Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Goldman Sachs and Greed

Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have lost their way and pierced themselves with many pains.
I Timothy 6:9-10

Commentators like to point out that the passage doesn’t say that “money is the root of all evil.” The problem is not money, but the love of money. In that line of thought one can have money, even lots of money, and pursue more money, without running afoul of the biblical injunction.

John Wesley saw that as a distinction without a difference. Wesley made a lot of money with his writing, but he gave it all away. His position was that people never have more money than they want to have, because they can always give it away. Our love of money may exceed what we have, but it can never be less.

Yesterday a Senate Committee interviewed executives from Goldman Sachs about the money they made in the financial collapse of 2008. Senators focused on a scheme Goldman used to market derivatives to clients while investing in the failure of those very same loans. Although the loans were highly rated, internal Goldman memos labeled them as “sh—ty.” And a highlight of the hearings was the spectacle of each senator repeating the naughty word as he or she posed questions to the utterly unrepentant executives who insisted they had done nothing wrong.

This is a story about money and the love of money. It is about the consequences of greed and what Wesley called "The Danger of Riches" (for more on Wesley's view, see the sermon by that title). It is a story with many villains and almost no heroes.

Over a decade ago, Brooksley Born, the woman who headed the Commodity Futures Trading Commission called for more oversight of derivative trading, but she was vigorously opposed (and silenced, for all practical purposes) by Alan Greenspan, Larry Summers, Robert Rubin, and a cast of thousands. Democrats and Republicans joined together in deregulation, the Federal Reserve cheered them on, and we won’t even talk about what the SEC was doing. As long as there was money to be made, no one wanted to worry about potential consequences.

Washington Gladden, the father of the Social Gospel, was concerned about the stock speculation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The growing gap between the rich and poor in “the gilded age” was an issue. He wanted the rights of workers protected, and he wanted them to have fair wages and safe working conditions. He held industrialists accountable for acting justly.

Gladden was against stock speculation for the same reason he was against gambling in general. He was convinced that it was not good for people to get something for nothing. And he worried that the prospect of getting something for nothing led many into “temptation” and “trapped” them in “many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.”

He could not have imagined the Goldman Sachs scenario, in which they found a way to get something for less than nothing. They bet against their own product and made money when it failed.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Eye Black and Bible Verses

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit a man or woman to gain the whole world and forfeit his or her life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?
Mark 8:34-37

The NCAA College Football Rules Committee met last week and instituted new rules to prevent concussions, reduce taunting, and ban messages on the black patches that players wear under their eyes to reduce glare.

In support of the ban on eye-black messages, columnist Bob Ryan spoke with surprising emotion when he declared, “I just don’t like being preached to by a certain left-handed quarterback.” The story I read came with a picture of Tim Tebow with one of the offending messages on his eye patches, “Mark 8:36”

In the New International Version that Tebow uses, that verse reads, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” In The Message, it reads, “What good would it do to gain everything you want and lose you, the real you?”

I am not one who believes that Tim Tebow walks on water. I don’t think he is a saint. And there are some issues of theology and Christian social ethics on which we would probably have vigorous disagreement. What I do believe is that he is a serious Christian who tries to be a faithful disciple of Jesus. And I’m guessing that when he thinks about that verse from Mark’s Gospel, he’s thinking about how it applies to his own life as he stands on the brink of even more fame and fortune, and the temptations that come with it.

The Bible verses are a witness of his faith. And maybe I give him too much credit, but I imagine that he is telling us what he is thinking about, rather than telling us what we ought to think. And I like the idea that there might be some folks who see the reference on the eye black and go looking for their Bibles to see what the verse is for that game.

In a larger sense, the story about the new rule juxtaposed to the picture of Tim Tebow with that particular verse, is profoundly ironic. When it comes to big time college athletics, the NCAA has sold its soul. They talk about student-athletes, but the bottom line is measured in dollars rather than diplomas. It has become a huge business, which makes billions of dollars for the colleges and their corporate “partners.” They have no problem with “The FedEx Orange Bowl,” or the “Tostitos Fiesta Bowl,” and they are glad to have people tune in to watch Tebow play in the “Allstate Sugar Bowl.” Just keep those Bible verses to yourself.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Tax Day Reflections

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
Matthew 22:15-22

For Jesus and his disciples, living in an occupied land, taxes were a sign of oppression and a sign of Caesar’s power over them. Compared to Jesus’ time, we live in tax heaven.

Our taxes, by contrast with the taxes in Jesus’ time, are determined by elected representatives. They are the result of a democratic process. The government is not a distant oppressor in Rome (or London). The government is us. We, the people, decide, together, how we will spend a portion of our common wealth to benefit our citizens. There is waste, of course. And there are programs we don’t like. But overall, it works pretty well. We have roads and schools. Our food is safe. Our bank deposits are protected. There are fire departments and police departments, and a vast system of national defense. And together we do the things that none of us could do by ourselves.

For the last half century our taxes have been going down, and thanks to the stimulus bill passed by Congress last year, 95% of us saw a tax decrease this year, although listening to the strident voices of protest you would think the opposite was the case.

The marginal tax rate, which is the highest rate paid by the wealthiest Americans on their next dollar, peaked in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s at about 90%. Interestingly, it was in the middle of the last century, at a time when tax rates were highest and regulation was tightest, that we enjoyed our greatest prosperity. It was in those years that the middle class enjoyed unprecedented growth and real family income made dramatic gains. Since the mid 70’s, almost all of the income gains have gone to the wealthiest Americans, while their share of the tax burden has steadily decreased.

Still, the income tax is the only progressive tax we have. Almost half of our families don’t pay any income tax at all. They do pay Social Security taxes, Medicare taxes, as well as sales and property taxes, etc. But the wealthy pay a significant percent of the total income taxes collected. As Jesus said, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” That’s not a bad thing.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Rich Really Are Different

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, 19thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.
I Timothy 6:17-19

"Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different."
F. Scott Fitzgerald, from a short story called “Rich Boy”

There is an apocryphal story in which Fitzgerald is quoted as telling Ernest Hemingway, that “the rich are different from you and me,” and Hemingway responds, “Yes, they have more money.”

In truth, Fitzgerald seems to have a much more critical view of the rich. If his criticism never reached the pointed judgments of the Hebrew prophets or the Gospels, or Timothy or James, it was far from the fawning deference often attributed to him.

Last week, when Robert Rubin and Chuck Prince testified before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission we learned that one way in which at least some of the rich are different from the rest of us is that apparently they don’t have to do any real work in order to get paid vast sums of money. And they don’t share in the risks of failure.

Prince is the former CEO of Citigroup and Rubin, who was Treasury Secretary in the Clinton administration, chaired the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors.

Prince began his testimony by departing from his prepared remarks to offer this apology: “I’m sorry the financial crisis has had such a devastating impact for our country. I’m sorry about the millions of people, average Americans, who lost their homes. And I’m sorry that our management teams, starting with me, like so many others could not see the unprecedented market collapse that lay before us.” He did not really accept any of the blame, but at least he was sorry for the result.

Mr. Rubin’s position was remarkable in that he seemed to deny having anything to do with the situation. He was sorry, of course, but he had not been in a position to do anything about it. He said that although he chaired the Executive Committee of the Board, they met infrequently and (apparently) didn’t do much. In spite of the fact that he was paid $15,000,000 per year for his service, he said that his contract specifically stated that he had no day to day responsibilities.

So it’s not his fault. They paid him $15 million per year to do nothing. People have lost their homes and their jobs in the worst economic crisis since the great depression, and the people who led us over the cliff are well protected from the effects of our fall.

The rich really are different from you and me.

Monday, April 12, 2010


Enjoy the wife you married as a young man!
lovely as a an angel, beautiful as a rose—
don’t ever stop taking delight in her body.
Never take her love for granted!
Why would you trade enduring intimacies for cheap thrills with a whore?
for dalliance with a promiscuous stranger?
Proverbs 5:17-20 (The Message)

I am not a golfer, or even a golf fan. But I was glad that Phil Mickelson won the Master’s yesterday. If it was a not a triumph of good over evil, it was at least a triumph of normal over bizarre. Phil’s support of his wife in her battle with breast cancer has been in sharp contrast with Tiger’s dalliances.

Phil took time off to be with his wife and family. Tiger took time off to go to a rehab clinic for sex addicts. Tiger announced his progress in rehab and his intentions to come back at carefully orchestrated news conferences and controlled interviews. Phil just came back.

A few weeks ago I commented on Tiger’s news conference. I said then, and I still believe, that he has gone farther than many other wayward celebrities in taking responsibility for his behavior. I believe he was sincere, but that does not mean I am certain that the sincerity of that moment will stay with him over the months and years ahead. Only time will tell how he chooses to live his life.

We want our sports heroes to be virtuous as well as successful. We want them to succeed because of their character. And we are disappointed when they do not live up to the ideals we have projected for them.

If Phil Mickelson is not the good guy in this, he is at least the ordinary guy, the normal guy, the guy who did what guys are supposed to do.

That’s something to celebrate.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Truth and Ideology

Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”
John 18:37-38a

Love is, as Paul said, “the greatest of these.” But Truth is not far behind. For Christians, there is not much in life that is more important than truth. We believe in seeking the truth and testifying to it. We believe that truth sets us free.

Mark Twain said, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” But for Christians, it goes beyond the practical “truth” that honesty is the best policy. Truth is sacred. And the quest for truth is holy.

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about “Racism and Shame.” It was about the harassment of African American legislators as they walked into the Capitol to vote on Health Care Reform. I reported what I had read in several new articles in print and on line, that some protestors had shouted “the N-word” and one had spit on Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, who is also an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church. I concluded by saying that those incidents tell me that “there are some people who have no sense of shame.”

A friend commented on the blog, asking, “What if it never happened?” and offered a link to an editorial in The Washington Times which took that very position. In fact, the Times writer argued, the real offense was committed by those who claimed racism when none existed.

It was a troubling possibility. I rechecked the news reports. I reread the statement by Representative Cleaver’s office. I also reviewed the indisputable evidence of the anti-gay slurs directed at Representative Barney Frank. I concluded that it was unlikely for so many people to have been mistaken.

Fox News took the position that it had never happened, and repeated it relentlessly. There was, they said, no video evidence that any racial epithets had been shouted. And the Capitol Police had reported that no one had been arrested in the spitting incident.

The following Sunday evening, March 28, on CNN Candy Crowley took up the controversy. She could not verify the shouting of racial epithets, but she had video of the spitting incident. It was, she said, definitive. (I have a VERY small TV and I don’t have HD, so her view was better than mine. But this is what I could see on my tiny screen.) The tape showed people shouting as the representatives walked through the crowd. Then it showed a man leaning forward, with his hands around his mouth (skeptics will ask if he was just shouting. Again, I was watching a small screen.). We saw Representative Cleaver react suddenly and turn toward the man and say something. Then as he turned back and walked up the steps, he wiped the side of his face. Ms. Crowley said that Capitol police confirmed that they had detained the alleged spitter, but had not arrested him because Representative Cleaver declined to press charges.

Honestly, I thought that would be the end of it. I did not hold my breath waiting for an apology from the Washington Times or anyone else, but I thought it would be the end of commentators saying that it had not happened.


Truth has become ideological.

The people who said it never happened before CNN produced the video evidence continue to say that it never happened. For them, there is no doubt. They don’t refute Ms. Crowley’s report. They simply ignore it. And given the vast resources of TV programs, we can be certain they have people watching every nano-second of every competitor’s programming. It’s not that they don’t know about it.

Christians have to care about the truth.

We are called to see the world through a biblical lens. We are called to see the world as Jesus saw it, from the perspective of those who are weakest and most vulnerable. We are not, and we cannot be, disinterested observers. We have a rooting interest on behalf of social and economic justice. And we need to be rigorous in discussing and debating how to live that out.

But truth is the foundation of moral discourse and the bed rock of Christian Social Ethics. We have to seek truth, in science, and history, and in every aspect of our lives. Each of us sees the world from our own perspective, and that perspective is colored by race and class and environment. We can never be completely neutral observers. But we need to try.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Right to Health Care

You don’t build up the weak ones;
don’t heal the sick, don’t doctor the injured,
don’t go after the strays,
don’t look for the lost.
You bully and badger them.
Ezekiel 34:4 (The Message)

With those stern words, the Prophet Ezekiel condemns the leaders of Israel for not being good shepherds and caring for the weakest and most vulnerable among them. It is just one of countless passages in which the Bible calls us to care for one another.

In our Social Principles, the United Methodist Church states simply, “Health care is a basic human right.” The statement is found in paragraph #162 of the 2008 Book of Discipline. And the Methodist Church has held that same basic position since at least 1996.

(Those who know me may think that me quoting the Discipline is like the devil quoting scripture. Over the years I have tended to be more vocal about the Disciplinary passages with which I disagree, but the truth is that I agree with more than 99% of everything in the Discipline. My disagreements are confined to probably less than two pages of text in a 781 page document.)

Not all United Methodists agree with our statement in the Discipline, and there are probably some United Methodists who agree with the statement and still do not support the current Health Care Reform bill. Certainly there were UM Representatives and Senators on both sides of the issue. Through our General Board of Church and Society, we have advocated for a single payer option, and the current legislation does not go that far.

The statement in the Social Principles is not the last word on the issue, but it does express a fundamentally Christian approach, and it gives a very helpful perspective to the debate. The entire statement is printed below.

Health is a condition of physical, mental, social, and spiritual well-being. John 10:10b says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Stewardship of health is the responsibility of each person to whom health has been entrusted. Creating the personal, environmental, and social conditions in which health can thrive is a joint responsibility—public and private. We encourage individuals to pursue a healthy lifestyle and affirm the importance of preventive health care, health education, environmental and occupational safety, good nutrition, and secure housing in achieving health. Health care is a basic human right.

Providing the care needed to maintain health, prevent disease, and restore health after injury or illness is a responsibility each person owes others and government owes to all, a responsibility government ignores at its peril. In Ezekiel 34:4a, God points out the failures of the leadership of Israel to care for the weak:

“You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured.”

As a result all suffer. Like police and fire protection, health care is best funded through the government’s ability to tax each person equitably and directly fund the provider entities. Countries facing a public health crisis such as HIV/AIDS must have access to generic medicines and to patented medicines. We affirm the right of men and women to have access to comprehensive reproductive health/family planning information and services that will serve as a means to prevent unplanned pregnancies, reduce abortions, and prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. The right to health care includes care for persons with brain diseases, neurological conditions, or physical disabilities, who must be afforded the same access to health care as all other persons in our communities. It is unjust to construct or perpetuate barriers to physical or mental wholeness or full participation in community.

We believe it is a governmental responsibility to provide all citizens with health care.