With the most recent fiscal cliff approaching this Thursday (February 28), it is worth asking, “How did we get into this mess?” My answer: a little leaven works its way through a whole lump of dough….
Touchstone Magazine (March/April 2013) recently published my article, ”The Yeast We Can Do,” in their “Views” section (subscription required). In it, I explore the metaphor of yeast in the Scriptures—how little things eventually work their way through our whole lives and can lead to big consequences. In some cases, I point out, this is a bad thing. For example, I write,
According to Evagrios the Solitary, one of the early Christian hermits of the Egyptian desert, our spiritual struggle can be summarized quite simply: it is because we have first failed to resist little temptations that we eventually fall to greater ones. Following John the Evangelist’s warnings against succumbing to “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16), Evagrios identifies three “frontline demons” in particular: gluttony, avarice, and seeking the esteem of others.
Little by little, when we give in to small temptations, they eventually work their way through our whole lives, leaving us vulnerable to bigger, related areas of temptation.
Now, how does this relate to our over $16.5 trillion national debt and annual deficits over $1 trillion for the last four years that brought us to a looming sequestration deadline, with little time to come up with some solution to drastically cut spending to get our finances under control, adversely affecting the lives of millions? Well, as I said, a little leaven works its way through the whole lump of dough.
Government spending has been on the increase for a long time now, even before the most recent boom since the last year of George W. Bush’s presidency. As Acton’s director of research Samuel Gregg has argued, “[T]he more Americans look to government for their economic salvation, the harder it becomes for America to turn back from the road to permanent economic decline.” Little by little, we have collectively asked for, or at least accepted, more and more from our government, in some cases to the point of dependency and looming disaster, no matter what happens this Thursday.
What solution might we offer, in light of this? Just as I argue in my Touchstone article, we need to counteract bad leaven with good leaven. To put it another way: the solution to intemperance is spiritual discipline or asceticism. We need to ask ourselves: what are the little things that we can to do take some of the burden away from the American taxpayer? Do we have an extra room in our homes for an aging parent or grandparent? Are we willing to sacrifice some free time to help out a disabled person in our family or church? Do we have any odd jobs around the house that we could hire an unemployed member of one of our communities to do? Or maybe, like Ronald J. Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, it means that some of our seniors take the time to ask themselves, do I really need the AARP after all?
The way out of this crisis, just like the way in, is not a matter of public policy alone but of the moral integrity of our culture. Certainly, our representatives need to find ways to cut spending, save what programs are truly needed and effective, and embrace more fiscally responsible and just policies, but we all could make it easier for them if we heeded the caution of one second century compendium of the Christian life: “Do not be one who holds his hand out to take, but shuts it when it comes to giving” (Didache 4.5).