The Greek Identity Crisis: Christian Orthodox and Hellenic

hspace=3In the minds of those who happened to be students at the University of Athens in the turbulent mid 1960*#8217;s, two events remain indelibly marked. First came the elation generated by the Democratic Educational Reform of 1964. George Papandreou, the Elder, introduced the reform with help from an enlightened man, Evangelos Papanoutsos. Then, suddenly, came the crashing down of its great promise, wrought by the brutality of the Dictatorship of 1967.

During the dark days of the long-lasting dictatorship, humor helped most Greeks keep their sanity and go on with their lives *#8211; under the watchful eye of the dictators. One of the jokes, widely circulating among the students at the University of Athens those days, had originated from the wittiness of the Geros (as Papandreou was affectionately known back then).

When the imprisoned Prime Minister of Greece heard that the Colonels had chosen the infamous, Hellas Hellenon Christianon (Greece of Greek Christians), as their revolutionary rallying cry, he allegedly completed the phrase by adding Catholikos Diamartyromenon. In other words, he agreed with the dictators that there was indeed a Greece of Christian Hellenes, but in Catholic Protest against their dictatorship. This was probably accurate at that time. It was proven true, tragically, by the heroic uprising of the students at the Polytechnic School of Athens in 1973. All that is now tragicomic history.

But the question as to what constitutes Hellenism or Greekness, and what are, or should be, the characteristics of a genuinely Greek or Hellenic identity, is still a serious question. In fact, it is a perennial problem which has troubled thinking Greeks or Romioi, Hellenes and Phil-Hellenes (Orthodox, Christian and non-Christian) alike for a long time, in the millennial history of Hellas. So it is paradoxical that this problem is voiced and faced in the recent past only by the head of the Orthodox Church of Greece. It deserves greater attention.

The historical roots of the problem of Greek Identity in Crisis are deep. They reach down to Hellenistic and Greco-Roman times, and seem to be linked with the initial failure of a Judaic preacher. When Saul (who became known later as Saint Paul) failed in his attempt to evangelize and convert his fellow Jews to his version of messianic Christianity, he decided to become an apostate from traditional Judaism. So he abandoned the Jews to become the Apostle of the Gentiles (i.e., the non-Jews, but basically the Greeks and Greco-Romans of the semi-Hellenized eastern part of the Roman Empire). To be more effective and more efficient in his missionary task, Paul shrewdly decided to use in his preaching and, in his Epistles, the lingua franca of that time, the Hellenistic common language (koine). Surprisingly, he succeeded greatly.

Thus, the first serious Greek Identity Crisis emerged. The Greco-Romans faced a dilemma then. They could have chosen to remain faithful to their ancestral gods, and to keep (the intellectual dominion of) the condominium of the Roman Empire. But they opted to embrace Paul*#8217;s new, strangely messianic, and fanatical faith in a Jewish God, who became Man to save mankind. Using that as a tool, they tried and, paradoxically, again succeeded to take over the entire eastern part of the Christianized Roman Empire. The new marriage between Roman Imperial Power and Christian Missionary Faith lasted for a millennium.

Since Egyptians, Syrians, Anatolians and other semi-Hellenized peoples of the Roman Empire decided to play the same game with the new saving faith, the need for orthodoxy (a true saving faith) emerged. The struggle of the Byzantine Greeks (Greco-Romans, or Romioi) and the various heresies of heretical sects were bloody, and lasted for centuries. It ended with the loss of all Hellenistic centers of culture in the Middle East, North Africa and, lastly, in Anatolia to Islam. This newest saving faith was more militant and fanatical since, for Muslims, the meaning of martyrdom changed from passive to active, and became more deadly. In place of the Christian, Agha (high-ranking Turkish official), cut my head so that I may become a Saint, the true believers in Allah substituted the more vigorous, I will cut your heads, infidels, before I die as a martyr.

Be that as it may, after the capture of Constantinople by the Crusaders (in 1204), and before its capture by the Turks (in 1453), the Byzantine Greeks faced the Second Identity Crisis.

Having to choose between the two evils, the Turkish turban or the Latin tiara, they sensibly opted for the first, which to them meant that they would not lose their Orthodox faith together with their political power. Thus, after the capture of Constantinople by the Turks, the remnants of Greek Orthodox Byzantium settled down for a long and dark period of slavish, but lavish, existence under the Turkish rule. This situation also could be seen as a kind of Greco-Turkish condominium, for the Phanariotes provided diplomatic services to the sultans and controlled the Patriarchate which, in turn, controlled the Christian Orthodox Community of the Ottoman Empire.

However, since the final Schism of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches in 1054, Byzantine Orthodoxy had also cut off any ecclesiastical ties and communication with the schismatic Latin West. Thus protected by the Turkish sultans, Orthodox Christianity was destined to miss both the glory of the Italian Renaissance and the fury of the Protestant Reformation. In a sense, it still lives in the dark Middle Ages. In the post-modern era, Hellenism can expect little or nothing from that direction. The Phanar has had its own agenda. It looks like a black hole, in which much of the communal resources of the Hellenic Diaspora are thrown in, but nothing comes out of it.

Finally, in the 19th Century, with the heroic efforts of Greek revolutionaries like Karaiskakis and Makrygiannis; the help of Phil-Hellenes, in Europe and America; and the enlightening writings and poems of Regas, Koraes, Solomos and many others, a small part of Greece was liberated from the Turks. Since then, Free Greece has tried desperately, but rather comically, to reconnect alternatively with the glories of Classical Hellas and with the greatness of Orthodox Byzantium. Venizelos*#8217; political genius brought tiny Greece to the realization of Megali Idea, but at the same time opened a door to the great tragedy of 1922.

The Third Identity Crisis was not felt then, but was apparently caused by Greece*#8217;s recent entrance into the European Union. The EU*#8217;s pronounced secularism makes the ecclesiastical establishment in Greece nervous. They fear that they will loose some of the privileges, which close association with the modern Greek State has afforded them for so long. They also seem to fear that the separation of Church and State, as envisioned in the new constitution of the EU, may encourage some politically-minded Greeks to think freely and try to reconnect with Classical Hellas (especially after the spectacular success of the Olympiad Athens 2004).

Historically, these two main cultural forces (Classical Hellas and Orthodox Byzantium) have shaped the Hellenic and the Greek Orthodox identity. In fact, both were conspicuously on display last summer in Greece and the Greek Diaspora. As Greece was preparing with fervor for the Olympic Games, one of the brightest achievements of the Hellenic Spirit, the country was artfully divided in a devious, Byzantine-like (some would say, shameful) way by the two prominent heads of Greek Orthodoxy today, the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and New Rome. There is no need to go into the issue of their differences for the time being, because it stinks and is settled (for now).

So, to conclude these timely and disturbing thoughts, who are the Greeks and what is, or should be, their identity? This is a difficult and painful question for those who are familiar with Historical Hellenism. In a serious manner, though, one may say that the Greeks in Greece and the Hellenic Diaspora are still blessed. A long and glorious history, a truly immortal language and a pervasive paideia (whether Classical Hellenic or Orthodox Byzantine or Agonistic Modern) afford them the luxury to choose their identity, and to act.

What they seem to lack presently is sincerity and concerted, purposeful political action. With time and some good luck, (or blessing from Athena, Goddess of Hellenic wisdom and foresight), even that may be corrected. For Greeks have shown during the past millennia that they do possess an indomitable spirit and the Hellenic daimonion (creative genius marked by cleverness, adaptability and originality), as exemplified by heroic Odysseus, Aristotle, Photios and Macrygiannis.

Dr. Evangeliou, is Professor of Hellenic Philosophy at Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland and author of several books, including Hellenic Philosophy: Between Europe, Asia and Africa.