The Greek Debt Crisis Explained Simply

The news is filled these days with coverage of the Greek Debt Crisis. But much of the media (and social media) coverage assumes people know what it is and what the issues are. But most people I speak to don’t understand it.

Now, I studied economics at high school, but I’m not a professional economist. However, I have followed some of the issues and will try my best to explain what I see is happening. As I do, I’m going to use a few anachronisms and generalisations, in order to simplify the presentation. For example, I’ll use the term ‘European Union’ throughout, instead of going through all the guises it had assumed before that term came into being. Also I’ll simply talk about ‘Germany’, instead of explaining its post-war division and reunification in 1990. After all, I’m aiming for simplicity. I’ll also use an analogy throughout to try to convey the situation in comprehensible terms. I’ll mix metaphors here and there, but again, I’m simply trying to illustrate what is happening.

So let’s begin.

After the two World Wars, Western Europe vowed never to let the same hostility build up again. So a number of nations committed themselves to getting along. It was like feuding neighbours decided to bury the hatchet. Enough was enough! It was time to rebuild bridges and get along.

So strong was this impetus after the experience of war that a bunch of countries decided to form a union. It’s like they’d all been living on Nationalist Avenue for too long, and the place just had too many bad memories for them. So they all decided to move to a brand new location: Union Street. That way, they could all make a fresh start with each other.

And so they did. Europe began a new chapter of cooperation and friendship. Life on Union Street was working well. The neighbours each had their own property (sovereign state), which they each started renovating (the rebuilding after World War 2). And to pay for their renovations, they all went back to their jobs.

Now, one of the neighbours on Union Street was Germany. It had been the bully back on Nationalist Avenue, but the other neighbours managed to band together and beat it to a pulp. But those other neighbours were simply trying to defend themselves. They didn’t want to kill their neighbour. So they now graciously decided to cover Germany’s medical expenses, help with its house renovations, and get it a new job once it had recovered. In other words, many of the Allied nations committed themselves to rebuilding a new, rehabilitated, and modern Germany. And for this, Germany was profoundly grateful.

Things were working out so well that some of the member states decided they wanted closer economic cooperation. So they touted the idea of a common currency that would bind their economies together, but without dissolving their own sovereignty. It’s like they decided that they would get along even better if they tore down their fences. Each neighbour would still retain its own property, but they could move about amongst each other a lot more easily.

But not all members of the union wanted this. Some, like the United Kingdom, were quite nervous about getting rid of their own currency. So, while some members took the plunge, others didn’t. They were all still happy neighbours on Union Street, whether their fence was still standing or not. But suddenly, many of the fences were gone.

By this time, Germany was strong and healthy again. The German economy quickly developed into a powerhouse. It’s like it now had the highest paying job of all the neighbours, and its house became a mansion—the envy of all the street. What’s more, Germany was one of the neighbours that had decided to pull its own fence down. In other words, it was one of the member states that adopted the common currency.

Over the years, more neighbours moved into Union Street. And more neighbours decided to tear down their fences. Things were just dandy!

Now, one of the oldest members of the union was Greece. As an economic unit, it was quite small, and it lacked significant natural resources. Basically, this meant Greece was quite dependent on imports. It’s like it had one of the smallest properties on Union Street, had a low paying job, and didn’t own many tools to be able to renovate its own house. But it joined the common currency zone—that is, it knocked down its own fence, and began to enjoy some of the freedoms that came with this.

Greece’s monetary economy started going places. It began to grow. The new common currency (the Euro) was valued much higher than Greece’s old currency (the Drachma). This created something of a windfall, and people’s wages went up. A lot! They were able to buy a lot more stuff, which meant there was a spike in imports. But because Greece doesn’t have much in the way of local resources, it didn’t have much to export in return. Its main exports were food products (fish, cheese, and olives), which don’t alter in price very much at all. And while tourism continued to be a money winner for Greece, the rise in wages meant a rise in local prices too. So tourists were still coming, but not spending quite as much. As a result, while there was a lot of cash changing hands, most of it was heading out of the country.

It’s like someone took all of Greece’s ’10’ unit bills and replaced them with brand new ’50s’. It was an instant pay rise! And Greece decided to go on a spending spree. In addition to what it would have normally bought, it could now afford more stuff. So it walked freely over to France and bought a 12-place dining setting. It went across to Italy and bought three leather lounges. And then it went over to Germany and bought an Audi Q7 4WD. And while the neighbours were still coming over to enjoy Greece’s pool, and bringing their ’50s’ with them, that ’50’ now didn’t go as far in Greece as the days when Greece was still using its own ’10s’. So the neighbours began to say, ‘I’ll still come and visit, but I might go enjoy Thailand’s pool sometimes too’.

Now while all the new stuff in Greece’s backyard looked fantastic, its monetary problems were growing. Greece was overspending and underproducing. There was an imbalance. The house wasn’t big enough for the new 12-place dining setting, or the three leather lounges. And there was only space in the garage for a little Fiat Punto. Greece was enjoying lots of new stuff, just like its other neighbours on Union Street, but it wasn’t really managing things well.

At this stage, it would’ve been good if Greece said to all its family members, ‘Right, we all need to go out and work some more, because we need to renovate the house and garage.’ But it didn’t. Instead, it let some of its family members stay home, and kept telling the kids that they’d get lots of pocket money. In reality, Greece’s public sector was enormous. Lots of people were deriving their income not from production, which might create exports to offset all the imports, but from the government, which doesn’t really produce anything. The governments of Greece didn’t really encourage new sectors and industries to create new exports. Nor did they have a properly working taxation system that might at least offset government spending with some government revenue.

Now, if Greece still had it own original currency (the Drachma), things might not have been so bad. When a country has its own currency, market forces and/or the government can make the currency appreciate or depreciate, and thereby change the value of its exports and imports. If it depreciates its own currency, its exports become cheaper and, therefore, more attractive to foreign buyers. And that can help adjust the bottom line by bringing more money into the country and attracting more investment. At the same time, you don’t want to devalue a currency too much, because that would make imports far too expensive, and locals wouldn’t be able to buy stuff. In any case, a nation with its own currency has a measure of control over the value of that currency, and therefore the value of its debt. But because Greece adopted the common currency (the Euro), its government gave up any ability to have such influence. Greece has to share the currency with another 18 neighbours. And the value of the Euro is largely determined by the market forces in the largest economies that use it: Germany and, to a lesser extent, France. And they’re not keen to compromise the stability of their own economies by artificially adjusting the value of the Euro to accommodate tiny little Greece. In other words, when Europe decided to replace all of Greece’s original ’10’ unit bills with brand new ’50s’, it was because Germany’s wallet was filled with ’50s’ (and bigger) to start with. The new currency didn’t really change all that much for Germany (if anything, it helped balance their books quite nicely), but it brought a massive change for Greece.

Nonetheless, Greece now needed to renovate its house to make room for all its new stuff. So how was it going to do this?

To pay for its increasing debts, Greece borrowed a lot of money from other nations in the European Union. And these other nations didn’t just give Greece modest amounts of money. They gave Greece ridiculous amounts of money. In fact, we could say that while Greece was irresponsible in its financial management, the rest of Europe was irresponsible in lending it so much—a bit like the sub-prime mortgages that American banks were giving to people who simply couldn’t afford to pay their mortgages back. But because the economic configuration of Greece didn’t really change and the value of the Euro stayed pretty steady, Greece’s debt situation didn’t ease. In fact, it kept growing. It’s like the 12-place dining setting now seated 24, the three leather lounges had turned into eight, and the Audi Q7 4WD had also spawned a Porsche Carrera and a Mercedes C Class convertible. And Greece had to find room for the lot—now! So Germany, in a spirit of friendship that Union Street was now known for, convinced Greece to borrow its drill to try and help with the renovations. To Germany, the drill was pretty normal—it worked just fine in its own mansion. But when poor little Greece brought the drill home, it found the drill was more like a jackhammer. And when it started to use it, it couldn’t control it. So instead of renovating its own house, Greece actually wrecked it! At first, everyone thought all the noise coming from Greece’s house was good construction noise. But pretty soon, as Greece’s house started to collapse, the neighbours began to realise something was very wrong.

As the Greek economy collapsed through its inability to repay its debt, it also began losing its ability to restructure its own economy to try and reduce the damage. The walls came down, electricity was cut, the plumbing broke, and now… Germany’s mega drill was also broken, and Greece had no way to fix it. The pool was still intact—but with no house, Greece was losing its ability to entertain its guests.

That’s how Greece has come to its current debt crisis. It has lost just about everything. Why? Because:

  1. the common currency artificially inflated its economy;
  2. Greece’s taxations systems couldn’t sustain its bloated public sector; and
  3. the spirit of cooperation in the Euro zone actually encouraged financial irresponsibility amongst all parties.

So what has happened just recently?

Europe wants/needs the money it lent Greece back. But because Greece has no way of paying it back, Europe is now in a bind: where can the money come from?

The neighbours on Union Street have gotten together and, with Germany as their main spokesperson, told Greece, “We want the drill back.”

“It’s broken!” comes the response.

But this is where Europe’s response to Greece now makes no sense. Most economists will tell you that in order to revive an economy, you need to pump money into it. That way, production can get a kick start, things can be bought and sold, and money can start flowing again. To change the metaphors slightly, you give it a blood transfusion, rather than try to bleed it. But instead, Europe (led by Germany) is demanding Greece give up all its money and productivity (not that it has any left now) in order to pay its debt—that is, to bleed money out of its economy.

So back to our neighbours on Union Street. The situation now is like the neighbours on Union Street have gotten together, asked Germany to speak for them, and are having the following conversation with Greece:

GERMANY: Right, in order to give us back the drill you borrowed, you’re going to have to quit your job, so you don’t have any more money to go spending.

GREECE: But the drill’s broken. If I quit my job, how am I going to repair the drill or get you a new one?

GERMANY: But when you get money, you go spending it all. That’s what got you into this fix in the first place. So no job for you!

GREECE: But I don’t make a lot of my own stuff. I have to get it from somewhere else. And I need money for that.

GERMANY: Well maybe you should’ve bought less.

GREECE: But on Union Street, we’re all trying to be equal, right? Why should you have more than I have? Aren’t I free to have the same things you do?

GERMANY: <annoyed> That’s not the point! Look at what you’ve done to my drill! I want it back. Now!

GREECE: Then you need to give me time to keep working so I can eventually get you one. But honestly, I don’t know how I’m going to be able to afford it.

GERMANY: Stop making excuses! You either quit your job, or we’ll break your legs to make sure you don’t work, so you can stop spending money. <pulls out a crowbar>

GREECE: But how will that pay for the drill? And if I can’t work, how am I supposed to get food to eat?

FRANCE <whispers to Germany>: Um, maybe we should just forget about the drill. Maybe we should just ask Greece for a set of screwdrivers instead?

GERMANY <whispering back>: It was a drill that Greece broke! It’s a drill we’re going to get back! If Greece is a responsible neighbour, then it needs to give the drill back. I gave my drill out of the kindness of my own heart, and now I need it.

GREECE: I might be able to work for a set of screwdrivers. I just need some time.

GERMANY: No! You either agree to give up your job and give me back the drill, or I’ll break your legs to make sure you can’t get any more money until you give me my drill back.

FRANCE: Steady on, Germany! We’re all neighbours here. We’re all meant to get along.

GERMANY: This little pipsqueak has been irresponsible from the very start! Don’t blame me for being kind by lending Greece my drill and now needing it back. If Greece was a good neighbour, Greece would give me my drill back. <taps the crowbar>

GREECE: But I can’t if I don’t have a job!

GERMANY: Then sell stuff.

GREECE: Like what?

GERMANY: Let Luxembourg go through all the stuff you have left, and have a garage sale.

GREECE: But it’s not worth much. And then I’ll have absolutely nothing.

GERMANY: But I might have my drill back by then.

GREECE: If I have nothing, I’m going to starve! <gets faint and wobbly>

GERMANY <taps crowbar> Are you a good neighbour or aren’t you? I lent you my drill. Can I trust you to give it back?

FINLAND: We can’t trust you, Greece! ‘No soup for you!’

GREECE: OK, wait! Let me ask the family.

<Greece turns away and confers with the family, before returning to the conversation>


GERMANY: Are you serious?

GREECE: Remember how kind we were to you after you got all bashed up back on Nationalist Avenue? Why can’t you extend me the same courtesy? 

GERMANY: That was different—I almost died! It was an actual emergency. Remember how kind I was lending you my drill when you were in a fix?

GREECE: Without a job to get food, I’m going to die. This is an emergency now. <thinks to self> Maybe I should abandon everything here, move to another part of the street, put a fence back up, and start all over…

NETHERLANDS: I think we should all move into a kibbutz.

GERMANY: The drill… Now!

At this point of the conversation, Greece faints. In the meantime, Europe has decided that it will now put Greece into a medically induced coma, to stop it from spending any more money, and trying to get out of its responsibilities. And while Greece is in a coma, Europe will have a garage sale to sell off Greece’s remaining assets, so that the drill can be replaced with the proceeds.

If Greece ever wakes up from the coma, it’s anyone’s guess where it’ll be. But right now, Union Street is starting to look a little too much like the old Nationalist Avenue that saw so much strife and discord between these now ‘friendly’ neighbours.

The reality is that the Greek economy has collapsed under the weight of its debt. In the space of a few years, the entire population has gone from relative prosperity to the brink of bankruptcy. Many don’t know where the next meal will come from. Medical supplies can’t be replenished. And the banks are on the verge of ruin. Everyone is about to lose! Yes, Greece has been financially irresponsible for a long time, but the rest of Europe bears some blame for how it has mishandled the situation. Europe’s proposed solution to the crisis makes no economic sense, and yet it seems poised to implement it. Such punitive measures can only become a breeding ground for extremist ideologies.

The recently resigned Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, likened the current European proposal to a new Versailles Treaty—the treaty that knocked Germany down after World War 1 and kicked it so hard that it concussed the German public into thinking the Nazi Party was a good idea. While current day Greece does not have the stature that Germany of a century ago had, this proposal could start spreading the seeds of something quite sinister.

Personally, I think Greece needs to leave the Euro zone—to reboot its economy with its own currency (the Drachma) and thereby gain some control over the value of its debt. But this goes against all the values of a European ‘union’, that is is meant to bring nations together, not fling them apart. Whatever happens, it won’t be pretty. Greece will certainly be in an economic coma for a few years. However, if Greece is able to rebuild its economy with its own currency, this will inevitably send shockwaves through the Euro zone that shares the common currency. And that could see other marginal nations exiting the Euro zone, too. And that will be an enormous political crisis.

We are now testing whether there really is such a thing as a ‘European Union’. Underneath this economic crisis is a bigger political crisis.

Note: In my ‘conversation’ script, I’m not intending to characterise all Greeks and Germans in monochrome ways. I’m merely trying to capture the tenor of the political negotiations between the governing officials of the countries involved. There will, undoubtedly, be much variation of opinion amongst the respective populations at large.

Egypt to ‘Rebuild’ the Lighthouse of Alexandria, One of the Seven Ancient World Wonders

Egypt wants to rebuild the Pharos—the famous Lighthouse of Alexandria, which was one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. I’m not sure how they’re going to go about it, since the Mamluk Era Qaitbay Citadel currently occupies the relevant site. But I hope they can make it happen.

Read more here: Egypt to ‘Rebuild’ the Lighthouse of Alexandria, One of the Seven Ancient World Wonders | Egyptian Streets.

Three-dimensional reconstruction based on a comprehensive 2006 study (image is used in the news story at Egyptian Streets website)

Aerial view of the Qaitbay Citadel, which currently occupies the site of the Pharos.


The Power of Satire

The recent tragedy of the murders at Charlie Hebdo in Paris have drawn attention to the battle between the pen and the sword.

Satire uses caricature, comedy, and sometimes caustic wit. This might lead some to think it is merely a form of entertainment—weak, but amusing, and certainly not worthy of those engaged in sober pursuits. But satire is a powerful weapon that can expose faults, flaws, and vulnerabilities. Anyone who thinks satire lacks a blade does not have a handle on the piercing power it possesses. It is often the weapon of choice for those who prefer peaceful resistance to armed struggle.

Even the ancients knew this.

Scotland the Brave?

I’m neither a Scot, nor a Brit of any description. I’m an Australian of Greek heritage. So I don’t have a directly vested interest in the outcome of the Scottish referendum on the question of independence from the United Kingdom. And nor do I have the benefit of an insider’s view of the issue.

However, in my admittedly distant opinion, Scottish ‘independence’ is a brave move—too brave, actually.

Scotland already is independent! It is a constituent member of a united kingdom of countries and territories—a free society. The referendum is not so much about independence as secession: going it alone. Very much alone!

The pluses of remaining in the Union seem far greater than the negatives. Nationalism shouldn’t outweigh the heavy benefits of momentous cooperation.

I fear that if Scots choose to pick up their ball and go home with it, they will be the ones to suffer. It will be largely game over! Scotland will become exactly what their name translates to in Greek: Σκοτία—darkness.

This will not be a Braveheart moment, but more likely a foolhardy faux pas, from which it will be difficult to recover.

I think of Lady Macbeth’s words, when it dawns on her that finally getting what she always wanted isn’t really be all it’s cut out to be:

Nought’s had, all’s spent,
Where our desire is got without content;
‘Tis safer to be that which we destroy
Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.

(Macbeth, Act III, Scene 2, l.4–7)

I don’t think secession will ultimately make Scots content. I could be wrong on this—after all, I’m not a Scot and have never dwelt in Scotland. But the view from here certainly looks doubtful and dim.

So, Scotland, from a friendly neighbour Downunder: Don’t do it! Yes, England has bullied you in the past, but let bygones be bygones. You’ve got it good now. Why do you want to start all over again? The concept of the nation-state is dying a slow death in this global community, so don’t opt for a sickly existence in quarantine. Stick with the healthy. You already have your own football league and (theoretically anyway) you can still win the World Cup! So please stick with the premier league of nations.

Don’t do it, Scotland! Don’t do it!

Robin Williams and Depression

News came today of the premature passing of acting genius, Robin Williams. Many who’ve been entertained and even mesmerised by his stunning artistic skills will mourn his death. And no doubt his family are distraught.

It’s no secret that Williams suffered from severe depression. Unfortunately, it seems to have played a significant role in his early death.

Depression is a sinister illness. It is not a character flaw. No one wills depression on themselves anymore than anyone wills a disability on themselves. It’s easy for those of us who don’t suffer clinical depression not to grasp just how awful and debilitating depression can be. Its invisibility and lack of external physical symptoms, however, make it no less an illness.

Depression lies to those who suffer from it. As humans, our feelings are our natural innate emotional responses to external influences. They are hard to control, because they are reflex responses.

For those of us who don’t suffer clinical depression, our feelings work with normal reflexes and help us adapt appropriately to circumstances. We feel happy in favourable circumstances, and angry in unjust circumstances. We feel sad at bad news, which is a normal kind of depression. But we also tend to feel better when things change or time passes. We bruise normally, and we heal normally.

Yet for those of us who do suffer clinical depression, the bruising runs deeper, and it doesn’t heal normally. The feelings fall out of alignment with reality and don’t respond positively when things change. This means the feelings actually begin lying to us about how things really are. Usually this produces a profound bleakness, but sometimes it can be an undue euphoria. In either case, since feelings are emotional reflexes, one can’t simply snap out of it. And so the vicious cycle continues.

This makes life very difficult, and often things appear very dark. Trying to function in the midst of depression is like trying to run uphill on blistered feet while pulling a fridge behind you. Others can’t see the blisters or the fridge, so things probably appear normal to them. But the weight of depression is still very much there.

Those of us who don’t suffer depression need to understand better that depression is neither a sin nor a fault. And nor is it a fake illness. Its invisibility makes it no less real.

Depression is an illness that requires treatment, patience, compassion, and care. Those who suffer don’t always need to have their problems solved. Most of the time they just need to be heard, understood, and encouraged. They need to know that things are not hopeless. That they do have options. That they are appreciated and valued for the person they are now, and not just the person they are when not depressed. That although things can fluctuate, and depression may well come again, there are still benefits in persevering and seeking help. That they are not alone. That you will sit with them through the darkness.

In calling us to love our neighbour as ourselves, Jesus urges us to focus on people as people. To bear each other’s burdens, as he bore ours. To go the extra mile, even as he went from heaven to hell. To treat the ill as we would treat him. To seek to serve rather than seek to be served. To be light and life in the midst of darkness and death.

There are no easy cures or answers to depression. If only those of us who suffered could simply flip a switch and turn it off! Alas, that’s not how reality is. Feelings lie to those of us who suffer depression. Those of us who don’t suffer shouldn’t believe the lie that ‘it can’t be that bad’.

Let’s all be real about depression.

Robin Williams’ death is a tragic reminder of just how awful this illness is. Hopefully his passing brings greater awareness and understanding. Depression is just one of those things that makes us long for the age to come. In the meantime, let’s be Christlike to those in need.

Vale Robin Williams.

Blood Moon and the Day of the Lord

Tonight (15 April 2014) was a ‘blood moon’. That is, there was a total eclipse of the moon (I dare you not to think of Bonnie Tyler!) that turned the moon a reddish colour for a short time. Unfortunately, here in Sydney it was overcast and raining, so I didn’t get to see it. However, I’ve seen images that others were able to take, and it’s quite a phenomenon to behold.

The lunar eclipse creates a red moon above Melbourne. Photo: Jason South. Published: The Age.

In Joel 2.31, we read these words:

The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the great and awe-inspiring Day of Yahweh comes.

There has been a lot of talk about how the particular blood moon of today might be a fulfilment of this prophecy, especially since there seem to be more such celestial phenomena to come in the near future. Some see in this blood moon a sign of the imminent return of Jesus.

I beg to differ.

But not because I want to be a heretic, party-pooper, or a lover of novelty. I’m just taking my lead from the Apostle Peter.

In Acts 2, we read that the Apostle Peter preached to crowds of Jewish pilgrims in Jerusalem. The Spirit of God had just rushed upon Peter and the other Apostles, enabling them to proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus in all the languages of the various pilgrims in Jerusalem at the time. This was such a groundbreaking event that Peter interpreted it as the fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy. And he quoted directly the very passage that contains the ‘moon to blood’ quote. There was no astronomical phenomenon happening at the time. It was, rather, a bunch of people speaking in languages they didn’t natively know, proclaiming ‘the magnificent acts of God’ (Acts 2.11). Yet Peter saw the entire passage from Joel as appropriate for describing this linguistic phenomenon. He didn’t just quote the part from Joel that referred to various people prophesying, dreaming, and seeing visions—he chose to quote the whole passage, which included reference to signs of blood, fire, and smoke, the sun growing dark, and the moon turning to blood.

In other words, Peter did not see Joel’s image of celestial catastrophe as a sign in need of literal fulfilment. Rather, he interpreted Joel’s prophecy as fulfilled in a figurative manner by the apostles speaking in other languages on the Day of Pentecost. The motif of cataclysmic events is frequently seen in proto-apocalyptic and apocalyptic texts. It is not meant to be taken in a literal fashion. It is, rather, a vivid way of portraying something that is going to ‘rock the world’, so to speak.

We do this kind of thing today without batting an eyelid. When we talk about something being ‘groundbreaking’ or ‘earth-shattering’, we don’t actually mean that the earth under our feet has split open. We simply use it to refer to something new, exciting, and highly significant. The image of a blood moon in biblical literature is very similar to this.

What this means is that Peter viewed the events of his day, namely the death and resurrection of Jesus, as the most groundbreaking event of history. It was the Day of the Lord—the time in which God would act in such a significant way that nothing would ever be the same again.

Now, while I believe that Jesus will one day return, I don’t think we need to be looking for eclipses, blood moons, and celestial catastrophes before he can return. Many will point to other supposed signs that are meant to happen before Jesus returns (e.g. the re-emergence of modern Israel, or the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple), but I don’t think a rigorous and prophetically responsible reading of either the Old or New Testament supports any of these. There is only one substantive sign that the Bible gives as a prerequisite for the return of Jesus, and that is the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. And that occurred in AD 70.

In biblical thought, the Last Day is characterised by the resurrection from the dead. This day began when Jesus was raised from the dead. He was the first one to experience Judgement Day, when God declared the verdict of ‘righteous’ on his life. The rest of us will experience judgement at a later stage. But there is nothing more than need happen before this occurs, for it the day has already begun. And the return of Jesus as the judge of all humanity, which will wrap up Judgement Day, will occur at any time.

So what should we make of this blood moon today? Let it remind you of Peter’s speech in Acts 2. Let it remind you that the death and resurrection of Jesus was the most groundbreaking (or should that be ‘tomb-breaking’) event in all of history. But also marvel at the natural phenomena the Creator has put in place. Let the words of Psalm 8 resound:

Yahweh, our Lord,
how magnificent is your name throughout the earth,
how you put your majesty over the heavens!
From the mouths of infants
you have established strength,
so that your rivals stop,
the enemy be avenged.
When I observe your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and stars,
which you have set in place,
what is humanity that you remember them,
the son of man that you look after him?
You made him less than gods,
yet crowned him with glory and splendour.
You have him rule the works of your hands,
everything have you put under his feet;
sheep and oxen all
even the animals in the wild;
the birds of heaven,
and the fish of the sea,
that which swims the paths of the seas.
Yahweh, our Lord,
how magnificent is your name throughout the earth!


Let’s Think Good and Hard about Driscoll and ‘BookGate’

So Mark Driscoll is in hot water over plagiarism in his books, and using church funds to artificially inflate sales figures to land his marriage book on the New York Times Bestseller List. A few quick observations and comments about this ‘BookGate’ controversy in light of the various reports out there:

  1. No one should be gleeful about this. That a leader of so many Christians is in trouble like this is no cause for rejoicing, even if you have major issues with Driscoll and his ministry. This is tragic on a personal level for Driscoll, on a communal level for the Mars Hill church, and also on the broader level for the cause of the gospel. There’s no room for Schadenfreude here.
  2. Protestant Christians believe in the priesthood of all believers, as together we work in mediating the gospel to each other and to the world. This does not mean plagiarism is permitted. We hate it when the media don’t cite sources in their reporting, so we shouldn’t be doing that kind of thing in Christian literature. Academic honesty is always the best policy.
  3. That Driscoll and/or Mars Hill hired a PR company to boost book sales is neither here nor there. In fact, it sounds like sensible strategy to me. It’s just plain old marketing.
  4. The use of church funds (or any funds for that matter) to artificially inflate sales and circumvent the ‘rules’ for the New York Times Bestseller List is just plain dishonest. If all this was done without the broad knowledge of those contributing financially to the church, then Driscoll and/or the leaders at Mars Hill have breached their trust and exceeded their mandate. If it was done with broad knowledge, then we have to question what kind of teaching and guidance they issued on the matter.

When Jesus sent out his disciples on public ministry, he told them to be ‘as shrewd as snakes’ (Matt 10.16). They were to use all their skill, wisdom, and cunning to get the message of the gospel out there.

But that’s not all he said. He also instructed them to be ‘as innocent as doves’.

Christians, pray that God would bring good out of this situation, so that the cause of the gospel would be enhanced, and not hindered. And let’s think good and hard about how we engage this world. ‘As shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.’

Vale Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela is dead.


One of the truly great figures of world history has passed away. The twentieth century is full of villains the likes of whom we hope never to see again—Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Idi Amin, and Pol Pot. These names stain the tapestry of history. But there were also a few fine and bright names, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, and Martin Luther King Jr. Among these must also be Nelson Rohihlahla Mandela—affectionately known by his clan name, ‘Madiba’.

Statue of Mandela outside the prison from which he was released on 11 February 1990. © George Athas 2013

Statue of Mandela outside the prison from which he was released on
11 February 1990.
(© George Athas 2011)

Madiba will be remembered and praised for many things. For his tenacious stand against Apartheid in South Africa. For enduring the scorn of the powerful in his society. For his rousing defence at the Rivonia Trial. For his twenty-seven years as a political prisoner. For enduring the hard labour and confined cell on Robben Island. For negotiating from prison the lifting of the ban against the African National Congress (ANC). For his walk to freedom from Victor Verster Prison on 11 February 1990. For working with F. W. de Klerk in a difficult political partnership and saving the nation from a civil war. For earning every adult citizen in South Africa the right to vote. For becoming the first black president of a truly democratic South Africa in 1994. For forming a government of national unity to oversee a peaceful transition into a new South Africa. For encouraging accountability, decrying revenge, and championing reconciliation. For promoting peace and opportunity instead of prejudice and oppression.  For steering a nation divided towards unity. For exposing fear and hate, and advancing equality and harmony. For bringing South Africa back into the international community. For the unifying gesture of wearing the Springbok jersey as he presented the Rugby World Cup trophy to Francois Pienaar. For standing down after one term in office. For waving to the world that had come to South Africa for the World Cup in 2010.

Madiba was not alone in the struggle. And the man was by no means perfect. Many will doubtless debate the wisdom of some of his rough and radical activities in the early days of the ANC, as well as some of the political associations he made throughout his lifetime. His personal life too was fraught with difficulties, failures, and tragedies. He was certainly no stained-glass saint. Nonetheless, the impact that Madiba had on both South Africa and the world cannot be overlooked. He truly earned the label of ‘elder statesman’.

The passing of Madiba is a watershed moment for South Africa. Until you go there, it’s hard to grasp just how significant a figure he has been for the nation. Try to put George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and Martin Luther King Jr into a single person and you might begin to understand the magnitude of Madiba in his native South Africa. He was truly a political and cultural colossus. Although he retired from public life many years ago, his mere presence in the country infused it still with a sense of purpose after its difficult past. But now that he has finally left them, South Africans will feel like orphans. The father of the nation has died, and the children must now step out into their future without him.

In many ways Madiba is irreplaceable. But he has given South Africa, and the world for that matter, a wonderful legacy. Reconciliation and forgiveness are more powerful than fear and hate. South Africa now needs the determination to continue that legacy—to strive for it resolutely as he did. The nation’s leaders now need to grow up and become just like the father of their nation—promoting good, honest, and just government for the good of all, not just a few.

In particular, the ANC faces a great temptation: letting Madiba’s moral influence wane and falling into the same bad habits that marred the Apartheid regime he stood against. It has been such a shame—no, an outrage to see corruption and incompetence become almost commonplace in South Africa’s government, judiciary, and administration. The ANC has recently been acting like adolescents taking liberties while father wasn’t looking. What will they do now that father has died? There is so much potential in South Africa. But it will be squandered if the nation’s leaders fail to take up Madiba’s mantle. They must resolve to govern equitably and transparently for all, not just for the advantage of a few. The pains of the past give no right to privilege in the present. Madiba earned his political legacy. South Africa’s present and future leaders still need to earn theirs too. Let’s hope they can make father proud.

If South Africa has lost its father, then the world has lost a beloved uncle. Nelson Mandela was loved and respected across the globe. The whole world will, therefore, join its South African cousins to mourn his passing. That he died peacefully aged 95 is testament to his achievements.

A great one has fallen. Let history recall his deeds and may we learn from them.

Vale Nelson Mandela!

(18 July 1918 – 5 December 2013)

From the base of the Mandela statue outside Drakenstein Correctional Centre (formerly Victor Verster Prison).
© George Athas 2011

Words from Mandela's inauguration speech as President in 1994, etched into the flagstones of the V & A Waterfront, Cape Town.

Words from Mandela’s inauguration speech as President in 1994,
etched into the flagstones of the V & A Waterfront, Cape Town.
© George Athas 2009

Delusional Exegesis from Jefferts Schori

Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori

Click HERE for the text of a recent sermon by Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church in America, given at All Saints Church, Steenrijk, Curaçao (Diocese of Venezuela) on 12 May 2013.

In line with one of the respondents, I think this has to be one of the most delusional pieces of exegesis and theological extrapolation I’ve ever encountered. Jefferts Schori equates Paul casting out the demon from the Philippian slave girl (Acts 16), thus ending the exploitation by her pimps, as depriving her of her beautiful and holy gift. Apparently the demon in her was the Spirit of God!

Yep! You read that right. You can read the whole thing HERE to see that I’m not taking it out of context, but here’s an excerpt:

But Paul is annoyed, perhaps for being put in his place, and he responds by depriving her
 [the slave girl] of her gift of spiritual awareness.  Paul can’t abide something he won’t see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it. […] It makes me wonder what would have happened to that slave girl if Paul had seen the spirit of God in her.

This is what passes for biblical exegesis? By a bishop? A presiding bishop, no less? I’ve heard some shocker sermons in my time, but mangling the text like this to say the complete opposite of what it’s actually saying is breathtaking. How in God’s name can this be taken seriously?

God help us!