
“You non-Orthodox motherf….er,” a young teenager shouted at a Fijian rugby player during the Georgia versus Fiji match in Tbilisi on 24 November. Hearing swearing at a stadium, especially a Georgian one, is nothing out of the ordinary, but the use of the word “non-Orthodox” sounded very strange, especially coming from a schoolchild – and an Orthodox Christian one at that! Upon first hearing the comment it sounded funny, but in reality it is a tragedy – the tragedy of twenty-first century Georgia.
One witnesses an almost continuous construction of churches in Georgia. The members of the clergy are never seen in anything but the latest model of car, which they regularly buy brand new. The trade in candles and icons is highly profitable. The Patriarchate regularly inaugurates new farms and grocery stores. Priests are thought of as saints. To cut a long story short, today the Georgian clergy live in luxury.
But what do we get in return? What are the signals coming from a large segment of the clergy? What are we paying millions of laris from the central budget for? What can I, you or that young teenager from the stadium learn from the Georgian Church today? We are told many things, that, for example, God punished Japan with a devastating earthquake for its sins; that America is trying to pervert Georgia; that anyone taking a biometric passport cannot receive Communion for a year; that whoever thinks or acts differently is a loathsome creature; that anyone who is not an Orthodox Christian is a heretic and must be stoned to death; that we must make contributions to a monastery which cannot pay its electricity bill (let me remind you that the Patriarchate receives a budget of 25 million GEL).
If need be, priests can storm TV stations, beat journalists to a pulp and even act as election observers. In such a climate it is hardly surprising that no one dares to say anything against the church!
We live in an environment where one can spend a fasting period eating vegetable “beef” stroganoff, but where women are rebuked for entering church wearing trousers. Society appears to have no idea about the true meaning of belief.
“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
What is Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or any other religious denomination in reality? What does God tell us? Stone those who are different to death? No. Curse your neighbour? No. Be angry? No. Be Pharisaic? No. God tells us that love, kindness, mutual respect and freedom are key.
In Tbilisi during the period of the national liberation movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s one would often hear the exclamation “God is with us!” The hope that the God would help us arose naturally in such a tough period. But, unfortunately, we did not take a step towards God’s central message then and have not done so to the present day.
It is true that we, as a state, were completely detached from the religious sphere during the 70 years spent under the Soviet Union, and that we initially found it difficult to follow the correct path, but it is now high time for us, a country dreaming of joining the ranks of the developed countries, to start taking steps forward concerning religion – just as it is time to take steps in every other field, be it the economy, the arts or sport.
I can suggest what first steps should be: let’s smile at each other more often, give way to pedestrians, refrain from poking our noses into each other’s lives… This list can be extended indefinitely – we all know what we do wrong. In turn, let the Patriarchate set up shelters for the poor, where those in need can go to get warm, have dinner, sleep and feel that someone loves and cares for them.
After this we would not have to repeat “God is with us” like a mantra – when positive energy is discharged it starts circulating within that environment and will begin to lead towards a kinder and more compassionate society. This does not require much talk or sermonizing. It is just divine physics.