The Economy, Christians, and Plato

I used to laugh at the advertisements for no-money down, interest only, adjustable rate mortgages.  Who in their right mind would take out a loan they could never begin to pay back?  Even worse, who in their right mind would loan to such borrowers?  Now I realize that this was no laughing matter, for these foolish loans are bankrupting our economy. 

The bankers who wrote these bad loans thought they had covered their backsides by cutting them into pieces, combining these pieces with parts of other bad mortgages, and then selling them as securities.  And just to be safe, they then covered these bad securities with fake insurance, called credit default swaps.  What could go wrong?

To add insult to injury, the masterminds behind this plan “earned” tens of millions of dollars, even as they were being fired from their bankrupt companies—which we taxpayers now must prop up with our own money (and that of our children and grandchildren).

Sometimes it feels that we who responsibly save and live within our means are suckers.  We bail out companies that spend more money than they had, homeowners who buy more house than they could afford, and entire industries (e.g., automobile) who cannot turn a profit on their own.  And it goes without saying that our Social Security payouts will be reduced to help the people who spent their discretionary income on vacations and fine dining rather than invest in their 401k.  Even worse, these same people who will drain our money in the future are hampering us now, for their over-leveraged living has depressed interest rates and the stock market so that we who have been thrifty have no good place to invest.  

Besides lamenting the injustice of it all, I can’t help but think that a big part of our problem is the Platonic view of the world that afflicts the American church.  Many Christians too neatly divide the spiritual from the secular and then think that God only cares about the spiritual.  They know that it is important that they read their Bible and pray, but they are less sure that it matters to God how they spend their money.  How many Christians learned in church that they should not mind their material possessions because these things were merely temporal distractions that ultimately were going to burn?  Convinced that their use of stuff bore little spiritual consequence, these Christians spent the last twenty years or so going into as much debt as their unsaved neighbors, all the while thinking that they were fine Christians because they attended church, had their devotions, and occasionally witnessed to their friends. 

How might things be different today if these Christians—who make up a sizeable chunk of the American economy—had been taught that Jesus is Lord over every aspect of life?  What if they had learned that, far from being merely a warm-up lap, batting practice, or dress rehearsal for eternity, this life here and now actually matters?  What if they realized that every purchase was not merely an individual transaction between them and the retailer but an opportunity to love their neighbor?  What if they had saved more and spent less because ultimately doing so would prevent our over-leveraged economy from overheating and collapsing into a dispirited round of layoffs and recession?

This painful time will not be wasted if it leads American Christians to relearn that Jesus must be Lord of their money, that every decision affects others, and that God wants his children to be content with whatever wealth they have.  So let’s hear sermons on greed and the sin of excessive consumer debt.  Let’s talk to each other about the forgotten value of thrift—not just so we can protect our own nest egg, but as a practical way to love our neighbor.  We may end up with less, but we will flourish more. 

 For more on how the Christian faith speaks to all of life, read Michael Wittmer, Heaven Is a Place on Earth (Zondervan), Cornelius Plantinga, Engaging God’s World, Albert Wolters, Creation Regained, and Paul Marshall, Heaven Is Not My Home (Word).

4 Comments

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  1. Thanks for pointing out that “the painful time will not be wasted if it leads American Christians to relearn that Jesus must be Lord of their money…”

    I know I’ve forgotten that already and the “economic crisis” has just started! If we really do have tough months/years ahead I imagine the Church will be “relearning” this lesson over and over.

  2. Thanks for this! Is Platonism the same problem as Gnosticism? Are these two sides of the same coin?

  3. Gnosticism is a second century version of Platonic thinking. It is different in some ways, but it maintains the dualism between spirit and body. Good catch!

  4. Sorry to be a Johnny-come-lately on this post, but thank you for find a silver lining to an issue that has been crushing Beth and me. We feel like the “responsible” couple who waited to buy a house until they had a down payment saved up and reasonably secure jobs. Etc., etc., etc. You really nailed the way we feel about the economy and the trends in our society towards fiscal irresponsibility. Thank you for helping me shift my focus back to God, his sovereignty, and the opportunities for ministry and evangelism that I am missing by wallowing in self-pity.

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