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03 July 2015

Grace for Greece?

I saw the most wonderfully Christian response from a non-Christian on Facebook this week.

I had posted something about the Greek debt crisis, suggesting that Greek debt be forgiven, mainly on the basis of previous debt-cancellations other countries have enjoyed and because austerity has caused so much suffering in the lives of the Greek people.

The response from several people was pretty strong. Their concerns were overlaid with a quasi-righteous sheen that referenced “responsibility and hard work” a lot, perfectly exemplified in one comment: "So we can basically just carry on and get bailed out one day because people's lives matter?" A smart, decent, reasonable and, in this case, wrong friend asked in a comment. Before I had a chance to respond, another of my friends answered: “I would certainly hope so, yes.” He’s not, as far as I know, a Christian, but he expressed perfectly not just the beauty of a social safety net, but the principle of grace I believe in.

I know, I know. That’s a big leap. Can we really apply the logic of God’s grace to international economics? And if we do, am I saying that we should go on incurring debt so that grace may increase? By no means!

But does God continue to forgive our debts, if we are in Christ, no matter how many more we incur on a daily basis? Yup. And does Jesus teach us to pray for God to forgive our debts – the image he uses for sins in the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6 – as we forgive our debtors? Why yes, yes he does. Does he tell us to lend without expecting anything back? Sure. Does he tell us to forgive and forgive and forgive those from whom we could legitimately extract payback? Awkwardly, he does.

Now naturally I’m not suggesting anything as radical as applying the principles we believe God asks us to adhere to in our lives and that He applies to the salvation of our souls to something as important as economics. That would be ludicrous. Religion should be kept in churches and to Sundays, no?

But I will say that this week the IMF – not noted for its left-wing leanings or grace-oriented approach to economics – suggested that Greek debts be forgiven. I will also say that Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, wrote this week that austerity was having "catastrophic consequences" for Greece and that: “[A]lmost none of the huge amount of money loaned to Greece has actually gone there. It has gone to pay out private sector creditors – including German and French banks. Greece has gotten but a pittance, but it has paid a high price to preserve these countries’ banking systems.” Which, even if you’re not as ardent a fan of applying grace to public life as I am, puts a different spin on the rhetoric of ‘lazy Greeks’ needing to ‘work harder and stop sponging off Germany’ that you may have heard this week.

More relevant – and poetic, really, is the fact that in 1953 Greece was one of the countries that agreed to cancel 50 per cent of Germany’s debt. Syriza, the party many in the EU would like to oust from power regardless of the wishes of the Greek people, was long ago suggesting a similar process for Greece. A few years before its debt was cancelled, Germany had killed over 10 million people. Greece, on the other hand, has overspent on things like public services that help the poor, so you can see why the EU has had to be harsh with it, rather than consider the idea.

Knowing that fact about Greece and Germany makes me think of Matthew 18: 21-35. And hey, I’m not saying God has a definite opinion on a Greek bailout. But when economists and the IMF are saying the jury is at least undecided on the “stewardship and practicality” argument for being harsh with Greece – and others are calling it a programmatic attempt to destroy the welfare state in that country and beyond in favour of private profit, which I believe the prophet Amos might have an opinion about – maybe we could instead try patience and grace with the likes of Greece?

I certainly hope so.

Jonty Langley is a writer and commentator who also works for a mission

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