As United States lawmakers scramble to vote on a budget agreement and avert the prospect of default and large-scale government shutdown, it’s worth considering what a comprehensive Christian response to the crisis of public and private debt might look like. The following is a sketch of the kinds of questions and issues that such a response would begin to address, focusing on five main areas: the individual, familial, ecclesial, economic and political.
The first place to look is at the level of the individual. We must look closely at our own attitudes toward wealth and material goods, particularly in relationship to spiritual realities and the care of our souls. Do we properly value the material world as a gift from God, treating it as something to be celebrated but not worshiped? Are we committed as individuals to seeking first the kingdom and righteousness of God, trusting that all our material needs, our daily bread, will be given to us as well (Matthew 6:33)? Honest answers to these kinds of questions will provide us with a perspective from which we can readily agree with Brian McLaren, that our greatest deficit is spiritual rather than material.
The second area of our lives that merits focus is in our relationship to the family, the place where most of us first learn about the truths of the Gospel and the economic lessons that shape our relationship to money. If we look at our household budgets, do they properly reflect the commitments we purport to hold at the personal level? We should look closely, for instance, at how these commitments are manifested in the levels of charitable giving. As Ron Sider has written, “If American Christians simply gave a tithe rather than the current one-quarter of a tithe, there would be enough private Christian dollars to provide basic health care and education to all the poor of the earth. And we would still have an extra $60 to 70 billion left over for evangelism around the world.”
But the following implication of this reality is to examine whether these kinds of responsibilities are being proclaimed in the church. If the majority of evangelical pastors don’t think that tithing is a biblical mandate, it is perhaps little wonder that levels of Christian giving are typically in the range between 2 and 4 percent. It is worth examining as well what the budgets of local churches and denominations illustrate about the priorities of the bride of Christ. It is not uncommon at all for churches in North America to take on million-dollar building projects (and indebtedness to match) so that Sunday worship services can be conducted in state-of-the-art facilities. We must at least be able to broach the question of whether this is a faithful use of the gifts and resources God has provided for the affluent church.
Another place to closely examine our priorities and values is in the economic realm, the world of work and business. Do we see this area of life simply as a way to maximize profits and to gain all we can, without any corresponding sense of service or responsibility for that wealth? Or do we also appreciate this arena as one provided by God to be the normal means for the provision of our material welfare? Clement of Alexandria noted that we are to properly value the creation of wealth as a necessary precondition for maintenance of our common life: “Riches, then, which benefit also our neighbors, are not to be thrown away.”
A final place to look for the expression of our values is in the area of politics. Not surprisingly, this is the one that has received the most attention, both from secular intellectual as well as religious leadership. The federal government has been spending about 40 percent more than it has taken in, resulting in the massive current level of public debt, and we must ask some hard questions about the reasons for this. Increasingly Americans expect the government to do much more than we are willing to pay for directly. We want the government to do things for us that we do not want to have to do for ourselves or through other institutions, such as the church, charities or businesses.
We need to temper our expectations for what political solutions can offer us and come to grips with what the legitimate limits of governmental action are, particularly in light of the stewardship responsibilities we find in the other areas of life outlined above. The most important Christian response to the debt-ceiling debate and the debt crisis is to engage in an inventory of our priorities, individually and communally, and thereby to do the hard work of evaluating our values. In doing so we’ll find that the problems we face are far more than political - and far deeper than merely political solutions can hope to solve.
(Photo of Speaker of the House John Boehner and President Barack Obama courtesy of The White House/Wikimedia Commons.)