Saturday, September 3, 2011

Danilo's Freedom

I recently worshiped with the congregation of Saint Barnabas Serbian Orthodox Church. Saint Barnabas lies in East Sarajevo, a city that did not exist as such twenty years ago. Although four miserable years of bombardment failed to wipe Sarajevo off the map, the ensuing population movements significantly altered its geography. Bosnian Serbs who lived their entire lives in Sarajevo moved in droves to the other side of the mountain, building a new city almost from scratch. 

Amid fears that Sarajevo’s Muslim majority would impinge on their freedoms, they created Srpski Sarajevo. And this Sarajevo would be for Serbs alone.

St. Barnabas’ priest, Boško, invited me to come early to church so we could talk over coffee. He is a tall but gentle man in his mid forties. Dressed in his long black cassock, he appeared quite a bit more imposing than when I met him for coffee a week before in the Old Town. He suggested we go back to his house for coffee, but first he needed to grab something in the church. After a few moments, he emerged with a bag full of eggs. As someone who appreciates a late-night omelet now and again, I thought it impractical to store one’s eggs at the church - but I didn’t pursue it.

Like many homes in East Sarajevo, Boško’s remains unfinished. In the rush to flee the real or imagined threat of Muslim rule in the old city, it seems like any house will do - so long as it is on the east side of the mountain. But when I got inside, I was surprised to see a beautifully warm and comfortable home. An icon of St. Michael the Archangel hung suspended on the wall, gazing over the overstuffed leather furniture and sleek hardwood floors. Boško introduced me to his wife, who promptly offered me a cup of fresh aromatic coffee, and then he motioned for me to sit down in their living room.

Here I met Danilo.

After working so hard to make it through the formalities of conversation with everyone else that morning, I found conversation with Danilo to be especially easy.

Perhaps, that’s because Danilo is three.

This pastor’s kid sat curled up on the couch, still in his bright blue pajamas. He squirmed a little when I walked up, dangling his feet off the edge of the couch. Within a few minutes, the guy with the funny accent and poor grammar won out over the cartoons. He seemed happy to answer my simple one clause questions, perfectly content to be the center of attention, the way most three year-olds are.

I was completely won over by this adorable little guy. His parents were too. In fact, when Boško and I met for coffee again after the service, I discovered that it was concern for Danilo that led them to move to East Sarajevo in the first place.

Our conversation began in the rarified air of Orthodox theology and Bosnian politics. Boško is a thoughtful, well-read man of the cloth who’d be a natural in Hyde Park. He expressed his hopes for Bosnia in the terms of big ideas - the Enlightenment and human freedom. The political structure he imagines would allow each person, especially ethnic minorities, to live in a state of freedom and there must be special legal protections from the tyranny of the majority. In this case, the protection he seeks is from a Muslim majority.

But then, Boško’s monologue took an earthy turn. His big ideas had very concrete roots. He told me that Danilo’s name is recognizably Serbian. If he were to grow up where they once lived in old Sarajevo, little Danilo would face relentless taunting from Muslims simply because of his name. Boško told me that his life would be one uphill battle after another – in school, in sports, in making friends.

“He couldn’t live in freedom there, so we moved to a place where he could - East Sarajevo.”

Boško’s reasoning hit me like a brick, and it wasn’t just because it hurt my heart to imagine Danilo getting picked on. What struck me was how familiar his argument sounded.  It sounded like Puritans arguing that they couldn’t live in freedom in England, so they’d try their luck on the other side of the pond. It also sounded like any number of suburban parents I know who moved out of the city because they want their kids to enjoy the freedoms of good public schools and safe streets.

I got it. It made sense. And while I have heard enough testimonies of Sarajevo’s extraordinary culture of pluralism and tolerance to make me question his premise, I could at least see where he was coming from.

This tendency to pick up our toys and go play by ourselves in the corner is a human one; it gets inflamed when we feel restrictions placed on our freedom. Theologically, this is not all bad. The Israelites needed to be freed from Egyptian bondage before they could worship the LORD. (Exodus 10:3) So until the kind of minority protection Boško dreams of is ensured, perhaps living on opposite sides of the mountain is our best shot. 

But does that sound like real freedom? Is it really freedom if it isolates one-time neighbors from each other? Is that freedom sustainable when these artificial walls allow old stereotypes and prejudices to calcify and for human hearts to harden?

If loving our neighbor has anything to do with the good life, I don’t see how this type of freedom gets us very far.

To live in the presence of the other is always risky business. Encounters with other people, especially those who are different, reveal just how vulnerable we are. But Disciples theologian Kris Culp argues that vulnerability is a two-sided coin. Of course, our vulnerability means we live with the risk of devastation, a risk Bosnians know all-too-well.  But that very same vulnerability is what opens us up to the possibility that we could be transformed into something new, that we could even bear the glory of God. (Vulnerability and Glory, Westminster JKP, 2010)

The tragedy of living in segregated, ethnically pure communities is that in seeking to establish our own security, we forgo opportunities to bear the glory of God. Sarajevo’s long history of interfaith cooperation and flourishing is a witness to that potential. But the city is more segregated than ever. And as long as this persists, Danilo’s “freedom” will keep him tragically alienated from that potential.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

How Deep is Your Justice?

Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ And he said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’  And the LORD said, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! (Genesis 4:9-10)

Once you have tread over that blood-soaked ground, the voices never stop crying out.

Two years ago I travelled to Srebrenica, the city in Eastern Bosnia where 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed in a span of three days.  My entire experience there was chilling; confronted with the grotesque evil humans are capable of committing, I remember feeling like the stories I heard from victims in that place would stay with me for a long time.

Emira’s story certainly has.

A beautiful woman in her late 20’s, Emira goes to work every day at the very place where she lost her father.  She works as a guide at the Srebrenica Memorial and recounted to us the events of July 11, 1995.  Packed into an old battery factory designated as a United Nations Safe Zone, Emira and over 5,000 other Bosnian Muslims sought sanctuary from the Bosnian Serb Army. But instead of sanctuary and protection, they were met with desertion.  As the noose formed by General Ratko Mladić’s forces tightened around the small Dutch platoon, those charged with protecting the unarmed masses of Bosnian Muslims turned and fled.

A horrifying scene erupted when the Serbs reached the camp.  They divided the men and boys from the women.  Emira recounted the last moment she saw her father; he was pulled away from her by Serb soldiers, loaded onto a bus, and driven away.

Over ten years have passed since that moment.  So far, authorities have only been able to locate about fifty percent of her father’s body.

Lands soaked with that atrocious combination of genocidal wrath and innocent blood resist any attempt at meaning making.  Our questions and pleas for justice fall endlessly into the abyss without so much as an echo.

Yet Emira ended her story with a claim about justice that remains lodged in my memory like a stone embedded in a well-worn path.  Her question causes me to trip anytime I move too quickly towards any simple explanation of justice. 

Her claim was that the International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague isn’t justice enough.  To hold the generals and politicians accountable is one thing, but the soldiers who actually carried out the atrocities get off scot-free.  I remember the cold chill down my spine when she suggested that the perpetrators of these crimes could be her neighbors, they could be living in the village next door, they could be the shopkeeper down the street.

Unless these people are held accountable, how will justice ever be served?  Or for that matter, how can she ever find peace?

Institutions like The Hague are necessary components in our pursuit of justice in this world.  Though not perfect, the slow advance of international law that holds genocidaires accountable is an ally in this fight.  But Emira’s story shows that institutions like these are simply never enough. 

When it comes to the depths of human brokenness, something more is needed than statecraft and criminal courts - something that reaches deeper into the guts of justice than even the long arm of the law.

Monsignor Zovkić, a priest in the Catholic Archdiocese of Bosnia, shared with me the advice Pope John Paul II offered Croatian Catholics in light of the atrocities of this region.  “Forgive, and ask to be forgiven.”  This simple phrase resounds deeply with the monsignor.  To his mind, only a handful of religious leaders have offered forgiveness to their penitent enemies; far fewer have risked the even bolder action of asking to be forgiven. 

“They would see it as an admittance of their guilt.”  And guilt is the last thing any side wants to admit.

Though Zovkić’s superior, Cardinal Puljić, has not officially asked for forgiveness for his flock’s complicity in the war, the monsignor did refer to a recent event in central Bosnia near the site of the most severe Catholic on Muslim fighting.  At this nationally televised event, the Cardinal simply agreed to show up at the memorial that commemorated the Muslims who lost their lives to Catholic forces in the early 1990s.  Though it wasn’t a verbal apology or an official request for forgiveness, Zovkić contends that the Cardinal’s silent presence said it all.

What would it look like for religious leaders on each side to ask for forgiveness on behalf of the members of their faith community who committed atrocities?  Could it motivate a wave of similar requests from local parish priests and imams?  Could that trickle down even further to the individual soldiers, those human beings tormented by the voice of their murdered brothers that cries out incessantly from the black soil of Srebrenica?

Hebrews 10:24 reads – “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.”

If religious leaders took the prophetic responsibility to ask their enemies for forgiveness, it may not be enough to provoke a similar confession from the members of their community who committed the atrocities of Srebrenica.  But at the very least, it would give those perpetrators who killed Emira’s father one less institution to hide behind.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Raw Potatoes

“The political conditions for reconciliation in Bosnia simply aren’t there.”

Professor Ahmet Alibasic would know.  He is a political scientist at the University of Sarajevo and the latest person to decry the brokenness of Bosnian politicians.  I’ve talked to everyone from local religious leaders to American diplomats to secular activists, and this is one thing on which they all agree.

The picture he painted for me was grim.  To sum it up, the main problem facing political reconciliation is that refugees cannot return to their homes. The Serbs who aimed to destroy Bosnian diversity and divide everyone up into ethnically pure states got what they wanted.  The result is the most segregated Bosnia in its history.

“So who cares about reconciliation?  Only the victims!”  The perpetrators got what they wanted, so they have no reason to even come to the table. The professor lowers his cup of coffee and lifts his eyes to meet mine. “Their project of ethnic cleansing was basically a success.  That’s the bottom line.”

That look in his eyes tells me how hard it is to even utter those words.

The strong get what they want, and the weak divide up what’s left.  That’s the political “bottom line.”  And if politics are “the art of the possible,” this task of reconciliation seems decidedly impossible.

After discussing these harsh political realities with Professor Alibasic, I needed a break.  I made my way to the Sarajevo Film Festival to let my imagination run free and to escape from the “real world” with its brutal bottom lines and cold hard facts.

As it turns out, I found something very real in that theater.

The film was The Turin Horse, famed Hungarian director Bela Tarr’s final film.  If it was anything, this film was real.  Shot on grainy, black and white film and with almost no dialogue, the camera followed two characters through the mundane, repetitive routine of peasant life in the 1800s.  Wake up, fetch water from the well, boil potatoes, clean up after the horse, chop wood, and go to sleep – five days in a row.  The gritty, grim reality of real human life was all the camera would let us see.

The only thing that interrupted the bleakness of their daily were three bad omens, each progressively worse, that suggested that the “end” was coming.  Their neighbor frantically warned them that “they” are coming, debasing everything they touch.  The water in their well disappears overnight, leaving them unable to even boil their potatoes.  Finally, even the daylight begins to fade to black as whatever is coming gets closer and closer and closer.

The last scene of the film is etched into my memory.  Their hovel shrouded in thick darkness with no water to cook their food, the two characters sit facing one another at their table.  A potato lay in front of each of them.  With the “end” in sight, with everything indicating the worst, the father bites into the raw, rock-hard potato.  I could hear the woody crunch of his teeth on the starchy, unforgiving vegetable.  And through crunches, he utters these words to his daughter:

“Eat.  We must eat.”

The end was upon them, and yet this father carried on.  Against all reason, in spite of all the “harsh realities,” he resisted.  He resisted by hoping against hope that he had a future that was better than his current reality.

To watch a film like this in Sarajevo was an intense experience.  My mind wandered from the characters of the film to the characters I’ve met in this city, those who know what it is to have their routine interrupted by bad omens, those who have lived through “the end,” literally.  When Sarajevo’s Judgment Day came and went, those who chose to stay in their homes did so to resist the “harsh realities” of the shells raining down on their streets and snipers murdering their neighbors.

When the fourth most powerful army in Europe surrounded Sarajevo, its citizens resisted.  With water and electricity cut off, they braved sniper fire to access the freshwater spring underneath the brewery.  With Serb forces surrounding the city, the Sarajevans dug an 800 meter tunnel to access food and supplies.

When the end was upon them, they bit into their raw potatoes, and they carried on.

The moral I take from all this is that the harsh realities of this world do not have to define our world.  Human beings are endowed with a spark of divinity, this God-given capacity to resist the oppressive “bottom lines” and to blur the line between what is possible and what is impossible.  

So when reconciliation is deemed politically impossible, it’s up to those artists, those theologians, those people of radical hope to imagine their way into an impossible future; it's a future of which Sarajevo is proof.

Monday, July 18, 2011

First Communion

I received communion in a Catholic church last week.  I typically don’t. 

That’s weird for me because communion is a big part of my weekly routine.  In the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) we have staked our identity on the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  Every week, we celebrate an open table – all are welcome, anyone who wishes to follow Christ is invited to the table.

But that is not my practice when I go to Catholic mass.  The rules are different.  Only baptized Catholics are welcome, that’s the rule.  And while I strongly disagree with it, I choose to respect the rules. 

But I don’t so passively.  I don’t just sit there like the chubby kid who didn’t get picked for the kickball team either.  In the face of the Church’s theological claim, I like to make a counter claim.

I go forward during the Eucharist, but when I reach the priest, I cross my arms over my chest.  This is the official signal that I am either a Catholic in need of confession or that I am just not Catholic.  Instead of the body and blood of Christ, I get the door prize - a sign of the cross and a blessing.

This usually catches the priest off guard, and well, it makes me uncomfortable too.  Our eyes meet, a moment of indecision passes, confusion happens, and I stutter-step my way down the line, sans body and blood.

For me it is a little Protestant protest, a small interruption in the normal flow of “the body of Christ, the blood of Christ.”  In that moment, the priest and I are both confronted with my exclusion, a subtle reminder that in this Church, I am a second-class Christian.

Since coming to Bosnia, I’ve toned down my radical ways and tried to play nice.  I’m not here this summer to make waves, so during the Eucharist, I have been content to restrict my protest to silent prayer.   

Last Sunday, at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Belgrade, I did just that.  And when I looked up, I saw a portly man in a white robe scurrying down the side aisle.  His eyes sought me out with an innocent and quizzical look, like a little boy searching for his parents in a crowd.  His glasses bobbled down his round nose as his feet pitter-pattered down the aisle, too quickly for a priest, too quickly for 60 year old man.  The whole scene was awkward.  With twenty or so people still in line to receive the Eucharist, Fra Ivo took a handful of the host and sought me out of the crowd.  Nearly out of breath, he lifted the small plate towards me as I stood up from my pew.

“Will you have communion?”

My heart beat faster, the way it does when you get asked to speak when you’re not expecting it, or when you’re breaking a rule and know you may get caught.  I muttered, “Yes, I will.”

“Christ’s body, broken for you.” He placed the host in my hand. 

I raised it to my lips, and set it down on my tongue, carefully.  It stuck to the roof of my mouth began to dissolve, flesh to flesh.

My heart raced, and I felt the emotion welling up from my gut into my throat and reaching up towards my eyes.

I imagine that is what the Prodigal felt when he watched his aged father risk looking like a fool as he sprinted out to meet his son.  Priests don’t run during the mass; they certainly don’t leave the 99 sheep behind to seek out the one lost sheep, the one who needs to feel the warm embrace of full inclusion into Christian community.

Themes like “radical welcome” and “Christian hospitality” are popular now; I feel like I hear them about every week in church.  For me, they can become routine, milquetoast clichés that don’t mean very much.

But in a world marked by violent ethnic strife, cantankerous political divisions, and toxic racial segregation, the Lord’s Supper has the potential to be a powerful and hopeful alternative.

My “First Communion” reminded me that the God who shows up at communion is a God who brazenly and even foolishly seeks us out of the crowd, who awkwardly crosses divisions and differences to invite each of us to full participation in Life with God.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Hopeful Sounds

"The politicians make the rules here.” He takes another sip from his bottle of Lav, looks down the street, and shakes his head as if he is thoroughly disgusted.  I assume the disgust is toward the politicians, but it could have been the beer.  It was awful.

Mirsad is a physical therapist from Sarajevo and a member of the Pontanima interfaith choir.  I’m with him and the rest of the choir on a tour of Belgrade, the capital of neighboring Serbia.  Mirsad loves to tell me jokes in Bosnian.  These create raucous response from any Bosnian within earshot and a look of confusion from this American who understood about every third word.  Once the laughter cools, some kindhearted soul slaps him on the back and tells him to fill me in, and he happily obliges.  

An Orthodox priest scurrying through downtown Belgrade.
As we sit at this street-side café on a busy Belgrade boulevard, Mirsad fills me in on a different kind of insider knowledge.  He thinks back on Pontanima's various tours across the politically-carved carcass that once was Yugoslavia, and tells me that these trips fill him with a great emptiness. 

A native Sarajevan, Mirsad was raised in a religiously mixed house with one Serb and one Muslim parent.  His very existence is a testament to Bosnian pluralism!  “And yet, when the choir went to Mostar, for example, you can see that the Catholics live on one side of the bridge, the Muslims on the other.”  This kind of segregation tears at the heart of who Mirsad is, what Sarajevo is, and what Bosnia has been.  And so Mirsad and Bosnians like him are left empty while the politicians whose careers depend on segregation fill their coffers to the brim.

“The politicians make the rules here.”

“But what about Pontanima?  Don’t they play by different rules?”

“Pontanima is an illusion.”  Surprised and not quite sure that I understand where he’s going, I reach for my notebook and ask him what he means.  “It is an illusion because it is not the way things are here, where politicians make the rules.” 

He pauses. 

“But it is the way it could be.”

Earlier that day, I sipped coffee with other members of the choir around a picnic table at our dormitory.  Some Muslim, some Christian, some agnostic/atheist, all Bosnian, the group greeted each other as they wiped the sleep out of their eyes over Bosnian coffee and cigarettes. 

On Skadarlija Street with Mirsad.

Through the barrage of conversation in rapid Bosnian, I heard the word “success.”  My interviewer ears perked up, and I asked them “What does success look like for Pontanima?”

The director of the choir replied quickly in Bosnian; there were a few chuckles and a lot of nodding of heads.  Someone finally translated for me:

“That we exist – that is success.”

Yesterday, July 11th, marked the 16th anniversary of Srebrenica where over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were murdered by people who professed to be Christians.  For Sarajvans who lived through the brutal four-year long siege of Ratko Mladic and who witnessed their dream of a pluralistic Bosnia disappear in the dark fog of genocide, a statement like “that we exist” means something.

Another member helped put this in context for me.  Pontanima gives people hope,” she adds, “hope that we can live together and build something beautiful.  We have to exist to keep that possibility alive.”

After a day full of blessing from conversations like these, I was blessed to witness this “illusion”, this “possibility,” for myself.  Below is Pontanima performing the medieval Sephardic Jewish piece “Cuando el Rey Nimrod”.

Maybe Pontanima is an illusion.  One interfaith choir amidst the multitude of ethnically segregated choirs is certainly a minority.  And in a land where political corruption and fear-mongering nationalists make the rules and control the media, the voice for pluralism and peace is by no means the loudest.

But this illusion is a real one; it is an important and powerful one.  Illusions don't play by the rules that the politicians or anyone else creates; in fact, they break them.
Like the parables of Jesus, these modern illusions give everyday people a small taste of things to come, a whisper in their ear that the way things are is not necessarily the way they have to be.  By the grace of God, these blessed illusions boldly resist the majority opinion and hold open the possibility for something new and better to come.

To my ears, that sounds like hope.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Tables Open and Closed

One hard-boiled egg, two pastries filled with cream, and an empty glass of wine lay before me on the table.  The egg’s shell was dark brown, like it was made of mahogany.  “It’s because they boil them with onions,” the woman across the table from me hinted, apparently having read my mind through my face.

Last Friday, I celebrated Shabbat at the Sarajevo Jewish Community Center.  Sarajevo used to have a thriving Jewish community.  Sephardic Jews fled the militant Christians of the Spanish Inquisition in the 16th century in search of a more tolerant home.  Sarajevo’s conspicuous blend of cultures and religions appealed to them.  The 19th century brought a wave of Ashkenazis from Russia, Poland, and the Ukraine, also seeking more hospitable climes.  Some one-thousand Jews remain in Sarajevo today, a faint shadow of the community that flourished here 100 years ago.  The Holocaust, more recent wars, and emigration have left only a remnant.

“Shabbat shalom!”  I offered confidently as I extended my hand to the mustachioed man who looked to be in charge.  This Hebrew greeting felt like familiar territory compared to what followed.  With great effort and awful diction, I expressed to this man who I was, what I’m doing in Bosnia, and most importantly, my need to borrow a yarmulke.  His thick mustache peaked into a smile, and he pointed me toward the kipas.

Following the brief service, sung entirely in Hebrew, the men on the right side of the temple met the women on the left side in the middle, and we filed downstairs for a light meal.  Here is where I found my dark brown egg.  But in the midst of all these unfamiliar things, I recognized what came next.

The leader of the synagogue sat at the head of the table.  He called the assembly’s attention and lifted a loaf of fresh challah bread.  After saying some words of blessing, he broke it and gave it to the men to his left and to his right.  Each person tore off a piece from the loaf, and gave the rest to the next person.  Then, the leader took a small, silver cup.  He poured some red wine into it, lifted it up also, and offered a blessing on the meal.  As he did this, the woman who had explained the strange condition of my egg took my empty glass and filled it to the brim with wine. “L’chaim,” she said through a big smile.  “To life!”

Sabbath had begun.  We took and ate, and it was good.

I will not call this something it is not.  Not one Jew in that room would have called this communion, so neither will I.  But the familiarity of this meal shared with friends and strangers resonated in my soul.  A simple meal of kruh i vino, bread and wine, centered around a worshipping community, offered to friends in friendship and to strangers in hospitality and to all in fellowship; that was familiar.  Celebrating the goodness of a God who rested and injects rest and rejuvenation into our weeks; this I recognize when I see - brown eggs and all.

On the third day, so to speak, I sat in the pews of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Old St. Pat’s of Sarajevo.  For the second consecutive week, Monsignor Zovkic invited me to read the Old Testament and Epistolary readings at their English Mass.  Both times, I have been surprised by how natural and good it feels to take leadership in worship and to read Scripture in the midst of Christian community.  It feels like home to me. 

But then that dark brown egg returned.  I saw it when I watched them form a line down the central aisle. I felt it when I slid my feet to the side and pinched my legs against the old pew, letting the others brush past me.  Some receive the blessing of Christ’s broken body and blood, and others sit in their pews and watch.

Both the Jewish community and the Catholic Croat community of Sarajevo feel that their identities are endangered.  Both are deeply concerned as they watch more and more members of their communities emigrate to the West.  But in spite of the temptation to hunker down and turn inward, this tiny, vulnerable Jewish community keeps their table open.  They showed me that it is possible to be authentic to their Jewish identity, threatened as it is, and still extend a risky hand of hospitality to those who do not share that identity.

The Jews of Sarajevo are proof that identity does not have to be a rigid, exclusionary thing; it can be flexible.  And when we choose to be who we really are in all our particularities while simultaneously engaging those unfamiliar others that seem threatening at first, we might be surprised to find that the Kingdom of God is chock full of dark brown eggs.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Nostalgia for a Secular Age

As the choir members empty out into the street, their faces are illumined by the last gentle splash of blue before dusk settles over Sarajevo. I follow the flow of people and sidestep through the door as I try to maintain conversation with a woman named Nada. “Come,” she invites, “I want you to see our home. We’ve lived in the same flat since World War II.”
I’m grateful for the invitation. Nada is a member of Pontanima (Latin: soul bridge), the choir that brought me back to Bosnia. This incredible project was born in the years immediately after the Bosnian War. Its predecessor, a solely Catholic choir, was running low on members when Fra Ivo Marković suggested the members begin invite others to join, regardless of their religious persuasion. Organically, friends invited friends who were desperate to raise their voices in song after living through the hell of war for four terrible years. Along with the new Orthodox and Muslim members came Orthodox and Muslim songs, and soon the Interfaith Choir Pontanima was born.

Now they travel all over the Balkans and all over the world. Their mission: to illumine the capacity of religion to sow the seeds of peace in a land that has seen more than its fair share of religion’s sinister side.

Nada, my host for the evening, is a retired professor of Arabic and a big part of this choir. Not only has she been a member for thirteen years, but her two children and soon-to-be daughter-in-law are also members. She invites me up to meet her husband, Neno, who promptly offers me a glass of šlivojvica, Bosnian plum brandy. Before hoisting our glasses in the air, he procures some appetizers, called mezah, on the kitchen table: “This is so you don’t get too drunk,” he warns with a playful wink.
Nada’s family is an example of Sarajevo’s cosmopolitan and multi-religious history. With ancestors from all four different religious traditions, this multi-ethnic, highly educated and artistically engaged family fits quite well with the Yugoslav ideal.

As up and coming intellectuals in the 1960s, both Nada and Neno were given state sponsorship to take their studies around the world, as far as Tunisia and Scotland. “Everyone had what they needed, everyone had jobs,” they reminisced. “And then there was the war…”

This last phrase, together with a blank stare and a long, deep exhale, punctuates so many of my conversations here.
Between bites of fluffy pita bread called samon, I fill my hosts in on my interest in their interfaith choir and how impressed I am with the idea that religious music can bring people of diverse backgrounds together.
But Nada’s face turned serious.

“This choir is not a new idea,” she contends. I look across the table to see if this sentiment is shared by the others. Her daughter, Maja, speaks up, “No, it’s not at all. We had many incredible university choirs all over Yugoslavia under Tito, and they had people from all ethnicities too.”

This “Tito” is Josip Broz Tito, the Communist leader who ruled Yugoslavia from 1953-1980. Tito’s ideology emphasized his citizens’ common identity as Yugoslavs (Southern Slavs) to the exclusion of the various religious or nationalistic identities of the Balkans.

During the communist period, religion was a private matter; it stayed out of politics. But that did not prevent individual citizens from peacefully engaging the religious other. Though they personally claim no religious tradition, Nada and Neno recalled the joy of breaking the fast of Ramadan with their Muslim neighbors and the countless times they lifted a glass of šlivojvica at baptisms with their Christian friends. Tito’s secularism, his strict divide between public politics and private faith, seemed to be the very thing that made space for the peaceful interaction amongst people of faith.
One thing is for sure – the religious nationalism that spawned the war in 1992 effectively destroyed those spaces for interreligious cooperation. The high-caliber, multi-ethnic university choirs of the Tito era have crumbled and given way to segregated, ethnically monolithic choirs. And in today’s political environment, Pontanima stands as a solitary beacon of pluralism and inter-ethnic cooperation.

Nada’s claim that, “This choir is not a new idea” made me pause and wonder if what appeared to be so original and avant-garde is, in reality, a mimetic expression of Yugo-nostalgia. Did Tito already achieve by secular means what Pontanima is seeking to create by religious means? What difference does it make if the spaces for inter-religious engagement in a society are created by people of faith or state actors?