2005 Interview

An Interview with the

Very Reverend Dr Themistocles Adamopoulo,

Apostle to the Poor and Oppressed

Dr Nick Trakakis, Department of Philosophy

Monash University, Melbourne, Australia

Father Themistocles is an inspiration to many people in many parts of the world. He has led an extraordinarily colourful and rich life, one that reflects his own colourful and buoyant personality.

Unfortunately, very little of his fascinating life is known to people, who are usually aware only of his current passionate commitment to serving the poor and oppressed in Africa. But underlying this commitment is a wealth of experience and knowledge that few of us can hope to match.

I first came into contact with Fr Themistocles as a theology student in Sydney over ten years ago, where ‘Brother Themi’ (as he was affectionately known to students) would guide us through the intricacies of New Testament scholarship, Hellenistic philosophy, the Hebrew language, and the academic world in general.

My friendship with Fr Themistocles has continued to grow since then, and I have always thought it worthwhile that the life and adventures of ‘the polytropic Themi’ (to borrow a phrase he likes to apply to his great mentor, the apostle Paul) should be more readily known than they presently are. I hope, therefore, that the interview that follows goes some way towards fulfilling this objective (though I also hope that a more detailed account of Fr Themistocles’ life will someday be written, preferably by Fr Themistocles himself). [1]

1. Childhood and family background

Q. Your parents, both of whom were well-educated and multi-lingual, immigrated from Alexandria (Egypt) to Melbourne (Australia) in 1956. How did your parents handle life in Melbourne in those years?

A. Greeks immigrated to Australia from various parts of the world. Most, of course, arrived from Greece, but there were also Greeks of the ‘diaspora’ who were different from the Greeks coming from Greece.

For example, the Greeks of Egypt were probably more educated and linguistically richer due to the cosmopolitan life of Egypt at that time. So in a sense my parents had difficulty identifying with the Greeks that were already in Australia as well as with those coming from Greece.

They could only really relate to the Greeks coming from Egypt or to other ethnic communities, such as the French community. To some degree, therefore, my parents were socially isolated. They did attempt to, as it were, connect with the general Greek community, but the attempt was fairly unsuccessful.

At that time even the Greek Orthodox church in Australia, except for its spiritual dimensions, couldn’t really accommodate in its social thrust many Greeks from Egypt. They were really the odd fish in the pond.

But to summarise, it was a nightmare for my parents in the beginning. One has to understand that the Greeks who came from Egypt had a comfortable middle-class existence, perhaps like the Greeks living in Athens who were professors or judges. My mother, for example, was a headmistress of a school, and my father was already an author of a book and very successful in his work in banking, with a double qualification in chemistry.

The tragedy I saw in my parents was that they went from being, as I can recall as a young child, very happy- go-lucky and confident people in Egypt, to being broken by a harsh Australian reality that at that time could not differentiate between immigrants. They were all lumped together as ‘the Greeks’. And so my mother was forced for a while to work in factories, which she did for a year or so, and my father became a labourer. That broke them. I remember seeing my mother crying every day.

They went from living in a beautiful villa overlooking the Mediterranean to one room housing all of us in St Albans. [2] So, we wondered why we came.

As a child I didn’t really appreciate the sacrifices my parents had undertaken because, really, if they had stayed in Alexandria their life would not have been much affected. But they thought of the future of their children, and to that degree they were right. There would not have been much of a future in Alexandria.

Q. Why was there not much of a future in Alexandria?

A. Egypt at the time was under the whimsical rule of King Faruk, who was a playboy and a fairly corrupt leader. [3] Naturally, the Egyptian people wanted a more accountable government. And in their attempt to get rid of the monarchy, somehow foreigners were identified with the monarchy and the status quo. So, there was a purge of foreigners from Egypt.

The Greeks, however, were among the least to be affected, but the writing was on the wall that the day would come even for the Greeks – and that day did come.

Q. So how did your parents find their feet again, so to speak, after arriving in Australia?

A. Well, if you put a leopard among tigers eventually the leopard will be recognised as a leopard. It was inevitable that their training and learning would be recognised. It was a matter of time before my mother was recognised by Melbourne University, and it was a matter of time before my father’s qualifications were recognised by local industries. So they both rose to the level that they had achieved in Egypt.

My mother became a teacher at Presbyterian Ladies College, a very prestigious girls’ private school in Melbourne, and my father eventually became an industrial chemist. After a few years, then, they managed to regain the social status they had in Egypt.

Q. What are some of your most vivid memories as a child and teenager, particularly as you were growing up in a multi-lingual home and, at the same time, in a society which was struggling to come to terms with its new multicultural character?

A. That’s a very difficult question because there are so many impressions one has. But perhaps my greatest angst was to be Australian and somehow to discard my former ‘Greekness’, or whatever one wants to call it. I was obsessed almost with a rejection of what I thought was a socially undesirable group of people at that time. If I had back then the Christian outlook I now have, I would clearly have taken a different approach.

But at the time when I was growing up in Australia, the Greeks were often thought to be socially undesirable, they were viewed as money conscious, they worked in Milk Bars and small shops, they appeared to be the labourers of Australian society, and I didn’t wish to associate with that at the time. Undoubtedly that was a wrong feeling to have, but that was the thought of a teenager at the time.

Q. You did your secondary education at Williamstown High School. [4]Can you say something about your high school experience?

A. Well, it was interesting. Compared to the schools of Egypt, for example, Williamstown High was an average government school which placed much stress on sport. I was more gifted in the academic field and while I excelled in this area, the high school culture was such that one’s popularity would be based not so much on academic performance but rather on sporting performance. And though I found it relatively easy to get good marks at school, I found it very difficult to do well at sport – poor eyesight didn’t help.

So I think the highlight of my high school days was when I finally managed to get a game with the school reserves football team!2.

2. University life

Q. When and where did you begin your university studies?

A. I ended up getting a fairly good HSC result [5] and won a scholarship to go to Melbourne University. Because of my father’s influence to some degree, I was bound to pursue a course of study in either chemistry or commerce, since my father was knowledgeable in both areas.

I chose commerce and I began a Bachelor of Commerce course (it was now the mid-60s), but I had no interest in this area. I would attend lectures on accounting and economics, but (and this is merely a personal reflection, without any intention to cast aspersions on the study of economics or accounting) I just found it boring: I couldn’t really exercise my academic inclinations, it didn’t really challenge me.

During that period I came under the influence of popular music. It was the time of the English pop music explosion and I formed a group in my spare time imitating the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

We became rather successful. In fact, in a sort of curious way I pride myself in having belonged to the first long-haired group in Australia, long hair being then the symbol of the new revolution of the youth. We produced records, we even had Top 10 hits, and we had a fan club – I would get letters every day, with messages written on the envelope such as: “Postman, postman, don’t be slow! Be like Themi: go, man, go!” [6]

Q. What, then, was happening to your studies at university?

A. Well, compared to studying, say, Keynesian economics, the music world was far more exciting. So I applied to defer my studies for one year, which then became two years.

After a very creative period playing music, I decided that that kind of life would not be my permanent vocation. Since I already had a university place, I thought that I ought not to lose it. I therefore decided to return to university, but this time not to do accounting or commerce but to do something more intellectually stimulating, for me, not necessarily for others. So I took up a Bachelor of Arts course, studying philosophy, political science, history – and that really challenged me.

Q. What were some of the books and authors you were reading or influenced by at this time?

A. Particularly in political science, I was coming more and more under the influence of the New Left: Marcuse, Marx himself to some degree, and also the famous intellectuals of the time, people like Christian Bay, who might not be well-known nowadays, but was one of the first to talk about the university as the vehicle of the values of the middle-class, and so he thought that no authentic, critical thinking can come out of the universities. [7]

The crucial question of the time was whether ideology ought to enter into university studies (whether it be philosophy, politics, literature, or something else), with some arguing that these studies ought to be pursued in an objective or neutral manner, in accordance with the principles of logical positivism or behaviourism. The new school, however, was completely undermining this idea of neutrality, arguing instead that everybody has an agenda and that the university ought to take up the Socratic role of being the outsider looking onto society and freely expressing what it really saw.

At the same time there was the phenomenon of Timothy Leary, a Harvard professor who was experimenting with hallucinogenic substances (such as mescaline and LSD) as a path towards spiritual consciousness [8] All these things together were fomenting in the late sixties and early seventies, coupled with the beginnings of the modern feminist movement (Simone de Beauvoir, Germaine Greer [9] , etc.).

So all this was all around us at university. I would even say that this was probably one of the most creative intellectual periods of the twentieth century. I was fortunate enough to be a part of it and undoubtedly I was influenced by it.

Even today I would say that my Christian perspective is very much affected by issues of human rights, issues of social justice, issues of toleration for minorities and so forth, as opposed to extreme authoritarianism and extreme conservatism, which I also see in Christianity. So my brand of Christianity has very much been affected by the sixties and seventies movements of social equality and social justice, and these were influential in my decision to serve in Africa.

Q. What was your attitude towards God and religion during this time?

A. Like any ‘normal radical’, I believed that there was no God. I was very much affected by the Nietzschean ‘God is dead’ school, yet I could not see my way past the following contradiction: on the one hand, I held to the critiue of rationalism, the idea being that there is only a myth of rationality and that at bottom everything is subjective; but on the other hand when it came to God I applied rational critiques.

That was my philosophical contradiction. The perspective I had, then, was the traditionally Marxist view that there was no God and that Christianity was basically “the opium of the masses”, a tool of the bourgeoisie to oppress the proletariat by the myth of the kingdom of heaven.

Q. Was it Marxism, therefore, that mainly shaped your thinking at this time?

A. No, it was eclectic. Marx was there somewhere in the background, but there were other influences as well. The sixties and seventies were not really about Marxism; they were an eclectic critique of bourgeois society, and you drew from every possible angle.

You drew from Mahatma Gandhi, you drew even from Jesus, you drew from Marx, you drew from Mao Tse-Tung. It wasn’t just political, it was also philosophical – you drew from Nietzsche, you drew from Proudhon, you drew from Tolstoy, etc.

3. Conversion to Christianity

Q. What was it that led you to consider God and religion in a new light?

A. A critique of society may lead eventually to introspection and a critique of oneself. The changes in my understanding of God and religion were initiated by the fact that, parallel to political critiques of society, there were radical critiques of conventional spirituality and the spiritual bankruptcy of the time.

The Vietnam War, of course, mobilized the critique of society and its power elite structures (such as the military, the corporations, and so forth). Another and more surprising aspect of the New Left was its unlikely alliance with the Timothy Leary group. Perhaps this was possible because we were always open to new ideas and we were the ones most likely to hear from people who were dissenting from the established academy, from the established polity, from the established society – anybody who was dissenting, you wanted to know about them. That created what was known as the ‘counter-culture’ movement, which would draw inspiration from all sorts of places.

But Timothy Leary became the guru of a generation now ready to experiment not only with political or philosophical concepts, but also with religious concepts. Does religion have something to say after all? What about the mystical experiences that we had read about and heard about, whether they be in Buddhism, such as in Tantric Buddhism, or whether they be the experiences of medieval Christian monks and nuns, or whether they be the experiences of the Hindu mystic?

That brought a new focus to some members of the New Left, who would now ask: “We’ve seen what happens when we want to create a new social reality, and we know what agenda to follow, but what about this new spiritual quest that we’re hearing about? Can there be something in that that we need to know about and therefore incorporate in the new society of the future?” We knew that women should have equal rights, we knew that the environment should be kept unpolluted, we knew that workers should have full control over their destiny, we knew that there had to be equal distribution of income – all these things we were aware of.

But we didn’t really understand how to draw the spiritual radicalism that was now being spoken about into this synthesis of the new eclectic and utopian society.

I myself was eventually drawn into this spiritual radicalism. I wanted to know more about this new frontier.

Was it true what Nietzsche, Russell and the logical positivists had told us, that there is no God? Was it true what the Marxists told us, that the only reality we could know was political reality? I personally was drawn

towards exploring these questions. In a way the New Left had its scouts to seek out the new frontiers of reality and existence, and then to report back and say, “Hey listen! This is good! We need to incorporate a spiritual

dimension into our utopian society of the future.” So in a way I appointed myself a spiritual scout to go and find out what exactly this was all about.

I began, then, to experiment with my concepts of reality, questioning

everything and seeing whether or not there were truths in Buddhism, in Hinduism, and in Christianity. I would therefore go to Hare Krishna temples and Hindu shrines, I would explore transcendental meditation, and I would even read St Augustine’s City of God and the Bible.

Q. How, then, did you come to be a practising member of the Christian church?

A. The discovery of Christ came during this period of experimentation, consciousness-alteration, and self- analysis.

Eventually, I underwent what you might call a ‘Christian mystical experience’. But I wasn’t looking for it, and by inclination I would’ve preferred a Buddhist kind of explanation of reality, as that would have fitted in much better with the culture and trends of the day.

But I found that this Christian experience was overwhelming, and I really had no choice in the end but to be honest to myself and to what I was feeling even though it might not have been so popular among my peers.

So, through these ‘mystical experiences’, I came to believe in Christianity as the authentic road to God and the ultimate truth. Given my background, I immediately turned to my peers on the New Left with the pronouncement that Christ is the truth.

This, however, did not go down too well with them! But I was coming from the perspective that this was a genuine discovery, just as we had discovered, say, the writings of Marcuse or Nietzsche or Marx. But at that time Christianity was equated with the Methodist Church of Australia or the Church of England or with churches that had a history of oppression, and Christianity was also associated with such things as holy wars and crusades. So I was really out on a limb, but I didn’t let go. For I had found a side of Christianity that seemed to be ignored – viz., the existential, mystical and sensitive side of Christianity.

Q. But what led you to the Orthodox Church as opposed to some other Christian denomination?

A. A sense of pity! Allow me to explain.

I could not identify with the Greeks of Australia at that time, as I mentioned earlier. I must also mention that I was excelling academically at this time, and I was awarded a position at Melbourne University as a tutor in political science at the age of 22. I then decided to go through the catalogue of churches to see which one could really understand my experience.

I was reading the Bible, I began to sell my property and give to the poor, and I was fascinated by the life of St Francis of Assisi. As a sign that I had finally decided to follow the teachings of Christ, as a final expression of my dedication to this new-found philosophy (I didn’t want to call it ‘religion’, given that word’s unfortunate connotations), I even decided to give up my career as an academic at university.

Needless to say, my friends and relatives thought that there was something going wrong. Going through the different churches, I didn’t think that the Greek Orthodox church could understand what I was experiencing.

I did speak to one or two Greek Orthodox priests in Melbourne. In my broken Greek I would ask them about God, only to be told, “Just leave God where he is! Don’t concern yourself with these things!” It seemed to me, therefore, that the Greek Orthodox church of that time didn’t have a deep appreciation of God.

So I went to various other churches, and I found in the Presbyterian church a fairly interesting group of people who were willing to discuss God and to accommodate my past experiences.

Pretty soon I found myself not only accepted by them, but even respected by them. It was at that point that I questioned my identity: Given that I now believe in God, why was I born a Greek? Why is it that God allowed me to be baptized in the Greek Orthodox church? So I decided to look afresh at the whole phenomenon of Orthodoxy.

I can now return to my earlier statement that I joined the Orthodox church out of pity. What I mean by this is that what I saw at that time (I’m talking now of the early seventies) in the Greek Orthodox church led me to pity it – for there was no teaching of Christ, there were no Sunday schools in the local parishes, and there were no youth groups or Bible study groups.

The church was basically an ethnic enclave of immigrants who were rejected, by and large, by Australian society, coming together on Sundays to find a common identity not so much as Christians, but as Greeks.

That, of course, did not appeal to me at all, but I felt sorry for them in the sense that I, from my own limited experience as a Christian, knew more of the Bible than these people who had been Christians all their lives.

I particularly felt sorry for the youth. So I asked the local Greek Orthodox priest to allow me to be part of the church. Of course, being Greek gave me automatic entry. There were no questions such as, “Have you found God? Do you believe in such-and-such?” It was more like, “If you’re Greek, you belong here”. I also asked my priest whether I could lead a Sunday school, which he allowed.

Suddenly I found myself teaching the youth of the Greek church – I who only a year or so ago was an atheist.

Eventually, of course, the pity turned to a better appreciation of the history of the Orthodox church and its theological relevance and depth.

Q. What was happening academically at this time – did you return to your university position?

A. No, I decided that I needed to stop being an academic because I considered that to be a vanity of vanities. I decided therefore to immerse myself amongst the common people, so to speak.

My New Left tendency was to identify with the oppressed and now I found myself in a church amongst people who, on a social level, were the oppressed of Australia – they were the factory workers, the petty shop owners, etc.

And so here I was, a former university tutor, now mingling and identifying myself completely and in total solidarity with people who were primary school dropouts. But I felt inside a great sense of well-being that I was identifying with them.

I was considering, however, doing a course in medicine or education, as I wanted at this stage to reject my political background and to become a useful member of society. I decided to enroll in a Master of Education, which would allow me to work with immigrants as a teacher or to do some kind of work helping immigrant children within the Ministry of Education. Even though I was admitted into the Masters program, I thought I was being too vain and not humble enough, and so after about two weeks I dropped out of the program and took up a Diploma of Education [10] – not a Diploma of Education for high school teaching, as I considered high schools to be elitist, but a Diploma of Education for teaching at technical schools, since they catered for the working-class. [11]

Q. So there was always this New Left identification with the working-class. Did you end up teaching?

A. Yes, after I finished my Diploma I began working at Richmond Technical School. From there I went to Essendon Technical School and then to Preston Technical School. Those people who know Melbourne would understand immediately that these schools are situated in the heartlands of the working-class.

But given that I had now committed myself to Christ, I felt that I had to proclaim this, for as the New Testament says, “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:32-33). And so it became a struggle of trying to keep my position as a legitimate teacher in government schools while also acknowledging Christ in the classroom and the staff room.

I therefore incurred the wrath of the administration of these schools, who reminded me that these are secular schools and that I had no right to speak about Jesus in the classroom. I, however, continued what I was doing, for otherwise I would have seen it as a denial of Christ, and as a result I found myself being transferred from school to school, eventually ending up at Lalor High School.

But in the end I had to resign, as I found it impossible to continue teaching while having my freedom of speech restrained in this way.

Q. And what did you do then?

A. At this stage I felt it was time to do theology, to take a more intellectual approach to God, rather than just having an emotional affiliation with a people who were downtrodden.

I wanted to know more about this God I had experienced. So I took up studies in a Catholic theological school, mainly because there were no Orthodox seminaries in Australia at that time. We had at this stage a new Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Australia, His Eminence Stylianos [12] , who was sympathetic to my need to study theology and who advised me to study in a Catholic seminary in Melbourne called Corpus Christi College.

Over the next few years I studied theology there and was exposed to Catholic spirituality, Catholic organization, Catholic theology, and Jesuit intellectualism. It was fairly contagious and from then on my love for theology just blossomed.

Subsequently I went to the United States to study at Holy Cross [13], where I completed a Master of Theological Studies while concurrently studying at Harvard Divinity School, and then I undertook a Master of Theology at Princeton Divinity School. And finally I completed a PhD at Brown University.

4. Doctoral research

Q. The title of your PhD thesis was Endurance, Greek and Early Christian: The Moral Transformation of the Greek Idea of Endurance, From the Homeric Battlefield to the Apostle Paul. Can you say something about how the idea of endurance, as it was understood by the ancient Greeks, was transformed in the hands of the apostle Paul?

A. I might begin by pointing out that, for some time, it was widely thought that the military metaphors and the military language found in the New Testament were adopted from the Old Testament. The spokesman of this view was Adolf von Harnack, the eminent German theologian of the early twentieth century.[14]

When I was at Brown I came under the influence of what was known as ‘the Yale school of Pauline studies’. This was comprised of scholars such as Abraham Malherbe [15] and Wayne Meeks [16] from Yale, Stanley Stowers from Brown [17] , and many others, who were arguing in the mid-eighties that we need to understand Paul from a Greek philosophical background.

This view wasn’t new, it had already been defended by the Germans, but it had been ignored. At Yale, then, there was a resurgence in the attempt to examine the Greek philosophical background to the New Testament, and this also made an impact at Brown through Stowers, who was a student of Malherbe.

The view, in outline, went like this: Paul was a Jew, but in essence he grew up in a Greek environment. And while he was trained by rabbi Gamaliel [18] , it is necessary to understand that even Israel, or Roman Palestine

at that time, was far more Greek than we thought. The writings of Martin Hengel had already suggested this. [19] So this dichotomy, exemplified by the entries in Kittel’s New Testament Dictionary [20] , was now being exploded by the Yale school, which was arguing that it is artificial to speak of Greek versus Hebrew, that the Hellenistic period was a synthesis of all currents, and that the Greek current was just as vivid in Palestine as was the Hebraic current. Look, for example, at the names of the high priests – they are Greek names.

My PhD thesis, which was very much influenced by the Yale school, was intended as a critical examination of von Harnack’s understanding of Paul. My aim was to criticize Harnack by showing, clearly I hope, that the concept of υπομονη [21] in Paul, when used in a military context, finds its natural locale in a Hellenistic philosophical setting such as the Cynic philosophical writings of that period.

The conclusion of my thesis, then, was that ‘endurance’ is a Greek idea which starts with Homer as a philosophical concept and eventually finds its way into Paul’s writings. But the essential difference between the Cynics and Paul is that endurance for the Cynic philosopher is something achieved by him, by his own training, whereas for Paul it is not achieved through one’s own training, but is a gift of God in Christ.

Q. What was the academic environment or culture like at Brown during your doctoral studies in the 1980s?

A. Compared to the late sixties and seventies, when I was doing my undergraduate studies, I found that the idealism of the earlier decades had now gone away. Students at university, certainly in the Ivy League schools (such as Harvard and Brown), were there to get a career, whether it be an academic career, a business career or some other career; they weren’t there to critique society or to critique capitalism. It had become a very conservative period.

Nevertheless, I found the intellectual standards very high. At Harvard and at Brown the level of intellectual sophistication was probably the highest I have ever encountered.

5. Kenya and Africa

Q. You have, for several years now, been involved in missionary work in Kenya, but what led you to take an interest in Kenya in the first place?

A. I had been involved so much in the academic world by this stage – in fact, I had been involved in the academic world nearly all my life.

In Sydney I was teaching at St Andrew’s [22] , but I also had some lecturing appointments at Macquarie University and the University of Sydney. But I suppose things come in cycles in my life, where I go through almost a burnout period, and in this case I began questioning the purpose and motivation of the academic life, particularly with respect to theology.

I wondered whether being a practitioner of theology was better than being a theoretician of theology. I remembered the words of Plutarch, who in his

Life of Alexander writes that Alexander was once asked, “Who would you rather be Alexander, Homer or Achilles?” And he replied, “Undoubtedly, I would rather be Achilles, because while Homer thought about it and wrote about it, Achilles did it.” So I sort of had my Achilles period, where instead of just talking, writing or even teaching about it, it was about time somebody did it.

I was, I must confess, influenced by Mother Teresa, who by all accounts was not an academic or systematic theologian, and yet of all the theologians I know none of them has had as great an impact on world history as her.

I was engrossed, of course, in theological and particularly early Christian research, but the impact I was making through this work was minimal. I grew dissatisfied therefore with my situation and decided to make a radical break.

I guess it wasn’t difficult for me to make radical changes in my life, because from the very beginning I would go through periods of questioning and rejecting the past for the sake of a new future – it happened in the seventies, it happened in the eighties, and now it was happening in the nineties, where I needed a new direction.

Through Mother Teresa’s influence (though I never met her), I decided to apply theology in a practical context, to become the Achilles of theology. And since I was born in Africa, I sensed it was God’s purpose for me to return there.

I chose Kenya specifically because I knew there was a seminary in Nairobi, and I thought that I may as well continue with my theology but now in a Third World setting. Once again there was a need to identify with the oppressed, but now on a grand scale.

Q. Can you briefly describe the kind of work you are now doing in Kenya?

A. As a priest, part of my work involves conducting liturgies and preaching in various parishes in Kenya. But my work also involves fighting poverty, and this is done by empowering the local people, by training them – in other words, charity through empowerment, or as the old cliché puts it, “You can give a man a fish, but it is better to teach him how to fish”.

We try, therefore, not to repeat the mistakes of the charity of imperialism or neo-colonialism, according to which I give you food so that you can depend on me. Our aim, rather, is to teach people how to get their own food. I thought therefore that for the Orthodox mission in Kenya to succeed we would need to set up structures of empowerment. And so with the help of God and the blessings of the local archbishop (Makarios), I set up a school for women who were unemployed, to give them tailoring and dressmaking skills so that they would not need to sell themselves in order to feed their children.

This was followed by the establishment of a computer school for unemployed youth, then a pre-school and a primary school which take in children from the slum areas and give them a free education, free food and free clothing. Eventually I also established a teacher’s college where we train young people who hitherto could not afford to attend university (due to prohibitive fees), and we charge them minimal or no fees at all. And now I am in the process of creating a nursing and pharmacy school.

6. Poverty and Theology

Q. In a brochure on your philanthropic program in Kenya (entitled “Charity Through Education”), you write: A depressing spectre is currently haunting our planet. This spectre is Third World Poverty.

This is the most destructive, urgent and bewildering paradox facing our globe. While a small minority of humans on the planet live more or less in a fantasy world of material prosperity and comfort, the overwhelming majority are experiencing life on the basis of an uncertain and painful day to day existence. Some statistics might help to reinforce your point. It is estimated that 30,000 children die from poverty each day. World trade has increased tenfold since 1970, and more food is produced than ever before; but the number of people going hungry in Africa has more than doubled.

The three richest people in the world control more wealth than all 600 million people in the world’s poorest countries. To put in place a system of universal primary education, ensuring that all boys and girls complete primary schooling, would cost $10 billion a year, less than the U.S. spends on ice cream. [23] The list could go on and on.

You, of course, witness such injustice and poverty on a daily basis, as your Philanthropic Centre is situated in one of the most economically disadvantaged areas of Nairobi. What do you think has brought about massive poverty in African countries like Kenya?

A. World poverty is a huge topic, and what causes poverty in Africa may well be different from what causes poverty in, say, Asia.

Looking at the history of modern Africa, one obtains some clues as to what it is that has caused that region to be one of the most disadvantaged economic regions of the world.

There are many factors contributing to poverty in Africa. One would be colonialism: the colonialists divided Africa along geographical lines, rather than ethnographic lines; they were creating political unities which, by ethnographic criteria, could not work. It would be like placing Greece, Turkey and Syria into one block and calling that a ‘country’, but whether or not the Greeks and the Turks will get along and whether or not the Turks and the Kurds will get along is deemed irrelevant.

The colonialists, similarly, were only interested in dividing the land of Africa into neat geographical parcels. I suspect that one of the reasons behind the social disturbances in Africa right now is directly linked to the artificial boundaries that were imposed during the colonial period. So that’s one reason that must seriously be taken into account when attempting to fight poverty. Another reason is, unfortunately, the tribalism and corruption that occurs in sub-Saharan Africa, which to some degree is a natural progression from the colonial period.

For if one tribe is more dominant than another in some particular region that might be dubbed a ‘political unity’ (e.g., Uganda, Cameroon, etc.), the dominant tribe will seek to have its own leader in power and to only assist its own people. And this leads to the problem of tribalism, which to some extent is the product of colonialism.

So, the people of Africa might be independent of the white man, but the legacies of the colonial period are still with them. Also, independence has come to Africa only within the last fifty years, and so a lot of money has come into the hands of people who hitherto were not handling large sums of money. The temptation, therefore, is to use this money in a selfish rather than an altruistic or patriotic way, to put one’s own interests before the interests of one’s country.

Furthermore, in some parts of Africa the natural terrain and climate is not on their side, as in Chad and Niger, which have a hot, dry climate. On the other hand, most African countries have very fertile soil and are rich in minerals – the Congo, for example. Yet the Congo is currently under very serious economic and political distress.

In short, then, there are a variety of factors responsible for poverty in Africa. All we can do is to fight poverty a step at a time, particularly by education. For it is through education that we can instil a new attitude in

people, that we can instill concepts of fair play, morality, and transparency to young children, who will hopefully carry this with them for the rest of their lives.

Education is certainly one of the most important ways of transforming society, but it has to be education with morality. That is where we as a Christian church can play a very important role in the transformation of the Third World into an economically viable society that has, at the same time, a sound moral underpinning. As part of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty, Nelson Mandela said at Trafalgar Square in February 2005 that, “Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”

Q. Do you agree that, just as we have made slavery and apartheid ‘history’ (more or less), it is reasonable to expect that poverty can also be made a thing of the past? Or is poverty an inescapable feature of the human predicament?

A. Jesus’ perspective on this matter is somewhat pessimistic, as he said that “The poor you will always have with you” (Matthew 26:11, Mark 14:7; cf. John 12:8). But I don’t think that Jesus here had in mind nations that are thoroughly poor.

Rather, I think what he meant was that in any society you will have some poor people, but not necessarily the majority. We can therefore say that we can and should fight poverty, that it is part of the teachings of Christ himself, who identified with the poor – “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink” (Matthew 25:35). I would say that any Christian who believes seriously in the words of Christ has a moral obligation to fight poverty.

So I think (mass) poverty can be fought and hopefully we might eventually be able to eradicate it; but at the moment I cannot say when. The imperative to eradicate poverty is, of course, one of the great themes of liberation theology, which grew out of the barrios or slums of Latin America.

Q. Given your New Left background, do you have any sympathies with liberation theology, particularly with its call to the church to become engaged in a revolutionary struggle on behalf of the poor?

A. I am drawn to some degree to the writings of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian pedagogist who speaks about the empowerment of the dispossessed through education. [24]

However, I cannot agree with the idea of violent overthrow of government – on this matter I am more of a pacifist, adhering to the words of Jesus that “all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). I think that we can transform society through the education system. In fact, as Max Weber pointed out, once the charismatic leader of a revolution has passed away, you witness the ‘routinization’ of the revolution, and then the revolution itself becomes the status quo and you have a new elite.

You can see this, for example, in the Soviet Union and in China. For a revolution, therefore, to be successful, it must be generational, it has to transform a whole generation of people and the way they think, and not only one generation but perhaps two or three. So the transformation of any society in a positive direction should come through education and by drawing awareness to social injustice, the oppression of people, the need for justice and equality, but also the need to understand the spiritual dimensions of the human being.

The so-called ‘father of liberation theology’, Gustavo Gutiérrez, has stated that, whereas the focus of western theologians has been the question of how to speak of God in a secular or unbelieving world, the task facing Latin American theologians is how to speak of God to the ‘nonperson’, by which he means those who are not considered fully human by the present social order – for example, the exploited classes, marginalized ethnic groups, and of course the poor. As Gutiérrez puts it, “Our question is how to tell the nonperson, the nonhuman, that God is love, and that this love makes us all brothers and sisters.” [25]

Q. Do you find yourself in this situation in Kenya?

A. To begin with, I cannot agree with the anthropological category of the ‘nonperson’. I would prefer to approach the matter from the Christian anthropological perspective that all humans are made in the image and likeness of God, and that there is no such thing as a ‘nonperson’.

But having said that, and having accepted the unfortunate reality of the oppressed in our societies, particularly in the Third World, I would say that Gutiérrez is right in the sense that we do not address a secular society. A lot of the topics I would deal with in an Australian seminary – such as issues in biblical archaeology, whereby one attempts to support the historicity of

the Bible through archaeological artefacts and data – don’t appear to be so important to seminarians in Africa, for whom the historicity of Jesus or the Bible is not an issue. We are not dealing there with a secular phenomenon as much as we are in the First World.

Certainly, the major problem we face is preaching to people who are suffering and disenfranchised by society, and giving them a sense of dignity and empowerment. A further theme in liberation theology is ‘God’s preferential option for the poor’, the idea that, although God loves all people, he identifies and sides with the poor in a special way. This is not to say that the poor are somehow morally or spiritually better than the rest, but that God always sides with the poor against those who seek to exploit and dehumanise them.

Q. Is this a view you hold yourself, and if so, what implications do you think this has for Christian missionaries in poor countries – for example, does it merely entail living in solidarity with the poor or does it entail something stronger, such as the attempt to transform or revolutionise society?

A. I think all theology has to be evaluated eventually in the light of the Bible, particularly the New Testament.

And it does appear quite clearly in the words of Jesus and in the writings of St Paul that there is almost a preferential treatment of the poor in the love of God.

The poor themselves, however, might be against God, or might lead a life that is far away from God, or might turn away from God the minute they achieve economic independence. Nevertheless, it remains the case that God’s love of the poor is a firm principle of the New Testament, and in the case of exploitation it is clear from the New Testament that the exploited (regardless of whether they are pious or not, or Christian or not) are always favoured by God. Given these theological principles, my main goal in the projects I have been privileged to run in Kenya is to transform the poor that I come in contact with by empowering them through accessible and free education.

Q. Do you think that in time there will arise in Africa a truly indigenous Christian theology that is quite different from the kind of Christianity you have lived and experienced in the western world?

A. Yes, but not completely different because Christianity has certain non-negotiable elements.

However, having taught theology both in the First World and in the Third World, one of the major differences I have noticed in the theological institutions of the two regions (and here I will use the example of the seminary we have in Nairobi) may be put in terms of demographics: unlike seminarians in the First World.

The typical African theology student does not come from a middle-class background, is likely to have suffered greatly early on in life, and probably comes from a very poor background. And so for an African student to understand the crucifixion or the pain of Christ is not such a great leap of faith as it would be for a middle-class Greek boy from Melbourne or Sydney studying theology, or a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant from Baltimore studying theology in a New York seminary. To that degree African theology has an advantage over its First World counterparts, for it lives in a crucified context and thus the theology of the Cross is very much an existential as opposed to a merely theoretical reality.

7. Australia and Orthodoxy

Q. Although you now live in Kenya, you return to Australia every year for a few months at a time. During these return trips to Australia, what kinds of things strike you or make an impression on you?

A. The first thing I notice when I return to Australia from my experiences in the slums of Nairobi, having lived there for ten months of the year, is the relative wealth of Australia.

Other things that strike me include the cleanliness of the streets, the order of society, and the efficiency of government offices. On the other hand, upon my return I am also affected by the triviality and superficiality of conversation. People seem to be very much interested in the latest football results or the England vs Australia cricket scores, when the world I know of is crowded with people suffering from AIDS, with people who are not sure whether there will be any food the next day or whether tomorrow they will be kicked out of the bungalow or tin shed they live in because the landlord is impatient with them.

So, coming back to Australia is always a double-edged sword for me: on the one hand, I feel relieved to be back amongst the comforts of the First World, but on the other hand, I feel troubled and discomfort at the superficiality of many of the concerns of the average person.

Q. Since you first left for Kenya nearly ten years ago, have you noticed any significant changes in Australian society?

A. I have noticed some social changes. I see, for example, a far greater tolerance toward European migrants, whereas twenty or so years ago it was not easy to be Greek or Italian in Australia. I have noticed, however, that there is some bias against Asian immigrants, and there certainly appears to be a complete turnaround against the Islamic community. These are some changes I have seen in popular opinion.

On another level, on the level of the mass media, I see in the reporting of the news an almost complete absence of a critical analysis of Australian society. The media is no longer acting as a social critic, but is going down the American path (in contrast, I might add, to the European media) of almost embracing the official policies of the time. Another change I’ve noticed, this time in the area of entertainment or popular culture, is a thorough decline in morality: what was completely unacceptable on television ten or so years ago, is no longer so. Right now anything goes.

In particular, the preoccupation with the flesh, with nudity, with physical appeal and with youth is almost obsessive. I see that as a decline in our moral standards.


[1] The interview, I should note, was recorded in Melbourne on September 2, 2005, while Fr Themistocles was preparing to return to Kenya after a short stay in Australia. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.

[2] St Albans is an industrialized suburb in the west of Melbourne.

[3] King Faruk (1920-1965) was king of Egypt from 1936 until 1952, when he was forced to abdicate and was exiled to Italy.

[4] Williamstown is a coastline suburb located south-west of the Melbourne city centre.

[5] This refers to the High School Certificate (HSC), now replaced by the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE), which recognises the successful completion of one’s secondary education and, depending on the overall grade achieved, allows one to pursue further study at university.

[6] The band referred to here is The Flies, which featured Themi Adams (as he was then known) on bass, John Thomas on guitar, Hank Wallis on drums, and (originally) Ronnie Burns as lead singer. The following account provides an interesting picture of the band:

[The Flies] were one of the very first bands in Melbourne to catch on to the new ‘beat’ style and gained attention as “Victoria’s top Beatle-alikes”, even down to their matching suits and very long mop-top hair. A shambolic, noisy bunch at the best of times, the quartet achieved considerable popularity on the booming Melbourne dance circuit, with a repertoire of Brit-vasion standards from the catalogues of The Searchers, The Hollies and Herman’s Hermits and others,along with some of the ‘bluesier’, more raucous Beatles numbers like When I Get Home and You Can’t Do That.

(Paul Culnane, “Ronnie Burns”, from the Milesago website located at www.milesago.com/Artists/burns.htm)

One of the band’s high points was to support the Rolling Stones on their first Australian tour in January 1965.

In their short (three-year) career, The Flies recorded an EP and a number of singles, but things began to fall apart after their manager, Gary Spry, dropped his clients to take over another band. Soon after, in August 1965,

Burns also quit the band and went on to lead a highly successful solo career which has made him a household name in Australia.

[7] Christian Bay (1921-1990) received his doctorate at the University of Oslo and taught political science at various universities in the U.S. and Canada, including Stanford University and the University of Toronto. He wrote extensively on freedom and oppression, and his most significant publication was The Structure of (Stanford: Stanford University Press, originally published in 1958, re-issued in 1970). See also Theodore Roszak (ed.), The Dissenting Academy (New York: Pantheon Books, 1967), which includes contributions from Bay and Chomsky, and was very influential in criticizing the teaching of the humanities in American universities.

[8] Timothy Leary (1920-1996) lectured in psychology at Harvard University from 1959 to 1963, when he was dismissed due to the controversial nature of his psychedelic drug research.

[9] Germaine Greer (b. 1939) also studied at the University of Melbourne, graduating with a B.A. (Hons.) in 1959, this being about five years before Fr Themistocles began his university studies.

[10] The award of the Diploma of Education is a one-year (full-time) course that is geared towards graduates who wish to become secondary school teachers.

[11] Technical schools were vocationally-based secondary schools that trained students in various trades, rather than preparing them for university study. Technical schools no longer operate in Victoria.

[12] Stylianos Harkianakis was elected Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church in Australia in 1975, and remains in this position to this day.

[13] That is, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, located in Brookline, Massachusetts.

[14] Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930), one of the leading theologians and church historians of his time, is best known for his three-volume History of Dogma (published 1886-89), where he attempts to show that Christian dogma is the product more of Hellenistic Greek philosophy than the gospel of Jesus.

[15] Malherbe: taught at Yale Divinity School since 1970; some of his influential writings have been collected in Paul and the Popular Philosophers (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989).

[16] Wayne A. Meeks, Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Yale University, is a widely respected scholar of early Christianity. Representative publications include The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983) and The Origins of Christian Morality: The First Two Centuries(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).

[17] Stanley K. Stowers is Professor and Chair of Religious Studies at Brown University and has authored Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986) and A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews and Gentiles (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994). Stowers was Fr Themistocles’ doctoral advisor.

[18] In Acts 22:3 the apostle Paul is recorded as saying, “Under Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers.” Gamaliel, grandson of the renowned sage Hillel, held a leading position in the Sanhedrin and was regarded as the most authoritative teacher of the Jewish Law.

[19] Hengel demonstrates the Greek influence on early Judaism in his now classic Judaism and Hellenism:Studies in their Encounter in Palestine during the Early Hellenistic Period, trans. John Bowden (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1974).

[20] Gerhard Kittel (ed.), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, trans. Goffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1964), vols 1-10.

[21] A Greek term meaning ‘endurance’, ‘patient endurance’, ‘perseverance’.

[22] That is, St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College, located in Sydney, Australia, and established in 1986.

[23] These and other depressing statistics can be found in Geraldine Bedell, Make Poverty History: How You Can Help Defeat World Poverty in Seven Easy Steps (London: Penguin, 2005).

[24] Paulo Freire (1921-1997) was a highly influential educationalist who promoted – particularly in his most famous work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos (London: Penguin, 1996; first published in English in 1970) – the liberation of victims of oppression through literacy and education.

[25] Gustavo Gutiérrez, The Power of the Poor in History: Selected Writings, trans. Robert R. Barr (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1983), p.193.

Published by kind permission of Dr Nick Trakakis granted 29 December 2005.


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