Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Debt Ceiling - An UnGodly Mess

He paid a debt he did not owe, because we owe a debt we cannot pay. That's often the description of the debt Jesus paid on our behalf to atone for our sins. It may seem strange to talk about debt in the theological sense when all we hear is debt in a political context on every news outlet. There is a deadline (August 2) when calamity presumably will befall the world financial order if America's debt limit is not increased. The debt ceiling has been raised 74 times since March 1962, usually with little fanfare or notice. This time it is different. This time there is a fundamental battle about the purpose and role of government under girding this debate. The philosophical differences are deep seated and show little signs of being resolved - even with only 6 days remaining at this writing.

Debt by definition is a specific agreed upon amount or commodity that is promised to be paid back in the future, usually with interest, in consideration for some immediate gain or favor. An obvious example is the use of credit cards. We promise to pay the purchase amount plus any accrued interest to the credit card issuer in exchange for obtaining an item or service immediately. 'Immediately' is the problematic word here. We have become people who are willing to promise almost anything to get what we want NOW. We don't want to save for it, and we don't want to deprive ourselves. We want it now! And we are willing to do what it takes to get it NOW.

In many ways our government is reflective of its people. I know. Your initial reaction is, "No way!" Yes, way. Most of those 74 raises in the debt limit were the result of wars and various social programs designed to improve the quality of life for those who lacked the advantages of full participation in society. Even the Social Security Trust Fund was used in addition to these debt limit raises. Real money in the Social Security Trust Fund was replaced with government securities promising to pay that money back. Yes, we borrowed from ourselves in that way and many others and have never paid it back.

We deplore the scene being played out in Washington these days between those who believe that government is the answer to our economic problems and those who believe we have too much government already. Those who think government is the answer truly believe we can spend our way to prosperity. I know we tried that in 2009 with the Stimulus Bill, but these proponents would argue that it was not enough. Another spending measure like that one would turn things around by putting more money in the economy. Those who believe we already have too much government argue that cutting the size of government and government spending does two things: (1) It allows people to keep more of the money they earn thereby creating new jobs, more commerce, and as a result, more revenue, and (2) It cuts down on government intrusion into people's lives through regulations that often have unintended adverse consequences. The debate we are seeing is not about just a debt ceiling, but it is a struggle for the soul of America. What do we believe, and how will we govern ourselves going forward?

God's word is not kind on the subject of debt. Jesus' own words tell us that, if we focus too much on money, we will lose site of the Kingdom of God. The love of possessions and the love of the means to obtain more stuff is at the root of all evil according to scripture. That sounds like we are out of focus as a nation. Money begets power, and power corrupts our very souls, if we do not guard them. The rich should not be hated. I know some very affluent people who are both humble and generous in the good they do with the treasure God has entrusted to them. But when we love the money and the power rather than the good things that can be done with both, we are toying with destruction as individuals and as a nation.

One more observation: Financial chaos creates almost unbearable uncertainty. We don't know what to do, because we don't know what will happen. So we do nothing. We are a stressed out people being led by a stressed out government. That's no way to live according to Jesus. His told us not to worry but rather to cast our burdens upon him. I've heard a lot of ideas from people in Washington - some of whom were once friends and colleagues. But I have heard no one call us to prayer for the nation. I have heard no one talk about the morality of allowing debt to accumulate that we may never be able to repay. The financial mess we are witnessing must have practical and apolitical minds working on it. But it also needs the wisdom and power of God brought to bear. "If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and heal their land." 2 Chronicles 7:14. Maybe that's the deal we all need to be working on.

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