We are experiencing what former U.S. Federal Reserve Bank chairman Alan Greenspan calls “a once-in-a-century type of event” – a global financial crisis.
First came the subprime mortgage crisis, then government takeover of home mortgage lenders, the collapse of Lehman Brothers and other major financial firms, and flow-on effects to other sectors and other national economies. Consumer spending is down, trade contracting, unemployment rising, public sector bailouts and financial stimulus measures multiplying, and public sector borrowing at record levels.
The crisis was triggered by the tendency for individuals and institutions to act for their own short-term benefit while passing on longterm risks to others, combined with lax regulation of financial institutions. Some also argue that misplaced confidence in the “equilibrium” view of economics, whereby the prices of stocks and other securities tend toward their proper value and markets self-regulate, is partly to blame.
Effects of the credit crisis
The effects of the credit crisis are significant for governments, business, families, and ministry. The impact of unemployment has serious consequences for financial security and wellbeing. There is a knock-on effect as uncertainty builds, skills are lost, and companies adjust to declining consumer confidence.
Some businesses have no choice but to retrench workers, or to cut wages or hours. Some face bankruptcy, while others take advantage of the economic climate to cut staff and reposition for growth with an emphasis on short-term profitability.
Christian ministries also suffer. There is often a decline in donations and in income from investments – although agencies which invest with Christian financial institutions normally benefit from their prudent investment policies. Ministries can expect retrenchment, delays in staff appointments and building programs, and a shift to cheaper and more efficient ministry programs. On the other hand, an economic crisis helps wind back extravagances and expands the volunteer workforce.
What are the solutions?
No one should put their trust in money or markets. Historically market capitalism has delivered enormous material benefits to millions, but there are also unintended negative consequences of rapid economic growth such as inefficient distribution of wealth and power, consumerism, and climate degradation.
We live in a fallen world, and legislation and regulation are important instruments to protect people and communities from the impact of wrong attitudes and actions – in the same way that laws protect road users from speeding or intoxicated drivers.
For example, governments may agree to establish a robust oversight of the activity of international financial institutions, and engage in more frequent and diligent reviews of national financial systems. They may tighten banking and insurance industry regulation, and impose caps and other restrictions on executive pay.
The aim of such measures should not be punitive but to foster economic growth through a mix of appropriate state regulation and ethical private initiative, including new approaches. Similarly, churches and individuals can shape the future through a renewed commitment to spiritual formation, biblical stewardship and generosity.
Too often, followers of Jesus slip into a mode of living which separates faith and work, and find it difficult to maintain a distinctive lifestyle and ethics. God calls us to a more holistic understanding of our place and mission in the world.
We live in a fallen world, and sin has its fingerprints on every aspect of existence – from personal holiness to interpersonal relations to large-scale economic behaviour and institutional structures. Our task is to witness to the truth, to be “salt” and “light” where God has placed us, and to use the gifts and abilities God has given us to pursue justice, mercy and godliness.
The Australian media have just reported that the salary of the CEO of an Australian clothing manufacturer has more than doubled to AU$1.8 million at a time when 1800 employees are being stood down. Those of us in positions of relative wealth have a responsibility to model ethical leadership, and to embrace sacrifice and restraint for the common good.
Wisdom, moderation, courage and hope
We need to exercise wisdom, applying careful analysis and reasoning before making economic decisions. We need to pursue moderation, especially in relation to the immediate satisfaction of physical and psychological appetites, in order to enjoy contentment, and to be free to invest and to give. We need to possess courage, especially when overwhelmed by fear and greed, to take principled action in the face of real risk.
We also need hope. Those who put their trust in God will not be disappointed; God will never fail us. In every crisis, in every disaster, God is present and active, caring for us, providing for us, and giving purpose to each of our lives.
Rod Benson is an ethicist and public theologian with the Tinsley Institute.