Essay / Misc.

Archbishop Demetrios on Obama as Alexander the Great

March 25 is a significant day for many Greek Orthodox Christians, since on this date two big events are remembered, one which has universal significance for all of Christendom, and the other which more specifically has an impact on the Greek nation and people. On March 25, all of Christendom, East and West, commemorates the “acceptable year of the Lord,” when the ancient curse was overturned as an archangel appeared to a teenage girl two-thousand years ago in Nazareth with news of God’s plan for his people, and her role in it. To this news, she responded Ecce ancilla Domini; fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum! (Luke 1:38) Nothing has been quite the same ever since.

For the Greek people, it is also on this day when, on March 25, 1821, Archbishop Germanos of Patras declared independence from the Ottomam yoke at the monastery of Agia Lavra. The struggle for independence went on until 1829, when the Sublime Porte was pressured by Russia into signing the Treaty of London, granting independence to Greece. A young English poet by the name of Lord Byron was inspired to travel and take part in the struggle for independence. His poem, The Isles of Greece, evokes all the bacchic energies of ancient Greece, perhaps true to the spirit of a romantic English poet and gentleman. He died of a severe fever in 1824 before he and the Greek patriot, Alexandros Mavrokordatos, could set sail to Lepanto and mount an offensive against a major Turkish fortress.

It was on the occasion of the 177th anniversary of Greek independence (March 25, 2009) that the White House hosted a celebration for Greek-American politicians and business leaders. His Grace, Archbishop Demetrios, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America, was one of the honored guests. This was not remarkable in and of itself, since the presence of the chief hierarch would be expected in such an occasion of national and cultural importance in the lives of Greek-Americans. The truly remarkable, and I daresay disturbing, thing about this is what His Grace said. He compared the President favorably to Alexander the Great, commenting on the international challenges President Obama would have to face, saying, “Following the brilliant example of Alexander the Great…you will be able to cut the Gordian knot of these unresolved issues.”

Never mind previous associations by a fawning media with messianic images: Jesus, Moses, etc. Never mind the already excessive list of honors (including an honorary doctorate from a leading Catholic university) for a sitting president who’s only been on the job three months. Now the good Archbishop adds yet another one, which the President should take as a double entendre: association with an empire builder and conqueror, who cut the “Gordian knot” of difficulty in dealing with a complex world filled with disparate cultures and kingdoms simply by conquering and Hellenizing it. Is this what the good Archbishop meant by cutting “the Gordian knott of these unresolved issues”?

I doubt His Grace was calling on President Obama to take on the task of empire building, but turning Alexander’s accomplishments into virtues, and recommending the President to follow this “brilliant example,” just tips the scales of absurdity. Alexander, of course, was a brilliant student of Aristotle, who had been taught by Plato, who in turn was taught by Socrates. What did Alexander do with this patrimony? He conquered the world with the sword. A megalomaniac with a good education who uses the best education to subdue and enslave. Yes, by Hellenizing the world he paves the way for the Gospel, but do we have to turn such conquest into a virtue?

His Grace belongs to a church steeped in the ascetic struggles of the Desert Fathers, those athletes of prayer that dotted the Nitrian Desert in Egypt, expanding into the deserts of Syria and Palestine between the fourth and sixth centuries A.D. One such Desert Father, the Abbot Sisoes (d. ca. 429 A.D.) stood before the tomb of Alexander the Great (so legend says). As he contemplated the bones of one who had been bedecked with glory, now reduced to near ashes and dust, the great ascetic cried out: “Seeing you, tomb, I shed tears wrung from the heart, bringing to mind the common fate. How, then, shall I undergo such an end? Ah, death! Who can escape thee?” Yes, Sic transit gloria mundi!

Maybe this should have been the good Archbishop’s message to the President? Maybe it would have been a better apostolic witness to preach truth to the thrones of the mighty by reminding them of the transitory nature of worldy power, and that there is one who sits on the throne of eternal glory who sees the works of our hands, bringing everything to account, who will certainly ask, “Are those hands stained with the blood of the innocent?” Maybe the good Archbishop should have reminded the President of how the quest for glory and empire is a pursuit of shadows and dust!

But no, what we got was flattery, typical of so many Christian hierarchs, priests and pastors who are themselves flattered by their their various associations with the thrones of the mighty, not heeding the words of the Psalmist, “Put not thy trust in princes…” (Psalm 146:3) Eusebius was certainly excited about the favor Constanine’s imperial government showed the Christian Church after three centuries of persecution, but it took several barbarian invasions, and not a few praying monks, to show Augustine that even a Christianized Roma Aeterna is not the City of God.

The King of that eternal city came into our midst in the womb of the Virgin two-thousand years ago, and Herod’s henchmen went out to abort him. And yet he lives, reconciling heaven and earth in the new creation. We know from Scripture, and the creed which I recite every Sunday at my local Orthodox parish confirms, that He will come “to judge the quick and the dead,” and that divine judgment hangs on every act of injustice against the innocent.

In a way, I can understand His Grace’s need to try to appease his own constituency. I only wish he had taken a more prophetically courageous stance for the unborn, the widow and the fatherless when he had the ear of the most powerful man in the free world, instead of flattering him with delusions of empty glory.

There is one other sobering thought His Grace could have imparted to the President, and that is this: Not even Alexander the Great was able to subdue, much less Hellenize, Afghanistan!


Mr. Robert Thomas Llizo is a lecturer in Medieval and Early Modern History and professor at the Torrey Honors Institute. He holds a B.A. in Modern European History from Biola University, and an M.A. in Medieval and Renaissance History from California State University, Los Angeles. He is currently a doctoral candidate in Medieval and Early Modern Studies at the Claremont Graduate University.

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