Economic Morality and Responsibility: The Prodigal’s Older Brother
Is this responsible; saddling future generations with mountains of debt so that we don’t have to suffer ourselves? Is this moral?
The federal government faces exploding deficits and mounting debt over the next decade, White House officials predicted Tuesday in a fiscal assessment far bleaker than what the Obama administration had estimated just a few months ago.
Figures released by the White House budget office foresee a cumulative $9 trillion deficit from 2010-2019, $2 trillion more than the administration estimated in May. Moreover, the figures show the public debt doubling by 2019 and reaching three-quarters the size of the entire national economy.
Obama economic adviser Christina Romer predicted unemployment could reach 10 percent this year and begin a slow decline next year. Still, she said, the average unemployment will be 9.3 in 2009 and 9.8 percent in 2010.
“This recession was simply worse than the information that we and other forecasters had back in last fall and early this winter,” Romer said.
Fine, the recession may have been worse than your experts predicted, but you can’t possibly escape the fact that the “exploding deficits” and “mounting debt” are directly attributable to the administrations own programs, Ms. Romer. And it’s not entirely clear whether or not all this indebtedness has been a remedy.
Our current indebtedness is making foreign investors skittish, even if we do come out of the recession fairly early. We have to pay this money back at some point, but Obama is going to foist it off on whoever’s President after him.
If this was a private citizen doing this, Dave Ramsey would be having an intervention. Millions of (otherwise) fiscally responsible Christians would, too, but this crisis has turn some of them on their heads.
Here’s an article from March by Tony Campolo, where he says that he is repenting from being the “older brother” in the story of the Prodigal Son by complaining how irresponsible others were with (in this case) the money taken from him in taxes.
That, I am sad to say, is much the same attitude that I, along with most of my conservative evangelical brothers and sisters, have had in reaction to President Obama’s announcement that taxpayers’ dollars, earned by hard-working, responsible citizens, would be given to help those irresponsible Americans who bought houses that they couldn’t afford, while embracing a lifestyle that was beyond their means. With resentment, I, along with most of my rugged individualistic Christian friends, now sound like that older brother in Jesus’ story, and call for those irresponsible spenders to get what they deserve. With an air of self-righteous indignation, we declare, “They didn’t do what’s right and now we’re being asked to rescue them from the financial mess they’ve created for themselves!”
The gospel is about grace and we all know that grace is about us receiving from God blessings that we don’t deserve. But now, I, having received grace, find that my voice is blending in with a host of other older brother types who are reluctant to grant grace to those desperate home-buyers who were seduced into lavish living they could ill afford.
I’ve got some repenting to do. I doubt, however, that those who have wedded Christianity with laissez-faire capitalism will see things this way. I can just hear them saying, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
I have no idea what conservative Christians you’ve been talking to, or perhaps imagining, Tony. I am my brother’s keeper. I am, not my government. And my neighbor is not my brother’s keeper either, so forcing them via taxes to pay for my brother is wrong. When God is separating the sheep from the goats, the Bible does not say He’ll ask me if I voted to make sure others paid to help the poor, He’ll ask if I fed the hungry, clothed the naked and visited the prisoner.
Charity money I give directly, or through the organization of my choice, is grace. Forcing me, with threat of incarceration, to pay for anything, no matter how well-intentioned, is most decidedly not charity or grace. Campolo seems to suggest that God’s grace consists of always letting us keep the fruits of our foolishness and bad decisions.
But in the story that he references, the younger son, while welcomed back into the family, does not get a windfall or a bailout. He’s forgetting one of the last lines of the story, where the father says to the older brother, “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.’” Yes, the younger brother came back and, instead of being a servant, was restored to his place as a member of the family. Yes, he had a party thrown in his honor. But, as Jesus points out through the words of the father, he no longer is entitled to half of the inheritance anymore. That ship has sailed. If he did have even that restored to him — if there were no consequence for his actions — the temptation later on to repeat the same mistake would be very great.
As in that story, rewarding poor choices is not something we should have our government in the business of doing. The father did take the younger son back into the family, which means he gets his 3 square meals a day and other benefits, and we, with our charity dollars (as opposed to forcibly taxed dollars), should be helping out those who made poor choices, or who find themselves in circumstances not of their own making. Absolutely true, and I’d wonder where Mr. Campolo is finding Christians saying otherwise. Certainly not in the disagreeing comments to his post. They’re worth reading as much as the article itself.
Part of the issue with toxic mortgages is something Campolo alludes to; the government contributed to this problem by relaxing the rules on who could qualify for a mortgage. This action was urged by liberals likely with the same mindset as now, who thought that encouraging home ownership, regardless of the ability to pay the debt, was also gracious. Never mind the hindsight we now have, just the idea that doing anything and everything for the poor without thought for the potential consequences is irresponsible. What we wound up with was a program to allegedly help the poor, that encouraged irresponsibility, funded by taxpayers, which, when it foundered, was then bailed out by taxpayers. This, I believe, is the source of the frustration that Mr. Campolo is hearing; the same mindset that helped cause the problem claims that it can now solve the problem.
So the question from a Christian perspective is not whether we are our brother’s keeper, as Mr. Campolo’s straw man insists. That’s a cheap shot at best. I think the question is; what is the proper role of government in dispensing grace? Jesus didn’t speak to the Roman government, nor did he speak to the local civic leaders (though He did have some strong words for the local religious leader). He spoke to individuals. To those outside the church, He said to repent. That’s it. To those inside the church, however, He had many things to say, including how to treat the poor. Our civil government does not speak or act for the church, so it is not the job of the government to carry out the instructions to the church. And given that churches and church-goers are, generally, the most giving and charitable people, I don’t see a rebuke of Mr. Campolo’s type is in order; simply an admonishment to continue to do more.
(This is not to say that we shouldn’t want the government to act morally in its proper spheres. This is a question of what those spheres should be or how extensively it should penetrate those spheres that it is in.)
I grew up in the Salvation Army, and when giving out food to the poor, there was sometimes a concern that such giveaways might be scammed. Perhaps a father comes in and gets groceries for a family of 3, and then later the mother comes in to do the same. Is it moral to question whether or not the food program is being properly administered to avoid this? Is it fair to the family in need who comes to our door only to be turned away because their bag of groceries went to a family that double-dipped, or didn’t really need it? And so, wouldn’t it valid for those who give money to the Salvation Army, in hopes of helping the needy, to be frustrated if they find that the program needs more money because it was improperly handled in the first place? And if it’s OK for the Salvation Army, how much more so for a government dealing out billions and trillions of dollars!
Don’t we expect good stewardship? Or if the intent is good, should we ignore all the problems with a program and instead force our neighbors and future generations to pay for it? How in the world is that moral or responsible or, if you will, sustainable?
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