Turning and turning on the widening gyre,
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world….
WB Yeats poem “the second coming,” written in the uncertain times following World War I, seems very apt as we read and hear of the chaos in our financial system. I say “read and hear” because as we walk down the high street, the air of normality is in eerie contrast with the apocalyptic reports!
And maybe it could yet turn out to be all right in the end; we know what the media is like. But in all likelihood, the shockwave will hit our jobs and pensions before long, and there is a real possibility that things fall apart, the centre cannot hold – and we are suddenly in a very different world.
With no claim to economic expertise or prophetic knowledge, here are a few Biblical reflections that come to mind
We will reap what we sow – a principle taught by Paul that applies in the material and spiritual realms (Galatians 6:7-10). We get back what we put in; our investment in life – good or ill – is returned to us with interest. In this life it can be observed as a general principle which holds despite many exceptions, for now sometimes the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. In the next life it will be applied universally and exhaustively.
Surely what we see now is a prime example of this principle? The reckless pursuit of short term gain has beenpaid back with interest; we reap the harvest of unregulated capitalism; the bubbles have come home to roost and the chickens have burst. And of course at this point heap blame (with some justification) on “the bankers and their bonuses.”
They are reluctant to take it, of course! I enjoyed hearing John Humphries mauling one last week: “I’ve interviewed scores of you people in recent weeks and not one has admitted they are the slightest bit to blame! Will you?” The interviewee declined. But perhaps it is a good thing: it is too easy to judge and blame others. We’ve all snapped up the cheapest mortgages, premium savings; we’ve seen our house prices rise, cashed in on the demutualisations and privatisations (did you tithe that, by the way?) But have we asked how it is achieved – or appointing politicians to do it for us? Do you have a plank in your ISA?
Yet in this principle of sowing and reaping is our hope too; for it applies positively as well as negatively. If as a result of this turmoil we start sowing seeds of responsibility, generosity and productivity, there will be a fruit from that too. “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 7:9)
We will keep what we lose - a principle taught by Christ, who tells us: “whoever wants to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Luke 17:33). His financial advice therefore: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth… but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:19-20) And, presumably, where banks do not collapse and prices do not rise!
The principle is that we invest the resources of this life with a view to the rewards of the next life. Not, of course, that we shouldn’t provide responsibly for our earthly needs when we can, but that our heart, our affections – all that we truly treasure – should be in heaven. This stands in direct contrast to the love of money, for “you cannot serve both God and mammon.” And Christ made it clear that everything we lose in this life for the sake of his kingdom will be returned many times over.
There was a time when to be in debt was somewhat shameful, and to be avoided if at all possible. How times have changed! In the 1970s, average household debt was 30-40% of income. Now it is 135%. The main way that this stigma has been removed seems to be that debt has been cunningly renamed – as “credit”! This bizarre semantic trick has turned what was once a source of embarrassment into a reason for pride. This first struck me when I found it hard to get my first mortgage – precisely because I didn’t
owe money to anyone else! And the root of this present crisis seems to have been the reckless issuing of credit to those who lacked the assets or income to back it up. Now we have realised that credit actually still means debt and confidence has collapsed like dominos in anyone’s ability to repay anything; a colossal loss of faith.
We can be assured that this will not happen to our heavenly investments. For Jesus will be no one’s debtor – he’s solid Rock, not Northern Rock. Behind his promise to reward our losses in this life are all the assets of the kingdom of heaven – he will not do an Iceland on us. The cross and the resurrection guarantee it. And we should give him credit for that. And consider the final point…
We must choose where we live.
The Biblical reference I have in mind here is Revelation 17: Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great. The identification of Babylon is, of course, a vexed question; there are numerous interpretations. But without a doubt, when we see that a chief feature of Biblical Babylon is economic (“The merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries” and so on), then the potential collapse of our financial system ought to ring bells. Trusted institutions disintegrate, vital systems seize up and the masters of the universe weep ineffectually. All upheavals, political and economic as much as anything else, are signs of the times reminding that the Lord is near, wherever we stand in history. As Yeats goes on…
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere
the ceremony of ignorance is drowned;
the best lack all conviction, while the worst
are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely some Second Coming is at hand.
The response of Christian believers when Babylon totters? “Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins.” (Rev 19:4) – more easily said than done, of course. It cannot mean, I think, that we can or should disengage ourselves entirely from the financial system. Even to purchase a packet of crisps is to participate to some extent! But if we cannot disentangle our bank-accounts, we can disentangle our hearts; our affections, ambitions and aspirations. We can prove Yeats wrong; the best need not lack conviction but can in fact live with passionate intensity
Financially, this crisis will no doubt leave most of us (and our churches) worse off. And that includes Christians, who are never promised excusing from the woes of the world. But spiritually, this could be a massive opportunity for the kingdom of God and the Gospel. It is not so often that a major idol of our age topples so dramatically! It is a chance for us to step into the confidence gap with Christ; give people something they can trust in.
We must demonstrate faith, contentment, integrity and generosity of spirit. If our finances become tight, we cut our spending on luxuries not our giving; we forgo our Christmas fripperies but increase our Christmas joy; and when people grumble about how bad the situation is, we proclaim how good the Lord is. We show that we do not fear when the foundations tremble; we do not lament when the stock market falls – for though we pass through Babylon (or her smoking ruins), we do not live here. We have another home to go to and a better investment to claim. And just suppose some Second Coming truly is at hand, then we are ready to meet him.