When was the word “austerity” first used as a politico-economic term for the approach to dealing with the post-2008 banking crisis?

My friend who asked me this always raises the kind of questions which act as warning lights about justice and injustice as well as economic power and its capacity to hide behind the rhetoric of fairness, prudence and obligation imposed on others.

That’s what debt is: power over the debtor, increased power of the creditor.

Wondering the same thing, I come at the question not so much from its recent revival as the term of choice for Western democracies struggling to help the golden goose of globalized capitalism survive.

Is inquiring about who used it first the only or best way to critique this “idolatrous” word?

The clue is in the quotation marks. I am interested in how the term and concept of “austerity” is currently and pervasively used, to what ends, and whence comes its capacity to legitimate the discourse and policies of the powerful.

It is used with such conviction, belief and confidence that you would think its validity was self-evident.

But “austerity” is an ideological idol, a god worshipped and propitiated with the sacrifices of others (particularly those on lower incomes) to enable the defeat of the great perceived evil, which apparently has all the destructive potential of a rival deity, “deficit.”

From the International Monetary Fund to the Eurozone to the United Kingdom, there is a need to critique the allegiance of vested interests to austerity in terms of its consequences for the poor and the rich, the vast differentials in impact of austerity policies, upon the vulnerable and the powerful.

There is a need also to identify, evaluate and persistently confront the deliberate diminishment of life chances such policies require.

By any political definition, the four most focal targets of austerity cuts are welfare, development, education and health, which impact benefits, social infrastructure, learning and pensions.

The economic ideologies behind austerity lack social conscience and are more concerned with upholding the possessive affluence of the powerful – individuals, corporations and nations.

The monotone mantras of making people go back to work for their own good, of dealing with benefit tourists and immigration, of living within our means, are just that: political “polyfilla” to disguise the cracks in policies which are not predetermined by circumstance, but choices which select the sources of government savings and income.

Whatever else austerity means in practice, it spawns food banks, reduced benefits and sanctions, frozen pensions and under-provision of affordable homes. We are not “all in this together.”

A Christian political theology and social ethic require the application of Christian theological convictions to the realities of human life in our society, culture and global context.

So I am looking for those arguments and convictions which underpin a justification for austerity policies in Christian terms; where are they?

And those which critique and deconstruct austerity ideology from the standpoint of a gospel of grace and a theology of the God who calls his people to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God; where are they?

These are questions big enough to get the church’s attention – and the attention of the best thinkers in the Christian tradition – to help us get a grip on what it means to take the gospel of Jesus Christ out there into a marketplace-shaped temple and start looking at what tables should be overturned first.

And these questions about the idol Austerity and its mythological counterpart Deficit come at a time when major financial and economic disruption looms once again.

Greece is in debt and cannot pay; the deficit is massive and beyond the ability of this generation to even significantly reduce, no matter how severe the austerity.

As of today, pensioners too poor to have bank cards cannot get money; in any case the banks cannot open or the run on money will bleed the ailing body to death.

Deficit, debt, austerity – there is no lack of wealth; the issue is who has access to it. As always the answer is “not the poor.”

How can I as a Christian pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” and believe that petition is about more than my personal finances?

That petition follows the one about daily bread – and the truth is the debt that has not been created by the poor is now being paid for by the bread of the poor.

I find, as a Christian, that the Lord’s Prayer provides an interesting commentary on the way the globalized world of capitalism works. It provides a radical alternative to austerity.

I do not believe, and as a follower of Jesus I cannot believe, that austerity politics can co-exist in the same mind as the Kingdom of God.

James Gordon is part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Living Wittily, and is used with permission.

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