Wednesday, October 08, 2008
The Financial Crisis from One Christian's Perspective (Part 4)
The recent public displays of outrage by some members of Congress, people who both knew about the dangerous, deceptive, and greedy practices of the mortgage lenders and investment banking firms and encouraged them, may be imbued with the moral purity of Claude Rains, who, in the film, Casablanca, closed down Rick's Cafe Americain, where he did his gambling because he was "shocked, shocked" to learn that gambling was going on.
But grandstanding or no, House Government Oversight and Reform chair Henry Waxman stood in for millions of Americans the other day when he doggedly questioned the CEO of now-bankrupt Lehman Brothers, Richard Fuld. Whether between 2000 and 2008, Fuld pocketed the $480-million claimed by Waxman or the $250-million claimed by Fuld, the guy raked in a lot of cash from a company he was apparently steering toward oblivion.
Is it fair that while thousands lost their jobs, thousands more lost their shirts, and the whole country was thrown into a financial crisis, people like Richard Fuld make off with millions?
Is it fair that a company that got bailed out last week had the gall to spend millions to take its execs to a spa?
Clearly, the answer to both of those questions is, "No."
But what makes us say that?
The Bible is quite clear in saying that God commands honesty and fair dealings of those who do business. It condemns usury, the levying of steep and imprisoning interest rates by those who make loans, like those charged by today's pay day lenders. It commends forthrightness in weights and measures, what we would call "truth in advertising."
When God came into the world in the person of Jesus, He dramatically underscored God's command for honesty in matters financial, as well as God's condemnation of greediness in business dealings, when He "cleansed" the temple in Jerusalem.
You may remember that Jesus entered the temple, the center of Jewish religious life and the place that the presence of God was said to dwell, and turned over the tables of the "moneychangers." He let loose the animals they were selling for use as sacrifices there.
Who were the moneychangers? They were unscrupulous business people who conspired with the temple authorities on a moneymaking scheme that preyed on people's piety and trust.
To the temple, you know, pious Jews came to offer sacrifices to God. The wealthiest could afford to sacrifice lambs. Poorer worshipers could offer birds and the poorer still were allowed to make cereal offerings. Lambs, doves, and cereal were all to be purchased from vendors in the temple courtyards. But they could only be purchased with temple currency.
And how did the faithful get that? They got it by exchanging their currency from the "real world" with the moneychangers, also in the temple courtyard. They charged exorbitant fees for the temple money. Along with the temple priests and elders, the moneychangers got very wealthy with this scam, while the true believers who lived in occupied Judea struggled to get by.
By His "temple tantrum," Jesus condemned these practices and most people who read about it today will say, "Right on!" But why do the preponderance of people who read about and have Jesus' action explained to them side with Him?
Simply put, the Biblical laws commending honesty and fair play and the Scriptural passages that condemn fraud and gouging, are written on our hearts. Theists and non-theists, irrespective of the wide variations in their specific codes of morality, seem, instinctively to know and broadly agree on what might be called the basics of financial fair play.
This is why those who say that you can't legislate morality are wrong. Of course you can legislate morality. In fact, when government is operating with something like integrity--or as close as any of us is capable of operating with integrity, all it ever does is legislate morality.
Take something as innocuous as speed limits or traffic lights on our highways. Why do governments impose them? Speed limits exist because, as part of our common morality, we value life. We want to ensure safety. We have traffic lights and STOP and YIELD signs for the same reason.
We live in a pluralistic society, not a theocracy. Yet our laws usually reflect a moral consensus, a common appropriation of the moral standards I believe that God has imprinted on every one of us, applied to particular times and places by people trying to live and work together.
Of course, there are lots of times when governments behave immorally. (That's to be expected of human beings.) But, interestingly, when governments misbehave, pass immoral laws, or administer immoral policies, they seem never to say, "There's no such thing as moral right." Instead--whether it's a legislator on the take caught on videotape claiming that he only appears to be doing something wrong or a dictator perpetrating a holocaust, the wrongdoers try to twist our common moral standards, portraying themselves as being in the right.
But, in the end, we don't buy it.
And it isn't just the actions of government that are viewed through the prisms of our common moral awareness. Our inborn sense of fairness can also be stirred by the actions of others. (Though it should be said that, given our common human weaknesses, we're generally quicker to see others' faults and wrongs than our own.)
That's why so many people, irrespective of their political affiliations, react to the financial crisis and say, "It isn't fair and something needs to be done about it."
And even if members of Congress charged with oversight have spent most of the past two decades overlooking the practices of unscrupulous lenders and investment bankers, fnow affecting a Claude Rains-like horror, from where I sit, from one Christian's perspective, I agree: It isn't fair.
[To read the first three installments of this series, see here, here, and here.]