Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Then I said, ‘How long, O Lord?’
And he said:‘Until cities lie waste
without inhabitant,and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
Isaiah 6.11

We hope the current economic slump won’t last "until cities lie waste without inhabitant." But it has already lasted long enough. And for those who have lost jobs or homes, it must seem that the land is already “utterly desolate.”

I received a letter today from M.W. Sewall & Co., addressed, “Dear Valued Customer,” announcing that they are filing for bankruptcy. They deliver propane and home heating oil, and they run a small chain of convenience stores and gas stations. Altogether they employ about 150 people in Mid-Coast Maine.

Not a big deal in terms of financial news. They are not AIG, and they are not General Motors. They were caught in a double bind. The collapse of the credit markets made it difficult for them to get money, and the credit collapse reduced the demand for fuel, sending prices plummeting and creating (as I understand it) a gap between what they had paid in advance and what they could charge consumers.

There is deep irony in our three-tiered approach to the Financial Crisis.

At the top are the financial companies that were (and are) too big to fail. Many of these folks actually caused the problems through the sale of highly leveraged credit swaps, which multiplied the effects of the housing slump. But we had to bail them out. And many of their workers continued to collect enormous salaries and bonuses.

At the second level there are the automakers. Regardless of what we might think of how these companies have been managed over the years, their immediate problems were not of their own making. They have been crushed under the weight of collapsing markets. They still get a bailout, but they also get a stern talking-to and they get told exactly how they will have to change their ways. And it’s not just the executives. Their workers have endured more abuse than a Middle School teacher on a very bad day. We’re not sure how much money they make but we know that it is way too much!

And then at the bottom is M.W. Sewall & Co., a family owned business for 122 years. They could have sold out numerous times to much bigger oil companies, but they stayed on out of loyalty to their customers and the 150 people who work for them.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

AIG and the Eye of a Needle

Again I tell you,
it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle
than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Matthew 19:24, Mark 10:25, Luke 18:25

That is one of those rare verses that appears in all three synoptic Gospels. And it is exactly the same each time. Which means we can be reasonably certain that Jesus said it. And probably more than once. But we have a hard time assimilating the information.

It’s interesting to think about Jesus’ words in relation to the bonuses paid to executives at AIG. For the record, I think that the demonization of those who received bonuses is little more than political posturing. Not the finest hour for Congress or the White House. Congress had an opportunity to do something about it before entering into the deal with AIG, and the White House could have done something before the bonuses were paid out.

In the New York Times this morning, Jake DeSantis, Executive Vice President of the Financial Products Division of AIG, published his letter of resignation as an Op-Ed column. It is an interesting piece, not the least in that it reminds us that news events involve real human beings. Mr. DeSantis is one of the people being paid out of the $165 million in bonuses funded by the government bail out. He has worked hard, and he feels a deep sense of betrayal. He writes:

After 12 months of hard work dismantling the company — during which A.I.G. reassured us many times we would be rewarded in March 2009 — we in the financial products unit have been betrayed by A.I.G. and are being unfairly persecuted by elected officials. In response to this, I will now leave the company and donate my entire post-tax retention payment to those suffering from the global economic downturn. My intent is to keep none of the money myself.

I take this action after 11 years of dedicated, honorable service to A.I.G. I can no longer effectively perform my duties in this dysfunctional environment, nor am I being paid to do so. Like you, I was asked to work for an annual salary of $1, and I agreed out of a sense of duty to the company and to the public officials who have come to its aid. Having now been let down by both, I can no longer justify spending 10, 12, 14 hours a day away from my family for the benefit of those who have let me down.

He tells Mr. Liddy that he grew up in modest circumstances and went to MIT on scholarship. He worked very hard to get where he is. He has led his division skillfully and they have made hundreds of millions of dollars for the company.

Eventually he gets around to saying that his payment came to $742,006.40 after taxes.

$742,006.40 after taxes.

I’m not sure what it means to say that you are working for $1 a year when you expect to get a bonus payment of $742,006.40. That seems like more than a $1 a year to me.

Mr. DeSantis is probably a reasonably good person. For all I know, he may be a person of excellent character. Perhaps by some measures he was betrayed and badly used. But there is a strange disconnect.

The median household income in the United States is around $51,000. And a fraction of that is wealthy by global standards. By any measure, he is rich. It’s hard for me to see him as a victim. He worked in a system that made him rich. Unbelievably rich by world standards.

To “enter the Kingdom of God” is to live as if the God’s will were already a reality on earth, as if the Kingdom were already here. It is hard, almost impossible, for the rich to do that. The problem is not that God’s judgment keeps them from entering, they simply can’t do it.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Daily Me

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country
and your kindred
and your father’s house
to the land that I will show you.”
Genesis 12:1

Faith is about the journey, rather than the destination.

Abraham hears God call him to go. He must leave everything that is familiar and journey toward a place identified only as “the land that I will show you.” The promise is that God will be there. God will go before him and show him this new land.

Faith means change; journeying from the comfortable to the uncomfortable.

In a New York Times column this morning, Nicholas Kristoff writes about how with the rise in the use of the internet as a source for news, people increasingly look for (and find) information that confirms rather than challenges their assumptions. He writes:

Nicholas Negroponte of M.I.T. has called this emerging news product The Daily Me. . . .

That’s because there’s pretty good evidence that we generally don’t truly want good information — but rather information that confirms our prejudices. We may believe intellectually in the clash of opinions, but in practice we like to embed ourselves in the reassuring womb of an echo chamber.

One classic study sent mailings to Republicans and Democrats, offering them various kinds of political research, ostensibly from a neutral source. Both groups were most eager to receive intelligent arguments that strongly corroborated their pre-existing views.

The church has always been tempted to forget the journey in favor of the comforts of a settled certainty. We are tempted to worship unchanging doctrines and traditions, rather than listen for the voice that calls us beyond all of that into the unfamiliar and the uncomfortable. But at its best, the church has been the place where we can embrace the uncertainties of life because we are grounded in the belief that God will be there with us. Rather than looking for “The Daily Me,” we are looking for new ideas and insights that challenge our self-understanding.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Redistributing Income

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
Luke 1:52-3

Even before Jesus is born, Mary tells us that the Kingdom of God is about economic justice. And part of that is the redistribution of wealth.

Years later, when a rich young many comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus eventually gives him the bottom line: he will have to give away everything to the poor. He goes away sadly, because he has great wealth. And then Jesus tells his disciples that it will be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Over the centuries Christians have invested enormous energy and creativity looking for interpretations that get around the plain meaning of that text.

All of this is particularly interesting when we look at the current debate over policies that some claim are really aimed at the redistribution of income. Raising taxes on the wealthiest people, and giving rebates to the poorest people, does redistribute income. A little. But it’s nothing like what Jesus was talking about.

Right now there are people hard at work to redistribute income. Their goal is to take it from the many and redistribute it to the few. And they are succeeding. Over the past decades more and more of the nation’s wealth has been concentrated among the wealthiest Americans.

If we are serious about the New Testament vision of the Kingdom of God, then we need to begin with the assumption that lifting up the poor is a good thing, and that large gaps between the wealthiest and the poorest people is a bad thing. Then we can have an honest debate about how we achieve that end.

How can we most effectively lift up the poor? How can we manage the growing gap between rich and poor? Can we redevelop a real sense of “commonwealth”?

Friday, March 6, 2009

Dred Scott and Prop 8

On this date in 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney issued the Dred Scott decision. Writing for the majority, Justice Taney stated the issue this way:

“The question is simply this: Can a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guarantied by that instrument to the citizen? One of which rights is the privilege of suing in a court of the United States in the cases specified in the Constitution....”

The court’s answer was, “no.” “Negroes,” cannot have rights under the constitution.

When President Barack Obama took the Oath of Office at his inauguration, he placed his hand on the same Bible used by Abraham Lincoln at his inauguration in 1861. The Lincoln Bible had not been used at an inauguration since that time. Ironically, the Chief Justice who administered the Oath to Lincoln was Roger Taney.

The Bible provides a symbolic connection to Lincoln, but it also gives a symbolic connection to Taney. And in that double connection, there is something that is profoundly and appropriately unsettling.

The battle over slavery was also a battle over the Bible. Lincoln, who was a deep theological thinker and a student of the Bible, was appalled that pro-slavery Christians believed that the biblical statements which accepted slavery as a fact of ancient life could be taken to mean that it was God’s intention that one race could hold another race in bondage. The literal texts supported the pro-slavery side, but the great sweep of the Bible and the over-arching themes of liberation and freedom said that slavery was a great moral wrong.

Do we piece together a Christian ethic by choosing a verse here and another there? Or do we look for a coherent argument that runs consistently through the great themes of the Bible?

Today the California Supreme Court is considering an appeal of Proposition Eight, the voter initiative that overturned a previous court decision that had made Gay Marriage legal. The appeal contends that the denial of rights in marriage is such a great change to the equal protections granted in the state constitution that it should be decided by a two-thirds vote of the legislature, rather than by 52% of the popular vote.

Behind the legal battle there is the biblical battle.

Do we collect the six passages that condemn homosexuality, and call that a Christian ethic? Or do we look at the great over-arching themes that run from beginning to end?

Monday, March 2, 2009

Honesty is such a lonely word

Honesty is such a lonely word.
Everyone is so untrue.
Honesty is hardly ever heard.
And mostly what I need from you.
Billy Joel

Last year a colleague lost his job because his preaching was not honest. We can argue for a long time about what is and isn’t “honest preaching,” and many of his parishioners actually felt he got a bad deal. But in the end, he had to leave.

There were two problems. One was that he was taking his sermons from the internet. The second problem was that he was telling other people’s stories as if they were his own. He would tell a moving story about visiting someone who was facing a terrible crisis as if he had experienced it first hand, when actually he had only read about it.

Such a small change. Instead of saying, “Another pastor was counseling with . . .,” he said, “I was counseling with . . . .” The story would still work. It would still make the same point. What is it that makes a person feel that he or she has to be at the center of it in order for the illustration to be valid?

I have thought about this often as I have followed the aftermath of Governor Bobby Jindal’s speech last week. He told a story of being with a sheriff in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, as the sheriff argued with a government official about sending out rescue boats:

During Katrina, I visited Sheriff Harry Lee, a Democrat and a good friend of mine. When I walked into his makeshift office, I'd never seen him so angry. He was yelling into the phone: "Well, I'm the Sheriff and if you don't like it you can come and arrest me!" I asked him: "Sheriff, what's got you so mad?" He told me that he had put out a call for volunteers to come with their boats to rescue people who were trapped on their rooftops by the floodwaters. The boats were all lined up ready to go, when some bureaucrat showed up and told them they couldn't go out on the water unless they had proof of insurance and registration. I told him, "Sheriff, that's ridiculous." And before I knew it, he was yelling into the phone: "Congressman Jindal is here, and he says you can come and arrest him too!" Harry just told the boaters to ignore the bureaucrats and go start rescuing people.

The problem, as you probably know, is that Mr. Jindal wasn’t there. The conversation with the sheriff is pure fiction. It did not take long for people to do some fact checking on the internet. Someone may have known the story was fiction before he finished the speech. While he was speaking folks were tapping and clicking their way to the truth.

What was he thinking? He could have told the story and let Sheriff Lee be the hero all by himself, but (apparently) he couldn’t resist putting himself at the center of the story.

Recently I had a lively argument with a friend about President Obama’s plans for economic recovery. We talked about everything from economic theory to New Testament ethics. But two things stand out in my memory.

First, he asked how we can have any confidence in a President who nominated tax evaders to his cabinet. Second, when the conversation went back through the Bush and Clinton presidencies, his bottom line on President Clinton was that he had lied about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

Dishonesty undermines everything else.

We can argue about who is more dishonest, or which form of lying is worse. Those discussions matter and the differences are real. But the bottom line is that my friend is right, dishonesty undermines everything else.

Which brings me back to preaching. In the end, the most important thing is telling the truth. More than a century ago, Phillips Brooks said that preaching is “truth through personality.” He was right.