The Serbian tennis champion Novak Djokovic has become a perfectly likely hero in the international movement against Covid-19 vaccinations after his battle with Australian officials ahead of the Australian Open. The all-time great was successfully deported this week after Australia’s immigration minister canceled his visa in the public interest. French officials are now saying that unless he reverses course and gets vaccinated between now and May he will be similarly banned from the French Open.
For his part, Djokovic has publicly expressed distrust of vaccinations since at least April 2020. He’s also comfortably in the majority in his native Serbia, where less than half of the population is fully vaccinated, leading to what the Wall Street Journal calls “a hero’s welcome” upon returning from his ordeal Down Under. Not only was he celebrated by the country’s anti-vaxx community and a government ostensibly struggling to vaccinate a reluctant nation, but Djokovic also enjoyed the support of the Serbian Patriarch, the highest-ranking religious official in the country.
For those familiar with Orthodox Christianity’s brewing internal conflicts, the Djokovic saga has included an extra dimension: The seeming inability of Orthodoxy’s highest-ranking officials—all of whom agree vaccination is not only permissible, but a moral obligation—to rein in anti-vaccination voices within the Church. It’s a failure that speaks to a very present tension in the contemporary Orthodox world, a tension that doesn’t necessarily fall cleanly along ethnic lines or political divisions between progressive and conservative (though it’s often superficially portrayed as such).
Rather, this tension is about a fundamental disagreement over how to engage with Western modernity, arising from a Christian part of the world that has never been wholly Western. It’s a conflict that also highlights Orthodoxy’s ongoing problem with “rogue holy men,” who seem to inevitably take the side of the most difficult and destructive.
Again, to be clear, the Orthodox Christian world’s most senior bishops have universally—whatever other disagreements they might have—encouraged vaccination against Covid-19. The Patriarch of Constantinople has said it is “absurd” to fear vaccination. Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church’s external relations department—and a man said to have the ear of Russian Patriarch Kirill—was even more forceful, saying to those who have unwittingly caused the death of another by failing to be vaccinated, “You’ll have to atone your whole life for the sin you committed—that you thought about yourself and not another person.”
Yet, despite these strong words from the men ostensibly in charge, it is clerics who are leading the anti-vaxx movement in the Orthodox World. In Greece, where the official Church has been vocal in calling 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.”
In Djokovic’s native Serbia a similar situation exists. The former Serbian Patriarch, Irinej, died in November of 2020, before a vaccine was available to the general public—though notably the late hierarch forswore guidance around masks and social distancing. His successor, Patriarch Porfirije, has called for vaccinations, but has stopped short of criticizing those who refuse them (as his support for Djokovic indicates) or of implementing mask-wearing during religious services. And it’s easy to find clerics under his jurisdiction openly challenging vaccination. Serbia, not coincidentally, has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Europe.
All of this makes it clear that however unique he is on the tennis court, Novak Djokovic is a painfully common type. An arch-conservative Orthodox Christian who’s perfectly happy to ignore the Church’s most senior hierarchs in favor of more radical clerical 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 radicalization of all kinds is increasingly common, and distrust for institutions is at an all-time high, institutional leadership is already disadvantaged. If your particular culture already has a propensity to follow fringe figures off the cliff, then that danger is even greater. Novak Djokovic tennis champion has become champion of anti-vaxxers—and he’s inevitably arrived there through a tradition that’s made some very peculiar heroes.