Saturday, December 15, 2007

"The Bridge Betrayed" by Michael Sells [4]


The Christ-Prince Lazar

Sells discusses the centrality of the Good Friday story to Christianity, and then describes the long-standing tradition of Passion Plays, which bring the suffering of Jesus alive to his believers and which serve to break down the temporal barriers between the audience and the events being enacted. The strong emotions evoked were often directed at the actors portraying Jesus' betrayers, and these passions have often been harnessed for both good and evil throughout history. All too often, those passions have been directed at Jews, who were blamed by the masses and the Church in Medieval times for killing Christ.

Serb nationalism, as Sells then notes, is built on a mythology which portrays Slavic Muslims as Christ killers. Considering that Islam was founded a good six centuries after the Crucifixion, how is this possible? The answer is in the myth of Prince Lazar, the Christ-King of medieval Serbia.

I will assume that any reader of this blog knows the story of the Battle of Kosovo and the attendant mythology. At this point, it becomes even clearer that Sells is well-attuned to the real issue--rather than spend time on the actual historical record (such as it exists) or attempting to create a believable, fact-based account, Sells realizes that the crux of the matter lies in more recent history. Specifically, in 19th Century Serbian nationalism and the mythology created to support it. As he writes:

"During the nineteenth century, Serbian nationalist writers transformed Lazar into an explicit Christ figure, surrounded by a group of disciples, partaking of a Last Supper, and betrayed by a Judas. Lazar's death represents the death of the Serb nation, which will not be resurrected until Lazar is raised from the dead and the descendants of Lazar's killers are purged from the Serbian people. In this story, the Ottoman Turks play the role of the Christ killers. Vuk Brankovic, the Serb who betrays the battle plans to the Ottoman army, becomes the Christ killer within. In the nationalist myth, Vuk Brankovic represents the Slavs who converted to Islam under the Ottomans and any Serb who would live with them or tolerate them."


I will leave off here and pick up my review of this chapter in the next post. As an aside, I will note--and I very much doubt that this insight is original to me--that one problem of the former Yugoslavia is that the different national groups suffer from very bad history. All too often, observers glibly note the historical baggage and grievances in the Balkans, without going on to acknowledge that more often than not the "history" under which the people of that region labor is heavy on myth and light on objective, rational, fact-based analysis. As a personal anecdote, I have spent quite a bit of time in Bulgaria, where people--including academics, historians, and politicians--routinely talk about the Ottoman or Turkish "yoke," meaning the centuries of Ottoman rule. It is clear to an outsider that this characterization represents 19th century nationalism more than actual historical experience; yet this is the "history" which young Bulgarians are still raised on. The nearly-forgotten Bulgarian campaign against its ethnic Turkish minority in the early 1980s was a precursor of the much bloodier breakup of Yugoslavia less than a decade later, and was a product of the same type of mystic, paranoid, racist "history" which fuels contemporary Serb nationalist determination to avenge imagined medieval atrocities.

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