Seeing through the Credit Crisis

The Christian and Economics
K. Rawlings (2009)

What they were telling us in the last few years

  • Citibank gave us the advice (or was it a command?) to: “Live richly!
  • Barclaycard.  The key” – not just a key, but THE key!  Without it I guess we’re are supposed to consider ourselves imprisoned, or perhaps locked out from where all the good stuff is.
  • Scotiabank claimed both to know our thoughts, and know better than us: “You’re richer than you think!
  • Prudential Insurance claimed to be: “Growing and protecting your wealth” – no warning of moth and rust

We have had an economic downturn!

I guess I don’t need to labour the point.  It’s all over the news – a few bubbles have burst at the same time.  The banks nearly collapsed in October 2008.  Borrowing, house sales, car sales have all collapsed.  Oil prices have nose-dived.  Interest rates have been slashed.   

Unemployment is on the way for many in 2009.  Big problems and uncertainties ahead: inflation or deflation?  Sterling continuing to slide?  Negative equity?  Future tax rises?  Pensions problems look further than ever from a solution for those not yet retired. 

What the politicians, financial bosses, salesmen have been telling us over the last 15 years or so – things getting better all the time, stability, house prices we continue to rise, “Fiscal prudence! An end to boom and bust!” – shown to be over-optimistic hope at best.

How some people might be feeling: anger!  Perhaps…

“And there will be signs in the sun and moon and stars, and on the earth nations will be in distress, anxious over the roaring of the sea and the surging waves.  People will be fainting from fear and from the expectation of what is coming on the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” Luke 21:25-26 

Telling comment from Alan Greenspan, Former Chairman of the Federal Reserve: (1987-2006, 23 October 2008):

“We are in the midst of a once-in-a-century credit tsunami. Central banks and governments are being required to take unprecedented measures.”

Interesting use of a giant wave metaphor, given Jesus’ words in Luke 21! 

Whatever other challenging effect a worsening economy has on us each in 2009, we can take it as an opportunity to be different, to be a witness.  If others are angry, distressed and fearful, looking for others to blame, or full of self-pity.  We have reasons to be of a different attitude: 

First, we hope for a bright ending to current gloom…

“Then they will see the Son of Man arriving in a cloud with power and great glory. But when these things begin to happen, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”  Luke 21:27-28 

Second, we should find it easier to get a sense of perspective due to our existing relationships…

We have a great advantage over most of our countrymen in that we are generally much closer to poverty than they are.  You know brothers and sisters who are genuinely poor – not just relative poor, but absolutely poor.  If you don’t personally know a brother or sister in poverty then you definitely know a brother who personally knows a brother, and you definitely know of a brother in poverty.  You know there are brothers and sisters scattered across the globe in much greater poverty, uncertainty of life or isolation than probably you have ever personally known. 

Third, we are not much concerned if our wealth is eroded.  We always knew it could be and we don’t rely upon it…do we?

Contrast current economics with Christianity

Of course this current economic downturn may just prove to be a necessary economic correction before we all go on getting richer than ever: Perhaps it’s just all part of the cycle.   

I have a worry (perhaps it’s my own issues, not yours – but I’ll mention it anyway) – the worry is this:  That we:

  • accept the way things are in commerce, finance, business as natural and normal;
  • go along with the way things are and benefit from it with little or no conscience;
  • can’t even see clearly that the way things are is a wrong, evil way. 

If this current downturn turns out to be just part of an economic cycle my worry is that we will continue on cordial terms(at truce) with Mammon just like before.

“No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”  Luke 16:13 

“Love not the world…friends of the world are God’s enemies.” 

You might say we don’t love, or have fellowship with, the world…OKAY…but do we have a clear hostility to the world, particularly economically?

Let me try and point out just how fundamentally anti-Christian the world economy is:-

Profit motive versus “Be content!”

Selfish profit:

“Greed and fear got out of balance over the last few years and there’s going to be a re-adjustment in favour of fear over the next year or so.”  Richard Lambert, Director-General CBI, 25 November 2008. 

The world economic system is rooted in greed and fear.  It works as well as it does because it does not pretend to be over-optimistic about the nature of man.  But to accept man’s base motivators as the foundation for economic relationships – can we really go along with that without at least a sorrow that it this way at the moment and without a longing for a righteous economy?  

Bible verses in contrast:

“[Watch out for] constant bickering by people corrupted in their minds and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a way of making a profit.  Now godliness combined with contentment brings great profit.  For we have brought nothing into this world and so we cannot take a single thing out either.  But if we have food and shelter, we will be satisfied with that.  Those who long to be rich, however, stumble into temptation and a trap and many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.  For the love of money is the root of all evils. Some people in reaching for it have strayed from the faith and stabbed themselves with many pains.”  1 Timothy 6:5-10 

There is great spiritual profit in not seeking worldly profit – seeking worldly profit is often to gain at another’s expense.  There are so many things we may be tempted to pray for – daily food, forgiveness, and shelter from temptation and evil are the things for ourselves the Lord taught us to pray for – not possessions, ease, family.

“Remove falsehood and lies far from me; do not give me poverty or riches, feed me with my allotted portion of bread, lest I become satisfied and act deceptively and say, "Who is the LORD?" Or lest I become poor and steal and demean the name of my God.”  Proverbs 30:8-9 

Competition is good, let the market decide – there will be winners and losers (and that’s okay) – is this a biblical model?!  Imagine if the stronger retailers helped out the weaker ones – utter foolishness and probably illegal.

Consumer is king – we are all split personalities enslaved to our consumer side.  24 hour service culture – great if you want shop at 2am, not so great if you have to work at 2am. 

Listen to this, you who trample the needy, and do away with the destitute in the land. You say, "When will the new moon festival be over, so we can sell grain? When will the Sabbath end, so we can open up the grain bins? We're eager to sell less for a higher price, and to cheat the buyer with rigged scales! We're eager to trade silver for the poor, a pair of sandals for the needy! We want to mix in some chaff with the grain!"  Amos 8:4-6 

Assets are sweated. Not working = consuming or idling.  No place for a rest.  The poor are exploited – really? Is it that bad?  But of course we have exported poverty to the east and the south.  We don’t actually have to walk by it but it’s out there. 

Risk is priced into financial transactions such that it is the poorest people who pay the most.  What security can you offer for a borrowing?  If you pre-pay for energy rather than by direct debit the price goes up.  Lenders are happy to charge interest upon interest so that some make no inroads into reducing the original loan.

Borrowing culture versus “Lend & give”

Borrowing has been easy over the last decade or so:

  • self-certified mortgages with no deposit and increasing multiples of salary – ever heard yourself say: “if you don’t get on the housing ladder you’ll miss out”, or “renting is dead money”?
  • go to university on a student loan: something like 5% to 50% to further education over last 50 years
  • car, home improvement, holiday, credit cards

The government have been at it themselves too and encouraging you to do it. 

Business runs on seeking to maximize cash flow and manage working capital.  Supermarkets bring in their stock at the last minute and take as long as possible to pay their supplier whilst their customers pay in cash.  Insurance companies take your money up front and hope to have it as long as possible for investment before you want it back in the form of a claim.  When your customer doesn’t pay you, you pass the delay on to your supplier. 

Bible verses in contrast:

“Give to everyone who asks you, and do not ask for your possessions back from the person who takes them away.”  Luke 6:30  “Give to the one who asks you, and do not reject the one who wants to borrow from you.”  Matthew 5:42 

“Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to ungrateful and evil people.”  Luke 6:35 

God gave to us first. God has never forced repayment from us. 

“Do not withhold good from those who need it, when you have the ability to help. Do not say to your neighbor, "Go! Return tomorrow and I will give it," when you have it with you at the time.”  Proverbs 3:27-28 

In the law it says you must pay a hired labourer the same day (Lev 19:13) – the point being you are not to abuse your position of power to squeeze him economically. 

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.”  Romans 13:8 

Clearly lending and borrowing are not outlawed per se by Christ, but we do need to think seriously about whether we go against the spirit of his teachings if we have maximized our borrowings. 

There was periodic release from debt under the law of Moses.  Imagine that today, all debts forgiven!  Yet there are £bns in debt owed by poor countries to rich countries today.  It sounds crazy to the world to suggest that we should forgive people unable to meet mortgage repayments.   It was their fault they over-borrowed – but is that a Christian attitude? 

That we borrow and lend to aliens without thought as to its morality (as if the most natural thing in the world) must be wrong.  At the least you would surely want to borrow from a brother first, want to minimize your borrowing, want to repay as soon as possible, feel sorrow where you fail in any of these objectives.  You would want to lend to a brother rather than the bank, want lending to do good for a brother rather than corporate shareholders. 

That this might sound a little crazy perhaps, might be evidence that we are, if not friends, then at least on cordial terms (at truce) with the world.

You are in control versus “Do not worry”

Risk management: Ace Insurance advertised themselves as empowering their policy-holders: “Take away the risk and you can do anything”.  What they failed to say was that risk can not be removed, only that downsides mitigated against.  If there is no risk there is no choice and uncertainty – it clearly does not follow then that you can do anything when there is no risk.  Insurance is human replacement for prayer and faith.  Insurance, ACE at least, seeks to compete with Jesus’ words “With God all things are possible”.  

"I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.  For there is more to life than food, and more to the body than clothing.  Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn, yet God feeds them. How much more valuable are you than the birds!  And which of you by worrying can add an hour to his life?  So if you cannot do such a very little thing as this, why do you worry about the rest?  Consider how the flowers grow; they do not work or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed like one of these!  And if this is how God clothes the wild grass, which is here today and tomorrow is tossed into the fire to heat the oven, how much more will he clothe you, you people of little faith!  So do not be overly concerned about what you will eat and what you will drink, and do not worry about such things.  For all the nations of the world pursue these things, and your Father knows that you need them.  Instead, pursue his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.  "Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father is well pleased to give you the kingdom.  Luke 12:22-32 

“So then, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Today has enough trouble of its own.”  Matthew 6:34 

Insurance: what if I don’t have it?  What if my flat burns down?  Would you consider me reckless not to have shared my uncertainty with the world?  Or would you welcome the opportunity to come to my aid?

Advertising for services and products relies hugely on giving us an illusion of control, choice and certainty – it appeals to our ego.  Advertising works because it understands the selfish nature of man and it knows how easy it is to stroke our ego with an illusion of self-power.  Make your money work for you: financial services – you are the master…they would have you believe! 

Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go into this or that town and spend a year there and do business and make a profit." You do not know about tomorrow. What is your life like? For you are a puff of smoke that appears for a short time and then vanishes. You ought to say instead, "If the Lord is willing, then we will live and do this or that."  James 4:13-15 

Forward planning is necessary, but there is always the danger of complacency; of forgetting our God. Particularly as pay levels, bank balances have grown, shares continued to rise, short-term cash flow problems could be solved by easy borrowing – just at the moment any such complacency looks misplaced.

Treasure on earth versus “Treasure in heaven”

If you have spare funds, you’ll have expected a return on your funds – maybe an ISA or into Pension Fund to avoid tax.  Oh look the Icelandic banks give higher interest rates, let’s put our money there!  Mr. Madoff’s (he of the $50bn fraud allegations) investment funds give a better rate of return, let’s trust him to magic up increased wealth for us – no questions asked when the returns are this good!  

We are indoctrinated to build a nest-egg for later life.  The Europeanised world has worked by offering the dazzling prospect of retirement on pension – a time of ease, relaxation and relative prosperity in this life.  If you are prudent and store it away bit by bit in this life you will reap a golden harvest in your autumn years.  But isn’t this the exact sort of thing Jesus warned about?...

"Watch out and guard yourself from all types of greed, because one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." He then told them a parable: "The land of a certain rich man produced an abundant crop, so he thought to himself, 'What should I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?'  Then he said, 'I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to myself, "You have plenty of goods stored up for many years; relax, eat, drink, celebrate!"'  But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded back from you, but who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'  So it is with the one who stores up riches for himself, but is not rich toward God."  Luke 12:15-21 

Seize the moment!  And live in the now!  Time value of money: it is always better to get your return earlier because as time goes by uncertainties increase.  When making investment decisions in business generally future cash flows are discounted relative to current cash flows (today’s pound is better than ten year’s time pound – even before you throw in inflation).  This is a basic, universal assumption built into the world’s economics.  This preference for Jam today rather than Jam tomorrow is 100% opposed to the Christian outlook – our hope for the future.

Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God belongs to you…But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your comfort already.   Luke 6:20,24  Sell your possessions and give to the poor…

No, Jesus didn’t just say it to one particular young man:

Provide yourselves purses that do not wear out - a treasure in heaven that never decreases, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  Luke 12:33-34 

What you have in your hand is more valuable than what you might one day get, according to the world.  Not so with God.

What can we do about it?

So if the economic systems are so totally opposed to Christianity what can/should we do about it?  Aren’t we so deeply entrenched in it?  Wouldn’t getting out put us all living on a commune on some remote Island?  Maybe!  I’m not sure that “it’s too hard so we’ll do nothing & carry on as before” is the answer.  Any step away from cordial terms (a truce) however small is good.  Even if it is just a better realization of how spiritually hostile world we live in is – that’s good.  Even if it is just an admission to ourselves that a visit to the supermarket can damage us spiritually.  If we treat the world as benign, then there is a danger of letting it capture our souls without us even realizing it.  Perhaps the right perspective is offered by passages such as this one… 

And I say this, brothers and sisters: The time is short. So then those who have wives should be as those who have none, those with tears like those not weeping, those who rejoice like those not rejoicing, those who buy like those without possessions, those who use the world as though they were not using it to the full. For the present shape of this world is passing away.  1 Corinthians 7:29-31 

Wealth and possessions in the world are vanity. 

That seems to me to pick up on the spirit of Lot and is perhaps the best we can achieve.   The way Lot thought about the society of Sodom in the end made the difference between salvation and destruction. 

Lot was greatly distressed and was tormenting his righteous soul over the lawless deeds he saw and heard day by day. 2 Peter 2:7-8

His wife looked back at what she had left behind.  Are we ready to leave?

The riches of Christ given for us

You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that although he was rich, he became poor for your sakes, so that you by his poverty could become rich.  2 Corinthians 8:9 

An invitation to give to the needs of others.  A reminder that God and the Lord Jesus Christ took the work of our salvation upon themselves willingly, to enrich us immeasurably. 

If nothing else changes or can be changed with respect to our relationship with the world in the great scheme of things, then as we take bread and wine in remembrance of the great things given to us let us at least with thankful hearts have the correct perspective on wealth and possessions, an our spiritual health:-

You say, "I am rich and have acquired great wealth, and need nothing," but do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked, take my advice and buy gold from me refined by fire so you can become rich!  Revelation 3:17-18 

We take the warning given in love, and we thank & bless heaven:

…his divine power has bestowed on us everything necessary for life and godliness through the rich knowledge of the one who called us by his own glory and excellence.  Through these things he has bestowed on us his precious and most magnificent promises, so that by means of what was promised you may become partakers of the divine nature, after escaping the worldly corruption that is produced by evil desire.  2 Peter 1:3-4 

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he gave us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, that is, into an inheritance imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. It is reserved in heaven for you… You know that from your empty way of life inherited from your ancestors you were ransomed - not by perishable things like silver or gold, but by precious blood like that of an unblemished and spotless lamb, namely Christ… You have purified your souls by obeying the truth in order to show sincere mutual love… 1 Peter 1:3-4, 18-19

  • We have been called to live richly;
  • We have the key to the riches of heaven;
  • We are richer than perhaps we can find it possible to believe
  • Our heavenly wealth grows and is protected – since none can pluck us from the good shepherd’s hand.
By faith we sit in heavenly places, created for good works now, with the hope for the future of the surpassing wealth of God’s grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 

…So love one another earnestly from a pure heart.  You have been born anew, not from perishable but from imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.  1 Peter 1:22-23

L Buck,
14 Jan 2009, 10:50