ACTON: Church of Greece: Country ‘occupied’ by creditors

Greek Orthodox Church. Chalkida, Greece.
Image via Wikipedia
Hmmmm!
Greece is occupied by creditors?  Really?  I must have missed the CNN report that showed the NATO tanks rolling in and the US Special Forces parachute drops.  Evidently, I’ve got to get cable tv.
All kidding aside, and as you point out, the fault here lies at least partially with the Church of Greece.  Yes, secularism and materialism are problems, and yes, asceticism is the answer.  But asceticism is only attractive to those who have heard and accepted the Gospel.  And, to borrow from St Paul, how can they hear unless we preach?
Forgive me but the Church in Greece, and I fear the Church in Russia as well, is at least as concerned with its social position as it is preaching the Gospel.  Unfortunately to be as concerned about the preaching the Gospel as your place in society is, in the final analysis, to forsake preaching in favor of social acceptance and power.
Forgive me for sounding harsh, and I’m aware of how much work needs to be done by the Orthodox Church here in America, but the complaints of the Church of Greece ring hollow to my no doubt tin ear and fail to resonant in my no doubt stony heart.
Read more about it here.
In Christ,
+Fr Gregory

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  • Chrys

    Very well said!

    Asceticism is intended to diminish the ego, the false self, in order to prepare a hospitable dwelling for grace. It is, as least in part, intended to cultivate humility.

    As has been noted elsewhere (Nassim Taleb has made this point repeatedly as I recall) debt “is driven, at least in part, by hubris.” Through most of modernity, Christians have recognized that debt can quickly become a form of self-inflicted enslavement. Given the level of debt involved, it is wildly inappropriate to blame the creditors – especially since this was a contract the parties willingly made.

    In this sense the need for asceticism is a reasonable first diagnosis. It recognizes that the level of hubris needed to acquire such a staggering amount of debt is a potentially significant indictment of the lack of humility and lack of vitality of asceticism in the institution over the present generation (or however long it took to acquire this amount of debt).

    Yet you are exactly right that there is a second potential indictment that goes deeper. One’s commitment to asceticism is indeed a by-product and expression of one’s commitment to the Gospel. The lack of it may point to a more serious problem: being “double minded.” If true, this calls for repentance. Social stature (always a temptation for all institutions) simply can NOT be a priority if one’s life revolves around a God Who became incarnate as a very underprivileged carpenter/rabbi in a backwater country like Israel at the time. God clearly eschewed what was powerful and wise in preferring to reveal Himself to the foolish and often uneducated. There may ultimately be many reasons why such staggering debt was acquired over time, but it is certainly fair for the Church to examine its own focus and priority – especially since judgment will begin within God’s household.

    Again, spot on!

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    • http://palamas.info/ Fr Gregory Jensen

      Chrys,

      Thanks for the comment and the kind words. Sorry for the delay in responding to you (and other people) but I switched from Firefox to Chrome and, well, the latter doesn’t seem to like my blog or Disqus.

      I agree with you that if we take the comments of the Church of Greece at face value the current financial situation in that country is a call to repentance. A similar call, I would suggest, is needed here.

      The real struggle is less to see the need for repentance–though that is often hard enough–but to figure out the content of the repentance.

      One the one hand, the Gospel tells me to care for the poor and give what I have to the poor. This often means, rightly, that I need to simplify my life.

      On the other hand, however, economics tells me–again rightly–that the best way to lift the poor out of poverty is through economic development. But this requires that I, and the poor, consume more goods and services to expand the market and so lift the poor out of poverty.

      So I am caught between two impulses–ascetical and consumerist. While each is legitimate in themselves neither a sufficient basis for repentance. BOTH lend themselves to seeking my own good (material and spiritual) at the expense of those who are in need.

      Looking at Greece, and the world financial situation generally, I don’t see a clear ascetical or economic solution.

      Your thoughts?

      In Christ,

      +FrG

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      • Chrys

        Father, thank you for the response. I have a few general (perhaps too general) thoughts in response.

        First, increased productivity, not increased consumption, is the key to generating wealth. Consumption, per se, does not add to social wealth, per se. The key for both society and the poor (though far, far more challenging for the poor) to emerge from an economic morass is to become more productive. This is not the same as just “making more stuff,” in which case consuming more stuff would indeed be important. It is making better stuff, or cheaper stuff or stuff that is either more efficient (less costly) or more effective (greater benefits) . . . or ideally both. By way of example, developing or acquiring the right tool can make all the difference at each step in the ability to plow, weed, fertilize and water the soil so as to increase the harvest. Likewise, low-cost and reliable refrigeration can preserve its transport to market, profitable distributions systems can deliver it efficiently to those markets and thus relatively low-cost food is offered to many. Each step in this complex system – from farm to market – benefits from marginal improvements in development and delivery. This creates wealth to varying degrees for each participant in the chain, including the end-user who can purchase more – and better – food for less, allowing him to focus on what he does best rather needing to use his energy to try to (inefficiently) grow food himself. All of which is to say that last growth is not the result of hyper-stimulated consumption.

        Hyper consumption is dangerous, and potentially a sign of decadence. It certainly represents a shift from effort, productivity and discipline to ease, indulgence and potentially dependency. The combination of low cost, abundantly available debt and grossly mistaken assumptions (housing only goes up) allowed us to indulge our appetites for quite awhile. As every spiritual father recognizes, appetites – once stimulated – take on a life of their own. Like the prodigal son (who was the ultimate hyper-consumer), debt is a party on the way up, but tragic on the way down; as a result, institutions and individuals across the world (including the US and Greece) have been forced to take on austerity measures (forced asceticism, as it were) in order to repair their balance sheets. It is necessary, it works – and fortunately it is happening.

        As for the poor, their resources are, by definition, inadequate for their needs and as such they are in no position to amplify consumption. The tradition route out of poverty is education (the development of valued skills) that will make the person more productive allowing him to command greater income.

        The only people or institutions in a position to consume during difficult times is those with surplus wealth. It is the affluent who have the resources needed to be early adapters and buy expensive new products (and almost all new developments are expensive when first brought to market). As more of the wealthy buy these products this allows the manufacturer to make a higher volume, permitting increasing efficiency in production, allowing them to then offer them for less. This is why the CD, VCR and DVD players that were so exorbitantly expensive when first offered are now accessible to all but the very poorest. Likewise today’s “base model” car is far better than the general luxury car of thirty years prior.

        Yet even when the wealthy consume, it must be done with discipline; their level of consumption can not exceed their resources or they too will deplete rather than increase their wealth. (In that sense, no matter how much one has, one either chooses discipline or he will have it forced on him by circumstances – and forced discipline is always much more difficult. The world is replete with bankrupt celebrities, lottery winners and beneficiaries who yielded to indulgence and are now faced with unpleasant constraints. Either way, discipline will be required; you pay now or you pay later.)

        The solution, in simplistic terms, is two-fold. It depends in part on productivity: the ability to produce something that blesses my neighbor with something that improves his lot that increases wealth. Yet it also depends on my ability to live below my income so I can gradually build a pool of resources that can then be put to work for me (i.e., invested) – either through ongoing returns or through increased productivity, so I can increase my own resources (wealth). This in turn can (and will) then be used to bless those around me even more. At the risk of overstatement, the first – our offering (however mundane it may seem) to our neighbor – is essentially Eucharistic. It goes hand-in-glove with and builds on the second – our fiscal discipline (asceticism, as it were), by which we can then offer more to more around us.

        When it works – and I have seen this in the lives of many, many (though not all) successful business owners – both are almost always present: their work truly is an offering of value to others and their efforts and consumption are disciplined to serve that end. (I have discovered that many actually enjoy the offering, being productive, much more than they do simply “consuming.” Though other things are certainly involved, I can’t help wondering if this is not a key reason why so many become absorbed in their work.) Conversely, when one is missing – and one sees this too often (see the comment above about celebrities, beneficiaries and lottery winners – or just think about how most of us treat “found money”), it does not work.

        It seems to me that this is one more indication the God has designed our lives so that we must be both ascetical and Eucharistic if we are to realize any meaningful blessing.

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        • http://palamas.info/ Fr Gregory Jensen

          Chys,

          Thank you for your comments and especially you linking economic development with ascetical discipline and the Eucharist. A very insightful and helpful observation.

          My own comments were less that accurate–the concern is not increased consumption as such but increased productivity. Having reviewed at least some of the Christian literature on economics, it does seem that the emphasis is typically on consumption–for example that American consume too much relative to the rest of the world–as a bad thin. It isn’t and if it work raising the poor out of poverty, i.e., helping them consume more, would be a sin.

          The problem is not with consumption as such but with undisciplined consumption AND a lack of productivity. I think that some are too quick to condemn consumption as such and when this happens it is usually associated with a lack of any awareness of productive.

          So yes, Americans consume a great of resources. And yes, we consume a great deal relative to other countries. But this is only part of the question. The other half is what do we produce with the resources we consume?

          To be sure American consumers can be greedy and wasteful. But greed is universal and waste nearly so and this is true whether we are talking the free market or a centrally planned economy. The relative advantage of the free market on this issue is not less greed but a diffusion of economic power which at least allows for the possibility of less waste relative to a planned economy where a select few make decisions without incentives to productive or consequences for waste.

          The problem then we face in America–and you rightly point this out–is that we often live above incomes rather than below our incomes. What we lack is the virtue of thrift. Additionally, we need to use our wealth to bless others with the resources they need for lives of personal economic and material productivity. We must work to make it possible for others to work.

          Finally, if I see one consistent shortcoming in American Christians–and specifically Orthodox Christians–it is that we do not foster simplicity of life among ourselves nor use our great economic and political wealth to live the Gospel and to bring the Gospel to others. Yes, we do do some good things and we have many devote people.

          But while we’ve built churches for ourselves and our children, we have not built schools or hospitals for ourselves much less for those around us. We have not used our wealth wisely but rather typically lived like the celebrities, beneficiaries and lottery winners you referenced in your original comment.

          I have no problem with our being rich–I do wish we used our riches better.

          Thanks again!

          In Christ,

          +FrG

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