Economics

A Pastoral Strategy for Hard Times

Many Americans are angry about this financial crisis, angry about a rescue plan that seems to bail out Wall Street more than them, and frustrated with the lack of clear solutions being offered by politicians. But underneath the anger, there is a deeper level of fear in America right now. I am hearing that fear across the country. How will this affect me and my family? What will happen to my retirement funds, to the college account for my kids, to the value of my home? Am I going to lose my home or even my job? As the immediate crisis turns into a longer and deeper recession, these questions will only increase. A continued rise in unemployment and foreclosures, along with shrinking investments and credit, will bring more pain to ordinary Americans.

Recently on CNN a financial consultant re­port­ed that some of her clients are already living in their cars. I could feel the fear gripping many Ameri­cans. A friend of mine, a financial planner now engaged in intense daily conversations with his clients, left me a simple voicemail—“Pray for me.”

It’s not often that most Americans are worrying about the same thing at the same time. The last time might have been just after 9/11. But it is increasingly clear that most Americans are focused on the same thing right now. The collapse of Wall Street, the deepening economic recession (the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression), and the clear threat of another depression have become the overriding foci of public conversation. Every other issue is perceived as a distraction.

For Christians, there are deeper questions that should be asked: What is a Christian response to a deepening economic crisis like this? What should people of faith be thinking, saying, and doing? What is the responsibility of the churches to their own parishioners, to their communities, to the nation, and to the world? And where is God in all this?

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Sojourners Magazine December 2008
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Re-Rooting Ourselves in God

With many more Americans struggling to pay for food and housing, the upcoming commercial holiday season may by necessity be a time for soul-searching and creative generosity.

For the past few decades, the day after Thanksgiving has been promoted as Black Friday, a one-day ritual of shopping frenzy. Underlying the news stories of people lined up outside big box stores hours before opening was the suggestion that if enough of us believed and bought and made a flagrant offering of our credit cards, retailers’ account books would mystically turn from red to black. Our faithfulness would be rewarded with the implicit promise of stuff enough for all and forever.

Since the 1990s, Adbusters magazine and others have waged a guerrilla campaign to change Black Friday into Buy Nothing Day. But after months of economic turmoil, buying nothing is a given for many people. Loading up a shopping cart with electronics isn’t an option, much less a temptation. When financial institutions crack at the foundation and temples to false gods crumble, the fleeting nature of materialism’s comfort that the Buy Nothing folks warn about is made manifest.

Fearless Generosity
Even if our own situation seems secure, how can we not feel some fear and despair for those who are suffering—especially the poorest of the world’s poor, who risk starvation and bury far too many of their children even when our times are good? While we’re told wealth will trickle down, scarcity seems much more responsive to gravity, as the financial crisis among the rich nations threatens promised aid to developing countries. Some estimates are that the ranks of the hungry may grow by as many as 100 million people due to continuing record food and energy prices.

So how do we re-root ourselves in God to be vessels of perfect love that casts out fear (1 John 4:18)?

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Sojourners Magazine December 2008
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Faith, Hope, and the Credit Crisis

Paul Krugman, professor of economics at Princeton University and winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in economics, offered a prescient assessment of the nation’s economic condition earlier this year. He noted that the U.S. economy is suffering from a “crisis of faith.” He meant by this a growing lack of trust in our economic institutions and the securities that have backed much of our debt.

At the center of this crisis is the use of, and problems surrounding, the extension of credit. It is worth noting that “credit” is a word that is a part of the language of faith. It comes from the Latin credere—to believe or to trust. The present active form of this word—credo, “I believe”—opens the Apostle’s Creed. In the case of credit, belief or trust is placed in the borrower and her or his willingness and ability to repay. Our current economic crisis is in part about misplaced trust or faith between debtors and lenders.

Neither the $700 billion bailout package, nor a Federal Reserve interest rate cut, nor presidential calls for calm seem to adequately speak to the underlying issues that precipitated this crisis of faith. This is a moment when the Bible and people of faith have both the timely word that can calm fears and the most accurate assessment of what fundamentally led to the current economic debacle.

The word of hope is found in the words spoken to people in adversity throughout the Bible. There are the words of the prophets spoken to the Israelites living in exile after losing everything. To them God spoke profound words of promise: “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you” (Isaiah 41:10). The psalmists, too, during periods of adversity wrote, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear” (Psalm 46:1-2).

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It's All His Fault

The following is an excerpt from economic philosopher Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations treatise, one of the driving intellectual forces behind contemporary market theory. Smith has been dead for a couple hundred years and can’t defend himself, so financial experts are blaming him for the United States running out of commas to put between the zeroes of our fiscal mess. Unfortunately, we can’t blame the real perpetrators because they are busy overseeing construction of their new mansions in the Hamptons, thus unavailable to reassure us that they’re fine, and we shouldn’t worry.

“Every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it; he intends only his own security; and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it ....”

Okay, dude, whatever.

Enough of Adam Smith. I thought it would be helpful to the discussion, but I started getting college flashbacks and then remembered I still owe a research paper to my psychology professor. It was due 35 years ago, but I’m happy to report that it’s nearly finished. Just as soon as I fill out the bibliography with a couple of encyclopedia references.

Suffice it to say that financial experts agree that Adam Smith would be unbelievably tedious at a dorm party, unless he brought the keg. (“Another tankard of stout ale, my good friends?”)

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Sojourners Magazine December 2008
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