Thursday, February 19, 2009

Redefining prosperity - it's about time

This morning I'm wearing - not necessarily by choice - my "Philosopher/Commentator/Columnist" hat. I'm liable to write today's blog as if it were an "Op-Ed" submitted to the Wall Street Journal or The Washington Post. Several people told me yesterday that a couple of lines from this week's Tampa Tribune column should have run nation-wide... so maybe I'm thinking on a grander scale today. But more to the point is the fact that I finished my devotional time a few minutes ago, placed my writing day in the hands of the Creator, and immediately I felt my thinking begin to shift.

It's about this Federal bailout thing. Of course the numbers are huge - unimaginable and by consequence unmanageable is better to say than huge. But it's not so much the numbers themselves that bother me so much as the thinking behind them; or should I say the yearnings behind them.

And I'm not talking politics here; Republican versus Democrat, or conservative versus liberal, or progressive set against traditional - or anything like that. The fundamental yearning at the root of six months of reactive economic policy seems to be summed up in this phrase: "We really liked the way things were going and we want the good times back."

I'm immediately reminded of something my wife, Rebekah, said in church last year. She was talking about married couples who come in for counseling, mired in years of strife, and some kind of tipping point drives them to her office.
  • "We just want things to go back to the way they were before..." they often say.
  • "No you don't," she would reply. "Why on earth would you want to turn the clock back to the way things were before? The way things were is exactly what got you into this mess in the first place. God's grace and forgiveness and redemption is about moving forward, reinvention, re-imagining! Somewhere, somehow, on a fundamental level, what is foundational to this marriage HAS GOT TO CHANGE!"
Somehow, somewhere, and on a fundamental level, what is foundational to this culture we live in has simply got to change. Because the way things were is exactly what has gotten us to this particular juncture. The way things always have been does not work. Why on earth would we want to repeat all that heartbreak and pain?

The answer to that question can be understood both in terms of a "failure of imagination" and a profound inability - or dare I say unwillingness - on the part of most of us to step away from the compelling addictiveness of THE BIG LIE.

THE BIG LIE is the idea much of our economy hangs on. It's the underlying value that more is by definition good, that excess is simply a multiplier for pleasure, and that all personal happiness is bound inextricably with the acquisition of material goods.

If we are a Christian nation - as advertised - then most of us already know that such a formula for happiness is a seductive lie, told and retold in order to lead people away from the truth that Jesus articulated so plainly in his teaching.

But we are not a Christian nation. We are an "I want mine and I want it now" driven consumer culture. We worship at the Mall, where we bring our hopes and our dreams and offer our tithes; we are instructed by 30-second sound-bites known as advertising; we measure success in terms of material possessions.

Our ultimate value defines us, and our ultimate value has been revealed.

That's what bothers me about our approach to the economic crisis. We want it all back, even if such a move will simply doom the next generation to repeat our own catastrophic failure.

Alternatively, and this time of crisis does provide us with a unique opportunity to re-evaluate and re-prioritize; choose, at it were, a new set of gods. Maybe the One God? Not to guarantee our fiscal prosperity, but - hopefully - to redefine the idea of prosperity altogether.

That's all I'm saying.

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