Freedom or Death: A Pertinent (Existential) Struggle

Αssociated press

(AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)

The entire world has been upended because of the pandemic. Its full-blown impact on the Western hemisphere coincided with the arrival of spring, Greece’s national holiday of March 25th, and the rapidly approaching feast of Pascha. And yet, with every crisis there inherently comes an opportunity. During this year’s Holy and Great Lent, more than perhaps ever before in our lives, we have been given the opportunity to contemplate our “tropos” (mode of existence) in a far more ascetic manner.

As this novel virus runs its course around the globe, an unprecedented number of people were thrust into solitude – some out of an abundance of caution, others under the threat of stiff civil penalties or even detainment. For many, the curbing of civil liberties has been unparalleled – especially during peacetime. And moreover, the power yielded to the government has been handed over voluntarily, without a single shot having to be fired, in the interests of public safety.

As the days pass and the health crisis hopefully subsides, the world will be faced with new challenges. Financial fallout will be severe and global uncertainty will almost certainly abound. We may never know the actual number of cases (likely far higher than reported) or what the actual percentage of severe cases truly is (arguably exponentially lower). We err on the side of caution, prepare for the worse (hope for the best), and remain at the mercy of a fear-mongering news media, with each outlet looking to outdo the other in terms of headlines.

Over the past decade, Greece has seen many a hysterical news report attempt to overturn daily life. It experienced unique privations in 2015, when people waited on endless lines to withdraw 40 euros per day after the imposition of capital controls. Along with the economic crisis, the nation also was forced to handle a major immigration crisis. This situation came to a climax this year, with Turkey stepping up its “hybrid warfare” against Greece and mobilizing myriads of illegal migrants (some openly malicious) at the Greek border, in an attempt to destabilize the government and overrun the country, while extorting Europe for new tranches of billions.

Meanwhile, European solidarity has all but disintegrated. The health crisis exposed the EU’s many weaknesses yet again, and the financial consequences have yet to come to the forefront. Each country must make do for itself, as reports of shipments of desperately needed supplies being held at other member states’ borders increasingly circulate. Moreover, despite valiantly defending its borders at the Evros river, in the midst of a national shelter-in, the Greek Government has quietly transported waves of undocumented migrants inland from the hardest-hit easternmost Aegean islands, raising concerns about new waves coming to take their place and placing a further strain on the over-taxed national infrastructure.

Meanwhile, for Americans, feelings of helplessness reminiscent of 9/11 have put the invincibility the citizens of a global superpower might naturally feel into a new perspective. From an Orthodox Christian worldview, we are called to trust in God and place ourselves in His hands. The words of our national heroes ring even truer today, when fear is widespread. Greece’s emblematic Revolutionary War hero Theodoros Kolokotronis once noted characteristically that “when we decided to start the Revolution, we didn’t consider how many of us there were nor that we don’t have arms, nor that the Turks controlled the garrisons and the cities…but the desire for our freedom showered down like rain, and everyone – our clergy, our elders, the captains, the learned and the merchants, young and old all – agreed on this purpose and started the Revolution.” His sentiments were echoed by General Makriyiannis, who likened the Greeks to leaven, noting that the wild beasts of yesterday and today try to gobble them up, and yet there is always leaven left.

Perhaps true bravery comes from the realization that we are not indestructible or all-powerful. Precisely when our God-given talents and faculties seem most limited, it is trust in Divine Providence that could be said to mark the threshold from an anthropocentric existence to a theocentric one. This seems to be the wellspring of Hellenism’s empirical knowledge of Christ’s words to St. Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”

In this bisected year, as we prepare to once again mark the Lord’s Passion, immersed in our own pandemic passions, let us see whether this empirical knowledge of our weakness may not help us draw empirically closer to the hope and joy of the Resurrection as well.

This ‘stavroanastasimos’ (Cross and Resurrection together) tropos has been experienced by the Church since its inception and is at the center of the Orthodox Christian ethos. It is this ethos that we are called to carry on and include in our tropos, as we struggle to maintain both our civil and existential freedom.

Remembering the battle cry of 1821, when Hellas regained its freedom after so many bleak centuries under the Ottoman yoke, let us, like our forefathers who bore this same ethos, come together, as Greece’s national poet Solomos writes in his Hymn to Liberty (translated by Kipling), and “with impetuous breath, go forth the fight, seeking Freedom or Death.” Our freedom from death, announced on March 25th and confirmed empirically on the feast of Pascha, is chief among these, and it must continue to be the most recognizable trait of our tropos.

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