Sunday, May 9, 2010

City Welfare

The tragic events of this past week in Athens, Greece have been broadcast all over the world. Only the most myopic, distracted or ADD-afflicted among us could have escaped the report of widespread public demonstrations in this city, in response to the proposed austerity measures which are, in themselves, a response to Greece’s crushing financial woes. As part of a plan which caused the reluctant EU and the IMF to agree to provide “bail out” funds to Greece to the tune of 150 billion Euros in the next three years, Greece’s most recently-elected political leadership, with a Joannis-come-lately sense of righteous frugality, promised to push through legislation intended to reduce significantly the country’s unacceptable, looming deficit-to-GDP. Greek citizens, especially those employed in the public sector who can expect to see their salary checks cut from 14 to 12 each year and can no longer anticipate retiring at age 50, were understandably upset.

Of course, public demonstrations and strikes in this “cradle of democracy” are as regular as pigeon-droppings and usually more easily tolerated. Greeks make an outdoor sport of protests and strikes from workers at all levels of society. Ordinarily, they are peaceful, with resort to violence coming only occasionally and then, from students and others urged on by anarchists and far left groups who seem to have a vested interest in both protest and hostility.

At the height (or was it the depth?) of the protests, however, a home-made incendiary device was thrown into a bank and three innocent civilians (bank workers required to work through the demonstrations outside) were killed as a result. This certainly raises the ante and increases the level of concern.

The Albanian immigrants with whom I work, already at risk, due to powerful discrimination against them, are likely to feel the first effects of Greece’s austerity measures. Reflecting on their situation, my mind went to another group of immigrants. Years ago, Jewish exiles in Babylonia were also forced to live as the underclass among people who found every reason to dislike them. To their dismay, the Jewish exiles learned that they would be required to live as aliens among their former enemies for many years.

The prophet Jeremiah, speaking a word from God, told them to settle-in and expect to live in this adopted country for at least 70 years. They were told to marry, buy land and try to make themselves at home. Underwriting all of this advice, the prophet said: “Seek the welfare of the city into which you have been called, for in its welfare, you will find your own welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7)

Shalom, that quintessential Jewish word, is used here. While shalom can be translated peace or welfare, it means far more than simply the absence of conflict. It is normally understood to encompass a mutual sense of wholeness and justice.

What a superb idea for all of us in this conflict-ravaged city. Lets work together to seek the welfare of this place! Immigrant or native-born! Public or private worker! Those soon-to-be subject to economic pressures or those who already have been for years! If each of us and all of us could recognize that our best welfare is to be found in working for the good of all concerned, not just a privileged few, things might just change! Hope so!