Novak Djokovic, extraordinary tennis player, ordinary orthodox anti-vaccine
Serbian tennis champion Novak Djokovic has become a perfectly likely hero in the international movement against Covid-19 vaccinations after his week-long battle with Australian officials ahead of the Australian Open. The champion was successfully deported this week from Australia after the immigration minister canceled his visa in the public interest because Djokovic refuses to take a Covid-19 shot. French officials now say he will also be banned from Roland Garros.
For its 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 the population is fully vaccinated against the virus, leading to that the the wall street journal rightly called ‘a hero’s welcome’ on returning from his ordeal Down Under, celebrated by both the country’s anti-vax community and a government seemingly struggling to vaccinate a reluctant nation. And, unsurprisingly, Djokovic enjoyed the support of the Serbian Patriarch, the country’s top religious leader.
For those familiar with the internal strife of Orthodox Christianity, the Djokovic saga has been played out with an added dimension: the apparent incapacity of Orthodoxy’s highest officials, who all agree that vaccination is not only permitted , but a moral obligation, to curb the anti-vaccination voices within the Church. It is a failure that speaks to a very present tension in the contemporary Orthodox world, a tension that does not necessarily fall neatly on ethnic lines or political divisions between progressives and conservatives (although that is often superficially so).
Rather, this tension is about a fundamental disagreement about how to engage with Western modernity, coming from a Christian part of the world that has never been entirely Western. It is a conflict that also highlights Orthodoxy’s continuing problem with rogue holy men, who inevitably seem to side with the most difficult and destructive.
To be clear, again, the senior bishops of the Orthodox Christian world have universally—whatever disagreements they might have with each other—encouraged vaccination against Covid-19. The Patriarch of Constantinipole said it was ‘absurd’ to fear vaccination. Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, head of the Department of External Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church—and a man says he has the ear of Russian patriarch Kyrill—said even more strongly, to those who have unwittingly caused the death of others by not getting vaccinated, “You will have to atone all your life for the sin you have committed—that you are thinking of yourself and not of another person.
Yet despite these strong words from the men ostensibly in charge, clerics lead the anti-vax movement in the Orthodox world. In Greece, where the official Church has been vocal in calling on the faithful to get vaccinated, the influential Bishop Seraphim of Kythera has been a staunch proponent of the conspiracy theory that “vaccines are a product of abortions.”
In Djokovic’s native Serbia, a similar situation exists. The former Serbian patriarch, Irinej, died in November 2020, before a vaccine was available to the general public, although notably the late hierarch backed away from advice about masks and social distancing. His successor, the patriarch Porfirije, called for vaccinations, but refrained from condemning those who refuse a vaccine (as his support for Djokovic also indicates) or from enforcing the wearing of masks during religious services. And it’s easy to find clerics under his jurisdiction who openly challenge vaccination. Serbia, it is no coincidence, has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Europe.
All of this makes it clear that, as unique as he is on the tennis court, Novak Djokovic is a painfully common guy. An arch-conservative Orthodox Christian who is very happy to ignore the higher hierarchies of the Church in favor of more radical clerical voices when it suits him. And this guy, this strange tradition of the Orthodox Church, is a problem for everyone, Orthodox Christian or not.
Because in a world where radicalization of all kinds is increasingly common and where distrust of institutions is at its height, institutional leadership is already disadvantaged. If your particular culture already has a propensity to follow fringe figures from the top of the cliff, then this danger is even greater. Novak Djokovic has become an anti-vax folk hero and he inevitably got there thanks to a folk tradition that has made some very special heroes.