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Credo and the Credit Crisis

A guest essay by Adam Hamilton. Adam Hamilton is the author of Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White and the upcoming Simplicity, Generosity and Joy. He's the Senior Pastor at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas.

For Sunday October 19, 2008

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
           Exodus 33:12–23 or Isaiah 45:1–7
           Psalm 99 or Psalm 96:1–13
           1 Thessalonians 1:1–10
           Matthew 22:15–22

New York Stock Exchange.

           Fear.  Panic.  Anxiety.  These capture well the state of mind of many in America today.  Recently, the American Psychological Association released the findings of a survey they conducted of 7,000 American households.  The study noted that eighty percent of Americans were stressed about the economy and their personal finances.  Half were worried about their ability to provide for their family’s basic needs.  56% were concerned about their own job stability.  60% of respondents reported feeling angry and irritable, and 52% reported laying awake at night worried about this.  The report concluded that, “The declining state of the nation’s economy is taking a physical and emotional toll on people nationwide.”1

           Meanwhile, Paul Krugman, professor of economics at Princeton University, 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 opens the Apostle’s Creed, credo – “I believe.”   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.

           So far, neither a $700 billion bailout package, nor a Fed rate cut, nor presidential calls for calm, have stemmed the tide of fear, nor do they 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 the underlying issues that led to the current economic debacle.

           The word of hope is found in the words spoken to people in adversity and even exile throughout the Bible. There are the words of the prophets spoken to the Israelites living in exile after losing everything.  To the exiles 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; I will uphold you with my right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10)  The Psalmists, too, during periods of adversity wrote words like, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.” (Psalm 46:1-2)

Stock traders.

           Jesus seems to speak directly to our situation in the Sermon on the Mount as he said to first century peasants,  “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink. . . But strive first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you as well” (Matthew 6:25, 33).   As we watch the Dow drop over 1,800 points in one week, and the waves of fear and the winds of panic sweeping over our collective souls, it is easy to identify with the disciples straining at their oars, being battered by the wind and waves in the fourth watch of the night as they wondered where Jesus was when they really needed him.  What comfort we find in his words of greeting as he came walking on water towards them, unshaken by the storm, “Take courage!  It is I.  Don’t be afraid!” (Matthew 14:27) 

           Skip ahead a few chapters in the New Testament and we come to Paul sitting in his prison cell writing his epistle to the Philippians.  He’s awaiting the outcome of a trial that could see him executed, and yet he has the faith to write, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6–7). 

           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” (I Timothy 6:17). 

           The credit crisis serves to point 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 him.  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 she 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 CEO’s and Wall Street types who danced to this tune.  It was every one of us whose 401k’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. 

Australian stock traders.

           As we see 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.

           The gospel message needed today is a call to hope in a God who will not abandon us, and a call to repentance before a God who forgives and heals us.  And ultimately it is an invitation to credo in the midst of a credit crisis.

For further reflection

           In the gospel for this week Jesus speaks to a central issue of our financial lives — paying taxes to the government (Matthew 22:15–22). To what seems like a trick question he responded, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." On that ancient denarius that was given to Jesus was an image of Caesar, and merely money is owed to him, whereas every human being bears the image of God, implying that I "render to God" wholly and without condition my entire self.

[1], October 7, 2008, “Eight Out of Ten Americans Stressed Because of Economy.”.

Image credits: (1) Time, Inc.; (2); and (3) Australian Broadcasting Corp.

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