Friday, 20 July 2012

Thrift and abundance

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.


  1. You are so right about being rich in the things that matter. Churches and individuals need to remember that. I, for one, tend to get far too down about the economic problems we face in Europe, after all, there is only so much we can effectively do to make things better.

  2. I worry about the economic situation- especially with two sons coming up to employment age. Worry doesn't achieve much though! :)

  3. I think there is something in the fact it is mainly Catholic or non-Protestant countries that have needed bailouts. Certainly in countries like Italy or Greece there is a high level of political and economic corruption and this isn’t just something done at senior levels of society, but permeates its fabric. There is a good deal of individual ‘flexibility’ when it comes to paying taxes etc. Italy has a vast ‘black’ economy.

    However I think it should be remembered that from the point of view of debt per capita, the UK is well up there and has far greater debts than some of our European neighbours needing bailing outs!

    What I find interesting is how the notion of morality creeps into political economics. Tony Blair (the very name makes my bowels shrivel!) said that it was ‘immoral’ to expect older people to pay towards the cost of their care – surely an attempt at winning votes, as opposed to any real concern about the rights and wrongs of paying for welfare services..? Is it not more ‘immoral’ to load debt on children yet unborn so that past and present governments can be bountiful with money they haven’t got, to ease their own political fortunes?

    In the late 90s and early naughties, Germany was seen as the sick man of Europe as it did not clock up massive economic growth figures of its seemingly dynamic neighbours. Germany restructured – partly because of the economic pain of unification, but also because it foresaw the problems of economic productivity linked to debt and an unsustainable ‘social contract’; that is rescinding or lessening many of the economic subsidies and ‘rights’ that had the potential to burden the country. These policies were unpopular at home and meant it didn’t cut the figure it once had done in Europe... But, Germany had the last laugh.

    Because of our own government’s fragile political basis, the necessary and massive shift away from state provision and state subsidy of much of our lives is not going to happen. Though still it is the poor who really suffer the meagre reforms of our welfare and tax systems – the middle-classes, tho’ pinched, have not seen the same impact of ‘austerity’ as those on poorer or benefit incomes.

    To my mind, there has to be a shift away from the belief the state will solve all our ills – and that the state will pay for all our needs. Yet this belief in the power of the state goes beyond finances and ‘rights’. A curious situation has arisen with many of our conservative Christian friends (as can be seen by the call for petitions, lobbying and legal challenges of some of our more obnoxious Christian Right Wing organisations) – they look to the state to impose or fix that which they can’t, by their witness or example, do themselves. If there is a perceived rise in social immorality (tho’ I can assure you we live in a far, far more socially moral society than when the churches were full, in the 19th century!) this is the government’s fault. Which is really just an admission of failure and impotence on the part of the Church. Any failure in the Church to influence society, is its own failure and no one else’s; yet still we hear the likes of +Chartris or the Christian Institute or Anglican Hatestream bleating accusations against the state – when in truth they are just acknowledgements of their own failure.

    So perhaps what is really needed, is a change in our own personal morality – owning it ourselves instead of believing it the role of the state to sort out our problems? We hear the bankers and the politicians accused of causing the present economic crisis: but who borrowed the money from the banks? Who lived beyond their means? We as individuals too have to shoulder some of the burden and although you and I can probably claim we don’t live beyond our means, a sizable majority of the population do and lay responsibilities that should be the property of each of us as individuals onto the monolith of the state. Until this state of affairs changes, Europe is doomed to slow decline...