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.