What the COVID-19 stimulus package reveals about our society

Hear the audio version on Anchor and iTunes.

Introduction and disclaimers

Before we delve in and deal with the COVID-19 rescue deal, I’d like to make a disclaimer that those who know me will find surprising. I do believe that this stimulus is needed, but I say that with a caveat. I don’t like what is happening, but I think it was inevitable that this would happen because of the steps the United States has taken for decades. Effectively, this was one of several bad options, and it may have been the best of all the bad options.

That said, we’re basically looking at most Americans getting in the neighborhood of $1,200 and $500 for each dependent child. As I’ve already said, I’m not a fan of government stimulus or bailouts, but we basically have to do this, partially because of the fact that the virus and the government’s heavy handed response weren’t anyone’s fault, and partially because of how we got here. When we look at it, I see two main reasons why people must get $1,200 from the federal government, plus the beefed up unemployment program.

But prior to those reasons, allow me to make one more disclaimer. I intend to speak in general terms. I know that there are exceptions to the generality, such as people who have been ruined by extreme medical cases, fraud, the fact that they simply don’t have many skills, or plain old got into an industry at the wrong time, like my journalism degree in 2009. I am emphatically not calling them on the carpet in this blog.

Our nasty spending habit and government as deity

Now that I’m batting two-disclaimers-for-three-paragraphs, the first reason that this stimulus is needed is that Americans simply have a habit of living above our means and tend to not save any money for a rainy day (or a highly contagious day, as it were). Only 40 percent of our population can afford an unexpected expense of $1,000, and the average household carries over $7,000 in credit card debt. That noise you heard was Dave Ramsey shrieking in terror before locking himself in a closet and crying himself to sleep. We’re the richest nation in the world (Our median household income is north of $61,000), but we also have a massive debt and savings problem.

What I will not do is indict our country’s level of wealth – as previously stated, we’re literally the richest country in history by several orders of magnitude, and that has benefited everyone. Even our relatively poor are much better off than the poor around the world, and many of them carry supercomputers in their pockets. I will also not accuse those in debt of laziness; Americans by and large still have a remnant of the Protestant work ethic, and many other cultures see us as workaholics. I think, instead, this is a values issue, and our society has been materialistic for generations. This is basically keeping up with the Joneses. Again, if you feel your blood pressure rising on account of my callousness, please see the third paragraph again before dismissing the balance of this blog.

But one of the biggest concerns I have is that the federal government is further incentivizing irresponsibility. By that, I mean that we’re enabling our fellow citizens to live above their means on a consistent basis via stimulus and welfare systems.

And that gets into the second reason I believe the stimulus is needed. The government has overreached so far and consistently takes so much of our money that it becomes much easier to live above our means. In the United States, we are taxed when we earn money, when we spend money, when we save money and earn interest, when we sell stuff, when we own property, and if you die above a certain threshold of wealth, they’ll even take your money after you assume room temperature. Tell me that’s not wicked on its face.

The solution to both issues

As is the theme of this site, Jesus is Lord and has the answer to both of these problems.

Contrary to what some purport, Romans 13 is not a blank check for earthly governments to do whatever they want. That portion of Scripture refers to government both as God’s servant and his minister, and it gives government a very specific job – the restraint of evil. Evil comes in many forms, whether foreign invasion, domestic terrorism, date rape, Ponzi schemes, insider trading, and the list could go on ad nauseum. The restraint and punishment of these and by proxy the securing of God-given liberty is why we pay taxes, and, yes, some taxation is necessary. Excuse me while I go shower away my shame for saying such a thing.

While I rinse off, I’ll point you to the fact Samuel warned the Israelites of how heavy handed a king would be (1 Samuel 8). My goodness, he’s going to tax you 10 percent! The point of this? The earthly king that Israel begged for was going to put himself on par with God with how much he demanded from his subjects. Our current quasi-socialist system demands even more, and that should give us great pause. Anyway, back to Romans 13.

Many Bible-believing, well intentioned Christians will answer that Romans 13 and the rest of the passages about government were written in a different time when they didn’t have all these gadgets that will allow you to watch doggo videos filmed in Cambodia on a whim, nor did they have nearly as many people. They didn’t have any knowledge of epidemiology (everyone’s new favorite vocabulary word other than “expert”). Heck, they didn’t even know the earth was round. But God and his standards don’t change. Ever (Heb. 13:8).

These same, well intentioned people will then say that we can do so much good with the government. Indeed, as Jurassic Park taught us, we can, but that doesn’t mean we should. God has set up government in the same way he has set up the Church and the family. The government has its jobs; the family has its jobs; the Church has its jobs (Deut. 6, Deut. 11, 2 Tim. 4:1-2). And God is not a fan of when people deviate from what he has commanded (Deut. 4:2, Lev. 10).

As an aside to tack on to that argument, many also argue for a progressive form of taxation, which ratchets up the tax rate as one makes more money. Let me remind you that God in both the Old and New Testaments commands that we not show favoritism to the poor nor to the rich (Lev. 19:15, Ex. 23:3, James 2:1-12). Equity under the law must truly mean that, and envy of the rich must not drive us to punishing them for not sharing their goodies as much as we think they should.

But, in all honesty, the biggest concern I have is that while we should turn to the government for justice when someone breaks into our houses, steals our TVs, and kicks our dogs, we’ve also created an environment where we run to the government as our savior when we come upon hard times. And let me guarantee you, governmental soteriology leads to a pit of despair. Just look at all the hipsters wearing T-shirts with 20th century despots.

Instead, the Church needs to step up and be where people turn in times of help, where they get a healthy dose of both help and Gospel. And before you say that they’re not doing enough, I agree, but there’s this economic concept called the crowding out effect. Check out that link and then come back.

Until very recent times, if one ran into hard times within the confines of Western civilization, they sought out those belonging to the Way. It was even the case so much so in the early years of Christianity that the Roman emperor Julian had this to say:

“Atheism [what they called the Christian faith because they denied the Roman pantheon] has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.”

The Church, both then and now, both individually and corporately, did and does a much better job at caring for the poor than the government. We may not have as many resources as the government (the Constitution outlaws us printing our own money, after all), but we make up for that with efficiency and a Gospel presentation, and we don’t coerce people under threat of force to support the effort (2 Cor. 9). Come get bread and meet the Bread of Life.

And when those poor meet the Bread of Life, or when someone just plain old converts, or even when someone is raised in the church, they must be discipled, which is often where the American church has failed. We’ve kept our message to getting out of hell and being vaguely “nice” without understanding how God expects us to live. And don’t tell Andy Stanley, but a good deal of that comes from the Old Testament, which the American church avoids because it pulls exactly zero punches and often turns our 21st century sacred cows into Big Macs.

The American church has to do a better job at discipling people to handle their money wisely, which means more than offering a Dave Ramsey course every four years and reminding people to give, and it must disciple people to think about government wisely, which means more than handing out voter guides every four years and saying that we don’t have all the answers. Aside from Romans 13 and Financial Peace University, I put forward the following texts, which just scratch the surface, to be considered for further study, not to slap anyone around but to show how to live under the lordship of Christ.

“But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.” – 1 Thessalonians 4:10b-12

“Precious treasure and oil are in a wise man’s dwelling, but a foolish man devours it.” – Proverbs 21:20 (The New Living Translation renders the latter half as, “but fools spend whatever they get.”)

“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God. They collapse and fall, but we rise and stand upright.” – Psalm 20:7-8

“And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” – Deuteronomy 8:3, quoted by Jesus in Matthew 4:4

“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” – Galatians 6:9-10

Lastly, by way of clarity, I take the partial preterist view of Revelation, so I believe we’re living in the following reality and that this already happened.

Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.” And the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, saying,

“We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty,
    who is and who was,
for you have taken your great power
    and begun to reign.
The nations raged,
    but your wrath came,
    and the time for the dead to be judged,
and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints,
    and those who fear your name,
    both small and great,
and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.” – Revelation 11:15-18

I offer one more text in closing.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
    From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
    who made heaven and earth. – Psalm 121:1-2

 

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