Georgia, South Ossetia, ethnic conflict and Jesus

According to Wikipedia,

South Ossetians nearly unanimously approved a referendum on November 12, 2006 opting for independence from Georgia. The referendum was hugely popular, winning between 98 and 99 percent of the ballots, flag waving and celebration marked were seen across South Ossetia, but elsewhere observers were less enthusiastic. International critics claimed that the move could worsen regional tensions, and the Tblisi government thoroughly discounted the results.

Neither the government of the United States nor the EU accept that 2006 vote as legitimate.  Nonetheless, the region of South Ossetia is called a “break away” region because a substantial number of its inhabitants want to be free of Georgian state control.

People (we) want to govern themselves.  We do not want “them” to rule “us.”  It’s true for Coats and Serbs, it’s true for Hutu and Tootsie, it’s true for Kurds, Kosovars – everybody.

So the most important question is who is “them”?  This is solved by defining “us.”

All over the world “us” is defined by ethnicity.  Ethnic Ossetians want to govern themselves, and they do not want to be governed by ethnic Georgians – or Russians or Ottomans or anybody else.  They want what everybody wants.

Sometimes ethnicity is too blunt, and so the division needs to be cut by a finer blade: religion is often at hand to be the instrument.  Sunni and Shi’a are both Arabs, but “need” to distinguish themselves, so religion – down to the level of sect-of-the-same-religion helps.  It helped Serbs (Orthodox Christians) and Croats (Roman Catholic Christians) where ethnic differences between Serbs and Croats are not visible to the naked eye.

Ossetians know who they are; they have defined “us”.  They have their own language, their own alphabet, and a long history of fighting for independence.

Ethnic boundaries are frequently in conflict with national boundaries; ask the Hungarians who, after Trianon in 1919 found themselves in Romania.  Ask the Serbs, Croats, Solvenes (and more Hungarians)  and others who were collectively tied together in Yugoslavia.

But the modern nation state of Georgia, now free of the Soviet Union, wants the territory of the South Ossetians (currently inside the borders of Georgia) to  be and stay part of Georgia.  Regardless of the reasons (oil piplines for example) the conflict is about who gets to call it their own.

The Georgians look at South Ossetia and see that almost a third (28%) of it’s population is actually ethnically Georgian.  Some say the number is as high as 35% – but it is complicated.  The Russians, over the course of decades, moved a number of Russians into the region – and many now identify as Ossetians; should they be counted?

Anyway,  the population is now mixed.  It’s mixed down to the village level – just like Bosnia where a Serb village is just over the hill from a Bosnian-Muslim village (like Srebrenica – hence, the target of “ethnic cleansing”).

So what everybody wants  – to rule “themselves” becomes impossible in practice – unless we go back to city states (village states?) like ancient Greece.  Too many eggs have been scrambled, too many populations have been shoved around over time; the cry of nationalists (foreigners go home) is an impossible wish (home?).

So what about Jesus on this issue?

Ethnicity and boundary markers like religion were a huge part of Jesus’ agenda.  He wanted the “us” definition for the “people of God” to no longer include ethnicity.  He intentionally journeyed into non-Jewish territory, engaged ethnically non-Jews, and commended them for their faith.   That’s what is going on in the setting of the text this week in Matthew 15.  Jesus, in the region of Tyre and Sidon, engages a local woman, specifically identified by her non-Jewish ethnicity, a “Canaanite” in repartee, allows himself to be bested by her, and grants her wish to have her daughter healed.

Jesus’ location and action were “in your face” to people with the purity-agenda (which of course included ethnic purity).  Collectively represented as the “Scribes and Pharisees” these spokespersons for the “tradition of the elders” (Matt 15:2) are the subject of Jesus’ de-construction.  N.T. Wright is particularly good on this issue (Jesus and the Victory of God, pp. 195-197, 309 & ff).  Though Jesus understood the unique place of Israel in God’s plan to bless all the nations of the earth (chronologically first), he anticipated the spread of the ethnically-open-ended Kingdom of God (or Heaven) to the world.  The Canaanite lady was one of the first, though not the only nor the last non-Jew to experience the blessings of the coming kingdom.

So what do we do with this vis a vis South Ossetia and Georgia?  Well, for me, it starts like every moral question: with the ideal end.  Just as all moral standards represent an ideal of perfection (do not kill, do not steal) which are often broken in practice, nevertheless, the ideal is the goal; the vision.

So for me, the vision is of a world in which people may know themselves as “us” defined by some handy criteria (ethnicity), but do not use that criteria in a way that excludes or dominates others.  That’s the vision.

Therefore, the first project is always peaceful settlement, not automatic acceptance of either separatist movements (the South Ossetian’s agenda) nor of naton-state control-claims (Georgia’s agenda).  Rather, the first project should be to find a way in which the legitimate interests of the South Ossetians can be protected without the need for ethnic-based conflict and the enormous loss of life and population-dislocation that always follows, and the genocide that often does as well.  That’s how I read Jesus.


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