Monday, September 14, 2009

Thoughts from "Peace and Justice Sunday"

Mr. Kissinger, as the Church, our job is to ensure that justice flows down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream; and, your job as the State is to irrigate the fields. (William Sloane Coffin, on Amos 5:24)

Back in the '60s, two school reformers wrote a book in which they defined education as the fine art of "crap detection." That's not a bad way to describe good theology. (Rev. Dick Watts)

On Sunday, I heard one of the best-ever Christian responses to the current economic crisis and the resulting bailouts. For McKinley's Peace and Justice Sunday, the entire service was devoted to calls for justice in our world, including music by Stephen Foster and Pete Seeger and an incredibly powerful sermon by Rev. Richard (Dick) Watts. His fifty years in ministry and social justice have given him an incredible vision to some of the roots-of-sin in this financial and economic melt-down. He put into words what I have felt in my heart but have not been able to coherently express.

I have posted the full text of his sermon at the bottom of this post. The core of it was pointing out the sins of idolatry, greed, and pride in our culture. Those sins have led to deifying the preservation-of-net-worth of a few, on the backs of those who can least afford to do it. Many of us who represent the Church - those who claim to follow Christ - have stood silently by as the market has been declared our economic Higher Power, have watched as the protections of bank regulation (which were put in place to preserve the-least-of-these) were dismantled in service to that idol, and then watched as those who created the crisis have been bailed out, floating high on the corpses of those who have been devastated by the flood.

There have been a few voices in the wilderness, to be sure. But in large measure, the voice of the Church has been silent.

I agree with Dick Watts wholeheartedly. It seems that Unending Profit has become our Pyramid, and far too many of us has been enslaved to build it by the Pharaohs of Commerce - with no regard to who suffers or dies in the meantime.

Let me just ask you folks - have you heard any of this from Focus On The Family? David Jeremiah? Or any of the other well-known preaching voices? I've checked the websites of several of the ELCA mega-churches (including some of those who have planned to leave the ELCA over that other topic). Denouncing the sins of the wealthy and powerful few in this country (and their roles in devastating our collective wealth) are strangely missing from the list of sermon topics. (If I'm wrong, I will gladly retract...but I'm not finding it.)

Much like in World War II, when many in the Church establishment turned a blind eye to Hitler, I think the Church universal has turned a blind eye to the powers and principalities of this age. And I think that it's going to be to the lasting shame of the Church - because this Jesus person that so many of us claim to follow has clearly told us to do otherwise.

He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (Matthew 25:45-46, NIV)

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil,
who put darkness for light and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.

(Isaiah 5:20, NIV)

Who will sound the trumpets, if we will not?

- - -
[The text of Reverend Dr. Watt's sermon follows:]

"Shocked!" – A Theological Perspective
On Our Economic Meltdown

Yahweh says: Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am Yahweh who practice steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth; for in these things I delight, Yahweh says. (Jeremiah 9:23-24)

You might well feel that a sermon about our economic meltdown is like warming up last Sunday's meatloaf for today’s dinner – isn't healthcare reform today’s big issue? – though I'll suggest later why it's more than a leftover. Or you may be asking other questions: "What are your credentials, Dick, for talking about economics?" "Why bring into worship about what we can hear about on the evening news?" "What can a 'theological perspective' mean to a 'secular' subject like economics?" Good questions - so let me say a few things by way of introduction.

First, I promise that this won't be a lecture on credit default swaps, derivatives, collateralized debt obligations, sub-prime mortgages, bank bailouts or Detroit bankruptcies.

Second, I make no pretense to be an expert in economics - though I've noticed that the track record of such "experts" hasn't inspired much trust lately. I have, however, been doing my homework, because I take very seriously Reinhold Niebuhr's warning that "consecrated ignorance is still ignorance."

Third, I believe that for democracy to flourish, we cannot simply hand over our fate to pundits and politicians. Just as war is too serious to be left to generals, the economy is too important to be left to "the powers that be." We are all obliged to reflect and to speak out on matters that affect our common life.

Fourth, "theology" is not just about "churchy" things. Someone has rightly said that "Christianity is not a way of looking at certain things, but a certain way of looking at all things" – and that includes politics and economics. I realize that when we talk in church about our core values - reverence, integrity, generosity, compassion, kindness, and the like - we are tempted to limit them to our personal life and close relationships. That's understandable enough, since the personal sphere is one over which we have substantially more control than the public arena. But to be Christian is to be heirs of a story that also focuses on social sins and virtues – from the liberation of an economic underclass in Egypt to Micah's denunciation of the unjust rich, from Jesus' sovereign indifference to imperial power to Paul's subversion of ethnic loyalties. When we reflect on personal issues only and let the wider society go merrily on its own way, we do only half our job as the church.

And so we can't leave it to Fox News or The New York Times – or even Tim Geithner and President Obama - to tell us how to think about the economic mess our country is struggling through. As church, we have not only the right, but the duty, to ask what light our religious tradition can shed on our predicament. And the name of such reflection is "theology."

Where, then, should we begin. With David Brooks, perhaps, a conservative pundit who titled a recent column "Greed and Stupidity?" Or the review of a book about the meltdown, a review titled "Greed layered on greed, frosted with recklessness?" Well, greed and recklessness, certainly, along with corporate arrogance and congressional collusion. But I want to begin at a more basic level yet. And I want to get at it by calling your attention to an amazing event that occurred last October when the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, appeared before a Congressional committee.

No one has had a more central role in American economic life for the past quarter century than Alan Greenspan, appointed to that post by Ronald Reagan, continuing for 18 years under presidencies both Republican and Democrat. A true believer in the Reagan philosophy that "Government isn't the answer; government is the problem," a staunch foe of regulation, he was supremely confident in the wisdom and virtue of Wall Street. But now his faith was shaken.
"Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity – myself especially – are in a state of shocked disbelief." [This failure at self-regulation was] "a flaw in the model that I perceived as the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works."
He had lost faith in what he saw as "the critical [model] that defines how the world works." As one critic commented, "that's a hell of a big thing to find a flaw in." "Shocked!" – shocked to discover that the titans of finance put self-interest ahead of the common good. And we Christians are often called "na├»ve"!

The dogma that has defined U.S. economic policy for the last quarter century – that the Market is god, and will ceaselessly bless us as long as we keep it free from the sin of government regulation – has proved to be a false faith. Congress had for nearly two decades treated Greenspan as beyond question or contradiction, as he said "No" to almost every attempt at financial regulation. He was consulted like the Delphic oracle - in fact, his nickname was "the Oracle" – and of course an oracle is one who brings messages from the gods. That's why I believe that our present peril is the end result of bad theology, of what the Bible calls idolatry. When you hear that word, don't think simply of an ancient temptation to bow before an image of Baal or Asherah. Idolatry means giving to any human being, ideology, or system, an ultimacy that it does not deserve. Alan Greenspan was in "shocked disbelief," but no Christian should have been. For we have always known that the human mind is a factory for the making of idols, that we are all prone to cloak our self-interest in the garb of divinity. Greenspan's testimony was about one more god that failed.

People of wealth and power have done their best to persuade us that our economic system is part of the natural order of things, like gravity or the speed of light. But that is a lie, and has always been a lie. When we hear hymns to the "magic of the marketplace," we need to remember that magicians deal in illusion. Human beings create economic policy, and those who manipulate it for their own benefit are always eager to baptize it with the holy water of natural law. Like the banker who recently consoled a wage earner being thrown out of his home, with "Nothing personal. It's just the market."

No it isn't. The financial movers and shakers want to talk about our crisis as a financial "tsunami," that is, a force of nature no one could either see coming or do anything about. Wrong. The current mess cannot be blamed on an "invisible hand" directing market forces, but on quite deliberate human efforts to rig the rules for the benefit of a tiny elite. I won't bore you with too many statistics, but I do want to remind you of how far we've moved toward plutocracy. In 1981, the ten most highly paid CEOs had an annual salary of $3.5 million. By 1988, their average salary was over $19 million. In 2000, it was $154 million. By 2007, the fifty highest paid investment fund managers averaged $588 million per year – 19,000 times the pay of the average worker. All this was regarded as a positive good: let wealth accumulate at the top, and its benefits would "trickle down" to the bottom. A New Yorker cartoon got closer to the truth, I think. Two business tycoons are sitting in their overstuffed chairs at the Club. "And I say," argues one, "if there’s a trickle down, there must be a leak somewhere!"

So how did we get here? For starters, Congress tossed aside a regulation born out of the Great Depression, that kept banks from also becoming investment houses and insurance companies, thus encouraging them to take new risks with other people’s money. In 2000, Congress passed and President Clinton signed a bill exempting from most oversight those Byzantine new instruments called derivatives – gambling that houses and everything else would keep increasing in value, and they'd never have to pay their gambling debts. Regulators fell asleep at the switch, leaving to agencies like Moody's and Standard & Poor's the rating of financial offerings, ratings on the integrity of which investors depended. But when Congress looked into the email files of Standard & Poor's, they found one staff member writing, "...that deal is ridiculous. We should not be rating it." To which his colleague replied, "We rate every deal. It could be structured by cows and we would rate it."

Analysts and forecasters caught the exuberance; in a column called "Confessions of a pundit," one of them wrote, "While I have always said what I believe, what I believe sometimes has been subtly shaped by who pays the bills." In the case of the rating agencies, there was nothing subtle about it - they were being paid by the very firms whose offerings they were rating. And it's not true that no one knew what was happening: six years ago Warren Buffett warned of the new "financial weapons of mass destruction." The cost to us all of this wild excess? Well, consider the Wall Street bailout alone - $700 billion. To picture that, said an article in the International Herald Tribune, imagine counting to 700 billion, one number per second: it will take you 21,000 years.

But now it's all over, right? Well, not quite. Not for the millions out of work, or who have lost their homes, or have seen "retirement" savings go up in smoke. And now the financial industry is waging a full-court press in Washington to nip new regulations in the bud. From 2007 to 2008, securities and investment concerns gave $152 million in political contributions to move that "invisible hand" along in their direction, and in the same period the top five firms – companies like Citigroup and J.P. Morgan Chase – spent some $215 million on lobbying activities. Just a few weeks ago a frustrated Senator Dick Durbin lashed out: "And the banks – hard to believe in a time when we're facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created – are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place." Yesterday's headline in The New York Times read: "A Year After A Cataclysm, Little Change on Wall St. – Progress Is Slow on Regulatory Overhaul, Posing Risk of Even Bigger Crisis."

From a Christian theological perspective, have we anything to say about the way forward? During the Vietnam War Bill Coffin confronted Henry Kissinger, who asked, "What do you want me to do?" "Our job," replied Coffin, is to say 'let justice roll down like waters.' Yours is to build the irrigation system." He was right, of course: it's not possible to draw a straight line from a critique of idolatry to particular public policies. Nothing in our tradition can tell us, for example, whether a given "stimulus package" is too little or too much, whether federal dollars are better spent on mass transit than on solar energy, whether ethanol production costs more in food prices than it saves in greenhouse gas emissions. These are all prudential human judgments, on which people of integrity may differ. As Thomas Jefferson said, "Not every difference of opinion is a difference of principle." But I believe that we can offer some help in the designing of the "irrigation system" - we do have some principles to guide us through the thicket of policy options.

First, no social entity should be trusted to regulate itself, since we all have an infinite capacity to rationalize our self-interest. That is what sin means. Second, any corporate entity "too big to fail" is too big, period, and should be broken up, so that it cannot hold the wider society hostage to its needs or demands. Third, the purpose of economic policy is to promote the common good, not the enrichment of the few, and government exists, among other reasons, to make sure the rules of the game are fair. Adam Smith, whose Wealth of Nations has been the market's Bible, wrote of government that "when the in support of the workman, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the master." Advocating for these principles is a part of our calling individually as Christians, and corporately as church.

Is there no good news to be told today? Of course there is, because there are always people who do the best things in the worst times. I think of the business owners and workers who slashed their own earnings and hours so as to avoid having to lay off any of their colleagues. Or the MBA graduates of Harvard Business School, who took a voluntary oath "to serve the greater good," to bring a moral dimension back into their besmirched vocation. Or the group calling itself "Wealth for the Common Good" – people with incomes over $235,000 a year – urging Congress to repeal the Bush-era tax cuts immediately, because, they say, having profited from the boom years, "Now is the time to give back." You will know of other such stories.

But I make no apology today for focusing on analysis. Back in the '60s, two school reformers wrote a book in which they defined education as the fine art of "crap detection." That's not a bad way to describe good theology. Because we know what the primal sin is – the Greeks called it hubris, the Bible calls it idolatry, theologians call it pride – our antennae are sensitive to the perennial human attempt to mask self-interest in noble language, to take some relative good, whether religious, political or economic, and make it absolute. I believe that we have no greater contribution to make to our society than to unmask such pretension. Alan Greenspan may be shocked to discover that gambling has been going on in the casino, but we are not. John Gardner long ago called us to be "loving critics" of our institutions. We can help our fellow citizens to see our current crisis for what it is: the inevitable result of putting trust in a false god.

And then perhaps we may move together toward a new economic model - more humble and realistic, less driven by the interests of the few, more oriented toward justice and the common good.

A Reflection by Richard G. Watts, D.Min.
McKinley Memorial Presbyterian Church
Champaign, Illinois
September 13, 2009

1 comment:

Peter said...

And I would bet some serious money that the Stephen Foster song used was "Hard Times".

We're using it as the offertory at our Smokey Mountain service on Thanksgiving. Lyrics don't usually get more hard-hitting than these.