Serbian tennis champion Novak Djokovic has become a very likely hero in the international movement against Covid-19 vaccinations after his weeks-long battle with Australian officials ahead of the Australian Open. The champion was successfully deported from Australia this week after the Immigration Minister revoked his public interest visa over Djokovic’s refusal to be vaccinated against Covid-19. French officials now say he will be similarly banned from the French Open.
For his part, Djokovic has publicly expressed his distrust of vaccinations since at least April 2020. He is also in the majority in his native Serbia, where less than half of the population has been fully vaccinated against the virus, leading to what the Wall Street Journal rightly called “a hero’s welcome” on his return from his ordeal Down Under, celebrated by both the country’s anti-vax community and a government ostensibly struggling to vaccinate an unwilling nation. And, unsurprisingly, Djokovic had the support of the Serbian Patriarch, the country’s highest-ranking religious official.
For those familiar with the brewing internal conflicts of Orthodox Christianity, the Djokovic saga has taken on an extra dimension: the apparent inability of Orthodoxy’s top officials, who all agree that vaccination should not only be allowed is, but also a moral obligation, to vote anti-vaccination within the church. It is a failure that speaks of a tension very much present in the contemporary Orthodox world, a tension that does not necessarily fall neatly along ethnic lines or political divisions between progressive and conservative (although it often is superficially so).
Rather, this tension is about a fundamental disagreement about how to deal with Western modernity, emerging from a Christian part of the world that has never been fully Western. It is a conflict that also highlights the continuing problem of rogue orthodoxy, who inevitably seem to side with the hardest and most destructive.
To be clear, again, the most eminent bishops of the Orthodox Christian world have universally:—whatever disagreements they have with each other—vaccination against Covid-19 encouraged. The Patriarch of Constantinipole has said it is “absurd” to fear vaccination. Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, the head of the External Relations Department of the Russian Orthodox Church—and one man said he had the ear of the Russian Patriarch Kyrill. had—was even more powerful to say to those who unknowingly caused the death of another by not getting vaccinated, “You will have to pay for the sin you have committed all your life—that you were thinking of yourself and not of anyone else.”
Yet despite these strong words from the men ostensibly in charge, clerics are leading the anti-vax movement in the Orthodox world. In Greece, where the official church has been clamoring for the faithful to be vaccinated, the influential bishop Seraphim of Kythira has been a vocal proponent of the conspiracy theory that “Vaccines are a product of abortions”.”
A similar situation is occurring in Djokovic’s native Serbia. The former Serbian Patriarch, Irenaeus, died in November 2020, before a vaccine was available to the general public, although the late hierarch, in particular, declined to provide guidance around masks and social distancing. His successor, Patriarch Porfiria has called for vaccinations but has stopped condemning those who refuse a vaccine (as his support for Djokovic also indicates) or wear masks during religious services. And it’s easy to find clerics under his jurisdiction openly challenging vaccination. It is no coincidence that Serbia has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Europe.
All of this makes it clear that Novak Djokovic, as unique as he is on the tennis court, is a painfully common type. An arch-conservative Orthodox Christian who likes to ignore the highest hierarchs of the church in favor of more radical church voices when it suits him. And that type, that strange tradition of the Orthodox Church, is a problem for everyone – Orthodox Christian or not.
Because in a world where all kinds of radicalization are becoming more frequent and distrust of institutions is unprecedentedly high, institutional leadership is already disadvantaged. If your particular culture already has a tendency to follow fringe characters from the cliff, the danger is even greater. Novak Djokovic has become an anti-vax folk hero and he has inevitably gotten there through a folk tradition that has created some very idiosyncratic heroes.