"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, September 9, 2019

George Demacopoulos on Colonizing Crusaders

I had a very lovely breakfast with George Demacopolous in Romania in January at IOTA and so heard from him directly about his forthcoming book, which has just been published: Colonizing Christianity: Greek and Latin Religious Identity in the Era of the Fourth Crusade (Fordham UP, 2019), 272pp.

Following my usual practice, I e-mailed him some questions about the book. Here are his thoughts.

AD: Tell us a bit about your background

GD: Methodologically, I am trained as a pre-modern historian, but I’ve spent a good deal of time among Religious Studies and Theology faculties so I suppose you could say that my interests lie in applying historical-critical methods to aspects of Church history that continue to resonate with modern believers.  In recent years, I’ve grown more appreciative of certain theoretical resources, such as discourse analysis and postcolonial critique, because I think that they offer fresh ways of interpreting pre-modern texts.

AD: This is a book that tackles three controversial things—the Crusades, colonialism, and competing Christian identities. Tell us a bit about how you came to see the connections between them, and perhaps especially how you found the critical scholarly literature on colonialism and post-colonialism to be helpful. 

GD: It all started when Aristotle Papanikolaou and I began to explore the negative reception of Augustine among modern Orthodox communities.  The more I read the various caricatures of Augustine that prevailed in Russian and Greek writing in the 19th and 20th century, the more it became apparent that there must be a “backstory” to modern Orthodox identity narration that functioned in negative juxtaposition to the West, especially Catholicism and its bogey men—Augustine, Aquinas, etc.

As it happened—and this was about 10 years ago--I was in a faculty “theory” group at Fordham at the same time and we spent a few years reading postcolonial theory.  The more I thought about modern Orthodox identity in light of the stages of colonialism-decolonialism-postcolonialsim, the more I became convinced that there were aspects of the Orthodox story that aligned with phenomena in other cultures and contexts.  While I found the work of many postcolonial theorists (e.g. Said, Bhabha, Young, etc.) to be enlightening and provocative for my thinking about modern Orthodox identity formation vis-à-vis the West, it was also clear to me that there were at least two really important differences from the historical setting that I was pursuing versus the ones that postcolonial theorists typically engage in Africa, India, and the Middle East.

First, whereas their stories typically involved Christianity as an important aspect of the hegemonic colonial force, the Orthodox Christian story is possibly the only one in history where a Christian community is the victim of colonization, rather than the aggressor.  I believe this has some important implications—not only for Orthodox identity but also for the ways in which it complicates our understanding of the relationship between Christianity and colonialism.  Second, unlike the vast majority of the colonial stories that animate postcolonial critics, the Orthodox experience of colonialism occurred in the Middle Ages (not the early modern period).  I’m convinced, in fact, that the Western European experience during the Crusading period served as an important reference point for subsequent colonial enterprises.

AD: Until his death a few years ago, the Cambridge Crusades scholar Jonathan Riley-Smith mentioned more than once his despair that no matter how this history is told, it will always be traduced and tendentiously misrepresented for present political purposes. Did you hesitate at all before wading into the histories of the Crusades? Did you despair at all after having done so?!

GD: Yes, Riley-Smith took the Crusaders at their word that they believed themselves to be doing the work of God, that their conquest of the Near East was an “act of love.”  I don’t think I ever hesitated to pursue this project along the lines Riley-Smith laments.  I suppose if there is one thing that I don’t want readers to do with my work it is to misread my goals for the project. When I draw attention to some of the terrible things that Western Crusaders did and the outlandish ways by which they justified them, I do not do so in order for us to dismiss Western Christianity or because I think that those people represent Western Christendom.

Rather, I draw attention to this history because it helps us to explain the political, cultural, and military context in which Eastern Christians first began to narrate an Orthodox identity that was decidedly framed by juxtaposition against the West.  My theological point of view (such as I have one) is that the breakdown of Christian unity in the thirteenth century has virtually nothing to do with theology—it was entirely born of political and cultural animus. Viewing the breakdown through the lens of a colonial encounter (supplemented by the insights of postcolonial critique) helps us to see this in ways that more traditional historical-critical methods can elide.

AD: You also suggest in your introduction that the Fourth Crusade is especially painful in the East for opening up “permanent fissures within the Orthodox community.” Tell us a bit more about that.

GD: More than anything else, the legacy of the Fourth Crusade is that Eastern Christians have become divided over the proper response to the West.  It was in the context of the Latin empire of Byzantium that some Eastern Christians began to say for the first time that Orthodox could not marry Latins and they could not receive the sacraments from Latins.  It is a common misconception that these things occurred with the Schism in 1054 (they did not).  It was also in the context of the Latin empire that some Eastern Christian began to say that other Eastern Christians who had various levels of association with Westerners could not be permitted to participate in Eastern Christian sacraments because they were tainted by the exposure to Latins.  To be clear, this was not the majority position—it was clearly a minority position—but it gave birth to a trajectory within Orthodoxy that would have profound and long-lasting implications.  In fact, I believe that every modern inner-Orthodox debate either explicitly or implicitly is concerned with the question of Western Christendom and what the proper response to it should be.

AD: Without naming him explicitly, Freud nonetheless seems to me to lurk in the background as you attempt to draw out the connections between sexuality, power, and colonialism. Messis and Said are some of your principal interlocutors here. Tell us a bit about what you found valuable in their works.

GD: Yes, I’ll admit that I was never really that enamored with employing psycho-analytic approaches to historical questions, but these methods are very important to many postcolonial theorists, especially someone like Homi Bhabha.  Moreover, Said and Robert Young are two postcolonial theorists to draw out the sexual dimensions of power relationships as well as issues of longing, fantasy, and repulsion.  I do believe that some of the pro-Crusader texts that I examine in the book give themselves easily to analysis from this perspective, even if I don’t explicitly pursue the psycho-analytic dimensions.

AD: You make it clear that Byzantium in the crusading period should not be regarded as uniformly “subaltern.” Would you elaborate a bit as to why this is an important clarification?

GD: To be “subaltern” is to have no access to power, to have no control whatsoever to one’s own discourse.  At the turn of the thirteenth century, Byzantium was, arguably, the most advanced and culturally sophisticated Christian society in the world.  So while I believe that it is very clear that the process of colonialism-decolonialism-postcolonialism helps us to understand Orthodox Christian history and culture from the Crusades to the present, I do not think that the situation is the identical to other regions of the globe where Western Europeans arrived and completely transformed indigenous societies.

AD: I’m especially struck by your third chapter on papal ambivalence, a phenomenon which is always so psychologically revealing. Here you discuss Pope Innocent III’s “double-bind” with the capture of Constantinople. Tell us a bit more about that bind. It seems clear that part of the bind (then as now) is that by calling Eastern Christians genuine Christians (with “valid orders” as Catholics might say today) in a real sacramental Church the pope appeared to undercut his own claim to being the fount of all validity and liceity in the Church?

The chapter argues that the unexpected capture of Constantinople in 1204 put Pope Innocent III into a rhetorical and practical double bind. On the one hand, the pontiff sternly criticized the crusaders for their brutality against fellow Christians and for compromising the larger military effort in the Holy Land.  On the other hand, Innocent saw the conquest of Constantinople as an opportunity to resolve the schism on his own terms and, at least initially, he hoped that the accrual of Byzantium to the crusaders’ Eastern network might be beneficial to his larger objectives.

But if Innocent was to capitalize on this, it meant that he would need to reformulate the very basis of crusading ideology so as to authorize the subjugation of a community that he had previously defined as Christian. Of course, one of the ways that Innocent does this is by asserting, all the more forcefully, the prerogatives of papal authority.  In the conclusion of the chapter, I assess this dimension of Innocent’s ambivalence and observe that:  “Innocent’s repeated acknowledgement that the Greeks do not accept papal rule exposes the inherent contradiction within the discourse of papal sovereignty.  Indeed, each papal recognition of Greek disobedience reveals a gap in the very premise of papal authority, whether the premise is constituted on the Petrine myth or some other foundation.  The dissonance of papal sovereignty is 'put on trial' by its every iteration."

If the bishop of Rome is truly and authentically the source of all hierarchic power and Christian teaching that its advocates claim it to be, then any acknowledgment from the bishop of Rome that there are “Christians” who do not accept such a principle undercuts all value in the claim of papal authority as a first principle.  In Bhabha’s terms, Innocent’s assertion of papal authority encodes its own inevitable undoing; its very iteration establishes an ambivalent situation that disrupts its claim to monolithic power.  As discourse, the Roman claim of papal sovereignty in the Church bears at one and the same time a striking ambivalence--both possibility and dis-possibility.

Thus, papal discourse vis-à-vis Greek Christians in this period implicitly dictates either (1) that Greeks are not Christians (because they fail to acknowledge papal authority, which is a measurement of authenticity imposed by the discourse) or (2) the recognition of papal authority is not a meaningful measurement or requirement of Christianity (because the discourse admits that no Greek acknowledges papal authority).  Either way, the assertion cannot withstand its own logical weight.

AD: As you are working towards your conclusion, you note that from this literature you review one can find clear evidence that neither Latin nor Greek views of the other were monolithic, and that the boundaries between each sacramental community were “extremely porous.” What lessons, if any, do these insights offer us today?

GD: This is an important question with broad implications.  In general terms, it teaches us is that history, even (if not especially) the history of the Church is far more complex and varied than we typically understand.  More specifically, it encourages us to see that there have always been multiple “authoritative” voices saying a variety of things about the boundaries of the Christian community and the standing of person on that borderland.  There was never a time when these questions were easy and, for me, that is a cause for hope because it means the cause of Christian unity has always been a challenge, even though the Scriptures themselves have made it a mandate.

AD: Having finished the book, what are you at work on now?

My next major project will look at the presentation of violence in late-ancient and medieval Greek hymnography.  What I’m particular interested to explore is the context in which Christians begin to ask God to destroy enemies.  It didn’t start that way.  I have a theory to explain what happened, but you’ll need to wait for the next book.

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