Europe’s Economy and Christianity’s Place in it | John S. Spong

Throughout the past few years, and certainly as a factor in the recent American presidential race, the state of the economy has been front and center. An important aspect of this debate is our sense of increasing globalization that ties all nations into a single world economy. The Dow Jones Average has been whipsawed by the economic crises in Europe, for example, with the almost daily threats of economic collapse in Greece, Italy and Spain.

Most people do not yet embrace how deeply interdependent the world has become economically and, especially, how interdependent world banking has become. The potential collapse of the economy of Spain was feared because it would bring with it the collapse of most of the major banks of the world including the United States. So, I made it my business while in Europe recently to get a first hand look at those things that now threaten us all economically in this global village that our world has become. Each nation seemed to be approaching the crisis differently.

My first stop was in the United Kingdom where Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, has opted for an austerity approach to the threatened economy of his nation. Unrest is obvious as the price of university education in the UK has tripled, health care cutbacks have been instituted and the Value Added Tax (VAT) on all purchases has been raised significantly, thereby inflating the price of every purchase.

As a result of this strategy, the economy of the UK has slipped back into a recession and unemployment is still very high. France had an election in May in the midst of this European crisis and the Socialist party came to power. True to his party’s standards, France’s new President Francois Hollande opted to address the crisis by pushing for higher taxes on the wealthy and more public money to alleviate the economic stress of the masses. In was an approach that was the exact opposite of the United Kingdom.

Meanwhile, the economies of Greece, Italy and Spain have been put under pressure from the European Union to put their fiscal houses in order as a pre-requisite for receiving the monetary assistance that would make national bankruptcy no longer inevitable. Germany, whose economy is Europe’s strongest, has become as a consequence the dominant political power in the continent, accomplishing through economic means what that nation sought to accomplish through military might in World War II. Rising from the ashes of defeat, a prosperous Germany now faces the response that all dominant powers always receive. Yes, there is gratitude from those Germany is able to rescue, but there is also resentment and thus hostility flowing from those forced into frugality against their wills.

Spain totters on the edge of economic disaster with a conservative right wing government. Its unemployment rate is above 25 p.c. Both Greece and Italy face ongoing political upheaval.

It is of great interest to this American observer to see that whatever government is in power, whether liberal or conservative, is either blamed for the economic turndown or for not having done enough to restart economic growth. The fact is that in an interdependent world, the tide of the world economy will carry all nations and the particular government in power at the time will rise or fall on that tide with little or no ability to change that nation’s circumstances dramatically.

Whether we were in the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria, Hungary or Spain, the consensus was that the world’s economic collapse of 2008-2009 has been stopped, but that the progress out of that deep hole has been too slow to keep hope alive. The future at worst is bleak, and at best is not clear. As is always the case there will be overt political fallout for all those in power, whether liberal or conservative, until a full pattern of economic growth is established.

There were several other things that also became obvious to me as we journeyed through these formative nations in Western civilization. The first is that boundaries are falling away in Europe faster than most of the people are emotionally prepared to accept or to admit. The common currency, the Euro, has brought a new sense of unity to the countries of Europe that most Europeans have not even imagined before. England still has its Pound Sterling, Sweden its Krona, Hungary its Forint, but the Euro has become a powerful sign of European oneness.

The European Common Market now sets policy for all the member states on working conditions, environment, health standards and pay scales, which among other things are designed to make men and women doing the same work equal in compensation. Nation states resent this imposition on their sovereignty, but they recognize the impossibility of going on their own economically and so they bite their tongues and accept it. Grumbling is high, action is minimal.

The second insight I gained on this trip was that the migration of people across Europe in search of employment is wide open. (…) One business I had the chance to visit had employees from Germany, Hungary, Austria, Serbia, Croatia, Ukraine, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. They all spoke German and English as well as the language of their own country of origin. Once there is economic unity, which is not far from being present now, political unity will surely follow. There is no illustration in history that might suggest otherwise.

With people crossing boundaries that once seemed invincible, political unity will surely follow and the loyalty of citizens to a United States of Europe will in another century or so be at least competitive with if not deeper and more significant than loyalty to one’s nation of origin. That is the pattern that we have followed in the United States where today for most Americans, loyalty to this nation supersedes the loyalty to the state of our origin. Rapid population mobility makes that inevitable.

My third insight was that in this scenario, it does not seem to matter that nation states of the past are today breaking into even smaller ethnic states: The Czech Republic and Slovakia have replaced Czechoslovakia. Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Slovenia are today where Yugoslavia once stood. (…) Belgium is considering a split between its Flemish and its Walloon citizens. Scotland is about to vote in a referendum on Scottish independence. None of these smaller nations alone would be viable economically, but as States in the United States of Europe they can have the best of both worlds. Local autonomy is merging with corporate and national interdependence.

My fourth insight was that Europe has one other reality with which it must deal. It has a history filled with dark chapters, marked by war, torture, genocide and the experience of being both the conqueror and the conquered. There is about much of this history a deep, corporate guilt. We saw this best in Hungary, a land that has been overrun constantly in its history, first by the Mongols, then by the Turks, the Habsburgs, the Germans and the Soviets. Its history is filled with pain, deprivation and defeat.

It also knows anti-Semitism and it still recalls the Jews who once lived in their midst, but who are no more. That is also true in Germany, Austria and Spain. We saw places where synagogues once stood, but are now marked by memorial monuments. We saw Jewish cemeteries that had been destroyed and desecrated. We saw public buildings into which Jewish tombstones had been placed as a kind of trophy. We saw memorial shoes planted on the bank of the Danube Promenade in Budapest, erected to mark the place where hundreds of Jews were lined up and shot with their bodies falling into the river to be washed by its tide into the Black Sea.

We also saw the dark side of Communism, a system built on the dreams of equality, but which in actuality descended into the reality of slavery. We talked with Hungarians whose parents and grandparents had been removed to the Soviet Union as “war reparations laborers” to work almost as slaves in Soviet work camps and who were never heard of again.

Europeans have known dictatorships of both the right and the left. They have known oppression and murder, dislocation and tribal hatreds. They see hope in an emerging sense of European oneness. They embrace that hope gingerly, not sure whether they can trust it, but seeing no alternative. They are in the vanguard of an emerging new trans-tribal consciousness that sees humanity as one, that now understands the fact that cooperation is better than war.

They are also becoming aware that all religions in their past have been more divisive that helpful, that human consciousness does not stop at any boundary whether it be nationality, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or religion. A new world is being born. No, it is not an easy or comfortable world, but it is now seen as an inevitable world.

With that new world, a new religion will of necessity also evolve. It, like the nations of Europe, will not deny its past, but it will have to transcend the limits that marked that past, surrender most of its irrational claims to have ever captured truth in its traditional religious forms and allow itself to evolve into something it has never been before. The changes in Europe make this an exciting time to be a Christian. The evolution of consciousness will require an evolution in religion. Christianity will be and must be changed into something it has never been before. Hopefully, we Christians will merge the treasures of our past with the dreams of our future.

Europe, battered and bruised by its past, is prepared, I believe, to lead the world into that future. I hope a revived and open Christianity will be willing and able to be part of that tomorrow.

John Shelby Song – a retired American bishop of the Episcopal Church and a progressive theologian. From 1979 to 2000 he was Bishop of Newark.

Numer 1(1) 2013, 11.02.2013