A recessionary offer

It’s Christmas Eve, and we’re in the middle of a recession. And if the pundits are right, it’s the worst economic slide since the Great Depression. In it, we’re spending less: Christmas sales are down, even online. For many, that merely reinforces the fact that our economy is hitting the brakes, which leads to despair. But what if this could be a season of hope and opportunity?

Giving is also down. And something seems wrong about that. In a time of fiscal crisis, I know we all have less. But since there’s a greater need, shouldn’t giving actually increase?

That’s where we need vision for a new kind of economy. I don’t think we’ll ever get rid of the one we have: capitalism is the survivor of the fittest, and it looks like it’s here to stay. But if, in the simplest of terms, a robust economy is measured by how quickly the money flows from one hand to another, why should it be dominated by a system of the purchase of goods and services? In a market system, we earn dollars to spend on things, which goes back to corporations to pay for salaries, which come back to us — and it all goes around in a circle. In a good economy, that money flows around faster. In a bad one, the cycle slows to a standstill.

So why not have a system where giving has a far larger share. It’s still a cycle where money is exchanged, and the giving can support non-profit organizations who offer jobs and provide social services with what they do — to the benefit of society — while also providing income so that these workers can survive and continue to contribute to the market economy. Just as rising oil prices pressed for greener alternatives (though that pressure is now off), perhaps a recession can push for alternatives to augment our market economy.

For example, my friend pointed out an idea from Francis Chan’s book, Crazy Love. On page 120, Chan makes the suggestion that Christians could try to live at or below the median income ($46,000 in 2006). Perhaps a national number is unrealistic because of where you live. Perhaps you choose your county’s median income, or your city’s. Or perhaps you can’t do it now, but you might be able to in a few years. No problem. But you try. And you put yourself at a limit, then give the rest away. Or just a lot of it away. Wouldn’t that feel refreshing? It feels a lot like what Jesus would teach.

And he didn’t just teach on it. He also asked people to do it. Remember the rich, young ruler, who lived as a moral exemplar, but couldn’t give all of his money and possessions away to the poor? Jesus let him walk away. Or Zacchaeus, who gave away half of his wealth to the poor, and gave back four the times the amount he stole unfairly? When salvation came to his house, so did justice. And vice versa, when justice came to his house, so did salvation.

This is where Christmas comes in. Jesus also limited himself. On Christmas, we celebrate that God showed up on earth as a cooing, crying baby. That’s limiting. A biblical author writes: “Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.”

So as followers of Jesus, what if we decided to live on the median income of the region we live in? And then gave the rest away. We’d still be rich in comparison to the rest of the world, where one billion people live without access to clean water or electricity. In America, almost every one of us is rich. And we’d learn limits, and learn love through our generosity. Instead of clinging to our advantages, we gave it away. We’d be happier and freer. And that’s what Jesus came to do: to free us. For it truly is better to give than to receive.

This Christmas, we’re given the gift of limits. And I don’t want to be insensitive: I know that some of us have lost our jobs. But we’re also given the opportunity to give even in tough times. And in this way, our sliding economy offers us another chance to live more closely to what Christmas is about.

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8 Comments

  1. I think you are spot on. I also think it’s better for the environment if we are giving the money away rather than spending it on more consumer goods. I’m actually glad that people are seeing the transiency of materialism, and hopefully focusing on what’s REALLY important. As Christians, our treasure is safe in heaven, and we eagerly await a Savior from there. Shouldn’t we be living like we are? This bad economy could be good for both Christians and Pre-Christians as we all seek the more lasting goods. Well said,James. Write more!

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  2. Mmmm…Definitely interesting to consider that donating / giving could be seen as part of an economical cycle that does not depend as much on consumption. Exciting…!

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  3. […] Tell it Slant – A Recessionary Offer – James Choung […]

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  4. […] James Choung takes the idea of living below your means one step further.  Perhaps you’re already making a pretty nice chunk of change.  Choung suggests picking a […]

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  5. Hey James,

    Just finished your book and feel challenged to make 2009 the year we move our church into the fourth circle.

    Please send me your contact info.

    Gary

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  6. Love your thoughts, as always, brother! Of course, it makes me wish we could discuss it in person, which makes me think of what I might say :p

    I think there are two important factors that are missing from your picture of the economy. First, there’s the aspect of production. The farmer who plants seeds and reaps a hundredfold actually creates something from nothing (sun, soil, seed, water, and labor excepted). Perhaps more common in America, the scientist who discovers a superior material or process has also produced something from nothing (education, experimentation, and thought excepted). Even more than the physical harvest, the advancement of knowledge is production because it lasts forever and can be cheaply disseminated. Everyone knows this, but for some reason we forget it and start thinking of the world as a zero-sum game when it comes to politics. Second, there’s the aspect of lasting value. A road, school, or power grid can enrich far more lives than the life it took to build it. Likewise, educational, judicial, and economic systems are extraordinary infrastructures that give back far more than they take to establish and maintain.

    These are important points for a few reasons. For one thing, we need an accurate picture of why America is wealthy and so much of the world is poor. Where there are unjust systems, they need to be rooted out. We should recognize, however, that a lot of what we have is due to the production and preservation that previous generations have given us. That shouldn’t make us feel like there’s no need to give to the rest of the world – love is our ultimate motivation anyway, not guilt. It should make us think about how we give and to whom.

    Living at the median level and giving the rest away is an interesting idea. The devil’s advocate makes me ask – why the median? Jesus appeared to live well below the median. I don’t have his bank statements, but I suspect that Zaccheus was probably above the median even after he committed to justice and restitution. If you are living at the median, will it make you not put in that extra 5 hours to get the promotion? More to the point, will you not learn that extra skill or put that extra bit into the road, idea, or research you’re involved in? That’s the capitalist in me speaking, even though God knows I work for Him and not for the money. Choosing to live at the median puts the collective in control of my standard of living. If there is any sort of moral aspect to the decision of how much money to spend on myself, I am effectively surrendering the moral responsibility for that decision to the masses.

    Perhaps I’m taking this all too seriously. Choosing to live at the median taps into one of the basic human beliefs – the belief that if most people can do it, then so can I. For those of us who just need a starting goal on our road to love, it provides one we can believe in.

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  7. Hey Doug — I fully agree with your points! Yes, we could try to live well below that median. It’s just a start. But a practical one. But please, if you feel led to live at less to give away more, that would be incredible and in line with the Kingdom.

    And I agree with the need for production. But you have a blindspot.

    Tangible goods are only one kind of goods produced. Especially in our economy, but also in economies past, the service sector also produces goods. There for-profit services, like consultants and the hospitality industry. But then there are not for-profit services, like teachers who inspire in the classroom, government officials who serve the public, social workers who look out for children without families, doctors who take care of the sick, ministers who love the broken, etc. They might not create tangible goods, but they all produce. And without them, our society would be in far worse shape.

    So yes. I want people to produce. They are designed to work, as God told Adam in the garden. But what if it wasn’t merely for a profit motive? What if people gave into these non-profit service sectors so that people could produce “goods”? I think this kind of economy would supplement (but not replace) a market economy quite well.

    What do you think?

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  8. It’s not, we do, and I think I’m confused :)

    On one hand, you seem to simply advocate increased giving by Christians. Sort of a “let’s do what we’re doing, but do it radically better.” I can certainly respect and agree with that.

    On the other hand, there’s this talk of a different kind of economy or system. Capitalism is simply the economic system featuring private ownership of wealth and the means of producing wealth. The alternatives would be public or state ownership of capital. I’m actually not sure if there’s a practical difference between public and state ownership. I don’t think you’re advocating the latter. If there’s one thing that history shows us it is that everyone is better served if the ownership and control of wealth is kept at the lowest level possible (i.e. the individual family or citizen). You could also argue, as G.K. Chesterton did, that capital should be as widely distributed as possible within a capitalist system through various policy incentives (a system he called Distributism – ever heard of it?).

    I think part of what bothered me about the initial post is that putting a limit on my living expenses and giving the rest away is still a me-focused system. I think what you seem to be advocating more in the second post is capitalism with an increased value on the sorts of true “service” industry jobs more commonly characterized as charities. It’s best, for the top-level system, to keep as much capital as possible in the hands of the private sector. Within that system, it would be best if every individual actor then properly valued the well-being of her fellow man and gave to insure it.

    Ideas about doing that? Well, for starters we as a church could develop a more giving heart. It would go a long way if we just saw the need, as our society insulates well against other people’s problems. I think all the best ideas are unsexy ones about just reading the Bible and doing what it says. If you want to talk policy (the sexy stuff), I guess we could change the tax deduction for charitable giving into a tax credit. Better yet, let’s abolish welfare, social security, and foreign aid, and just say that the government will match every dollar given to a charitable organization with 1 dollar (or 2, or 10 – I’d have to do some research into the relative proportions). :)

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