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.

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