Inter-Generational Injustice, the Gospel, and One Presbyterian Denomination’s Position

July 2011 by Winfield Casey Jones, D. Min.
Rev. Jones began writing about intergenerational injustice ten years ago and believes that a true solution to the problem of exploiting future generations must involve “some pain and sacrifice for everyone—beginning now,” including  “(preferably in this order) entitlement reform, spending  decreases, and increased revenues.” Jones says, “This overture on intergenerational injustice was originally written in late 2007. The PC(USA) General Assembly passed it in  the summer of 2008, well before the full emergence of the financial crisis that Autumn. Due to the downturn and other events since 2007, the unfunded/underfunded obligations of the U.S. government are considerably greater than when the overture was written. While the issue is more visible now, it seems to me the particular contributions of Christian faith to this debate are that all must be prepared to sacrifice, that the shortfall cannot be made up on the backs of the weakest (or even on the backs of the strongest alone) and that groups must look beyond their own narrow self-interest to the welfare of future generations. We need an environment of shared sacrifice, something most national leaders (focusing on their ‘bases’) seem loathe to encourage.”

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On the PBS Nightly Business Report of July 25, 2011, Norman Ornstein,  resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, was interviewed on our current debt crisis and related issues.

Anchor Susie Gharib expressed the concern that international investors might lose their confidence in United States Treasury Debt.

Here is the exchange after that:

ORNSTEIN: The tragedy to this point is that the kind of plan that Speaker Boehner and President Obama were talking about, and the one that’s in the “gang of six” plan that includes dramatic tax reform, corporate tax reform, and individual reform, radically reducing rates and broadening the base, would do an enormous amount to bring a jump-start to the economy. You can’t do it without revenues, and the fact that that doesn’t appear to be on the table right now is the biggest, I think, drawback to actually building some business confidence and getting the economy and jobs moving.

GHARIB: All right. We’ll have to leave it there for now. Thank you so much for coming on the program tonight.

ORNSTEIN: Pray for us, Susie.

GHARIB: I will, I’ll try my best[1]

As a Presbyterian minister I find two things in this exchange to be very interesting: (1) Mr. Ornstein called for compromise and sacrifice; and (2) he called for prayer. I resonate with both of those calls, and so I would like to comment now on what one American Christian denomination (my own) has had to say about the debt crisis. But first a little background.

While the United States recently faced a problem both immediate and dire—whether and how to raise the federal debt ceiling by August 2—we continue to face deeper, longer-term issues regarding not only the federal deficit but also other long-term obligations to future generations.

In an article by Addison Wiggin in Forbes (Sat, Jul 23, 2011), Wiggin quotes Boston University Professor Laurence Kotlikoff: “To get our overall fiscal gap under control, the U.S. must cut spending or raise tax revenue by $20 trillion over the next decade, far more than either the president wants or the House Republicans seek.”[2]

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Therefore, an even greater task than confronting federal debt is reforming entitlements like Social Security and Medicare. The same article in Forbes by Mr. Wiggin points out that: $14.3 trillion is our “official” national debt, but $5 trillion is the amount for which Uncle Sam is on the hook with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and $62 trillion is the amount of total liabilities and unfunded obligations for Social Security and Medicare. (In other words, we have an $80 trillion problem, not a $14.3 trillion problem.)

Photo of anxious family uncertain how to pay their billsIt is clear that something is broken in the American political system, and that we are literally stealing from future generations by kicking the can down the road. And yet many elected officials seem fearful of suggesting that entitlements like Social Security and Medicare need to be fixed in order to assure their continuation for future generations and in order not to burden these future generations with unfunded obligations.

Frankly, I wonder if many, if not most, politicians are not afraid of senior citizen lobbying organizations like the AARP and others. The job of organizations like the AARP is to seek to affect public policy in the perceived (but sometimes narrowly defined) self-interest of their members, but the Church of Jesus Christ, following her Lord who gave his life for the life of the world, is called to do more than that. We are called to “look not only to our own interests, but to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4, NIV).

In this vein, many Presbyterians and other Americans  are unaware that the 218th General Assembly (2008) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), before the current financial crisis became evident,  adopted a strong statement on intergenerational injustice: (scroll down to page 183).This statement says intergenerational injustice is a pressing and urgent  moral issue and that current government policies are basically exploiting future generations who lack lobbying power of their own.



On the Church Addressing Intergenerational Injustice in America

The Presbytery of New Covenant overtures the 218th General Assembly (2008) to do the following:

  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.
  1. 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.


Winfield Casey Jones, D. Min, has been pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Pearland, Texas (a Houston suburb) for twenty-five years. He and his wife are both PC(USA) pastors. He received a BA  in political science from University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and also studied at Institut D’Etudes  Politiques in Paris, France, and UNC School of Law before graduating from Union Theological Seminary in Virginia. Jones can be reached at [email protected].
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