I enjoyed this article on the BBC News website exploring the idea that Eurozone conflicts over how to deal with the financial crisis find their roots in religion and whether, culturally as much as theologically, countries and individuals identify with Protestantism, with its emphasis on austerity, self discipline and work ethic ,or Catholicism, with its unreformed and more indulgent approach to matters fiscal. It is quite amusing to imagine, as Stephan Richter has suggested, that the addition of Luther as one of the negotiators of the Maastricht treaty, deciding which countries could join the euro, would have solved the entire debt crisis!
Our attitude to money itself and our attitude to those without money is of great importance in Christianity. On the one hand, the management of money (stewardship as some churches like to call it) is a practical matter; despite the existence of the prosperity gospel, we are called on to treat money with caution, indeed to eschew riches, and, rather radically, give it all to the poor- not that you see many Christians. rushing to do this! So many of Jesus' parables concern themselves either directly or indirectly with the idea of money, abudance, gifts, debts, payment, generosity or lack thereof. In most of them it is not money itself which is the issue, rather money is used to illustrate a much deeper attitude to life, to ourselves, to others and to God. It is hardly surprising that money is a theological concept - at the heart of a Protestant understanding of salvation is the idea of a debt cancelled, however, beyond this, there is also a message about what we want, how much we are prepared to give, where our treasure lies. I left school in the eighties, during the Thatcher years and the loads-a-money culture. One of our teachers gave this parting advice, "BE RICH", he scrawled on the board, there were sounds of surprise, approval or disapproval accordingly, then he added, "in the things that matter."
Harry Enfield and loads-a-money has now been relegated to the history books and things look much more bleak. It is impossible to determine whether Luther could really solve the debt crisis, perhaps it is really a way of saying that a return to an austere and Calvinistic scrupulosity, hopefully just when it comes to business and economics, is the way forward. But we should not forget that a Protestant work ethic can lead to a place where we count our pennies, give cold charity to our neighbour, justify amassing great wealth in the name of religion or even see wealth as a sign of God's approval. The life Jesus lived wasn't one you would recommend to a young person starting out. Forget thrifty or penny pinching, going into ministry without financial backing wasn't even a sensible plan. The life of Jesus was not one of austerity but rather one combining poverty and abudance; the God who created the universe and who tears up the accounts book in favour of an amazing grace can hardly be characterised as a bean counter.
Austerity will continue to dominate the news; David Cameron has announced that he sees no end in sight (surely he's said that before...) Meanwhile, we should not forget that we are not asked to be austere, we are asked to give without counting the cost, and to be rich - in the things that matter.