Greek Orthodox priests attend the washing of the feet ceremony in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, ahead of Orthodox Easter. Photograph: APA Images/REX Shutterstock
The eastern Orthodox churches finally split with the Roman Catholic western church in 1054, though the differences had been building up long before and have continued ever since. Among these, the eastern churches retained the Julian calendar – which is why, this year, Orthodox Easter falls on Sunday 12 April, a week later than for the western churches. More significantly, because of this great schism, eastern churches such as the Greek Orthodox church didn’t fall under the sway of a theory of salvation developed by St Anselm of Canterbury and his massively influential Cur Deus Homo of 1089, a book that radically altered the western understanding of Easter and, with it, a great deal of our moral hinterland. Indeed, the respective current attitudes towards debt of the Greek and German governments can be seen, to a remarkable extent, to track the eastern-western split over the meaning of Easter.
According to Anselm, and the Reformation thinkers that followed him, the story of Easter is basically God’s response to a debt crisis. The argument is this: human beings have sinned against God, thus incurring a debt that has to be paid. (If you think this shift from sin to debt is odd – and it is – remember we still speak of criminals as “paying back” their debt to society.) On this model, the scales of justice have to be balanced. Crimes must be paid for, with the level of punishment being proportionate to the level of offence. But the theological problem is that human debt is way too high – us being miserable sinners and all that – which means that we are totally incapable of paying back the required amount.
No, they say, salvation is not some bloody cosmic accountancy. It’s a prison break
This is why, says Anselm, Jesus comes to receive the punishment that is due to us and is crucified, thus repaying the debt on our behalf and levelling our account. Redemption, remember, is an economic metaphor. “There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin,” as many western Christians are singing this Eastertide. For evangelicals especially, this is the very essence of salvation. Sin is repaid. Hallelujah.
But this is absolutely not the eastern story of Easter. Indeed, no Greek Orthodox congregation will be singing about Jesus paying the price of sin during their Easter services. For one thing, they are not so obsessed with sin. And they don’t think that Jesus’s suffering (or anyone else’s) is the way it gets repaid. Indeed, it doesn’t get repaid. Which is why Greek Christian art, unlike western Christian art, doesn’t obsess with the bleeding crucified Jesus. For eastern theologians, Jesus’s mission is to break human beings free from their imprisonment to death. All the important action happens at the resurrection, not the crucifixion. For, if salvation is merely payback and this happens on the cross, there is no saving work left for the resurrection to do. No, they say, salvation is not some bloody cosmic accountancy. It’s a prison break. The emphasis is on Christ leaping from the grave not hanging on a cross. It is about life triumphant over death.
The western church typically criticises the eastern view for having a “free lunch” view of salvation. No pain, no gain, insists Anselm. The eastern church says that the west fetishises suffering and is more committed to some iron logic of cosmic necessity than to God for whom all things are possible.
Atheists such as Alexis Tsipras, the Greek leader, may think both of these are fantasies. But for present purposes that’s beside the point. It’s worth recognising that these two completely different stories support two contrasting moral worldviews and different attitudes towards economics in general and capitalism in particular. Tsipras – like me – is very much more in the Greek Orthodox camp when it comes to salvation. And the Lutheran minister’s daughter Angela Merkel is very much in the western one. He wants to leap free from death-dealing debt. She believes it must be paid back, no matter how much blood and pain is involved.