How to live with others in crisis

by
07 December 2012

The Greeks are asking for solidarity and prayer, says Mary Tanner

WCC

Together: a visit to a centre for patients with Alzheimer's, in Athens

Together: a visit to a centre for patients with Alzheimer's, in Athens

ON A damp, dark, autumn day in one part of Athens, hungry men and women clutching plastic bags queue for a hot meal and a large bread roll. Some of the women take three or four portions to feed their families. Among the crowd are a surprising number of young people, just a few of the 50 per cent of them who are unemployed.

The "Church on the Streets", as this open space is called, serves more than 1000 meals each day, many to immigrants, but also to a growing number of Greeks caught in a trap of poverty not of their own making. The Senior Anglican Chaplain in Athens, Canon Malcolm Bradshaw, standing with a Greek Orthodox bishop and a pastor from a Pente- costal church, explained that the Church on the Streets was a truly ecumenical venture.

This was only one of many initiatives of churches in Greece, caring for those suffering from the austerity measures that threaten to overwhelm the country. The Church of Greece and the Evangelical Church distribute food parcels, medicines to those who cannot afford to buy them, and also run homes for the handicapped, for the elderly, and even a small, beautiful place for those suffering from Alzheimer's.

A SMALL delegation from the World Council of Churches and the Conference of European Churches, led by the general secretaries of the two bodies, paid a visit to government ministers and leaders of the Churches to show solidarity with the people, and, by listening, to reach a better understanding of the challenges of a traumatised society and the place of the Churches in it.

Again and again, we saw the desperation of those hit most because of the sudden closure of businesses, rising unemployment, and a resulting increase in the number of suicides. We came to understand the implications for Greece of its geographical position, which makes it an entry-point for many fleeing from countries in conflict.

Many get no further than Greece, adding to the burden of those who already have so little. It is no wonder that in such a situation there is an ugly right-wing, neo-fascist reaction, targeting immigrant communities and destabilising the situation further.

It was often admitted that Greece was not blameless for the crisis. Individuals and institutions had borrowed too readily, incurring unsustainable debts and sucking the economy into a spiral of more and more debts to pay off loans, which had become impossible to pay back. But Greece is not the only country to have taken advantage of what was all too readily offered. The Greek crisis is not only a Greek crisis, but a European crisis, inseparable from a global crisis.

Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens and All Greece insisted that it was so much more than economic: it was an emerging moral and spiritual crisis. Both the Archbishop and government ministers expressed the need to go back to the founding values of the European Union: "brotherhood, solidarity, co- operation". They begged the delegation to present this challenge to the European Parliament.

At the end of the visit, the two general secretaries addressed an open letter to the EU: "A challenge for the European Union as peace-builder". While the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the EU celebrates the generation that built a sustainable peace in Europe, the economic and emerging humanitarian tragedy challenges it as a peace-builder for the next generation.

AGAIN and again, leaders from the government and the Churches pleaded with the delegation to counter the false stereotype of Greece circulating as the "bad guy of Europe". Greeks are not lazy, fraudulent people. They are honest, hard workers, with a love of life, given to hospitality, and with a sense of humour. The country has resources to build on: agriculture, tourism, and an ancient culture and a history of the promotion of democracy.

Greeks suffer doubly: they suffer from the economic crisis, but also from the effect of a negative characterisation in the media of other European countries. A Lutheran bishop from Bavaria recognised the negative image of Greece expressed all too often in German society. He pleaded for humility on the German side. Germany had received the compassion of the world: it was given freedom after the Second World War which it had not deserved or earned.

The crisis threatens not only Greece, but the whole of Europe -indeed, the world. At the same time, we saw signs of hope in the response of ministers and church leaders, and not least of all in the witness of Christians responding to the crisis together across ecclesial divides - a sign that there is a better, more effective, and more Christlike way.This is a special challenge for those, including some in Greece, who would turn their backs on the ecumenical movement. The request to us was to hold the people of Greece and their Churches in our prayers daily.

In the car on the way back to the airport, my colleague asked whether I had heard the bad news. Before I could reply, our driver, thinking the question referred to the news that morning that the latest request for a bailout for the people of Greece had been delayed, spoke with passion of his fears that there would be an escalation of desperation, and a reaction of lawlessness, as the economic pressures were felt by an increasing number of people.

The Greek crisis set the problems of the Church of England over women bishops in the context of the brokenness of the world. How the Church lives with difference, how those who hold different opinions listen to one another with patience and generosity, and how they learn to bear the pain of difference and even enter one another's pain - all this is a sign to the world that there is another way: "a way of amity and not of enmity", to quote the Archbishop-designate, the Rt Revd Justin Welby.

The Church is called to be a sign, an instrument, and also a foretaste of the unity that God desires to give to the world. It is not only the people of Greece who need our prayers. We need to pray for those who hold a different position from our own, that together we will find a way to live in the closest communion possible, not saying: "I have no need of you," but finding a way that allows all to flourish and to carry on the mission of Christ in a suffering world.

The mission of the Church is not only about the words that we speak and the acts of charity that we perform: it is also about the example we give of how to live together with differences.

Dame Mary Tanner is a President of the World Council of Churches.

 

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