Disclaimer: I am not an economist or a politician. I do not know what, on balance, should be done about the current macroeconomic debacle or what if any presidential candidate can stabilize the world as we know it. If you figure it out, let me know.

As I write, the latest economic news concerns a $700 billion bailout plan for the country’s financial system. Or perhaps it concerns just what the next option is after the bailout plan fails. This follows, as you all know, several earlier attempts to bail out specific companies, none of which apparently proved large enough to stop the cascade of financial bad news. It’s not clear now – it won’t be clear by the time you get this newsletter in print – it might not be clear for a long time – just how much havoc is going to come out of this financial situation.

As far as Doug Diamond and Anil Kashyap at the Freakonomics blog can explain it, this mess is just a large-scale matter of too many firms taking on too much risky debt. Of course, the financial arrangements that made this possible are much more complicated than that, but the basic issue is too much debt. That is, too much money in circulation with not enough real stuff to back it up. It’s easy enough for us to wish that the big corporations had been forced to lie in the beds they’d made, but a pastor friend of mine has pointed out that it’s not that simple either. He notes that millions of individuals and families have taken on more debt than they can comfortably service. We’re all in this “cheap debt” game together.

Throughout the Bible, “debt” carries a moral weight that doesn’t make much sense in today’s money system. The Old Testament law prohibits lending money with interest (Exodus 22:25), because clearly the borrower needs the money more than the lender does. The version of the Lord’s Prayer we use in worship even uses “debt” as a way of naming what sin is in our lives (Matthew 6:12). As with many other issues, we attach moral stigma to a decision people make in the absence of better options.

Here the generation gap shows, because some of you remember a time before auto loans, student loans, or even mortgages were universal forms of debt. I don’t. I’ve never experienced a world where people make major purchases entirely from savings. If this situation is morally bad, then I’m a bad person. I owe money on my house and my education; I earn interest when the bank loans money to others for these same things. I even “make” a little money by using credit cards and paying them off in full each month. Wherever I go, I’m floating in a sea of debt.

I’m not sure it’s possible to go back to a time before money had a time value. I borrow money because it is worth someone’s while to make that money available to me for a time. I lend money because someone else is willing to give me a little extra for the inconvenience of being without that money for a while. If we refused to move money around this way, the basic economics of life would change a great deal. For instance, my house would plummet in value, because it would only be worth what someone else is able to put together all at once to pay for it. Without an incentive to loan money, the supply of new capital would disappear.

Declining home values and a shrinking money supply? That’s what this current crisis is all about, albeit in the opposite order of events. The housing market corrected itself, and suddenly banks are reluctant to lend money to one another. The fact that the correction has happened is a sign that the financial system still works on some level. At the same time, the trauma this correction has caused is just an indication that the system has been deeply troubled for quite a long time.

So, what’s a Christian to do? Repentance comes to mind, not in the sense that we should all feel bad about what we’ve done, but in the sense that more of us might change our minds about how we deal with the financial system. In the short term, the market might help us do this: liquid money will be harder to come by, so we’ll find ourselves spending less and borrowing less to do it. Ultimately, however, it takes a deeper set of decisions to extract ourselves from the system of borrowing and spending. As long as people and companies can make more money by convincing us that we don’t have enough to be happy, we’ll be at the mercy of the financial markets. We must change our minds and live in a new way.

This new life is hard to live on one’s own, but perhaps we can share our strength and our calling together as the church. Together, we might be able to name “enough” in a world that only recognizes “more.” We might be able to recover an ethic of sharing and generosity founded in the abundance we have received from God. We might even be able to imagine sources of mutual support that don’t depend on repayment contracts.

To do any of this, we need each other. We need to tell each other the stories of how we’ve seen God’s abundance in unlikely places. We need to remind each other what a blessing it is to share unearned blessings with our neighbors. We need to celebrate each other when we choose to be satisfied with what we have. If we all set our sights on God, we can move together in a new and blessed direction.

In Christ’s peace,

Nathan

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