Economic Grapes of Wrath
(note: I also submitted this article at Christ and Pop Culture. Even so, my frustration on this point is personal enough that I thought I would post it here as well)
I recently joined a book club, and our next book is, "The Grapes of Wrath," by John Steinbeck. Most interesting was the reason for choosing this particular book; the choosers felt, "it would be especially relevant to our time and situation." In other words, they felt the many parallels between our time and the events depicted in the book warranted close consideration.
Of course, the title for the book comes from the Christian hymn "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory," which uses martial terms to depict God's harshly judgmental return before the coming of the new heavens and the new earth. As it says;
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
In other words, the book depicts economic conditions so bad it is like being smashed in a winepress. Steinbeck carries the analogy forward to argue that its best result –or, "wine,"- is the way it forces workers to unite and organize. Still, his book depicts sad and crushing hardships during the late stages of the Great Depression.
But are things really so dire? Our presidential election seems to suggest it is. The campaigns are dominated by discussion of economics, and people have been more willing than prior years to look to government for financial help (even making Obama immune to accusations of socialism, whether or not these are true). President Bush's approval ratings are through the floor, partially for an unpopular war but with a much stronger correlation to the condition of the economy.
I, on the other hand, would tend to disagree for a couple of reasons. First, though government can be of help in times of crisis, it really does not control the economy. Our financial situation is governed by thousands of decisions by millions of different people, all of whom have their self-interest first and foremost in their hearts. To argue that our chief executive is the cause or the downfall of happy economic times is merely to find a scapegoat; any economist worth his salt will tell you that federal government impact on the economy is usually negligible at best.
Second, I would disagree quite strongly with the core accusation that our economy is fundamentally, "bad." After all, our unemployment is at 6.1%, better than all but the most efficient (and usually resource-rich) countries worldwide (by comparison, during the Great Depression it reached 24%). Average income, even after adjustment for the buying power of money, is light-years ahead of any other time in history, American or otherwise. And those truly in some form of poverty have more options for recourse and support than any other civilization that has ever existed.
As these thoughts were running through my mind, I came across a helpful article that compares our economic condition to that of the last twenty years. In it, the authors trash most objective measures of riches, and focus on how we FEEL about our money. In other words, they try to describe economic conditions by our emotional status rather than numbers that depict- well, economic conditions.
Their case is startlingly valuable, because it highlights a basic problem for human happiness; we have no perspective. Though we live in the richest, healthiest, most robust, most diversified economy in world history, we are angry about its condition.
The reason, I think, is a nice little mix of short memories, self-centeredness, and the influence of postmodern thought. Or, we forget things used to be worse, we desire the absolute best for ourselves, and we think the relative value of economic conditions is a matter of comparing them to the best we ever had.
This is a childish way of thinking. If I defined the value of marriage by comparing it to the absolute best our relationship ever was, I would be unhappy all the time (or at least divorced in a very short amount of time). If I defined whether a meal is good by comparing it to the best meal I ever tasted, then a dinner at a four-start hotel would ruin my appetite for life.
Christians, then, need to approach our time in this world very differently. Here are a few principles for responding to living conditions, economic or otherwise.
Trust God's Providence. The Christian who believes God is in control has no real reason to fear or become incensed over the condition of the economy. God provides what is right and good, and our goal must be to respond with faithfulness to whatever he deems to be best.
Practice Contentment. Jeremiah Burroughs, in "The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment," (highly recommended) points out that if our desires are larger than our possessions, we will always be unhappily straining to achieve our desires and ignoring the blessing of our possessions. However, if we learn to constrain our desires to meet our possessions (in other words, accept that God has given what we need), we will find contentment and joy in the present, rather than looking for it in the future.
Hope in the Gospel, not Finances. We look forward not to a time of constant economic growth, or fulfillment of our wildest financial dreams, but to a place of perfect joy and peace. Money is a tool, but it is not a fountain of satisfaction. God, on the other hand, is. In times of economic downturn (relative though they may be), Christians have a special opportunity to show the world that our joy is different from theirs, that our hope is not conditioned on our portfolios, and that Jesus is the same whether we are getting richer or not.
In these and other ways, Christians can reflect the image of God by laughing at days to come, because our Risen Savior is Ruler of All.