This weekend the Spanish government announced – to the relief of European governments all, not to mention the US – that they would be requesting “help” from the Eurogroup to prop up the Spanish economy. Channelled through the wonderfully named “Orderly Bank Restructuring Fund” (FROB), the idea is to make sure that Spain has enough money to get its banks in order, receiving what Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy happily described as a “soft loan”. Spain is set to receive up to 100,000 million euros – that is around 10% of the country’s annual GDP – even though the IMF reckons that we “only” need 40 billion. Best to ask for too much, just in case. Europe’s “men in black”, as Finance Minister Cristóbal Montoro described them last week, will in fact be around Spain for a few years to come to make sure that the severe austerity targets are met.
No one here was particularly taken aback; to most, it was a Chronicle of a Death Foretold, to borrow Gabriel García Márquez’s phrase, a question of when, not if. But what has most surprised almost everyone is the rose-tinted slant that Rajoy has placed on the whole affair, turning financial ruin into political triumph. It is not a bailout; Europe is saving the euro. Spain is not in the same category as Portugal, Ireland or Greece; PIG, not PIGS, please. Without what this government has already done, things would be so much worse. This is a sovereign Spanish decision, not taken under duress; on the contrary, if anything, it was Mr. Rajoy who was putting the pressure on. Nothing had happened between Friday, when they were awaiting a “technical report”, and Saturday, when Economy Minister Luis de Guindos sent out the SOS. In fact, Mariano Rajoy maintains that he was thinking of requesting EU help all along, even referring to this in his investiture speech in December last year. (Mmm… strange that no one has been able to find where exactly in his speech he mentioned this; maybe Winston Smith hasn’t had time to finish the new version yet.) The cherry on the cake emerged as as a text message sent by Rajoy to de Guindos during negotiations with the Eurogroup on Saturday was leaked: “Hold out. We are the fourth largest power in Europe. Spain is not Uganda.” Indeed. Uganda has never asked for loans to shore up its ailing banking system.
It seems to be another case of donde dije digo, digo Diego, that beautifully untranslatable Spanish idiom that means something along the lines of “whatever I said before, that’s not what I mean now”. Rare is the time, it seems, that a politician, of whatever colour or shade, calls a spade a spade. Living in that strange world where the role of the opposition is precisely that, to oppose, whatever government policy may be, and that of the government is to defend decisions made, however unwise those decisions may have later proved to be, language becomes a vehicle for propaganda and self-defence, not for dialogue and genuine communication.
Our capacity for language and self-expression is one of the clearest reflections of the image of God in humanity. But like the rest of that marred image, communication can so easily be kidnapped and put into the service of injustice and oppression. Instead of building bridges through truth, communication can erect walls of deceit, leaving opponents entrenched in mutually contradictory affirmations rather than searching together for right understanding through dialogue. Watching the summaries of parliamentary debates – I can rarely face the whole blow-by-blow live coverage – there seems to be very little listening to one another going on, much less reasoned debate. Instead we get a whole lot of preaching to the choir, saying the right things to draw hear-hears from our side of the house, bowing the knee of demagogy to those who already think like we do.
Jesus’ capacity for straight talking has always impressed me. He appears as adept as anyone else at “speaking the truth in love”, though maybe knowing how to do it better than most of us. He did not fear reaction and never spoke what he knew others wanted to hear, but what they needed to hear. To the rich young ruler – who, we are clearly told, “Jesus loved” – Jesus spoke that which he no doubt knew would be rejected and would cause that young man to turn and walk sadly away. But he still spoke. Whilst it is true that the Pharisees were out to get him, they still recognised who Jesus was, “a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth” (Mark 12:14).
I imagine that he would start with the past, just how and why we have got ourselves into this mess. It has everything to do with unchecked human greed, whether on the part of bankers or investors seeking profit at whatever human cost, or the countless thousands who chose to contract debt beyond their means, together creating the huge property bubble and subsequent splat (bubbles don’t crash; in my mind they splat) that has crippled the economy. I know there is more to it than this – globalized markets, carefully disguised financial reporting to enable certain otherwise ineligible countries to enter the euro, post 9-11 share price weaknesses, unregulated banking practice… – but the rabbit-trail of cause and effect at some point always seems to lead back to unscrupulous and unchecked greed. And in the ensuing débâcle, victims and perpetrators share the same fate. The innocent suffer as much – sometimes more – than the guilty; as someone said, the sun shines on both evil and good, and the rain falls on both righteous and unrighteous, but more on the righteous, because the unrighteous have stolen their umbrellas.
Then Jesus would deal with the present. Austerity measures, deficit correction, overhaul of banking systems… I do not claim to understand all of these and cannot doubt that these, and more, are sorely needed. But solutions to the economy must not be searched for solely in the realm of economics. Humanity cannot be sacrificed on the altar of economic theory. The widow and orphan, the poor and impoverished – whether within the borders of our own nations or across the oceans in the developing nations whose welfare depends on trade with the West –, remain priority in God’s economy. Any “solution” that does not provide adequate security for these populations would not meet with Jesus’ seal of approval.
And the future? Resolving this crisis cannot mean getting back to “business as usual”. Unrighteous practice needs to be changed. Systems that allow for the exploitation by the powerful of the weak and vulnerable require regulation. A “free market” that functions in an economic neo-Darwinian version of survival of the fittest, controlled for their own personal benefit by a select few, does not square with a society built on Christian values. Wealth creation without Sabbath and Jubilee will never fulfil God’s purposes for humanity. Somehow the values of “progress” must be pursued in ways that honour people and preserve the planet on which we dwell.
Or maybe Jesus would just point to the prophet of old, and say: “the LORD has told you, O Mariano, what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). That’s as good a place as any to start.