This Sunday Christians all over the world (East and West together this year!) celebrated Easter or Pascha, the feast of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the holiest day of the liturgical year, the beginning of a festive season that lasts for the next forty days.
I’m Greek Orthodox, and in Orthodox churches (and Eastern rite Catholic churches) it is traditional for the priest to read the Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom. Drawing upon Isaiah 14:9 and 1 Corinthians 15:55, Chrysostom elaborates on how Hades, the realm of the dead, was conquered by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ:
It took a body and came upon God!
It took earth and encountered Ηeaven!
It took what it saw, but crumbled before what it had not seen!
O death, where is thy sting?
O Hades, where is thy victory?
Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!
What was seen was the humanity of Christ. What was unseen was his divinity. As the “Author of Life” (Acts 3:15), he could not be contained by death. What appeared to be the ultimate victory for evil turned out to be a Trojan horse for good. Christ could not stay dead; he rose again, offering the promise of resurrected life to all who follow him. Hades “crumbled before what it had not seen!”
Oddly — no doubt because I work here at Acton — listening to this, I found myself reminded of the French economist and statesman Frédéric Bastiat, who wrote,
In the department of economy, an act, a habit, an institution, a law, gives birth not only to an effect, but to a series of effects. Of these effects, the first only is immediate; it manifests itself simultaneously with its cause — it is seen. The others unfold in succession — they are not seen: it is well for us, if they are foreseen. Between a good and a bad economist this constitutes the whole difference — the one takes account of the visible effect; the other takes account both of the effects which are seen, and also of those which it is necessary to foresee. Now this difference is enormous, for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favourable, the ultimate consequences are fatal, and the converse. Hence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good, which will be followed by a great evil to come, while the true economist pursues a great good to come, — at the risk of a small present evil.
Of course, Bastiat is just talking about economics. He mostly has material causes and effects in mind. But his words are applicable beyond that.
Hades is a bad economist. The “immediate consequence” seemed “favourable,” but “the ultimate consequences” were “fatal” to it, and will be even more so at the resurrection to come.
Conversely, Jesus is a good economist: “for the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). He “pursue[d] a great good to come, — at the risk of a small present evil.”
So, too, in our spiritual lives we ought to learn to endure all things, for true love “endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7), and in so doing we find the greatest joy.
Similarly, in our economic lives we ought to look to the long term as well. The economist John Maynard Keynes once quipped, “In the long run, we are all dead.” His point was that we shouldn’t neglect short term means of relief for the sake of a distant and fabled long run when things will be better.
This is a fair point, so long far as it goes, but runs the risk of encouraging the very short-termism that to Bastiat characterizes the bad economist. We shouldn’t use looking to the long term to neglect our responsibilities in the present, just as in our spiritual lives we shouldn’t be, as the cliché goes, so heavenly-minded that we are no earthly good. But “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable” (1 Corinthians 15:9).
So, too, if we do not look to the long term in economics and have no hope for the future, we will quickly find our short term help has only distracted us from a fatal future, if not sped its arrival.
A Christian perspective reminds us that not death but resurrection is the true “long run,” either a resurrection to new life or to second death. What we do now matters, because our futures are open and salvation is possible, not just for our souls, but even for our economies.
We should alleviate all the suffering we can in the present, but not at the cost of greater suffering for our sons and daughters in the future. Properly caring for them promises a greater joy in the present than any pleasures that may distract us from our long term responsibilities.
So if our national debt is ballooning at an alarming rate (which it is), we should be willing to sacrifice a little now to ensure stability for our future.
If massive programs like Social Security and Medicare will be insolvent in a decade or so (which they will), we should be willing to make some cutbacks (e.g. means testing benefits, raising the retirement age) in order to ensure that they will still be available for those who will truly need them in the future. We need to care for our elders in the present, of course. But the youth of today are the elders of tomorrow. Caring for our elders should include them as well.
These things — financial instability, massive cuts to massive programs — are still invisible to us; their effects (economic crisis; needy elders and disabled persons without sufficient state support) are not simultaneous with their cause (economic irresponsibility). But the suffering to come will be far greater than any we might have to endure in the present for the joy of a healthier economic future.
We shouldn’t be like Hades. Hades is a bad economist. And on Pascha, we celebrate Hades’ defeat.
We should be like Jesus instead: having the hope to foresee a better future and having the courage to do what is necessary to attain it.
Christ is risen! Happy Easter!
The Law was originally published in French in 1850 by Frederic Bastiat and is the work for which Bastiat is most famous. This translation to American English is from 1874.