14 August 2011

Was Our Debt Ceiling Drama Sinful?

David Crisp writes an editorial in his weekly Billings' OutPost entitled "Wasn't America's debt ceiling debacle a sin?" He asserts that journalists are poorly equipped—because they lack the vocabulary—to deal with moral questions but then goes on to discuss the problem anyway and arrive at what seems to be an unreasonable conclusion. It seems to me that Crisp starts the argument already having decided on which side he comes down, especially when he calls the whole drama a "debacle." I say drama, but perhaps theatre is a better word because the lines sounded familiar and we kind of knew the ending we were heading toward.

This reminds me of a trip I took a few years ago accompanied by 600 or so college students. One of the professors in an English Lit course gradually tired of the students being reticent to discuss the readings and thus called on a clever girl in the front row, slinking down as low as she could get. The girl's response was "Hey, I'm a chemistry major and we don't have to know these things." I'm not sure she was unprepared, and she certainly was not incapable of talking about the story we were reading but the coarse laughter her response got, from the adults especially, but even from some of her classmates in on the conspiracy, made all of us wince with embarrassment.

Editor Crisp cites the German Lutheran pastor, theologian and ethicist Dietrich Bonhoeffer: "I must choose, but I cannot make that choice in security," when he tells Reinhold Niebuhr, American theologian, why he must go back to Germany even when he knows that many if not most of his fellow Germans had embraced a great evil, and that his speaking and acting against that evil may lead to his death.

Deciding what is right or wrong is what all of us do every day, usually in small ways, and what we expect our elected officials to do, sometimes in big ways. Those of us schooled in orthodox Christianity say that in addition to ordinary  errors, we sometimes do or say sinful things. And of course we have that tendency in our DNA, called Original Sin when we are trying to explain mysterious things to our children. I suspect it is actually easier to make a reasonable decision about right and wrong when you are not in the middle of it, though you may not have the authority to speak at a later time to the survivors of that great evil. I thought that is what Bonhoefer was saying, rather than because we have the luxury of making decisions in relative security we make them poorly, which is the conclusion that Crisp comes to.

The only sin I can see in this whole affair is allowing our debt to climb so high that we might not be able to pay it off in a reasonable fashion. I'm sure that both Democrats and Republicans were guilty in this respect, though perhaps you could argue that the rapid recent increase in the debt, if you had the chance to do something about it and don't, and not allow your fellow citizens to do something about it either might be considered stubborn, perhaps due to invincible ignorance or arrogance or both, but I don't see that as anything more than the ordinary sin that we all have.

The serious political stuff is difficult enough to follow, whatever your vantage point, and the silly stuff keeps getting in one's eyes and mind, making it all that much more difficult. Saint Jerome is supposed to have said "When the stomach is full, it is easy to talk of fasting." Which is, I think, what Bonhoefer was saying in other ways.

2 comments:

Recovering Lutheran said...

I was struck by this comment from Crisp:

"I was raised as a conservative Christian, too, and I was taught that you always pay your bills."

I was a bit taken aback by Crisp's editorial. Raising your credit limit all by yourself to an astronomical amount (which is what the Federal government has been doing for decades) while continuing to run up record deficits as far as the eye can see is somehow ... paying your bills? Really? One may agree or disagree with Michele Bachmann's approach, but Crisp's editorial had an undeniable "kill the messenger" odor about it.

Crisp also tossed in a clumsy, out-of-place reference to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is not clear why Crisp did that, unless he is suggesting that opponents to raising the debt ceiling are somehow morally equivalent to Nazis (so much for the "new civility" we were promised after the shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in January). Interestingly, then-Senator Obama voted against raising the debt ceiling when Bush was President. I am curious if Crisp considers that "sinful".

Ken & Carol said...

Thanks for your comment. I am sure the Bonhoeffer reference was not to suggest that we are National Socialists.

The linking of Christian upbringing and paying bills seems to me to be a "true, true, and unrelated" kind of assertion.

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