Since greed is so hard to recognize (even though it is a much greater concern in the New Testament than lust), Hauerwas says many people didn’t even know that they were suffering its effects until the recession hit.
Even now, he says, most people seem to be praying for things to return to the affluence of the recent past, rather than trying to address fundamental issues like the growing gap between the very poor and the very rich.
For example, he says the extravagant bonuses paid to financial executives aren’t new; they’re just in the news, and suddenly people are focusing on that aspect of the income gap.
“It always beats the hell out of me why people don’t get upset about it,” Hauerwas says. “It’s just obscene. The only reason I can think of is because people think, ‘Oh, I’ve got a chance to get rich, too!’ ”
And that desire, Hauerwas says, is another form of lust. “Churches need to help people frame their lives in the context of what Jesus taught. We haven’t been very good about that, in terms of our ability to see our greed through the light of the Gospel.
“This is not an issue of how we’ve been living beyond our means and aren’t we terrible people. We have been living beyond our means, and it has implications for those who had to suffer from our living beyond our means. We should feel appropriately repentant for that.
“What needs to be said is, ‘Look, you are possessed by your possessions. And Christianity is ongoing training in dispossession, to where you’ll be free,’ ” he says.
As to whether this crisis, and even the best preaching, will truly transform Christians — much less the nation — Hauerwas is skeptical. Others, including Lisa Degrenia of St. Petersburg, Fla., are hopeful that churches will seize the crisis as a time for transformation.
“There is an opportunity, brought on by the economy, to break down walls, to be more Kingdom-minded,” she says.
The danger before the recession was that congregations were able to stave off change by going into “survival mode,” as she puts it, in which the congregation’s energies are directed toward raising money to maintain the status quo.
That is often no longer possible, and today’s transformation, Degrenia says, “to me is very much of God. We’re seeing God take the situation and turn it for good.”
Congregations are like individuals, she says: “They have to reach a certain level of dissatisfaction in order to have the motivation for change. [The economy] is helping some congregations realize that they aren’t satisfied.
“Sometimes it starts from self-interest. But God can take a little crack like that and open it into something wider.”
David Gibson is a freelance writer and author who writes about religion. He lives in Brooklyn.