Those lazy Greeks and their fiery, unpredictable government have been disciplined like a Mykonos pickpocket: arrested, handcuffed and prevented from taking any more wealth from hard-working people. Alternatively, those cruel Germans and their cold, efficient government have crushed an innocent nation under their heel like an ancient urn under a panzer tank.
It really depends how you look at it, but that is broadly the situation. At least that seems to be the state of play as I write this – who knows where we’ll be by the time you read it.
At this point, Greece has been handed an ultimatum by the rest of Europe (led by Germany) that is, by all accounts, quite harsh. One senior European official called the measures 'extensive mental waterboarding'.
To stay in the Euro, the Greek Government will have to agree to some draconian measures, called 'a disaster' by one Nobel-prize-winning economist and 'a grotesque betrayal of everything the European project was supposed to stand for' by another. A leading British newspaper has called the ultimatum, which would see many of Greece’s national assets put into a holding company in Luxembourg and privatised as needed to pay off Greek debt 'revenge' for the Greek people daring to vote ‘no’ in its recent referendum on austerity.
And yet, around whatever has replaced watercoolers in our offices (microwaves? Espresso machines?), around our dinner tables and in our churches, the language being used is mostly that of consequence and responsibility. Germany is just doing what any of us would do – just being responsible. With eminent Economists like Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman denouncing the move, you may have guessed there is probably more to it than the lazy racist stereotypes I opened with.
Germans are not inherently mean, nor are they naturally more logical than Greeks. Greeks are, in turn, not lazy or essentially irresponsible. You know that thinking that is racist, right? And you know that’s a sin? Good.
Let’s avoid those lazy national stereotypes and replace them with some Christian values:
Jesus has no time for hypocrites and God talks extensively in the Old Testament of his hatred of those who use dishonest measures to cheat the poor. Integrity in this situation means admitting that, quite apart from the triggers of Greece’s current woes, many of the countries calling for Greece to give up its fiscal sovereignty have benefited from its troubles.
Stiglitz noted a while back that almost none of the money lent to Greece to ‘help’ it has gone to Greece. Most of it went directly to German and French banks to whom Greece owed money. In a crisis caused by banks, banks are pressuring governments to demand certain actions from Greece, which result in money meant to help Greece being paid to banks. Do you see the integrity problem there?
And among all this, we hear again and again that Greece was not collecting enough tax to pay for its public services. Now, I’m a fan of tax. I’m alive because of tax. But, as Stiglitz said recently, 'The West has created a framework for global tax avoidance… advanced countries trying to undermine a global effort to stop tax avoidance. Can you have a better image of hypocrisy?'
After the Second World War, Germany had its debts forgiven. One of its creditors was Greece. This fact has been explored elsewhere by myself and others, but it’s just worth remembering Jesus’ thoughts in Matthew, and the words, 'You wicked servant… I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?'
There is so much in the Bible about the importance and desirability of wisdom – and it’s a complex issue, defining exactly what Christian wisdom is. But it’s safe to say, I think, that what it is not is stupid. And demanding more austerity to be forced on Greece is stupid.
The IMF recognises that austerity did immense damage to Greece. The Nobel economists I quoted earlier recognised this. So did the Jubilee Debt Campaign, who warned that austerity would crash the Greek economy in 2010.
Patience, debt-forgiveness and at least 20 years’ grace to rebuild the economy before any repayments are made – these are some wise responses to the Greek crisis.
Is respect for people’s autonomy and their own decisions a Christian value? I’m a Baptist, so I tend to think so. And while I am wary of Christians elevating democracy to the level of a 'Christian' system of government (any more than monarchy, anarchosyndicalism or letting Stephen Fry decide for us all), I like it. Democracy allows every man and woman to have a say in how they are governed, regardless of their lineage, gender or level of wealth. Only, that last part is a problem these days.
Part of the deal offered to Greece in the last few days has been the insistence that Greece must surrender fiscal sovereignty to Europe. What that means is that they must give up the right to democratically control their own finances according to the will of the Greek electorate. It’s the kind of thing our own government would never in a million years allow Europe to dictate to us and the level of European interference likely to make a UKIP MP spontaneously combust – but only if it’s applied to us.
Assuming tough, unfair, unpleasant things are acceptable when faced by others but not by yourself is the very essence of disrespect. Or a lack of love.
'The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat,' in 2 Thessalonians 3:10, used to trouble me. It’s used so often as a biblical argument against socialism one starts to believe that’s how it was intended – almost enough to make one forget Acts 2:44-45, where quite a different message is preached.
But I don’t fear Thessalonians 3:10 anymore. I don’t even fear the not-terribly-Grace-oriented idea often drawn from it that says that the only way you should gain wealth (or even financial support) is by working for it.
Because far from an argument for Capitalism, that principle demolishes capitalism’s legitimacy. You know what is not work? Owning something. A house, a piece of land, a sum of money. You may have worked to afford it but nobody could reasonably say that sitting on your bottom while owning any of those things is working. Which means ‘earning’ interest and ‘earning’ rent – getting money for doing nothing but owning things – are disallowed by Thessalonians 3:10.
And so is earning interest on loans. Individual bankers may be working, and hey, they deserve a salary. But the international banking system is predicated on money ‘making’ money and people becoming wealthy by investing – not by working.
It is future generations of Greeks who will pay the ultimate price for more austerity or GrExit from the Euro. Christians do not punish the son for the sins of the father.
The Greek situation is complex. But it is not so complex that we should ignore a principle that is becoming increasingly important for Christians to remember: God loves human beings, not economies. If your actions benefit the latter and harm the former, I find it hard to believe God is on your side.