What Should Faith Leaders Say and Do about the American Economic Crisis?


President Bush told an anxious and angry American public on Wednesday that the nation faced "a serious financial crisis." In a structurally sound speech devoid of poetry and short on hope, Bush said that "these are not normal circumstances," "the market is not functioning properly," "there's been a widespread loss of confidence," "major sectors of America's financial system are at risk of shutting down," "America could slip into a financial panic" and "our economy is facing a moment of great challenge.

"Bush played to public fear much as he played to fear leading the nation into the war in Iraq. He wasn't the only one playing that card, however.

The opposition party is doing the same thing, as it did before on our way to war a world away.

The media is hyper-ventilating about a deep recession, a possible depression, a global melt down.

None seem to know what to do, who to blame or how to explain proposed plans.

Given the alarm bell of crisis, one group has been missing from the public square: leaders of faith.

Washington Post journalist David Waters raised this issue a few days ago, "Why aren't the leaders of our major Christians denominations saying anything about the economy?"

He noted: "They've had plenty to say during the past week about other pressing moral issues. Catholic bishops remain focused on abortion. Southern Baptist leaders continue to condemn abortion and defend Sarah Palin, and National Baptist Convention leaders [fretted] about aging congregations and applauded Michelle Obama. Presbyterian leaders expressed concern about gun violence, Assemblies of God about hurricane victims, Lutherans about poverty, United Church of Christ leaders about peace. None of them said anything about Wall Street."

EthicsDaily.com columnist Dwight Moody rightly observed on Thursday: "There is an axis of incompetence that runs from New York to Washington, from Wall Street to the White House. All they know how to manage are elections."

Jim Wallis predictably said: "The behavior of too many on Wall Street is a violation of biblical ethics…It's time for the pulpit to speak—for the religious community to bring the Word of God to bear on the moral issues of the American economy. The Bible speaks of such things from beginning to end, so why not our pastors and preachers?"

Wallis is correct, but his commentary isn't particularly helpful. Criticizing Wall Street's moral failure or lamenting the silence of clergy doesn't really help.

So, what does help? What should faith leaders say and do in a time of economic crisis?

First, when levees break or houses burn down, people want words of hope from the pulpit. They don't want an analysis of why awful things happened. They do want a word of hope that a better day is coming and need a word of realism that you take life one day at a time. Hope and patience are Christian virtues.

Second, those who suffer from economic bad times need concrete help. Too many Americans have "more month than money." Maybe it's time for local churches to have food and clothing drives. Maybe churches need to remember that Joseph filled the warehouse for the lean years.

Third, faith leaders need to critique our culture, addressing both the consumer culture, in which one finds worth expressed in overconsumption, and the commercialism culture, in which one is tempted by powerful forces night-and-day to consume everything.

One countervailing theological theme to the consumer culture is being made in the image of God. We derive our worth from having God's stamp, not wearing the latest fashion, driving an expensive car or living in a house beyond our means. Another is found in the Exodus account of gathering manna, in which the insecure gathered more than they needed and found that the excess bred worms (Ex. 16:17-21). More is not necessarily better.

As we have "mission moments" on Sunday worship in which we share what the congregation is doing in the world, maybe we should have "truth-telling moments" in which we share what the world of commercials is doing to us. Warning about false and misleading advertisements, commercials which are too great a temptation, has the power to counterbalance commercialism.

Fourth, faith leaders need to do sermon series on money. Money has both a light and a dark side, a balanced theme that runs through the biblical witness. The worship of money is idolatry—idolatry leads us astray. The demonization of money is falsehood—falsehood keeps us from truth.

Few better books develop from a biblical perspective the truth about money than Richard Foster's Money, Sex & Power.

Fifth, faith leaders need to disarm the religious myth that wealth is a sign of God's favor. They need to challenge the social myth that those who run corporations know how to run the church and society.

Recent events have shown us that the so-called best and brightest captains of Wall Street are really the most morally devious with no appreciation for the consequences of their actions.

Sixth, faith leaders should call for discernment about a $700 billion bail-out plan. We need no rush to acceptance, no blind dash to the gates of salvation.

Unless we have returned to an Edenic state of moral purity, those who have crafted the plan have filled the plan with their vested interests. Human nature is human nature. Greed is greed. Appearances are almost always deceiving.

We need to be wise as serpents in all matters, as Jesus urged his disciples.

Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

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