Thought for the Day - Rev Dr Giles Fraser
Riots on the streets. Police using tear gas. Pension cuts totalling E300bn and the loss of 150,000 public sector jobs. So who is to blame for the financial meltdown currently traumatizing Greece?
After the financial crisis broke in the autumn of 2008 it wasn’t long before many of us were insisting that the whole mess could be put down to the greed of bankers and the irresponsibility of the finance industry. Politicians, secular commentators and religious leaders all joined in: we needed a new and more moral form of capitalism. But is this Greek situation something different? And if so, who is to blame for the tragedy that is playing out before our eyes?
It seems clear enough that, like most of us, the Greeks were living well beyond their means even before the financial crisis of 2008. And like us, they bought into the idea that capitalism had become a risk free enterprise - that it would go on delivering ever increasing prosperity. The philosophy of "live now pay later" was endemic. Again and again we were led to believe that bull markets were more natural than bear markets and that the only way was up. In the USA, houses were sold to people who couldn’t afford them on the basis that the increasing value of property would eventually meet the original debt.
Clearly, the Greeks bought into all of this as well - with the added comfort that membership of a shared currency with Germany would more or less guarantee that they couldn’t go bust. Thus they started paying themselves considerably more than their economy could afford. But can we really blame individual Greek citizens for all of this? For it wasn’t just the Greeks that subscribed to the dangerous myth of capitalism’s capacity to keep on giving.
And now ordinary Greeks feel they are being unfairly punished - made to pay for the sins of their leaders who, ten years ago, applied to join the euro on the basis of having fiddled the figures.
At the end the last year, the Vatican had a go at tackling the moral issues - and no doubt on the advice of leading economists - called for a redesign of the global financial architecture. But that didn’t put food in the mouths of poor Greek children - some of whom are now being handed over to orphanages by parents who cannot feed them any more.
Over the weekend a Greek bishop appealed for help to the Pope, desperately pointing out that local hospitals had no heating and were fast running out of medicines. This wasn’t a call for clever theological reflection but for pastoral support and understanding.
The duty of solidarity and the call to compassion is something we can all respond to – not least on the Biblical principle of doing unto others what we would have them do unto us. Maybe what is happening in Greece qualifies as the economic version of a natural disaster, like floods and earthquakes. And if that’s the case, perhaps our first move should be to stop blaming the victims.