The first 17 years of the 21st century have been turbulent ones and, here in the west, arguably defined by two major events.
The first one happened in September 2001 when two planes were flown into the world trade towers in New York, events that have changed the way the world is configured in terms of its political and military life. The second thing, and the one which underlies my thinking on the topic of austerity, is this. Ten years ago this week, a British bank called Northern Rock failed its followers in a fairly spectacular way and, for the first time since the Great Depression, there were queues round the block of investors wanting to get their money out of this bank.
Some time later, you had Lehmann Brothers in the US and, in 2008, we were suddenly exposed as a community to a whole set of languages that we'd never heard before. Suddenly, some of us knew what a sub-prime mortgage was, which really meant lending money to people who were never going to be able to pay it back! There were all sorts of conversations about what on earth had gone on in both the US and the UK, where debts could not be repaid, where there was a run on the banks, creating a situation of enormous turmoil. Was the whole economic system going to collapse down around our ears? Following that, there was a desire to bail the banks out, quantitative easing was developed as an idea that most of us had never heard of before. The Bank of England played a key role in this process and lots of people were severely criticised in the banking world. In the midst of the financial turbulence and fear and anxiety, governments moved rapidly to try and reassure the populace. And a decade of austerity was ushered in.
Martin Vander Weyer reflects on the enduring effects of this crisis, ten years on: “Looking back after a decade we can be grateful for the bailout interventions that shored it all up at a moment of cataclysm, but we can also observe the lingering and deep unfairness of the longer term recovery. Ultra-low interest rates that won't rise above inflation any time soon, mean blameless savers face continuing negative returns on cash deposits, yet the impact of quantitative easing on asset prices has made people rich in equities and real estate and they are richer than ever before. Bank shareholders have seen no rebound in their investment while bank executives go on collecting fat packages. Low earners have been squeezed by austerity, while high earners have not. High street banks are endlessly tied up in precautionary red tape, all from this, while banks themselves, despite the precautions for their customs, have been revealed to be up to their necks in scandal after scandal. The lesson for next time is this: there's no such thing as natural economic justice”.
So there's a question to be considered, about whether or not austerity is moral. Firstly, I think we should be widening our definition of that as Christians. The Bible has some pretty negative things to say about debt, that we don't want to be getting into it! The Bible and Christian theologians throughout church history have been saying that debt's a bad thing because you become a slave to the person to whom you owe money. So, it seems to me that austerity as a model, despite everybody saying it doesn't work, has had modest success.
For example, in 2010 and 2011, the British national debt was 151 billion pounds. Just two or three years later, it was down to 50 billion. Now those figures are eye-watering, but it does seem like progress in the right general direction. So, from a Christian point of view, knowing what the Bible says about debt and saving and being a debtor, I think it's absolutely right to pay off debt because we don't want future generations to be saddled with all of this repayment. If we care for our children and our grandchildren, we don't want them to inherit so many of the challenges that Greece, for example, is facing. There has been enormous incapacity to address this dreadful question.
However, I think that where we have arrived and where austerity, as it's called, is deeply immoral is that the poorest people in our society are struggling with the payment of this austerity debt. Why has homelessness increased on such a dramatic scale? Why are food banks overflowing, not with food, but with people who need the food? And the difficulty for Christians is this: if you say one thing about austerity - you should pay off the debt - people assume you are right-wing. If you say it's a tragedy that the poor are oppressed, people say you're left-wing. Our political system of right and left seems to be completely broken. And our dilemma won’t be solved by drifting into political slanging matches from either side.
I think the Bible brings a unique perspective to some of these things and we need to be saying that it's a broken system - not in a negative way, but saying let's affirm the need to be honourable with future generations and let's make sure the burden of austerity payments falls on the rich not the poor. That's not a left-wing thing to say or a right-wing thing to say, it's a Christian thing to say about the challenges.
So, is austerity moral? I think the answer is yes as a theoretical construct, but no in terms of its impact. So I believe as that a Christian I can be affirming of payment of debt as a crucial component of the health of society for the future, while at the same time saying we must be absolutely sure where the bigger burden falls for the repayment of that debt. We, as a society, will be judged by our care of the poorest and the most broken and hurting.
The Christian message is this: 'although he [Jesus] was rich, he became poor’. He became incarnated, fleshed out on planet earth, so that broken people like me and like you could discover a whole new way of living and engage these questions with passion. We should not allow ourselves simply to have a faith that makes us feel better in a good service on a Sunday. We should refuse to settle for that and hunger after a faith that is transforming enough in our lives to genuinely want to be Jesus to those with nothing and even less than nothing, both in our own communities and around the world.