Kay Carter speaks to Dr Myrto Theocharous about her research into Deuteronomy and how it ignited a passion to help refugees and women trafficked into the sex trade
Dr Myrto Theocharous asks me to imagine if God had a business card, what it would say. “When I introduce myself I say, ‘I’m Myrto Theocharous and I’m a Professor of Old Testament.’ When God introduces himself to Israel he says, ‘I am the anti-slavery God.’
This theme comes up constantly in the Old Testament — I am the God who brought you out of slavery in Egypt. It is one of the main ways God defines himself, like his business card — that he is the God who will not tolerate oppression.”
For Theocharous, who is on the faculty of the Greek Bible College in Athens, this makes it impossible to study the Old Testament without embracing its rallying cry of justice for the oppressed. “I want to combine social action with a theological understanding about what it means to be human,” she says. “This is what drives my research.”
The Greek Bible College is the only evangelical college in the country, with up to 50 students enrolled at any one time. That’s because the evangelical community in Greece is so tiny — just 0.03% of the population according to Theocharous. “Although the college is very small, many evangelical churches and ministries in Greece recruit graduates from us. So most evangelical churches here are pastored by our graduates, and tonnes and tonnes of Christian ministries are run by people that we trained as students.
“I teach everything related to the Old Testament — I teach Hebrew, ancient Near Eastern background, Prophets, Deuteronomy, the Psalms, you name it. I also handle student applications, I make sure students are enrolled in their programmes and check that they have the right number of credit hours. We have to wear many hats at the college.”
Alongside her role at the college, however, Theocharous puts her research into action by working with a number of women’s ministries in Athens. “I am on the board of an organisation for women who have been trafficked into the sex industry. Our volunteers visit the red-light district, going inside the brothels to offer their help. They take cookies, coffee and books and just ask the women if they’d like to take a break to talk. We can set up visits to the doctor if the women need healthcare or psychological counselling, and we offer them Christian literature. But we also make it clear that we can help them if they want to get out of the brothel. We work with the police, if necessary, to arrange rescue operations.
“I started working with women who had been sex-trafficked when I was a student and because of that was inspired to search Deuteronomy for a vision for freedom from slavery. Being exposed to groups of people who are suffering and who are longing for liberation caused me to adopt their questions and take their questions to the Bible to see what answers God provides for them. Trafficking is a form of modern slavery, and Israel is born in the act of a God who is anti-slavery, so I realised that this is exactly where God’s heart is. In the Bible, when God emancipates the Israelite people from slavery in Egypt, he brings them into a relationship with him and from that we can start to understand the very purposes of creation. All the other doctrines flow from this — from the liberation and identity that is found in a relationship with God. And that’s where I found the key to the social action that we were doing. I realised that social action has to begin with the liberation of people, both physical and spiritual. If the Church wants to imitate its God, it must become a Church that seeks liberation for the oppressed. You can’t be the Church without adopting this identity.
“Of course it’s not as though it’s only Christians who take this challenge seriously, there are many secular groups fighting against these evils. But I wasn’t interested in work that leaves people in the place where they were before they became slaves, I wanted to support people to take a step beyond that, to offer them the opportunity to interpret themselves in a totally different way.
“If a woman escapes from sex-trafficking but continues to see herself as trash, as the property of someone, then it’s only a matter of time before she ends up in slavery again. For that woman to be truly liberated would mean that she no longer thinks of herself as she did before, as a slave. This is what Deuteronomy does, it gives people a new vision of themselves. The Israelites who came out of Egypt still thought of themselves as dependent on Egypt, and when life after emancipation was hard they became nostalgic for their captivity. God not only freed them from slavery, but he also described the kind of community he wanted them to be, and in doing so showed them a new way to think about themselves.”