Barbarians and liberators

Archbishop Christodoulos, for all his persecution complexes and narcissism, must be a very happy man. Surely few other people on this planet can be as self-assured as he is and as confident that they have a monopoly on what is good and right. Unfortunately, there are plenty of precedents of such zealots and they have inevitably led their followers to destruction. And, in the security of their own virtue, they have managed to make the world a darker place – by their need to demonize their enemies so as to establish their own position. As the Biblical historian Elaine Pagels argues in «The Origin of Satan,» the rather abstract idea of an «opposing angel» which appeared in the Old Testament had evolved into the Devil we know by the time the young Christian movement needed to distinguish itself from other Jews, from Pagans and even from other Christians with «heretic» ideas. Christodoulos, in declaring that the Turks are «barbarians» who have no place in Europe, is expressing the double prejudice of the Christian fundamentalist and the Greek nationalist that has been his trademark since his election as head of the Church of Greece in April 1998. Unfortunately, this attitude has become so integral to the way that he functions that everyone whom Christodoulos now considers a rival, even if this is a fellow Orthodox cleric, is tarred with the same brush. Few reporters failed to note that the archbishop’s anathema against the Turks came the day after Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios threw back at Christodoulos the archbishop’s efforts to exclude the Patriarchate from the election of bishops in sees that became part of Greece after the Balkan Wars. Vartholomaios is, of necessity, a Turkish citizen and Christodoulos was quick to send him his condolences when Turks were killed in the recent terrorist attacks in Istanbul, in a ham-handed effort to accentuate Vartholomaios’s «Turkishness.» Now, all Turks are «barbarians» because of cruel executions carried out against Saint Serapheim and the war of independence hero, Athanassios Diakos, both of whom were impaled. Impaling was a favored and cruel punishment of the Turks, but this same excruciating method of execution was used to perhaps greatest effect by the great 15th century Romanian warrior Vlad the Impaler, who is believed to be the historical inspiration for Dracula. He impaled tens of thousands of Turks but that has not inspired Christodoulos to proclaim that the Romanians are barbarians and should not be allowed into the European Union. Perhaps he thinks Vlad did the world a service, or was he perhaps won over by the Romanians’ endearing trait of referring to him as a «patriarch»? In any case, at an official dinner hosted in his honor in Bucharest by Patriarch Theoktistos last June, Christodoulos spoke of the strong bonds linking the Greek and Romanian people and their two churches and called on them to walk hand-in-hand into the new, united Europe. And what of Basil the Bulgar Slayer? This long-serving Byzantine emperor is perhaps best known for rounding off his victory at Kleidion on the Struma River in 1014 by blinding some 14,000 prisoners, leaving only one out of every hundred to lead the rest home. History is full of barbaric acts, by perhaps all peoples. It is striking that in the introduction to his memoirs of the War of Independence, one of Greece’s indisputable heroes, General Makryiannis, writes about the depredations of his fellow warriors and adds with great relief, regarding himself and his troops, «Blessed be the name of God, for not allowing us to be tainted.» Repeatedly, he proclaims that Greek atrocities (often against Greeks) were worse than those of the Turks and he often voices respect for his enemies. And have we forgotten the civil war that ended just over 50 years ago, or the cruelty Greek jailers showed their Greek prisoners during the dictatorship of 1967-74? So if it is not cruelty that defines barbarism, what is it? Is it the fact that Turks belong to another faith or that they once dominated the Greek world? Seeing as the latter situation ended a long time ago, that means that Christodoulos is mainly concerned with the difference in religion. This is strange because when Constantinople was about to fall to the Turks in 1453 it was Christodoulos’s spiritual brothers who believed that it was better to be conquered by the Muslim Turks than submit to Rome. And, for all their cruelty, the Turks did tolerate religious differences – albeit as the basis for dominating and administering their multicultural empire. It would seem, then, that Christodoulos’s fire and brimstone is aimed not at cruelty or intolerance but rather at a convenient target. In this way, he embarrasses both Vartholomaios and the Greek government because they are devoted to improving Greek-Turkish relations and are in favor of Turkey’s meeting the necessary criteria to join the European Union. But – and this is probably the key to Christodoulos’s behavior – he also manages to exploit the bigotry that runs like such a strong river through Greek society. Whereas at other times he may rant against the European Union and its directives, describing it almost as a foreign occupation of Greece, in this case he uses the EU as a weapon to strike at the Turks. In every case, he abuses his indisputable charisma and populist power not to improve the Greeks but rather to ride their weaknesses to reach his own ends. And as he does this, with the prominence of his position in Greek society, he reinforces prejudices and misconceptions. To be fair, Christodoulos has, at times, spoken in favor of immigrants but he has hardly put himself at the forefront of the battle against racism and anti-Semitism. A perfect populist, he rides the wave, he does not fight it. On Thursday he also attacked what he called «diplomacy» and those who, he claimed, do not know history. This is always the bigots’ excuse. In their need to demonize «the other» in order to define themselves, they do not want to encourage developments that will make differences irrelevant, and always find incidents in history to reinforce their prejudices. But it is perhaps precisely those who do not know history who come to easy judgments such as those of our archbishop. History is so much more complicated, and the currents of social development and intellectual honesty are so different within societies that very often people of different nations and religions may find more in common with each other than with their own compatriots or members of the same religion. That is when they think about things rather than act like sheep. It is strange that a man as sophisticated as Christodoulos, with his superb command of rhetoric and the media – and whose tenure is for life – should feel so insecure as to need to treat his flock as a bunch of sheep that need to be afraid of real or imaginary wolves in order to stay in the fold. In doing this he does nothing to make the Church more relevant to the lives of the Greeks. Instead, he needs to keep it stuck in the past – a past that is imaginary, that does not see the nuances of real life, the complications of every event and the difficulty of every decision. Aside from the shame that his vilification of a whole people makes us feel, there is also some consolation in the way Christodoulos has managed to keep the Church from becoming more relevant to our lives. Because, throughout their long history, the Greeks have often managed to do great things by combining a sense of awe of the divine with a healthy skepticism of priestly castes. As he paints everything black in an orgy of self-congratulation, Christodoulos will force more and more of us to choose whether to mill about in the comfort of his dark imaginings or whether, like Makriyiannis, to fight for our place in the world in the hard light of knowledge of our own strengths and