George Demacopoulos, Colonizing Christianity, reviewed by Candace LukasikISBN: 978-0823284436
Published by Fordham University Press on March 5, 2019
Language: English
Pages: 272

The Global Orthodoxy conference of early October 2020 convened Eastern and Oriental Orthodox perspectives to think about the impact of community migration on identity formation in the wake of colonialism and communism. During one of the opening sessions, a participant wondered aloud if and how Orthodox Christianity is compatible with modernity, gesturing toward its opposition rather than its reconstitution by modern power structures. Underlying this question is a presupposition of alterity between a traditional Christian East and a modern Christian West. The assumptions of this particular question are what animate George Demacopoulos’ recent thought experiment in Colonizing Christianity: Greek and Latin Religious Identity in the Era of the Fourth Crusade (2019).

One of the central threads of Colonizing Christianity is its attention to the complicated and multiple responses to colonization, in forms of acquiescence, assimilation, and resistance. The diversity of responses to and the remapping of traditions by colonization has often led to intense factionalism, Demacopoulos argues, which exceeds the physical presence of the colonizer and transforms the very foundations of communal identity (73). Thus, Demacopoulos contends that Western colonialization of the East must be understood in the longue durée, whereby the legacy of the sacking of Constantinople continues to ground debate on religious tradition in contemporary Orthodox Christian circles and that colonization opened permanent fissures within Orthodox communities and identity. As Demacopoulos writes, “This internal fracturing has done more lasting damage to the modern Orthodox Church than any material act perpetrated by the crusaders” (1).

Colonizing Christianity is divided into six chapters that explore different angles to this fracturing. From the perspective of literature and culture, Chapters 1 and 2 examine how Frankish authors deployed Orientalizing discourse to authorize the attack of Constantinople, whom Demacopoulos compares to Western European writers of the modern colonial period. Chapter 3, then, addresses how religious institutions justified religious and political subjugation by de-Christianizing the Byzantines. Thinking with the internal effects of colonialism on the Christian East, chapters 4 and 5 examine how the Fourth Crusade fueled internal divisions among Eastern Christians along the lines of whether and to what extent resistance to Frankish rule in the East translated into an exclusion of Latins and Latin-sympathizing Greeks from the Church. The final chapter approaches the colonization of the Christian East by assessing the impact of Frank and Greek relations in the Peloponnese through subtle transformations in identity and ideology after generations of mixed population under Frankish rule (103).

Through these various angles, Demacopoulos seeks to center the Eastern Christian (and in this case Chalcedonian) experience and consider the ways in which it upends postcolonial studies—by thinking about the idea of the colonization of a different form of Christianity by Latin Christendom. Challenging postcolonial theorists like Robert Young, Demacopoulos considers colonization as a pre-modern structure of power through a close analysis of Byzantine Christianity’s colonization by the Franks and Venetians during the Fourth Crusade. Through this perspective, Latin Christians authorized the subjugation of Greek Christians, the establishment of Latin settlement in the Christian East, and resource extraction—both material and religious—from the region (1). By thinking beyond the specificity of later European colonial projects, Demacopoulos implores us to consider the discursive and structural antecedents to modern forms of difference, subjugation, and extraction.

In a similar fashion, an important element in thinking about the contemporary racialization of Muslims is the historical context by which Islam was understood as a theological and civilizational enemy of the Christian West. From a different intercommunal angle, Tomaz Mastnak[1] has argued that the Crusades represented an entirely new strategy of power in Christendom, a means of building new relations among Christians by directing outward a holy war against a contaminating enemy, an unclean race (a very similar formulation among Frankish authors described by Demacopoulos in Chapters 1, 2, and 3). Mastnak and others have pointed to the theological conceptions of race that circulated centuries prior to the emergence of bio-political racism.[2] Comparably, Colonizing Christianity argues that the Fourth Crusade provided the conceptual and practical models for modern European colonial expansion (6). Writers on Latin colonization emphasized the moral and political inferiority of the Greeks, authorizing their dehumanization and subordination in the conquest. At least in the case of French crusader Robert de Clari’s writings, no mention of theological difference pertained to the necessity of the pillage. As Demacopoulos describes in Chapter 1, de Clari’s The Conquest of Constantinople (1205) was dictated in a context by which his audience was already accustomed to thinking of the East (the “Orient”) as an “exotic, rich, and alluring land” (26). Such texts predate by centuries European colonial writers and similar tropes that argued the cultural superiority of the West, which aided in the social transformation of societies of the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa.

Yet, theological difference also factored into the sacking of Constantinople, as well as the specter of Muslim rule. Discussed in Chapter 2, Gunther of Pairis’s Hystoria Constantinopolitana details the pillaging of Greek churches and the stated goals of rescuing Eastern Christians from heresy by uniting them with the Church of Rome, in the hopes of preventing them from an Islamic conquest. In saving Eastern Christians, the Crusaders were not only bringing them under their theo-political sovereignty, but also using them as pawns in a larger battle with the Ayyubid Sultanate (40). They were offering redemption for Eastern Christians, to pledge allegiance to the Holy Catholic Church and Latin Christendom. Western concern for the cultural and theological fate of Eastern Christians resonates within the colonial contexts of the 19th and 20th centuries, and continues today. For while the geopolitical grounds have shifted for understanding this binary opposition between an imagined West and East, these imagined differences matter to the way religious kinship, cultural difference, and civilizational hierarchies are made real in the material consequences of war, pillage, and empire.

Demacopoulos’ conceptual experiment helps us to think more expansively of the idea of colonization as far exceeding its modern European forms, and allows us to sit with the prospect of the longue durée of Orientalist thought. The various texts Demacopoulos analyzes in Colonizing Christianity offer an earlier window onto the discourses of later French and British colonial projects. For example, the British Egyptologist John Ward wrote the following on Coptic Orthodox Christians during the colonization of Egypt: “A people who have undergone persecution for 1500 years may bear traces of a down-trodden state of existence of many centuries in their demeanor of today. Still, they earn our Christian sympathies.”[3] From the 19th century, American missionaries strategized reformation over conversion as a means to extend their influence. Such missionaries repeatedly emphasized that the Coptic Orthodox Church was a dead church—referring to it as “mummified” or “embalmed.”[4] As evidence of its lifelessness they pointed to what they claimed had been its failure to withstand the rise of Islam beginning in the 7th century, its hemorrhaging of Christian believers to the Muslim fold, and its subjection to Muslim tyranny in the centuries that followed. To entice missionaries to Egypt, pamphlets and books depicted Egypt as “a land of darkness in need of the light of truth from missionary activity.”[5]

While Demacopoulos’ text offers important insight into the antecedents of this thinking, it also omits different decolonial perspectives, particularly as it pertains to anti-Chalcedonian (or today known as Oriental Orthodox) Christians. Following the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D., the anti-Chalcedonians in Egypt were disciplined through state-sponsored military intervention to enforce the authority of the pro-Chalcedonian bishops installed in Alexandria. These bishops were backed by imperial legislation that, according to historian Stephen Davis, granted the episcopal office an unprecedented degree of civil authority over Alexandrian economic and political affairs.[6] Davis has argued that the intervention of the imperial, pro-Chalcedonian church functioned as a form of “ecclesiastical colonialism,” whereby the “military, legal, economic, and rhetoric policies of Constantinople and Rome were specifically designed to displace and disenfranchise the Coptic opposition, and to secure a pro-Chalcedonian outpost at Alexandria. And yet, in the modern study of this period, Western ecclesiastical historians—themselves heirs to Chalcedonian tradition—have often unwittingly echoed and perpetuated the colonialist biases of their Roman and Byzantine forebears.”[7] Davis implores scholars to reread this period of history from the perspective of what he describes as the “colonized,” the anti-Chalcedonian church in Egypt, in order to understand how the social and theological identity of the See of Alexandria was conditioned by “imperialist” discourses of power and by the complications of political resistance—whereby resistance entailed both compromise and complicity.

In a more modern context, Chalcedonian perspectives have varyingly influenced the way Western Christians, writers, and colonizers have understood anti-Chalcedonians including and especially Copts and Armenians as “heretical,” which may appear inconsequential as compared to the very real forms of “ecclesiastical colonialism,” as Davis describes, but they have had an overwhelming effect on the way the Oriental Orthodox traditions are debated in the contemporary period. For while Eastern Orthodox, and particularly Greek Orthodox Christians, may continue to hold on to the specter of the Fourth Crusade in theological, ecumenical, and social debate, anti-Chalcedonians in the East and now in diaspora continue to answer to the legacies of the Council of Chalcedon.

Demacopoulos’ captivating text offers a conceptual framework to unpack these various historical contexts through the lens of postcolonial theory, allowing us to see other imperial dynamics of power through a more critical imagination. Colonizing Christianity proposes a useful framework by which ecclesiastical historians, theologians, and Christian leaders can more readily attend to the ways power, and more specifically empire, have impacted Church history and theology, as well as community formation and debate on identity and religious tradition (see Chapters 4, 5, and 6). Importantly, Demacopoulos implores us to reconsider the Christianity of different eras of European colonialism. While the colonization of Eastern Christian traditions rarely factors into such discussions, the continued influence of Western Christendom on Eastern Christians cannot be overlooked. While the material conditions of colonial rule may have ended, its consequences continue to dominate the epistemic horizon of Eastern Christians—where they “must confront what it means to be both ‘Oriental’ and ‘Christian’ in a world that is perceived by them to be increasingly neither” (87). Whether by the legacy of the Fourth Crusade or the remnants of modern colonial rule over Christians from the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa, Western Christendom has profoundly reshaped how Eastern Christians understand what it means to be a Christian (129).

Demacopoulos argues that the Greek and Latin polemics that emerged in the context of the Fourth Crusade reveal more about the political, economic, and cultural transformations of that moment than they speak to theological difference or disputation, which reverberates into discussions of and debate on sacramental unity and division today (2). With new diaspora contexts of ecumenical dialogue, the arguments made by Demacopoulos have far-reaching implications for both historians of Christianity and their arguments on intra-Christian division, as well as on the grounds of dialogue that impact Christian unity today.

Dr. Candace Lukasik
Postdoctoral Research Associate
John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics
Washington University in St. Louis

[1] Tomaz Mastnak, Crusading Peace: Christendom, the Muslim World, and Western Political Order (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).

[2] Keith Feldman and Leerom Medovoi, “Race/Religion/War: An Introduction,” Social Text 129 34.4 (2016): 1–17.

[3] John Ward, “The Native Christians of Egypt,” in Copts under British Rule, ed. Kyriakos Mikhail (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1911), 14.

[4] Heather Sharkey, American Evangelicals in Egypt: Missionary Encounters in an Age of Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 19.

[5] Darlene Brooks Hedstrom, “Treading on Antiquity: Anglo-American Missionaries and the Religious Landscape of Nineteenth-Century Coptic Egypt.” Material Religion 8. 2 (2012): 136.

[6] Stephen Davis, The Early Coptic Papacy: The Egyptian Church and Its Leadership in Late Antiquity (Cairo: AUC Press, 2004), 86. Also see George R. Monks, “The Church of Alexandria and the City’s Economic Life in the Sixth Century,” Speculum 28 (1953), 349–362; J. F. Haldon, Byzantium in the Seventh Century: The Transformation of a Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 283–285, 292.

[7] Davis, The Early Coptic Papacy, 87.