Consumption, Credit and Christian Faith

David Walker, U.S. Comptroller General, says a
tidal wave of debt is crashing in on us and it holds disastrous potential. He
says it’s about ten years out but fast approaching.

…I should
not have
been honest
if I had not
told you that
three great
civilizations
had agreed
(or so it
seems at
first sight)
in condemning
the very
thing on
which we
have based
our whole
life.
–C.S. Lewis

Everyone is to work with his own hands, and what is more, everyone’s work is to produce something good: there will be no manufacture of silly luxuries and then of sillier advertisements to persuade us to buy them,” writes C.S.Lewis in Mere Christianity. (p. 84) Given the culture in which we in the U.S. live, this sounds downright un-American, if not even anti-capitalist, doesn’t it?

We’ve been discussing consumption here. According to Lewis, consumption is directly related to credit which is directly related to a basic operating principle of the U.S. economy, namely, the practice of lending money for a fee.

And both — consumption and credit — are directly related to Christian faith, according to the biblical writers and Christian leaders throughout history.
I was surprised by Lewis’ comments as I re-read his book Mere Christianity. Lewis writes that Aristotle and the ancient Greeks, Moses and the Israelites, and the great Christian teachers of the Middle Ages all agree that civilization should not be built on “usury,” the practice of lending money for a fee. (p.85)

However, I’m not writing this as an anti-American, anti-capitalist screed. I’m interested in going a different direction. How do people of faith live out of a consistent moral vision in obedience to a loving God, who calls us to deeper, more meaningful life? This isn’t about right-wing or left-wing political platforms.

Neither is it about economic theories. I’m not an economist and I’m not qualified to theorize upon the subject.

An epidemic
of American
indebtedness
runs from
home to
government
to global
marketplace.
–from the
Associated Press,
Dripping
With Debt”

As it happens, a two-part series by Robert Tanner of the Associated Press appears in this morning’s papers addressing the attitude of living beyond our means, both as individuals and as governments. David Walker, U.S. Comptroller General, says that our current indebtedness is unsustainable. Our I-want-it-now-no-matter-what-the-consequences attitude is a tidal wave that will wash over us with destructive force within a decade, according to Walker.

I was talking recently with a pastor who was starting a new church in a suburb in a southern city. She found that increasing attendance was relatively easy compared to increasing giving. When she called on families she found they were “house poor.” They had large, impressive homes with little or no furniture. Curtains and other furnishings were cobbled together. As she worked with them she found that most of the families in the congregation were deeply in debt, to the point of teetering on the edge of financial ruin.

The problem
gets bigger
every day,
and the
tidal wave
gets closer
every day.
–David Walker
U.S. Comptroller
General quoted
by AP

Before she could build a sustainable congregation she had to help them get control of their finances, so she began classes in money management. She estimates that it will take ten years for most of her congregants to get to a point of financial stability.

This is a spiritual crisis. The drive to consume results from our insecurities and fears. The consumer economy exacerbates and exploits these. Media marketing delivers the messages that massage these desires with the artificial balm of consumption.

I write this with some hesitancy because every time I’ve spoken of this in public settings I bring down a ringing criticism that says I’m being un-American and anti-capitalist and today that’s worse than disbelieving the Virgin Birth or the resurrection of Jesus to some people. It’s a form of secular heresy that some folks don’t take sitting down.

But I’m not advocating against here, I’m trying to wrestle with how we live in this present reality. How do we engage the culture and remain faithful people? I’m not even interested in condemning those of us caught up in consumption. I’m interested in a way through and a way out — a way through our insecurities and a way out of our overextended lifestyle of consumption.

At some point, but not today, we need to comment on how our over-consumption makes life worse for people in other parts of the world because we use up so much of the world’s resources, leaving them with the scraps, or less. But not today.

Today, it’s enough to ask, How do you answer these questions?

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