Today is Wednesday 9th July, the day after the Chancellor George Osborne has given his first budget with an all Conservative Treasury Team. It’s also the day that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of Greece is told that he has until the end of tomorrow (Thursday) to present new proposals to secure a third bailout from creditors and prevent a possible Greek exit from the eurozone on Sunday (we will know what has happened by the time you come to read this). The contrast between the two couldn’t be greater! The Greek Prime Minister with the backing of a recent referendum is calling for an end to austerity, whereas the Chancellor has his hand firmly on the tiller calling for more austerity to steer the nation out of recession and into economic growth. The Greek Prime Minister is looking for a re-structuring of Greek debt but Germany’s Chancellor Mrs Merkel has made it clear that the massive debt of €320bn will not be written off. Meanwhile across The Channel, George Osborne seeks to cut welfare benefits by £12bn, increase the minimum wage to £9 per hour (by 2020), and reduce Child Tax & Sickness benefits, in order to pay our way out of debt.
Of course the greatest contrast between the two scenarios is one of degree; no one is suggesting that the situation in the UK is remotely comparable to the huge tragedy that is currently playing out in Greece. However bad the situation is in England, we don’t have to face bank closures or restrict ourselves to a mere €60 (£43) a week. The problem is of course that whatever the grandiose scheme or ‘big picture’, it tends to be the poorest people who suffer most. Even in the UK, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) calculate that it will be the poorest people in work who suffer the most due to a reduction in Child Tax Credits (13 million families) and that the proposed increase in the minimum wage will not be enough to compensate them. Naturally, we don’t have limitless funds but as the oft-used quote of Aneurin Bevan rightly observed “one of the measures of a civilised society is how well it looks after its most vulnerable members”.
Jesus said that the greatest commandment was not only to love God with all of our hearts, but to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Luke 10.27). We should therefore never forget the human dynamic to this story; that those who are suffering are people just like us – as soon as we forget this we have lost not only our generosity but our humanity. It’s also interesting to note that Biblically speaking ‘poor’ people are not just those who are without money but those who are truly helpless without any means of helping themselves. We need to make sure that however tough are lives may be, we continue to help one another and hold our governments to account, as a society, as a church, and as individuals.
‘Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?’ James 2.15-16