Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Bearing one another's burdens

At the end of a week of political turmoil, even those of us allied to the losing side will welcome the establishment of a government that can do what governments should do: govern. But, while we in the UK have been holding our breath, the rest of Europe has been rushing forward into an uncertain future.

‘Events’, the worst enemy of many a politician, have gone ahead of the Clameron administration, staking out its course: deficit reduction, fiscal constraint, cuts, cuts, and more cuts. Oh, and a few tax rises – National Insurance, probably VAT, corporation tax. “The British Prime Minister,” wrote civil rights activist James Baldwin in 1980, “is a grotesque anachronism, and the world is not holding its breath waiting to see what will happen in England; England's future will be determined by what is happening in the world.” His rhetorical point was this: even great states can not be isolated from external events, and their sphere of activity in which they hope to act to shape their common life can not be defended from external forces which supersede the power of the nation state.

Consider the plight of the Greeks. Protest they might (though not many of them actually are), but their own government’s economic plans are not now at the bidding of the voters, but of the German government, the IMF and the European Central Bank who between them have created finance facilities of nearly one trillion dollars. This will enable ailing European governments (the ‘Greek’ bailout is not for Greece alone, but for Spain , Portugal , Ireland ), to borrow from other sources than the cautious bond markets. Those funding the bailout will bear great risk, and so the quid pro quo is that they get a hand on the tiller of economic policy.

Sovereignty is the price of economic survival. European Commission President Jose Barroso said, "Economic policy isn't a national, but a European matter. No modern economy is an island. When a member state doesn't make reforms, others suffer because of that." On the other hand, it’s not surprising that many in the UK are breathing a sigh of relief that we’re not part of the euro-area.

There’s an analogy here – and perhaps something more than an analogy – worth reflecting on. “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ”, wrote Paul to the Galatians (6.2). Yet even in the church, it is common to prefer a semi-detachment similar to Britain ’s relationship with Europe . We like to form the associations and friendships which are convenient or felicitous, not those that have the potential to slow us down or inveigh against personal freedoms. We valorise the prospect of living in Christian community, but recoil from – if not ignore – the demands of its reality. When did you last personally give money to someone in your church in need? Have you rejected the opportunity to spend time with a valued friend in order to spend it with a lonely, but difficult, church member? Have you ever been humble enough to ask a brother or sister to bear your burden with you?

If you are like me, then you will find community to be a difficult vocation. As a mild and un-ideological euro-sceptic, observing an unfolding crisis, I am reflecting on what this might mean for transnational relationships. Is it possible that we would ever be asked to form bonds that do not serve the national interest? And is shared self-interest the only basis for political and economic community?

Paul Bickley, Senior Researcher, Theos – the public theology think thank

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