Calling on God in Harrisburg PA

“Whereas, it is the duty of nations as well as of men, to owe their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions, in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord … I do, by this proclamation, designate and set apart Thursday, the 30th day of April, 1863, as a day of national humiliation, fasting, and prayer.” – Abraham Lincoln

These were dark days in American history. Lincoln signed the resolution on 30 March 1863, some 6 months after Antietam, just a month prior to Chancellorsville, and three months prior to Gettysburg.

It is an expression of humility, faith, and hope; when times are troubled to turn to the Lord. I obviously can’t discern the internal thoughts of Abraham Lincoln, but the words of the declaration appear to be those of a man in honesty and integrity calling out to God in a desperate time for his country.

This country has some tough days ahead. I have no reason to believe they are as tough as the Civil War; none at all. Yet there will be, of necessity, an upheaval in the normal operations of the country. Too many people have been promised too many things and the economy is faltering at the notion of paying it all.

Staring down just a small part of these problems, Linda Thompson, the mayor of Harrisburg, PA, has called a three day fast. The story notes “Thompson said the fasting was her idea as a way to unite Harrisburg and encourage local leaders to work together in solving the financial crisis.”

I have thoughts on the fast, but first let’s consider the backdrop of the Harrisburg fiscal crisis. Harrisburg is a microcosm of Greece. Not to the extent that the government has totally subsumed the economy and borrowed like crazy to prop up an unreasonable quality of life, but rather that Harrisburg finds itself in an utterly untenable financial crisis, and is trying to forestall bankruptcy through continued nonsensical bailouts. The main culprit appears to be a refurbished “trash-to-energy incinerator” which cost the cit a ton and has not generated enough revenues to cover the expense.

In 2010 the city had around $288 million in debt, with $68 million due to creditors that year alone … the entire city budget was $60 million (that doesn’t work). Among other things, the state of Pennsylvania kicked in $4.3 million just to cover an interest payment that Harrisburg was going to miss, with then governor Ed Rendell stating that “Harrisburg’s financial future is still very cloudy, and difficult decisions still need to be made to return this city to fiscal stability. Allowing a missed bond payment, however, would not be a good decision.”

Harrisburg and Greece. See the connections? The city debt now stands at $310 million and cannot possibly be paid back, just as Greece’s debt cannot possibly be paid back. So, if it cannot possibly be paid back, exactly what is the point in continuing to pour money into interest payments only to default later?

OK, back to the fast. First, let me applaud the mayor. This is a major problem, and it is beyond her capacity to solve. The city council has made steps toward the only plausible solution that they see – bankruptcy. If the mayor doesn’t want to go that route, then she’s going to need the help of the Almighty. So, if you need God’s help, the first thing to do is ask.

I don’t see how it does anything other than good for a city (or even just a few members) to unite in prayer and fasting and asking God for help. Who knows, He may just show them the way out of this mess.

Having said that, there are other considerations. One suspects that the mayor should widen her gaze. She’s looking for unity – which is good – but she may need more than that. This is not the type of problem that will be solved simply through unity. We could all agree on a bad solution and get nowhere.

I see maybe four options – but only three of them make any sense. First, the city could roll the dice, throw a million dollars at lottery tickets, and hope it wins a big payday. Powerball is at $48 million and MegaMillions is at $76 million. It wouldn’t cover the whole debt, but boy it would sure turn things in the right direction. OK, that’s obviously nonsense. What’s left?

Well, the city could declare bankruptcy. Call the whole $310 million in debt a wash. Declare to the world you have no intention of ever paying it back. Creditors will descend on the city and claim what assets the court allows, and we’ll all go on with our lives. I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t tell you all the ramifications, but you can bet it won’t be pretty.

The city could convince someone else to  pay the bill. They could just drag their feet and declare that they’ll default if someone doesn’t step in and fix the problem. People seem to be in utter despair at the mere notion of a default and “contagion” – so somebody is bound to step in to fill the void. Right?

The only other option is to stop spending money and pay the debt back! The city needs to take in more than it pays out so it can use the surplus to reduce the debt. Sure, they could raise taxes – but I assure you that won’t work. Why? We still live in a free country. People really don’t like the prospect of sticking around to bear unremitting burdens loaded on them by a narcissistic and irresponsible political class. If they can leave (and they can), they will. They’ll go to a city or state that isn’t in such financial distress where they can keep the fruit of their labor instead of paying for someone else’s mistakes. No, raising taxes won’t do it. The city will just have to cut spending. How likely is that?

(Side note: MSNBC is reporting that “state and local governments will need to raise taxes by $1,398 per household every year for the next 30 years if they are to fully fund their pension systems.” WOW! $1400 a year per household … for the next 30 years?! By my arguably crude math – I simply multiplied – that’s a $42,000 increase in annual tax burden just in time for my retirement. If you’re living on a fixed public sector pension, make plans now. You will not be getting that money.)

These are the options. None of them fit within the political narrative palatable to the ruling class. Yet these are the only ways forward. Ms. Thompson will need more than unity – she will need courage.

So, whether this fast is in earnest or for show, I applaud the decision to call on the Lord. I’m reminded of Paul’s words in Philippians regarding the preaching of the gospel:

“Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of rivalry, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.” – Philippians 1:15-18

Perhaps we’ll scan the headlines in the next few weeks and months and see progress on the Harrisburg front. Or perhaps, as in the days of Lincoln, there are many more difficult days ahead before restoration.

With that, we’ll leave you with the words of the prophet Isaiah regarding fasting to the Lord …

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him,and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you take away the yoke from your midst,the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the LORD will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.” – Isaiah 58:6-12

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