Serbia and Kosovo: What Do I know?

On March 3, 2008, this column was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum under the title: “A Californian Preacher Mixed Up in the Balkans.”

“OK, now here’s something you don’t see every day,” I said to myself getting off the city bus, unable and unwilling to curb my curiosity at the sight of thousands of people gathered in front of the United Nation’s complex in Geneva, Switzerland, waving Serbian flags, carrying placards covered with Cyrillic writing, chanting and singing. One guy was walking around with a photo of Vladimir Putin peeking out of his half-zipped jacket. “What a hoot,” I thought.

I was in Geneva for a brief solo spiritual retreat, a few days of prayer and reflection a long way from home. The design of this pilgrimage included reading a selection of Calvin’s sermons at the foot of the pulpit from which they were preached (a theologically onerous task, but from time to time one must face the grumpy grandfather of one’s faith tradition) and saying a few prayers at a pagan shrine that has been discovered and excavated directly beneath said pulpit (a Christian should honor the Divine Mystery shared by all religious people). While in Geneva, I worshiped with the Church of Scotland’s congregation, a faith community that was started by John Knox and is considered to be the very first Presbyterian church. At the chapel of the Ecumenical Centre, I found myself praying alongside Samuel Kobia, the Secretary General of the World Council of Churches.

Stopping to watch a boisterous mob of Balkans beat the drums of war wasn’t on the agenda, but I got off the bus anyway, and even though the next morning’s papers would declare the event peaceful, in that moment I got kind of spooked.

Finding justice in history can be difficult, but there seemed to be no question in the mind of the mob: Kosovo’s bid for independence was an insult to the Serbian nation. When the United States and other western countries recognized the nascent nation state, it wounded the Serbian soul. It was time for action, time to love, honor, and defend the mother land—time, if necessary, for war.

Now, I’ll freely admit that I may be a little bit prejudiced, but there’s something about being in the presence of large, young, Slavic men, all dressed up like skinheads and packing violently anti-American signage that was a little bit unnerving and had me quietly rehearsing my best Canadian accent. Something in the way the crowd kept throwing up a three fingered salute creeped me out. It looked too much like something out of a 1930’s era Leni Riefenstahl film. Then there was the long line of vans filled with riot police, all ready to descend upon the chanting crowd, and, parked in front of the heavily guarded US consulate, there was the armored car topped with a water cannon. I returned to my Calivist/Pagan contemplation in pretty quick order. It seemed safer.

As I walked away from the protest I saw someone who may have been an organic chamomile farmer though he looked an awful lot like your average soccer thug. He was holding a sign condemning Condoleezza Rice (no, really, follow that link when you’re done with this column—it’s hilarious) as a terrorist. It struck me that I’d seen this all before.

This is the rhetorical justification for war in the Bush Era: you wrap yourself in the language of patriotism, you claim to be the victim of terrible injustice, and you call your enemy a terrorist. It doesn’t matter that your flag waving lacks thoughtfulness, and it doesn’t matter that the injuries your nation has sustained are not mortal wounds. It doesn’t even matter that your enemy isn’t a terrorist.

Condi Rice isn’t a terrorist (“she cannot be a terrorist,” my mother pointed out with her tongue firmly in her cheek, “she wears Jimmy Choos.”). Then again, Saddam Hussein wasn’t a terrorist either, and that didn’t keep the American people from singing God Bless America in the seventh inning stretch while bombs fell like the wrath of God upon innocent Iraqi children—all for reasons that have failed to survive even five years of historical scrutiny.

C’est la guerre, I suppose. The Serbs and the Albanians have been bickering over Kosovo since long before Willy Nelson started smoking dope, and, being such old hands at mortal conflict, they don’t need Bushite rhetoric to justify senseless violence.

I just wish they’d learned from our mistakes in Iraq and not from our warmongering wordsmiths and spindoctors.

So. Here are photos I took before I got scared:



Then, I got scared:

And I backed, slowly, away…

I don’t have much of a future in photojournalism!

7 thoughts on “Serbia and Kosovo: What Do I know?

  1. As interesting and thought-provoking as that sight in Geneva must have been for you, I’m really glad you made it back home safely!

  2. Anna,

    Yea. I thought about staying to watch any clash between police and protesters, but I thought better of it. I decided my work in Geneva was about spiritual renewal. Besides, I was scared. I heard sirens all afternoon from where I was staying, but I don’t know if they had anything to do with the protest. If they did, the Swiss press didn’t report it.



  3. Hi Ben,

    Your description of Calvin as a “grumpy grandfather” reminded me of a visit we made in 1967 to the home of John Calvin in Noyon, France. Kent asked the curator why Calvin always looked so unhappy in all of the paintings of him. She smiled and said, “Non jolie, tres sincere”. So, we always thought of him afterwards as very sincere.


  4. Lea,

    Very sincere, but apparently also suffering from migraines and irritable bowl syndrome.

    I read a biography of Calvin in anticipation of this journey, and according to this biographer, almost nothing is known about Calvin’s personal life. He never wrote about himself, and he seldom talked about himself to his friends. The only clues about Calvin as a person that have survived the four and a half centuries since his death are statements made by his detractors who wanted to make him look bad, and letters to his physicians detailing his various ailments. These letters have been read by modern physicians who have made the above diagnosis.

    In Geneva I found a great print of Calvin looking jovial but really unhealthy. I sort of hope that’s more the man he was. Also, on the top of a pillar, directly across the way from Calvin’s pulpit is a bas relief of a mermaid in an erotic–almost pornographic–pose. You’d have to have a sense of humor to preach several times a week with that in the direct line of your vision!


  5. Ben
    It is amazing that an event that may have been a paragraph that you scanned over in the paper suddenly becomes very real when you are there in the moment.
    The Balkan war has many stories that I don’t feel privy to…
    I recently watched “The Secret Lives of Words” produced by Pedro Almodóvar. The film is slow but you discover the protaganist Hanna (Sarah Polley) is a refugee from Serbia. It sheds some light on the horrors of what happened in former Yugoslavia while Europe and the rest of the world did nothing.
    Sadly when the U.S. government(or was that under NATO) did do something much of the damage had been done.
    The Serbs remember how Clinton bombed their capitol over and over until they relented.
    The scars are still fresh but hopefully no new wounds will be inflicted.

  6. Marty,

    Thanks for the post. It’s interesting–my initial plan was to write a piece that was more critical of the Serbian position, but the more I researched the more I felt unable really to take sides beyond what I felt in the moment. For example, if you look in the photos above, you will see a giant chair. One of that chair’s legs is broken, and it is a monument to victims of land mines and unexploded ordinance. Now, I happen to know that Serbia’s contribution to worldwide land mine problem is considerable, and I was going to write about the irony of Serbians protesting under a monument to the victims of land mines. But then I did some further reading on the subject, and I discovered that while Serbians have, indeed made extensive use of land mines over the years, so has the KLA (“Kosovo Liberation Army”, I think), and there also remain huge numbers of unexploded bomblets from NATO cluster bombs throughout Serbia, so in many ways the Serbian people have suffered the ill effects of land mines and unexploded ordinance and they do have a right to protest under the chair, even if ethnic Albanians and Bosnians also have a right to claim the status of land mine victimization.

    It gets dense!


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