If you're anything like me, you learned these things last week. 1) Since the 1940s, U.S. debt has been rated AAA. 2) AAA = risk free and stable. 3) Last Friday, Standard & Poors (but not other rating agencies like Moody's) downgraded U.S. debt to AA+. 4) AA+ is the rating right below AAA, and we share it with nations like Belgium and New Zealand. 5) This downgrade may have a modest impact on U.S. and international markets. 6) The S & P made their decision not because of the debt per se, but because of "the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking."
The news of these past weeks has been dispiriting. It is not pleasant to watch our elected leaders bicker and argue and grandstand. It is not happy to watch needed social programs get cut, or to contemplate the ramifications of such large national debt.
Ideally, we would have no debt, a robust economy where taxation sufficiently funds government services, and enough jobs for all. Ideally, we would be a nation that cares for the poor, as well as a nation alive with an entrepreneurial spirit creating new jobs and a hopeful future. The fact that we are struggling in all of these areas, and that our politicians seem to have trouble even talking like adults with each other to problem-solve, causes anxiety.
Some readers of this paper have lost jobs. Others are financially insecure. Other readers have benefited immensely from the current economic landscape and historically low rates of taxation for those at higher levels of income. We're all in the same boat, but it's a big boat, with widely varying accommodations. It is no small feat for us to avoid being smug in our success or deflated in our failures. Yet we must.
This past Sunday, our congregation sang "O God Our Help In Ages Past" as our sending hymn. The full text of the first verse of the hymn reads:
O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.
I quipped during the announcements, "Translation: God still has a AAA rating." Not a bad way to translate this classic hymn into a contemporary idiom. We confess in worship that our help, our hope, and our home, is not the economy, but God. I venture to guess that the faithful from widely differing religious traditions would say something similar. When we look to something like the national economy for everything good, we will, inevitably, be disappointed.
In my tradition, putting our final hope in a nation or economy is idolatry. Martin Luther wrote, for example, "A god is that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe Him from the [whole] heart." Ratings agencies might give out AAA ratings for risk free debt, but we all know there is no such thing as risk free debt. Such a designation verges on idolatry.
The wise course here (and in situations like this it is not easy to exercise wisdom) is the middling way. Expect the economy to prosper. Demand that government take responsibility for decisive and healthy action. But do not place all your trust in such institutions. Similarly, place full confidence in the providence of God, but do not let that confidence blind you to the very real needs of the neighbor in need. God may be our shelter from the stormy blast, but when your neighbor has just lost their job, they may need you and your comforting presence first, and a word about God as shelter much later in the day. In these times, we ourselves are called to be AAA--Authentic, Affirming, and Available. Those are ways of being we can exercise in any economy.
[this column will appear in the Saturday edition of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette]