In Greece, national identity has been a hot topic since long before the country declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821, and the Greek Orthodox Church has always been at the center of the discussion. The Church took a leading role in the war of independence, and has considered itself the guardian of Greek identity ever since. Until recently, few Greeks challenged that.
In the last few years, things have gotten a little more complicated. Greece is now part of the European Union (EU); immigration is gradually increasing; Greeks travel abroad and use the Internet; tourism and mass media have exposed almost everyone to foreigners and their ways. For a country that takes great pride in its ethnos (the word means “nation”), the outside world is both a temptation and a threat. Not surprisingly, Greeks are divided on how to move forward.
The Orthodox Church has always been resistant to change – especially change that comes from outside. That resistance has hardened under the leadership of Archbishop Christodoulos, who has been highly vocal in his opposition to the forces of western-led globalization.
The archbishop was particularly visible during a recent controversy over national identity cards. The previous government, which was socialist, wanted to replace the old cards with new ones that would comply with EU standards. That meant, among other things, eliminating any mention of religious affiliation.
Archbishop Christodoulos led the battle against the proposal, ultimately collecting three million signatures out of a total population of just under 11 million. The government prevailed, but the popular view was that the prime minister had caved in to foreign pressure and foreign ideas.
Fr. Nektarios Moulatsiotis, founder of the Free Monks music group (and of the monastery of Saints Augustine and Seraphim Sarof), has made it his mission to keep young Greeks from caving in. He turned to popular culture after working for years in youth recreation programs and summer camps and seeing the power that the media had over teenagers. He hosts regular call-in shows on TV and radio, and publishes two magazines (one for youth, one for adults). Each of these efforts is part of a larger campaign to reach out to the nation’s youth through the mass media.
Christian media (and Christian Rock) may be old news in the US, but in Greece the idea is revolutionary. For generations, the Church has been seen as benign and dignified, appreciated for its stability, its historic importance, and its role in celebrating rituals like baptisms, weddings and funerals. Because nearly all Greeks are born Orthodox (more than 95% of the population is baptized), the Church has seen little need to reach out to youth. The belief has been that if teens need help, they will come and seek it.
Citing new threats to the Greek ethnos, Fr. Nektarios blasts priests for their complacency, accusing them of being more interested in collecting their paychecks (priests and bishops are state employees) than in defending the Church and the nation.
But his message to youth is even stronger. The Free Monks’ songs are not just about the redeeming power of God’s love or the importance of Christian values. Lyrics speak of Satan disguised as western culture, of the brainwashing of Greeks by multinational corporations, of the dangers of electronic surveillance, of a global conspiracy to steal away souls. Whether young people are internalizing the message or not, they are buying the albums. Although the media frenzy has died down since Free Monks’ debut in 2000, the group has remained a fixture on the Greek pop scene.
– Jonathan Miller
Thanks to: Lina Molokotos Liederman, Effie Fokas, Maria Paravantes, Fr. Athinagoras, Matthew Brunwasser, Faidra Papavasiliou.