Monday, December 10, 2007

One Nation, under God

“The West will be grateful to us some day

because we decided to defend Christian values and culture.”

--Radovan Karadzic *

Talking with friends the other day, I heard that in Zagreb there’s a giant advent wreath with lit candles around a public fountain. I commented that this kind of religious gesture, in a public setting (and not merely a corporate one, like the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree) would be considered problematic in America. Not because it’s a fire hazard (my friends’ initial assumption), but because it privileges one group and set of beliefs over another. (Not that we don’t still have nativity scenes in front of city halls, but at least it’s controversial.)

With a friend, I stopped by the art class of an elementary school on the west (Croat) side of Mostar. The assignment of the week was the nativity scene; every student in the class had created a paper mosaic of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus. Other examples of student work hung on the walls—Jesus on the cross, Jesus’ head with thorns, another Jesus on the cross. There was also a framed photo of the pope on the wall. This is a public elementary school.

Across the street from the elementary school is an Ultras-affiliated sports bar. (The Zrinskji Ultras are the nationalist/fascist Croat football team in Mostar.) Graffiti on walls around the school include slogans like “Ultras 94”, a “U” with a cross over it, and a circle with a cross through it.

On the large hill behind the school is a big white cross, visible from all over the city, especially at night when it is lit up. It’s a great landmark, especially at night if you need to find your way home. It was also built, post-war, on the same spot where (ethnically Catholic) Croat forces bombed the (majority ethnically Muslim) east side of the city, resulting in devastating destruction, much of it still not repaired.

Mostar has religious freedom that people in China can only dream of. In contrast to evangelical “English teachers” in China, with their self-censored emails and tapped phones, I know half a dozen internationals that teach English classes but are officially here on missionary visas. Unlike the ghettoized international churches of Beijing and Shanghai, here locals and internationals worship together with complete freedom. In China last year, I couldn't even access blogspot.

“You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature, rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you keep biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” (Galatians 5:13-15)

* Karadzic is one of the most wanted war criminals in Bosnia-Hercegovina. Personal interview, 1993. [Qtd. Jonathan Eastvold’s Princeton politics PhD dissertation, “God, the State and War: Towards a Containment Strategy for Religious Militancy” p. 91]