On Monday, Nov. 3, the evening before the historic election of Barack Obama to the presidency, I invited Jamie Slate, Ph.D., a local economics professor and member of our congregation, to offer a lecture and discussion about the economic crisis gripping our nation.
I had overheard conversations in hallways and our church parking lot blaming the Republicans, the Democrats, George Bush, greedy investment bankers, and the like. While the credit crunch had reduced the stream of cash into our economy, it had done little to hinder the flow of opinion, accusation, fear, and pious ramblings.
My hope was that Slate, an associate professor of economics at Catawba College, would help move discussions toward a more nuanced conversation that would take into account the complexity of the issues and possible solutions. Words matter, and, just as our economy was faltering, our ability to speak effectively and faithfully about a very serious concern seemed to be suffering.
Admittedly, this was potentially dangerous territory the night before the election. But the lecture, “Getting Here from There: Glass-Steagall and the Current Economic Crisis,” was nonpartisan and explained the situation’s broader historic, economic, and political context. Professor Slate demonstrated how deregulation of markets and institutions, which followed the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, allowed affiliations between securities firms and commercial banks and contributed to the crisis.
Our members listened attentively and asked questions that reflected deep concern for their own financial well-being, but also concern for their neighbors, children, grandchildren, and their church. Whether they were Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, they expressed a desire for greater levels of openness, equality, fairness, and accountability in our nation’s economic dealings.
Professor Slate’s willingness to share his wisdom and knowledge moved all of us to a more thoughtful and thorough understanding of this serious matter. In every congregation I have served I have been amazed at the knowledge and skill in a variety of areas and disciplines. Whether plumbers, doctors, accountants, gardeners, teachers, cooks, or yes, even economists, many parishioners have been willing to share their gifts.
As important as it is to expand our ability to discuss a variety of issues and concerns, it is equally important to remember that the church has a first language — the language of Scripture, of faith, of the saints. While we may adopt vocabulary from other tongues, it is that first language that must shape and define our conversation.
I am a pastor, and not a politician or an economist, primarily because I believe the most interesting questions and answers are theological. The lecture reminded us of the important economic and historic circumstances that contributed to the current crisis, and increased our ability to speak thoughtfully about these matters. And yet, with the shadow of the cross falling on the portable screen we had brought into our sanctuary for the PowerPoint presentation, I was reminded that the economy of our Lord’s kingdom stands in gracious judgment over and against all of our markets, default swaps, bottom lines, and balance sheets.
It is our vocation as pastors and as disciples to speak first that language of our Lord’s kingdom as we confess our greed, our lack of compassion for the poor, our stinginess, and our excessive consumption. We must extend to all the gracious invitation to live freely and generously out of a sense of God’s abundance.
Since the lecture, there seems to be less parroting of partisan positions, fewer divisions along liberal/conservative lines, and a greater acknowledgment that the economic situation is larger and far more complex than we often admit. On that level I was pleased with the outcome.
But as a pastor, a theologian, and a friend of Jesus, I know there is something more. The goal is not a more economically savvy congregation, but the formation of a community of disciples who speak fluently the language of sin, conversion, sacrifice, hope, abundance, grace, jubilee, eternal life. Forming communities that speak this language requires us as pastors and disciples to ask more difficult questions than, “What is Glass-Steagall?”
How might the church bear witness to an economy based not on profligate consumption, but on holding things in common and sharing generously with one another so that no one is in need?
When we can’t even talk openly with one another about how much wealth we have, can we hold one another accountable for how we use our wealth?
In what ways have we treated the gospel as a commodity and the ministry as a career?
What might it look like to live freely and sacrificially out of a sense of God’s abundance, thereby avoiding what Walter Brueggemann calls “the myth of scarcity?”
To be honest, I am not sure that we have made much progress in addressing these questions, and certainly not in living out faithful answers to them. Perhaps asking them, or at least knowing they need to be asked, is a beginning.
I know that answering them faithfully will require more than a single lecture and polite conversation. It demands that our communities be defined by practices that make answering the questions, and living the answers, possible.
In fact, might those practices be the answers themselves? Are they not the places where the language of God’s economy becomes incarnate?
Where is the table of radical welcome with enough bread and wine to go around? Who speaks the word of grace and truth to a self-centered culture of death and lies? What community is united in intercession for the poor, the marginalized, and the stranger?
Each Sunday, we leave behind the stock market ticker on CNN and MSNBC and gather to hear the word read and proclaimed, to sing, to pray, and to share a meal. My hope and prayer is that there we will relearn our native tongue and become the embodiment of God’s economy for the life of the world.
The Rev. David C. Hockett D’94 is the pastor of Milford Hills United Methodist Church in Salisbury, N.C., where he lives with his wife, Kim, and their three children.