Beliefs Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

The moral theology of the Greek crisis

Great Schism between Eastern and Western Churches in 1084
Great Schism between Eastern and Western Churches in 1084

Great Schism between Eastern and Western Churches in 1084

At its heart, the Greek crisis is about the moral economy, not the financial one. The Eurocrats want the Greeks to admit they are wastrels who deserve to suffer. The Greeks want the Eurocrats to admit they are Scrooges who like making them suffer.

They may both be right, but behind the moral standoff is a difference in approaches to human error that has divided Eastern and Western Christianity for centuries. It’s the difference between the Orthodox idea of economia and the Augustinian conviction that either it’s right or God brings the hammer down.

Economia recognizes that while all warfare is bad, sometime people have to fight and then get to repent for it. Augustinianism sees wars as either just or unjust. Economia recognizes that while divorce is bad, sometimes a husband and wife have to split up and they then get to remarry (somberly, no more than twice) and remain Christians in good standing. Augustinianism says no to divorce, and no to communion for those who remarry.

Economia, in other words, is all about rules of mercy. As the King James version of the Lord’s Prayer puts it, “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Augustinianism is all about rules of judgment: “And he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats.”

Over at the Economist, the blogger Erasmus (himself Eastern Orthodox) meditates on the East-West divide and suggests that established churches on both sides need to speak truth to the powers that underwrite their operations. I’d say that the Eurocrats should be told that, even as they speak, Pope Francis is pushing his church to open its doors to the divorced and remarried. And the Greeks need a reminder that there’s no economia without repentence.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


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  • One day Greece will look back and say, we’ve been there but today we are victorious. Olympians as they are they will make it through the tough times.

    What else can we wish for a nation that was once the hot bed for Christianity.

    It’s not about how low you fall but how you are able to rise up from the fall.

  • Interesting discourse on the difference between Rome and Byzantium, but at the risk of sounding purely Roman:

    Greece needs to grow up and enter the adult world. Life is not about running up insane indebtedness over and over again and then refusing to take responsibility for it.

    The scary thing, of course, is that America can become Greece if it doesn’t slam on the brakes.

  • yes, yes you condem the greeks and call them names looking down upon them from your “ivory tower” after all they have and continue to endure. what they have been stripped of time and time again through the centuries by many kinds and even when they asked of the west “brothers in christ” it was to be at the cost of their souls and never fully given as promised. you rome are in no position to pass judgement on the greeks for any reason. you may break them economically but as you can clearly see the proud greeks will always pull themselves back up until another one of your kind storms in again to knock her down. i see not the hand of god in you. how sad.

  • St. Pope John Paul II prophetically called us to breath with both lungs,
    East and West…

    Intrigued by the way you connected things in this crisis… thank you

  • Break the Greeks economically? They borrowed billions and billions of dollars that they couldn’t pay back, did nothing to stop their runaway spending that they couldn’t afford, and have endangered at least the European economy, if not the world economy, by defaulting.

    The United States is currently some $16 trillion in debt, a lot of it accrued by people who claim that deficit spending is a horrible idea to be avoided – the Republican Party. President Obama basically saved the world’s economy by placing us a few trillion more in debt.

    The only reason we have survived such reckless and runaway spending is because our manufacturing and services industry base is so strong. But eventually, there will be a time of reckoning.

    It is disgusting to me that we have mortgaged the future in order to finance imperialist dreams today, to play with the Russians, or to supply corporate welfare to big business . The whole world may end up paying for it.

  • I’m intrigued by Silk’s East-West analysis, but if he’s going ot make this a purely theological–rather than sound-economics-and-finance argument, then he falls short of Christ’s words on forgiveness . . .by that measure, essentially the Greeks can go forth in their corrupt over-spending and under-producing, and the thrifty, stoic Germans have to forgive and bail them out fully 70-times-7 . . . What are we up to at this point? This has been going on since the early 2000’s.

  • I had seen commentators compare the conflict to a theological distinction between stark German Protestantism and Catholic rituals of forgiveness, but your discussion of a much earlier theological debate is enlightening. The question now (to follow Agamben) is basically which model increases economic wealth (prosperity) more, just as the debates of Economia always revolved around how best to increase God’s glory. As to Sabelotodo2’s comment: Germany has also required mercy in its time (1953). If anyone should understand the dire consequences of a harsh insistence on payback, it’s the Germans.