Iphigenia, Jonah and the sacrifice of Greece

So many foreign politicians, economists and commentators have raised the issue of Greece’s possible exit from the eurozone (perhaps even from the EU as well) that it now hangs over every discussion on our country’s future. This week’s talks between Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande and Eurogroup chairman Jean-Claude Juencker will be no exception, even if there is no direct mention of Greece’s ?sacrifice.? It is worth looking at how each side understands the issue and its possible consequences.

It is clear that, as in so many other issues, we Greeks and the ?harder? of our creditors (especially some German politicians and economists), look at each other across a cultural divide. Greeks speak of the ?sacrifice of Iphigenia?, an act that will allow their partners to sail away in pursuit of their own interests, building their future on a gross injustice. Our partners, however, appear to see Greece the way the crew and fellow passengers of the sinking ship saw Jonah: judging him to be the cause of all their troubles, they threw him overboard in order to save themselves from a terrible storm.

We Greeks have a tendency to dwell on the tragic dimension of events within a framework of static characters and behavior. The issue of sacrifice is seen as the slaughter of an innocent victim in the interests of others: the victim plays no role and has no responsibility beyond that of being a victim. Our Calvinist partners, however, look at the collective effort as the sum of each member’s active contribution: roles are not predetermined, as they are in tragedy, but are evaluated on the basis of each one’s contribution. In the Greek world, the victim is defined as someone who for some reason, beyond his or her own responsibility, is destroyed so as to serve the dark interests of others; for our ?pragmatist? partners, each is judged on the basis of his contribution to the interests of the whole.

But what is the result of the sacrifice of Iphigenia and of Jonah, and what will follow the possible ejection of Greece from the euro and any other European institution? Iphigenia’s sacrifice to Artemis, carried out so that the army of Greek tribes could sail for Troy, became the symbol of injustice and of the selfish needs of the many: it stained with innnocent blood the campaign against Troy and condemned to death its leader (Agamemnon, Iphigenia’s father) on his return home. Jonah’s adventure, which includes his being swallowed by a giant fish and then being vomited out on land so as to carry out the divine mission that he had tried to shirk, symbolizes the omnipotence of God (the God of the Jews, Christians and Muslims) and the inability of man to avoid His will.

There are two versions of Iphigenia’s end ? one that she was slaughtered on the altar, the other that, by divine intervention, she was spirited to a foreign land with barbarous rituals. Both reflect, more or less, what we fear will follow our ejection from the eurozone. Unfortunately for us Greeks, Jonah’s tale justifies those who threw him off the ship: suddenly the sea calmed, the crew and other passengers were saved and, in the end, God kept Jonah alive to serve Him. Maybe this is the reasoning of those who say they are not worried by Greece’s leaving the eurozone ? that evicting Greece will end the continent-wide storm and all will be well.

Myths affect our conceptions and oversimplifying things often helps us to see the basics of complicated, contemporary problems – as long as we keep in mind the differences with reality. Today we must all consider the real cost of Greece’s possible exit from the eurozone ? both for Greece and for our creditors. As long as we lament the fact that we are victims ? new versions of Iphigenia ? we will not shoulder the weight of responsibility for avoiding our sacrifice. Those who dream of ?casting Greece into the sea? must understand that they are not following some divine plan and that the crisis will not suddenly end: most likely, all that they will achieve is to tell the world that on this ship people are being sacrificed. Many monsters will gather, not so that a micromanaging God can bring to heel his renegade prophet, but so that they can feed on other passengers and crew ? devouring them one by one one until no one is left to save the ship.

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