Thursday 31 March 2011

We are all indebted!

We are all familiar with debt. All of us, at some time, owe something to someone. It may be money, respect, reparation, or a favour. We are all indebted!

In nations like Australia, financial debt is normal and expected. Most people, including Christians, take on debt at some point. Given its ubiquity, it is important to step back and consider debt and its place in our lives. Issue 26 of Case magazine tackles this tricky subject.

Our lead article, by Australian economists, Gordon Menzies and Susan Thorp, opens the discussion by looking at household debt and its impact on people’s life choices and opportunities. Drawing on biblical socio-economic principles, they ask whether Christians ought to have a different attitude to personal debt than that of the world. Godly wisdom is required to answer the question ‘How much debt is OK?’ We must recognise that God owns all of creation, that generosity is required in our stewardship of resources, and that we have a responsibility to work.

Paul Mills frames his contribution with two seemingly contradictory pieces of biblical advice. Are we to emulate the birds of the air who store nothing and are fed by their heavenly Father (Matt 6:19, 26), or the ants who slave away to store up provisions for a rainy day (Prov 6:6-8)? How do we reconcile these two pieces of advice?

Mills traces these two themes through the Bible, examining the warnings against the accumulation of wealth (‘the long-run return on worldly savings is worse than non-existent’!), as well as the recommendations of financial prudence. Neither extreme is feasible for the Christian at the expense of the other, yet some workable resolution of the tension must be reached. Through a study of the contexts in which the two streams of biblical teaching are found, Mills argues that a diversity of views may be exactly what God intended, and that the appropriate ‘attitude to wealth depends on the Christian’s situation and calling’. We should trust in God and show wisdom and prudence with what God gives us.

Development economist Catherine de Fontenay widens the scope from personal finance to the international sphere, as she considers the pros and cons of debt forgiveness for highly indebted poor countries. Drawing on the Jewish practice of the Jubilee year and Jesus’ teaching about giving, as well as the practicalities and politics of international finance, she considers whether debt forgiveness is something Christians should support, and if so, how? There is also an exploration of other avenues that may be effective in relieving the suffering of countries struggling with debts.

Ben Gooley provides us with an insightful article on the nature and impact of consumerism. Consumerism carries in it a radical individualism that runs counter to the character of God. The quest for self-identity through ‘things’ has no basis in our relationship with a God who created us in his image. He argues that while creation is good and consumption as part of it may be good, this goodness get twisted when it fails to reflect the plans and purposes of God. Advertising promotes discontent and a sense of scarcity despite the abundance of goods around us. True freedom, contentment and identity are ‘found not in autonomy, but in Christ’ and a life consistent with the nature and purpose God has given us.

While we typically think of debt as money or assets owed, it can also refer to moral obligations, such as the debt we owe God as a result of our sin. In our final article, David Höhne parallels this idea of moral indebtedness to God with the economist’s understanding of financial debt as exemplified in the five maxims of Stephen Levitt’s well-known book 'Freakonomics'. Höhne suggests that in each case a failure to acknowledge and squarely face our debts can lead to disaster – a global financial crisis (GFC) when we attempt to distance ourselves from financial debt, and God’s condemnation when we misrepresent our indebtedness to God.

Our 26th issue of Case is completed with two excellent reviews. Craig Josling reviews 'Jesus and Money' by Ben Witherington III, a book that offers a comprehensive picture of the Bible’s teaching on money. Its purpose is to challenge our self indulgent living and to critique the ‘prosperity gospel’ as unbiblical. Mark Lewis reviews Jack Cashill’s book ‘Popes and Bankers. A cultural history of credit and debt from Aristotle to AIG’. This book examines the Judeo-Christian opposition to usury and debt, the role it played in the creation of market-based economies, and how that opposition came to be replaced by acceptance.

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