If there’s one thing President Obama wanted his audience to take away from his speech in support of the American Jobs Act last Thursday night, it’s the urgency of the crisis facing the United States. Repeatedly he exhorted Congress to “pass this bill,” which the president assured would “create jobs right away.”
One of the important perspectives the president reminded the nation of is our dependence on the work of those who have come before us. “Where would we be right now?” asked the president, as he urged us to imagine the world without a litany of public spending projects in our nation’s history, from bridges to schools to Social Security. We might just as well ask, too, where we would be right now without the promises of politicians present and past, who have run up the U.S. national debt in excess of $14.7 trillion, or where we would be without generations of innovative enterprise in the private sector.
The greatest truth President Obama spoke last Thursday night was his acknowledgment that politicians “can’t solve all of our nation’s woes.” The one thing perhaps that the president and Dave Ramsey agree on is that, as the president put it, “our recovery will be driven not by Washington, but by our businesses and our workers.” Just how much politicians can “help,” however, remains the great matter of debate. The remainder of the president’s speech gives the impression that he believes there is, in fact, a great deal the government should be doing. But as pastor Kevin DeYoung put it so convincingly last week, “profits,” not politics, are “where jobs come from.”
The president closed his speech with a quote that illustrates perfectly the depth of the disconnect between today’s Washington and a properly Christian view of work and government. President Obama invoked the words of President John F. Kennedy: “Our problems are man-made – therefore they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants.” Man can be as big as he wants. That sounds like a pretty good paraphrase of the serpent’s promise, “You will be like God."
Rather than making grandiose claims about what human beings can and cannot do, whether through politics or other social spheres, the Christian acknowledges, as the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, that all things, including wealth and poverty, come by God’s “fatherly hand." Our own participation in that providential order comes about through God’s gracious inclusion of human beings as his instruments. C. S. Lewis once wrote that God “invented both prayer and physical action” for the purpose of allowing his creatures the “dignity of causality” (a phrase coined by Pascal). This means that our work, in whatever form and in whatever sphere, is by definition secondary and subservient to God’s greater providential purposes. It also means, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “We cannot simply take it for granted that our own work provides us with bread; rather this is God’s order of grace.”
This means ultimately that even if our problems are “man-made,” the solutions to them start not with man but with God. As the Psalmist puts it, “Do not put your trust in princes, / in human beings, who cannot save,” but instead in “the Maker of heaven and earth,” who “upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry." It’s time for Christian citizens to ask what trust we’ve been putting in princes, elected or otherwise, and what the real responsibilities of government are and are not.
(Photo courtesy of The White House/Chuck Kennedy.)