Religion

Archimandrites’ Gambit

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Author: Grigol Gegelia

In the last days of June, a priest was spotted on the Bridge of Peace in Tbilisi moving energetically and absolutely shamelessly in that sacred part of the city – on roller-skates.

The priest’s promenade was promptly impeded. A group of Orthodox Christian brethren rushed to attack him and nipped in the bud the priest’s disgraceful behavior in full view of the Patriarchate and several churches in that neighborhood. As it turns out, that priest was not really a priest at all. He was an actor performing the part of a priest in an action scene for a movie being shot in Tbilisi.

The movie, as you would imagine, is a complete work of fiction, an artistic composition. It therefore is not surprising that, in a country where quasi-reality is attacked in an attempt to “normalize” it, the reality experiences no shortage whatsoever of attention.

Historically, control has always been one of the functions of the Church. That is equally true of the Vatican and for Mtskheta. But, in contemporary Georgia, the zeal to fulfill that function has reached an unprecedented peak with no end in sight. The Georgian Orthodox Church claims control over every aspect of life without exception – what people think; what people watch; what people say; what people wear; what people eat.

As if literal interference into the artistic sphere were not enough, the Georgian clergy in July revived its drama of earthly, worldly ideals and yet again openly played out its political sympathies. “And whom does God support?” I asked myself and realized at once that that is impossible to discern because the devout servants of God devotedly distribute political messages in every direction. Indeed, contemporary Georgian priests unashamedly swap the universally symbolic Christian Immanuel (“God is with us” in Hebrew) for “God is with him.”

It is not my aim here to delve into politics or art. In either case, be it an attempt to control the arts or to play with political sympathies, we are confronted with one and the same tendency – an attempt to set a certain ideal and then try to achieve it by invoking divine authority.

Even though ideals established by religious servants are extremely short of divine qualities, a person who dares to ponder or to hold a different opinion is put in quite a precarious place. A segment of the clergy will declare such a person to be an enemy, in the best-case scenario, or, in the worst-case scenario, a demon inspired by Satan. Demon is “the different” who pollutes reality. No one wants to be a demon.

Hence, the congregation stands mute, along with a large segment of the Georgian society. What’s more, no voice of courage speaks out from those members of the clergy who may think very differently from the Church about zealous demonization.

What I want to speak about in this article is this tradition of demonizing those who think differently and the concomitant desire of those who demonize to cleanse the reality.

Georgian religious servants demonize with such excessive fervor and frequency that I think it fully possible to compile a voluminous anthology. Prominent in those pages would be Archimandrite Shio Gabrichidze, who once resolutely declared that “Those who do not like the President [Eduard Shevardnadze] are devils” and then just as resolutely barred them all from entering the Church.

That tradition has been proudly carried on by the monk Toma Betaneli, who proclaims the current President of Georgia, and any person who happens to like the President, the Satan. Monk Toma is considered an extremely ignorant person sowing hatred and aggression in the name of Christ. For instance, he cannot tell the difference between American Indians and Asian Indians. Monk Toma is very good at cursing, though. He also has a soft beard and sometimes sways the icon of the Virgin Mary on Rose Revolution Square just like Lenin used to sway the flag of the Soviet Union.

Both Archimandrite Gabrichidze and Monk Toma set certain sacerdotal ideals and, even more so, express readiness to resort to violence to achieve them. In his agitated state, Shio Gabrichidze switches to a heroic language and imbues a militaristic hue to his divine preaching. “If need be, we must respond with death,” he preaches from the ambo. Those who do not obey the order established by Monk Toma “are Satans who must be cleansed!”

Throughout history, the demonization process has always followed one and the same paradigm. The first and integral part of this process is the establishment of a certain ideal. That ideal – a truth or a norm, if you please – is apodictic. It must always necessarily be true and apparent in itself and, accordingly, not subject to judgment. Any quality may represent such an ideal; so it is with “being a Christian” or “being a Nazi,” “being a Japanese” or “being a Communist.” Those who do not share that ideal – or deviate from a certain norm – automatically become “the different” who are polluting perceived reality.

The reality as it is thus perceived is the true polluter of the present and the future and creates a collective panic. A brilliant example of that is Sophocles’ Oedipus the King wherein the drama revolves around the polluted reality. With Thebes on the verge of demise, Creon is sent to seek the help of the god and tells Oedipus upon returning that Thebes’ disaster is caused by religious pollution because the murderer of their former King Laius had never been caught; therefore, they must “drive away the polluting stain this land has harboured, which will not be healed if we keep nursing it.”

What is wrong with the perceived reality? The reality is infected because a utopian ideal on which “good” reality stands is distorted. A lost ideal is restored for the purpose of creating a better future, which is often a mythical ideal. By participating in such a quixotic mission, people convince themselves that, through these actions, they can help restore that face which reality originally had but lost. In reality, these people, within this process, try to reanimate the myth.

This mission of helping reality recover its mythical face requires sacrifice. And indeed, for the sake of achieving an apodictic ideal or restoring a norm, people pass on giving name to the reality and turn a blind eye to its appalling aspects.

That happened when carriages packed with Jews crossed European streets, heading for unknown destinations and always returning back empty. Or when early in the morning neighbors suddenly disappeared, never to be seen again. Or even when on city streets people frenzied with the rapture of Christ bash the heads of their compatriots with the cross and then threaten them with sulphur rain.

British anthropologist Mary Duglas dedicated her excellent research – Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo – to the issue of reality and purity. Her research clearly shows with what degree of care a person of primitive culture treats the protection of purity. However “protection of purity” in modern understanding may be associated with the protection of hygienic norms, in primitive cultures that primarily means a constant purification of reality from, say, evil spirits.

In the archaic mind’s eye, everything worldly has a heavenly archetype. That is part of cosmic order and is good. But cosmic order does not extend to places inhabited by demons. In that place where “the different” live, the reality is polluted and chaos reigns.

That is why the archaic mind instantly conducts a purification ritual and thus turns chaos into cosmos in that once “unpurified” territory. Even more, that territory can be claimed as the purifier’s property only after the purification ritual.

The intensive fight against heresy, homosexuality and, in general, against anyone “different” – Jews, Muslims, lepers – waged in the West in the Medieval Age and, especially, in the Twelfth Century, was first and foremost that very attempt to purify the reality. All such examples follow a common pattern: What/who does not obey a normative order pollutes the reality and, consequently, acquires the function of enemy.

The mission of purifying the reality is so great that it transcends ideological borders and assumes a truly common-national mission. If the ideal set by Hitler was to clean the land of Jews, the Soviet regime’s ideal was to cleanse the country of “enemies of state.” Here we deal with the governments of two ideologically different countries, each poised to annihilate millions of people for the sake of achieving some eternal truth or ideal.

According to the classical paradigm, some future victim is declared an “enemy of country,” a “Satanist,” “diseased” or a “plotter.” In other words, dehumanization takes place. But why? Only because “the different” does not directly and fully embrace the ideal that is considered apodictic. Dehumanization is the first step in legitimizing persecution, torture and destruction; it provides a substantiated explanation of that process.

If the reality is really polluted it logically requires purification – “for a better future,” “for building a happy present,” “for our children.” But we must remember that a person who passively agrees that “the different” pollutes the reality merely because he/she is “different” that person becomes a collaborator of the terror which follows.

Gambetto is an old Italian word meaning “cause someone to trip.” A gambit in chess is the first move which conditions the strategy of the game and its success. Playing with utopian ideals and religious demonizing is the Archimandrites’ gambit.

What is the next move?

This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 110, published 23 July 2012.

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