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).
Jesus seems to speak directly to our situation in the Sermon on the Mount when he says to first-century peasants, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink …. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:25, 33).
And how timeless are those words written to Timothy—instructions for what he was to be preaching to the people of Ephesus: “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God” (1 Timothy 6:17).
THE CREDIT CRISIS points to the inadequacy of any ultimate credo whose object is anything but God. God is our refuge and strength. And God’s sustaining power is not tied to the Dow.
It is crucial that we invite people to put their hope in God, and offer them the assurance that comes from faith in God. The Bible’s Chronicler wrote Israel and Judah’s history, both to offer hope for a future for the people whose nation had been destroyed and to point out Judah’s sins so that it might repent. In the same way the Christian must not only offer hope, but also an accurate assessment of the ultimate causes for this present crisis, issuing a call to repentance.
The underlying causes of the current economic crisis are not financial, but spiritual. At least five of the seven deadly sins came into play: gluttony, greed, sloth, envy, and ultimately pride all came before the fall. These led to absurd economic practices that bordered on the criminal. It was not simply the CEOs and Wall Street types who danced to this tune. It was every one of us whose 401(k)s prospered by their efforts. And ultimately none of this would be possible without all who abandoned wisdom and prudence and borrowed beyond their capacity to buy houses, cars, and whatever their hearts desired without the ability to repay.
As we face the consequences of the current economic downturn, and as we reflect upon the spiritual causes that led to the fall, we find comfort and truth in the words of Jesus: “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). Thank God for that! And may the truth of these words guide us to a different future.
Adam Hamilton, senior pastor at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, is the author of Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White. A version of this commentary appeared on journeywithjesus.net.