The paradox. I do not believe in god, yet I can never escape him on Πάσχα, Pascha, (Pesach in Jewish), or Easter for the west. The bombing of a Coptic church in Egypt last week on Palm Sunday is one more sectarian atrocity in the Middle East. However, the considered silence from much of the Left in the west, again, as Christians burn in the Middle East angers me. As Samuel Tardos writes in The Atlantic:
“In recent years, Copts, who constitute more than half of all Christians in the
Middle East, have been setting the grisliest of records, with each new attack claiming more victims than the one before.”
ISIS claimed credit for the recent bombings. Following its bombing in December of the Coptic Cathedral complex in Cairo, the group released a message promising “more to come for the “worshipers of the cross,” the group’s name for the Copts.”
The absurdity of the anti-orientalist Right such as Mr Bolt howling against Islam in defence of Christians in the Middle East, is an absurdity only because the Left has sunk into a miasma of identity politics as perceived through Anglo eyes. It is evidence of the malaise and stupidity that postcolonial studies have affected progressives.
In the postcolonial colour-by-numbers hierarchy of oppression that includes an almost eugenic grading of colour, measure of proximity to patriarchy, gender protocols of differentiation, Christianity is just not hip as a badge of oppression. In the postcolonial fantasy Christian means white, it is equated with Western Colonialism, regardless of the fact that Christianity is the second monotheist tradition emanating from Judaism, another ancient Middle Eastern faith.
Jesus by all accounts was a swarthy Jew, spoke Aramaic, and the Copts, a strain of orthodoxy, have been in the middle east, since the ‘son of man’, died at the hands of the Romans, 2000 years ago. Egypt, Syria, Ethiopia, Iraq, Asia Minor, now Turkey, were Christian and not ‘white’, at least 1000yrs before western Christianity and the birth of Islam.
Oriental Christians, Orthodox and Copts, are ignored in the ‘postcolonial dialogue’ where an instinctive idea of Christianity as a handmaiden to Western colonialism takes hold. The Crusaders, Frankish, English, Saxon Christians, killed Middle Eastern Christians, Jews and Muslims, and sacked Constantinople the citadel of Christianity in 1204.
On Saturday night, just before midnight I will again, as an atheist, attend an Orthodox Church for the faith’s most important mass. I like many other Orthodox will arrive just in time, with long candle and foil windbreaker on it, to receive the ‘holy light’, all the way from Jerusalem, or Constantinople, I’m not sure.
At midnight we’ll join voices in a Byzantine chant to sing Christos Anesti, or Christ has risen. There will be complaints from residents about noise, the traffic jams, and the foreignness of it all.
We will try to keep the flame alight all the way home as each person has a flame lit inside the car. For ‘good luck’ I’ll burn a cross on the underside of the doorframe, over a palimpsest of sooty crucifixes from previous years.
Many have fasted for 40 days – no meat, milk, no oil, or eggs – preparing to break their fast after the Christ rises. I do not fast however I do feel a tinge of guilt when I eat meat, so I try not to.
With family and friends, we will sit after midnight to eat avgolemono soup, egg and lemon soup in which we substitute traditional tripe for chicken. We compete at breaking each other’s red dyed eggs, in the blood of Christ, drink wine then eat halva, koulouria and sweet Easter bread.
On Sunday smoke from charcoal spits will climb from across backyards in Melbourne as Greeks feast on Passover’s slaughtered lambs.
Why does an atheist, a rationalist, do this? For tradition, culture and family, also to tear the fabric of contemporary life for a moment in time. It is a beautiful ceremony, mystical, weighty with cantors’ voices, incense, echoes and murmurs, in an ecclesia that has remained unchanged for at least 1500 years. When one enters a Greek Orthodox Church in Melbourne, Athens, a Peloponnesian village, New York City, or Constantinople (Istanbul), and it is the same church as it has been forever. No change.
The fact that places of worship, whatever faith, where people seek contemplation, reflection, a space outside everydayness, a place where they commune, can be a place of destruction is ignoble. I do not care which faith or tradition.
This Pascha I will also reflect on one of the greatest literary works of the 20th Century, Christ Recrucified by Nikos Kazantzakis, written in 1948, a year before the bloody Greek Civil War between communists and royalists ended. Kazantzakis best known in the English speaking world for Zorba the Greek and Last Temptation of Christ, was fascinated with Buddha who taught no fear, Jesus who was ambivalent, Lenin who he saw as a “red Jesus” and Nietzsche who saw humanity at the centre.
Christ Recrucified novel is set is set in a village in the interior of Anatolia, Lykovrissi, or Wolf’s Spring, shortly before the Greeks’ defeat at the hands of the Turks in 1922.
It evokes the author’s experience of growing up in Crete at a time when Greek and Turk, Christian and Muslim, lived together in harmony.
Kazantzakis was born when Crete was still in the Ottoman Empire, (a colonial epoch outside the postcolonial narrative); the nascent Modern Greek state had existed a mere 50 years. A nationalist Greece decided to invade Turkey on an irredentist whim to create a Greater Greece. The Great Idea, as it was called, became the Great Catastrophe, resulting in the burning of Smyrna by the Turks, death marches, mass rapes, starvation and expulsion of 1.2million Greeks from Anatolia, which was to become Modern Turkey. It was the final end to the continuous and ancient relation of Greeks to Asia Minor and Christians to Turkey.
In Christ Recrucified a group of Greek refugees from the war between Greeks and Turks arrive as the people of the village prepare themselves to act as Gospel characters in the village’s Passion play for the following year’s Easter.
Grigoris, the village priest moulds into Caiaphas, representing the power of state and church and denies the refugees shelter for fear of cholera. Instead he sends them and a priest, Fotis, to starve with them on the mountain of Sarakina. Fotis becomes a ‘gunpowder priest’, a radical who builds a guerrilla base of sorts in the mountains along with the refugees who then seek to enter Lykovrissi.
Kazantzakis book echoes the Jews fighting against the Romans, the Communists fighting against the aristocrats, or Greeks against the Turks.
The area’s governor the Turkish Agha, a hedonist with a penchant for boys, becomes Pontius Pilate the Roman. He is absolutely confused by the antics of the Greeks he governs, he cannot understand the enmities between them as they all petition him. At one point he says, “the Greeks would put horseshoes onto fleas”.
Manolios, a poor shepherd becomes Christ and is gradually regarded with suspicion by the village elders, the Pharisees, as a ‘Bolshevik’ in support of Fotis and his refugees. Over the course of the action, Manolios offers his life to save the village from the wrath of the Agha following the murder of his favourite boy, Yousouffaki.
Katerina the prostitute, who plays Mary Magdalene, sacrifices her life instead after claiming responsibility for a crime that she did not commit. Manolios then inspires others to leave their possessions and join him in a life of prayer and seclusion, but the mob, headed by Panayotaros, who plays Judas who is inconsolable over then death of Katerina whom he loved, kills Manolios on Christmas Eve.
The refugees resume their flight, led by Father Fotis, who finally reflects, “When will you be born, my Christ, and not be crucified any more, but live among us for eternity?”
Kazantzakis’ Christ Recrucified reflects his disillusionment with communism as the bodies piled up in the Greek Civil War, 1945-1949. He was appalled by the lies of the church and its collusion with the state, he saw Jesus as very human, full of doubt. Kazantzakis was excommunicated from the Greek Orthodox Church, in the end because of his later book The Last Temptation of Christ, which the Catholics and Orthodox both found “offensive.”
Like Fotis the gunpowder priest, like Kazantzakis I will ask
how many more Jesus should we martyr on a daily basis and where do we situate
them in the hierarchy of oppression?