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Rev Dr Giles Fraser - 30/06/15

Thought for the Day

The word “redemption” is used in two particular ways. First, it’s a religious word, referring to the process by which human beings are saved. But it’s also an economic word, referring to the paying off of a loan. These two meanings may not seem to have an obvious connection. But they do share a common Biblical root, and have been entwined throughout Christian thought.

Consider the current debate about Greek debt. What's fascinating here is that the respective attitudes of the eastern and western churches towards theological redemption can be seen to be tracked by the respective attitudes of the Greek and German governments towards debt redemption.

The dominant western theological model of redemption is basically that of debt repayment. It goes like this: human beings have sinned against God and thus incurred a debt that has to be repaid. It's a bit like speaking of criminals “paying back” their debt to society. But because this debt has become impossibly enormous, Jesus comes and pays it back on our behalf. That's what happens on the cross. Remember the hymn “there was no other good enough to pay the price of sin”. That is redemption. And it's not insignificant that Angela Merkel, who insists that the Greeks must repay their debt, is also the daughter of a Lutheran minister, for whom the debt-repayment model would have be the very essence of the biblical narrative.

But the Greek Orthodox Church sees the salvation story completely differently. For the eastern orthodox churches, the key event is the resurrection not the crucifixion. Indeed, they see the idea that the cross is some sort of cosmic pay-pack for human sin as a no-pain-no-gain obsession with suffering. For one thing, they are not into sin language. And for another, they do not believe that a God who can cheat death must abide by the strict logic of the western pay-back model. For the eastern church, we are released from the burden of impossible debt by a God who believes in new life through extravagant forgiveness. In the economy of salvation, abundance of life trumps the iron cage of debt. For the western church, however, this a free lunch model of salvation that allows believers to elude any responsibility for past behaviour.

It is unsurprising that capitalism itself was built upon this western model of redemption. As Weber explained in “The protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism”, the two are mutually reinforcing ideas. But there are many expressions of the Christian faith that do not subscribe to the pay-back model of redemption – and these are often popular in places where the spirit of capitalism is not so enthusiastically received. It may look like the argument between Greece and Germany is simply an argument over money. But look deeper, and there's a whole difference of world view. And it’s there in their prayers as well as in their banks.

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