Jesus and the credit crunch #1

The world is falling apart. The Australian Federal reserve has slashed interest rates by one percent—the biggest official cut in interest rates in 16 years—in order to try and protect the economy from the ravages of ‘slowing growth’. The US Government is injecting $700 billion dollars into the markets, and has propped up failed bank after failed bank. European car makers are slowing or halting production. France, Ireland and Britain are headed towards (or are already in) recession. And despite the hasty assurances of key Australian politicians, it appears that Australia’s future may well be no better.

As is usual under such circumstances, the social commentators have had a field day. But you can’t help feeling sometimes that they have lost the plot. This article in the Washington Post is a case in point (repeated for Australian audiences in The Sydney Morning Herald) . In the article, Steven Pearlstein argues that the current global economic meltdown isn’t about greed, but rather stupidity: “To some, [it] may be a story of greed. To me, it looks more like old-fashioned incompetence”. What exactly does he mean? Here it is in his own words:

The big problem with Wall Street isn’t that it’s greedy—it’s that it keeps making the same mistakes over and over. Each cycle, the masters of finance start out with reasonably good products and good intentions, only to get swept away by their success. They become arrogant, take too many risks and begin to believe their own marketing spiels. Then, when the cycle turns against them and the risks turn sour, they try to cover it up and begin lying to their customers, to regulators and to each other. Trust erodes, and the whole thing collapses.

Is it just me, or has he rather missed the point? Why have arrogance, excessive risk taking and lying suddenly fallen under the banner of incompetence? And why is greed not included as at least part of the motivation for this arrogance and lying? (Maybe the problem of finding a satisfactory definition for greed, which occupies the first half of the article, is an excuse for ignoring the problem altogether.) Could it be that we just don’t like the category of sin very much?

However, in spite of the amazing double-speak of the commentators, the main thing that I want to raise today is a question: what would Jesus have to say to us about our current predicament? Obviously, the answer is going to involve more than one post. But let me start by reminding you of an aspect of Jesus’ teaching that becomes incredibly pertinent in the light of current events: eternity makes sense of possessions. When two brothers bring their quarrel over the family inheritance to Jesus in Luke 12, his response is crystal clear. One of the brothers wants justice: he wants someone to force his brother to divide the inheritance evenly. But Jesus has another word altogether: “Be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions”. These words are an incredible challenge and yet an incredible relief in the face of the current crisis. We, of course, are facing this predicament because we live in a world that has too readily defined itself in terms of the abundance of our possessions. Once you have defined yourself in terms of your possessions and once your possessions come under greater threat than the regular ravages of rust and obsolescence, then your whole identity begins to come into question. Jesus’ words ought to offer great comfort to our hurting world. There is something more important than your possessions.

However, those words also present a real challenge, don’t they? Jesus goes on to explain why our life cannot be understood in terms of our possessions. He reminds anyone who will listen that there is an ultimate accounting for our decisions. Jesus tells the brothers who are fighting over the inheritance about the rich man who built himself bigger and bigger barns. On the day when his work is complete and he lies back in the hammock to enjoy his rewards, his life is taken, and he finds himself face to face with his maker. It strikes me that our world may be more receptive to this rather uncomfortable word, at least for a brief time. It is no secret to anyone that our culture of pleasure in possessions has gone hand in hand with a desire for instant gratification. The credit binge at the heart of our economic woes gives ample testimony to that. Let me live for today, for tomorrow will have enough debts of its own. Now that the debts are being called, people are waking up to the life that they have built for themselves.

So I want to encourage each of us and our churches to do a few things. Before anything else, we need to take a long hard look at ourselves and ask whether Jesus’ teaching has shaped us more than the air that we breath. (I was reminded of this problem again when I started work at Matthias Media last month. Two of their lowest selling titles are Brian Rosner’s book, Beyond Greed and Cash Values, a set of Bible studies about God’s attitude to money. I keep going places where preachers tell me that materialism is one of the biggest problems in western Christianity, and yet nobody, it seems, wants to tackle the question personally. I realize that I am as guilty as anyone here.) It is no use preaching Jesus’ words without acknowledging our own sinfulness and asking God to forgive and change us.

But at the same time, we need to speak Jesus’ words of truth to our world. Our actions have consequences—long-term consequences that we don’t want to think about much, but which are very real. In the midst of the present painful reminder that our economic decisions have consequences, we need to remind people that there are longer term consequences for a debt that cannot be repaid. But we need to help people to see that, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, coming to terms with our situation before God will also put the current crisis into perspective. Which leads me to the third thing: remembering that spiritual truths can only be understood because of the gracious work of the Spirit in the hearts of men and women, we need to pray that God will use the crisis to jolt our world from its complacency so that they will listen to Jesus.

We need to pray that we will be passionate, compassionate, courageous and bold to speak about that the fact that Jesus makes a difference in the real world we live in. I hope to spend more time thinking about Jesus’ words to a world in debt in coming posts.

6 thoughts on “Jesus and the credit crunch #1

  1. Thanks very much for the post, Paul. It has challenged us @ Crossoads to think about addressing these issues in the next few months, both because they are so topical and because we may not have hit this topic hard in a while.

  2. I work for an organisation where some serious findings have recently been handed down.  Some of those involved would defend themselves rather than accept the findings (which in the legal context are actually final in any case).  Not accepting reality and finding any defence or dressing up the root causes as incompetence is a normal reaction when one’s sin is found out.  I agree with Paul Grimmond’s assessment – what is wrong with the S word.

  3. I’ve been thinking that this so called “global finacial crisis” may well be one of the things God will be using here in Sydney to soften the ground for the big mission push of ‘connect 09’.

    (BTW I have read “Beyond Greed” and done those Studies – both are good value financial crisis or not)

  4. My God is so big, so strong and so mighty.
    There’s nothing my God cannot do.
    The markets are his, the bankers are his,
    The global economy too.
    My God is so big …

  5. What an incredibly great joy: all our riches are in Christ, safe and secure in heaven. Our inheritance is imperishable, undefiled and unfading. No-one can break in and steal our wealth; no bank closure or credit crunch can see our savings evaporate.

    “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

    1 Peter 1:3-7

  6. One of the more obvious consequences of the present economic ‘meltdown’ ought surely to be to send us back to what the Bible has to say about charging interest. I have just quoted these words of CS Lewis in my parish newsletter for December:

    “There is one bit of advice given to us by the ancient heathen Greeks, and by the Jews in the Old Testament, and by the great Christian teachers of the Middle Ages, which the modern economic system has completely disobeyed. All these people told us not to lend money at interest: and lending money at interest — what we call investment — is the basis of our whole system.”

    He went on, “I am not an economist and I simply don’t know whether the investment system is responsible for the state we are in or not. … But I should not have been honest if I had not told you that three great civilizations had agreed … in condemning the very thing on which we have based our whole life.”

    To which I added this comment: “Lewis was, I think, not quite right about the economics of investment. But he was spot on about the Old Testament: “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy,” says the book of Exodus, “do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest.””

    I have written on this here, and extensively on my blog since then. When the article first went online, it received some critical comments. I am now thinking of having tee-shirts printed with “Matthew 25:26-27” on them.

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