Shuck and Jive

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Presbyterians and Intergenerational Justice

The General Assembly by consensus approved the following overture regarding our national debt. I have posted the assembly's action as well as the rationale. This is a huge issue. A few posts ago I wrote about T. Boone Pickens and the Pickens Plan for the U.S. to aggressively pursue alternative energy.

According to Pickens, the U.S. spends 700 billion dollars per year to foreign nations for oil. This cannot last. Among all the things we can talk about, concern for future generations needs to be near the top of the list. Not only do we need talk, but action.

I find myself encouraged by the Pickens plan, not only for the plan itself, but that from it, other actions toward sustainability may spring.

The statement would have been stronger if it demonstrated how much we send future generations into debt by current expenditures on war.

Here is the General Assembly's statement and rationale:

1. Declare that federal government practices and policies that create ever-increasing debt and unfunded or underfunded obligations for future generations of Americans are a grave moral concern as well as a clear danger to the republic.

2. Call upon public leaders to have the courage to address this economic and moral crisis while there is still time.

3. Call upon individual Presbyterians, sessions, presbyteries, and agencies of General Assembly to study, pray, and speak words of justice and morality into the present situation and to defend future generations who have no defense. We do not at this time call upon General Assembly agencies to prepare study documents or study papers, and we do not propose that the church at this time have a monolithic policy recommendation. We do call upon the church and the nation to study the policies and practices that have created this grave moral and economic crisis, to repent of the sins of greed and of stealing from future generations who cannot defend themselves, and to call upon our citizens and national leaders to make the sacrifices necessary to begin to solve this problem before it is too late.

4. Call on the nation for a day of prayer on this issue.


1. The Problem

According to the non-partisan United States General Accountability Office [] and the Honorable David M. Walker, Comptroller General of the United States, “saving our future requires tough choices today.” According to the GAO and the comptroller general, in 2006, explicit liabilities of the government were 10.4 trillion dollars, but implicit liabilities, based on future commitments to social security and Medicare, Parts A, B, and D, bring total federal government liabilities to 50.5 trillion dollars. At the same time the GAO estimates total household net worth in the United States in 2006 to be 53.3 trillion dollars, meaning that our liabilities make up 95 percent of total household wealth. The GAO also estimates that the per person burden is currently $170,000 and the per-family burden is $440,000. The GAO concludes:

• The “Status Quo” is not an option.

• We face large and growing structural deficits largely due to known demographic trends and rising health-care costs.

• GAO’s simulations show that balancing the budget in 2040 could require actions as large as

cutting total federal spending by 60 percent or

raising federal taxes to 2 times today's level.

• Faster economic growth can help, but it cannot solve the problem.

• Closing the current long-term fiscal gap based on reasonable assumptions would require real average annual economic growth in the double-digit range every year for the next seventy-five years.

• During the 1990s, the economy grew at an average 3.2 percent per year.

• As a result, we cannot simply grow our way out of this problem. Tough choices will be required.

2. The Role of the Church and of Christian Faith in Addressing This National Problem

A majority of citizens of the United States are currently enjoying relative prosperity and are engaging in levels of personal consumption, which, while not shared by all, are purchased in part by our nation accumulating debt and other obligations for future generations of Americans to pay. The Christian faith is clear that exploiting future generations is both ungodly and immoral.

Proverbs 13:22 says, “The good leave an inheritance to their children's children. …” (NRSV). To leave debt is the opposite of leaving an inheritance.

In 1 Timothy 5:8, it says, “And whoever does not provide for relatives, and especially for family members, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (NRSV)

In the Old Testament, the Jubilee year was instituted so that even a profligate and irresponsible generation in the life of a family could not permanently endanger the inheritance of its heirs by selling off the family wealth forever—instead land was only rented and not sold and reverted back to the original family every fifty years (Lev. 25:10,13). Though we do not live in a society where land is the primary form of wealth, the lesson of Leviticus 25 for today is that our generation of Americans should be prevented from saddling future American generations with crippling and debilitating debt.

Part of the way the American political system normally works is that people who believe they are being damaged or exploited by national policies and practices can band together and organize politically to improve their lot. Unfortunately unborn generations as well as those who are only children cannot organize to protect themselves from what our society is doing to them. They have no voice or vote. We believe the Church of Jesus Christ is called to speak for them and to urge its members and the nation to stop and reverse this serious intergenerational injustice.

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