The Common Good

The Upside to the Economic Crisis

The first line in Charles Dickens classic novel A Tale of Two Cities seems appropriate for what's likely to come in the days ahead. "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times." Unless you've been living in a cave (sorry Geico man), you've probably been affected by the current fiasco on Wall Street and Capitol Hill. Within the past week 401Ks have evaporated into thin air, life savings have slipped through the cracks of who knows where, and now it's clear that even a $700 billion dollar bailout from Uncle Sam can't save the stock market. The prognosis is in. These are scary times indeed.

In times like these it's very easy to become fixated on venting our frustrations against-take your pick-the Republican party, the Democratic party, Wall Street fat cats, predatory lenders, gullible first-time home buyers, low income minorities that took advantage of sub-prime lending rates. There's plenty of blame to pass around. We all know we're in a mess. The question is what do we do now?

As for what Moses recommended in terms of an economic bailout-debt cancellation and land redistribution-I'll let the economists and the theologians duke it out over whether that applies today. The Bible may not be an economic textbook-as much as Secretary Paulson could use one right about now-but it is a message from God to humanity, and when you read it from cover to cover there's an underlying message that speaks loud and clear. God is the defender of the poor.

So what's the upside to an economic disaster? The upside to economic disasters is that economic disasters spur moral reflection. They serve as a wake-up call to remind us that the economic decisions we make every day really do affect other people. They serve to remind us that a day of judgment is coming and that God takes very seriously how our lives affect the poor. And I'm not just talking about how much we give in the offering plate on Sunday mornings or how much we give to our favorite charitable organizations. Sure it's nice that we tip God with our tithes (or spare change depending on our level of piety), but how many of us think about how we earn our money and whether our jobs and our investments coincide with the values of Jesus?

I've heard a lot of Christian leaders use the bully pulpit to decry private morality issues like homosexuality and abortion, but few and far between are the voices that call us to repent from social morality issues. As a lifelong member of the Pentecostal/charismatic tradition, most of the teaching I've received about money is "God wants you to have a lot of it, as long as you're generous and use it for charity or to advance the gospel." Big houses, nice cars, and bank account surpluses are all signs of God's approval in this vein of thinking. With the exception of pimping and drug-dealing, the question of how to attain this money, and the morality associated with it, has been left to a fairly generous interpretation. Questions like "Should I really be investing in weapons manufacturers when I don't know who those weapons are being sold to?" or "Is the oil company in my 401K propping up the military dictatorship in Burma?" rarely make it to the surface.

I invite you to join me in a moment of reflection over the words penned by James the brother of the Lord Jesus Christ:

"Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you! Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days. Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. You have lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury, you have fattened your hearts as in a day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have murdered the just; he does not resist you" (James 5:1-6).

In an age where CEOs make 400 times the wage of what the average worker makes in a day, I wonder if James might be talking about some of the companies in whom I've invested in the past. Even worse, I wonder if he could be talking about me?

Aaron D. Taylor is the author of Alone with a Jihadist, scheduled to be released in January 2009. He blogs at www.aarondtaylor.blogspot.com.

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