Thursday, October 16, 2008

Can We Still Be Generous During an Economic Meltdown? (Dialogue Column 10.14.08)

The Dialogue is the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, I'll post here on the blog my columns for the weekly newsletter. I mention it just so that folks who read the snail-mail version can skip this post if they've already read it.

$700 billion! I can’t really conceive of what that means. I saw a segment on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart that stated $700 billion could provide 2000 McDonald’s apple pies to each American. That’s a lot of pies! Of course, apple pies don’t really help me understand things any better either. All I know is that the stock market is on a roller coaster ride, banks are closing and experts are saying that a bad economic recession (is there a good kind?) has either already begun or is soon to arrive. From the histrionics on TV, it seems like the best course of action is for all of us to curl up into the fetal position until things get better.

Personally speaking, I’m a long way from retirement, my kids are a long way from college and I’m not planning on borrowing any money in the near future, so I’m not in panic mode. On the other hand, my paycheck comes from a church that depends upon people’s contributions, many of whom are retired and on fixed incomes, are paying for their kids’ college educations or are in jobs that depend upon a good economy. So, I guess you could say that my finances are only one degree separated from the crisis, and speaking in less self-interested terms, I happen to care about an awful lot of people who are affected directly by this economic crisis. Furthermore, given my line of work, I’ve sort of bought into this whole “Christians can make a difference in the world” thing, so I also wonder about what this financial squeeze will mean not only for the ministries of our church but of many other churches as well. After all, the fetal position is looking very attractive right about now.

I had a moment of clarity (or at least less haziness) when I read a quote from one of my heroes, Bono, lead singer of my favorite band, U2, and social activist on behalf of the world’s poorest people. He offered these words at a recent conference on global poverty:

“It is extraordinary to me that the United States can find $700 billion to save Wall Street and the entire G8 can’t find $25 billion to save 25,000 children who die every day of preventable treatable disease and hunger. That’s mad, that is mad. . . Bankruptcy is a serious business and we all know people who have lost their jobs. But this is moral bankruptcy.”

Here’s a little background on the quote: the G8 (the world’s 8 wealthiest nations) vowed in 2005 to raise annual aid levels to the world’s poorest people to $50 billion by 2010. $25 billion of those funds would go to Africa. Current estimates say the G8 will fall short of their goal by $40 billion. Despite the common assumption that the United States and other wealthy nations give tremendous amounts of money in foreign aid, the reality is that excluding military funding, money to the world’s poorest nations amounts to less than 1% of their annual budgets.

Back to my moment of less haziness, it is easy to criticize the priorities of our government and of the powerful around the world. Nations can curl up into the fetal position during tough times too. For that matter, they can lose themselves in self-centered gluttony during good times. What I realized, however, is that the same can be said of churches and the individuals that make them up. During good times, we can get lost in ourselves; oblivious to the ways what we possess and do not need could change the lives of others. During bad times, we curl up into a ball and shut out the world. Yet, during good and bad times, the spiritual and physical needs of the world around us do not stop. During good and bad times, Jesus’ call for us to care for “the least of these” does not stop either. As we flow in and out of good and bad economic times, the specific amount we give may by necessity change, but the amount we sacrifice on behalf of a needy world should remain constant. In times of economic bankruptcy, can we as people of faith avoid moral bankruptcy? This is the question our times have thrust upon us.

Grace and Peace,


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