Tuesday, March 10, 2009
RESTORING HOPE IN A CRASHING ECONOMY
I had originally planned to entitle this little series of essays ‘restoring hope during a crashing economy’, but in the end I decided the double entendre was worth keeping in these ambiguous times. With a profound grasp of the obvious, I am here to say today that America, and indeed the world economy that is dependent on the American economy, is in deep financial trouble, trouble which Christians have contributed to in various ways.
How so? Well, in the first place, most American Christians simply mirror the values of the larger culture or a significant subsection there of, when it comes to economics. They are full partakers of the consumer society, and believe in ’free market capitalism’ as opposed to ‘bad socialism’ and ‘protectionism’, at least until it gets them into financial hot water, and they begin to read the fine print.
As it turns out, even free market capitalism isn’t free and in various ways, it certainly isn’t democratic--- the means of production, the type of production and all related facets of business are controlled from the top down by owners, CEOS, boards and the like, rather than there being shared decision making between employers and employees, which would be a democratic method of producing goods. There is hardly anything democratic about the enormously hierarchial, dictatorial, and ruthless top down way big business is run in the United States. And there is no point in complaining about CEOs taking million dollar bonuses when a company is tanking if you have approved of the corporate structure and philosophy of business that undergirds paying top executives this sort of money in the first place. This is like crying wolf, when in fact you agreed for the wolf to be paid handsomely to guard the hen house in the first place!
Free market capitalism of course is a many splintered thing, which favors a survival of the fittest approach to economics. Not merely a supply and demand approach, a survival of the fittest approach. What do I mean? The so-called law of supply and demand is only one economic factor which controls the economy. This was perfectly obvious when what mainly precipitated last fall's crashing of the stock market (still in progress), was not ‘supply and demand’, but rather the lack of regulation allowing predator banks and loan agencies the chance of offering sub-prime mortgages to people who could not afford them, and whom the banks knew could not afford them, thus perpetuating America’s new status as a debtor nation.
And Christians have simply been complicit in this whole system of doing things--- buying the rhetoric that regulation and protectionism is all bad, and free market capitalism all good, when in fact this is far from true. They have also bought the rhetoric that they have a moral and patriotic obligation to consume, and so support the American economy. This, as we shall see is a yes and no proposition. No Christian should commit herself to live well beyond their means, just for the sake of helping prop up an ailing economy. There is no Christian basis for living a life of conspicuous consumption, much less of greed.
Sorry prosperity preachers, your well just dried up. This bulletin just in--- believing God for a financial miracle after you have lived in a financially irresponsible way is treating God as if he were an overly indulgent parent who would continue spoiling an already spoiled brat. And God is not going to honor that sort of flawed belief system, especially not when he has a compelling concern for the genuinely least, last, and lost in this world. So, let’s see if we can’t do a rewind here and begin to rethink things economic from a Christian point of view, rather than just baptizing the financial rhetoric of the political right or left, and calling it good.
PRINCIPLE ONE: THE EARTH IS THE LORD’S AND ALL THAT IS THEREIN
Christians ought to know that human beings ‘own’ nothing in this world, if we are talking about the ultimate owner of things. This is God’s world, and it belongs to God. He has given it to us to be good stewards of, not owners. We brought nothing with us into this world, and we shall not be able to take any of it with us. If you know your history of economics, in the last 2,000 Christians have lived through all sorts of economic trials and tribulations and systems, no one of which was ‘specifically’ Christian, though it is clear enough that some systems are less Christian than others (e.g. totalitarian dictatorial systems, including totalitarian communism seems much more at odds with Christianity and its values than some other economic systems).
Since Christians are merely stewards of God’s property, they are always ultimately accountable to God for what they do with it (see the parable of the talents). God expects responsible stewardship out of us, in fact God expects “a good return on his investment in us”. The recognition that the earth is the Lord’s must cut against either godless capitalism’s or godless communism’s basic assumptions— there is no such thing as purely private property from a Christian point of view, any more than there is any such thing as governmentally owned and controlled property either. It all belongs to God!
PRINCIPLE TWO: DAILY BREAD IS NOT DAILY BLING
The Lord’s prayer is very basic, and as part of the Sermon on the Mount it reinforces the values of sticking to the basics. If you have decent food, shelter, and clothing, you should not be longing for more, and more and more, nor should you be worrying about such things. It is noteworthy that in the Lord’s prayer we are encouraged to pray for daily bread. ‘Godliness with contentment is great gain’ says the Scriptures. Christians are called in this culture to de-enculturate themselves and live a life of unfettered simplicity. In most cases, it is precisely because so many Christians have bought the lie that it is o.k. to live well beyond their means, participating in ‘debtor nation’, that they find themselves in so much economic trouble now. Tear up most all your credit cards, pay off your bills, and start living frugally. God is not a venture capitalist who rewards Christians behaving badly.
PRINCIPLE THREE: A WORKMAN IS WORTHY OF HIS HIRE AND LET HIM WHO WILL NOT WORK, NOT EAT
Both of these principles are fundamental to what the Lord is calling us to when it comes to ‘making a living’--- a very odd phrase indeed, which seems to usually mean in this country ‘making a killing’. There is an integrity to good hard work, and a worker should be paid a living wage to do it. The basic definition of a living wage is providing basic food, shelter, clothing, and health coverage at a minimum.
Christians who hire people and then pay them less than the minimum wage for full time work are not merely breaking the law, they are breaking their covenant with God to follow his principles of treating workers fairly, indeed treating them with respect and kindness (see the parable of the day laborers and how the vineyard owner gave even those who worked an hour a full day’s wage because their families needed it to survive).
The other side of employer ethics is employee ethics. There is plenty in the Bible that heavily criticizes the sloth, the sluggard, the slacker, and in general the lazy person. Paul puts it this way, each one should carry his own load, to the degree he can, and when he cannot we should all pitch in and bear one another's burdens. Work, is not the curse, toilsomeness in work is the curse according to the Genesis story.
PRINCIPLE FOUR: THE PURPOSE OF HARD WORK IS TO SAVE ALL WE CAN, SO WE CAN ALSO GIVE ALL WE CAN
The reason Christians should work hard is not merely so they can ‘get ahead’ or ‘pay off their debts’, though these are good reasons, but so they can save some money for an uncertain future, and so they can be generous in helping others in the future--- living self-sacrificially.
As John Wesley once stresses “the person who makes all they can, without both saving and giving all they can may be a living person, but they are a dead Christian”. By this he meant, that we are called to follow the self-sacrificial example of Christ, not the self-indulgent example of Donald Trump, Bernie Madoff (with the loot), prosperity preachers, and in general all those consumed with consumption. We live in a self-centered culture and so it requires conscious effort and activity to swim against the cultural flow.
Paul sets a good example when he says “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and all situations, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or want. I can endure all things through Him who strengthens me.” (Phil. 4.11-12—noting the proper translation of the ‘superman verse’ vs. 12 which literally reads “I am able…. all things”. The context suggests we must fill in the blank with the word ‘endure’ not ‘do’).
If one will begin to live on the basis of these principles one can begin to find one’s way out of the economic wasteland we find ourselves in. We must live within our means, and having said that, we need to drastically downscale our expectations about our lifestyles. We are not called to lifestyles of conspicuous consumption or lifestyles of the rich and famous. Those lifestyles are not Christian, they are just fallen people behaving badly.
In the second part of this post we will talk about how trust and hope are in fact the basis of any sound Christian approach to economics---but those in whom we invest our trust must be truly trustworthy……Do you know who is and isn’t trustworthy these days?