Somewhere in my education career, I learned a neat word that describes a somewhat nasty human process. I think I first ran into it during high school history classes when we were looking at the political roots of the first world war. As near as I can remember, many of the smaller middle and central European regions began seeking independence. They wanted to form countries based on specific ethnic groupings. This process was given a name by historians, a name that reflected the geographic location of many of these groups. Since most were located in the Balkan region, the process was called “balkanization”.
The difficulty was that many of these groups defined themselves partly in terms of who they were and partly in terms of who they weren’t–they often wanted it to be clear that they were not part of other groups. In fact, one of the keys to understanding the balkanization process is that the various groups not only wanted freedom for their group but also wanted dominance over the other groups. According to historians, the regional tensions and squabbles among these groups was an underlying cause of the ensuing war.
The word isn’t all that common these days–unfortunately, the process is all too common. We can see the process at work in the classical sense in parts of the world: sections of Africa and even eastern Europe are engaged in movements to become independent of groups they consider less valuable than they are. But we also see the process working itself out in less traditional ways–various political parties are finding ways to appeal to smaller and smaller groups in their attempts to build support. Often, the rhetoric used by these groups includes a great deal of anti-other talk.
Even the church isn’t immune from the balkanization process. In the past, it wasn’t uncommon for various denominations to make sure that its members knew who they weren’t. I know people within my denominational family who know more about the “heresies” of other denominations than they actually know about the doctrine and polity of our particular group.
These days, balkanization is also taking another form. Groups within denominations are claiming to have the real truth about the denominational distinctives–and making it clear that their grasp of the truth makes them better than those who see it somewhat different. Those within my denominational family who use the KJV of the Bible like to make sure that those of us who use more modern translations know we are on the wrong track and might have endangered our place in heaven by losing sight of the “truth”.
The logical extension of this process is the one congregation denomination made up of those who have seen the truth and know that it can only be expressed outside the bounds of denominations. True believers would not be caught dead in a denomination.
Balkanization is a serious danger in many areas–but since I am part of the church and have spent most of my life working in, with and for the church, I have seen and experienced the dangers of balkanization there from a very personal perspective. From my earliest experiences in ministry, I have experienced the problems that come from this process.
During my first year of university, we were required to read the Bible from a relatively new translation, the New English Bible. That requirement caused serious problems for some students, who felt that this was somehow a compromise of the faith–after all, if the KJV was good enough for Paul, it is good enough for us. I later discovered that because I wasn’t pre-(or post- or a-) mil in my theology, I was missing the point and wandering into heretical territory. If I read a prayer during a worship service, I was slipping away from the true faith which was based on free, spontaneous prayer, not the stifling, stilted rote prayers in a book.
Even today, I see and experience the balkanization process as work. I happen to like to old hymns of the faith–but true believers these days need to follow the Spirit through the use of modern choruses, preferably projected on a screen.
It seems that one of the trends of the faith is more and more restricted views of truth, views that focus as much or more on what they aren’t than on what they are. Unfortunately, history has taught us that balkanization never has a positive outcome–and no amount of noise will make it a valuable process.
May the peace of God be with you.