Business As Usual? We Hope Not

The big news of the day, other than the Republican primary campaign and the spin placed upon the Santorum victories in Alabama and Mississippi, has to revolve around the resignation letter of Greg Smith from the financial firm Goldman Sachs. Coming on the heals of a report stating that approximately 70% of the requirements of the Dodd-Franks Act aimed at cleaning up Wall Street have been unmet, the nature is Smith’s letter gives credence to the notion that little if anything has changed in the corner offices of New York’s financial district.

Smith resigned via an open letter placed in the New York Times, which has to rank this as one of the all-time greatest examples of bridge-burning. Here is a portion of his letter:

<emAnd he opines that when he joined the company, the working culture revolved around “teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and doing right by our clients”.

He says: “The culture was the secret sauce that made this place great and allowed us to earn our clients’ trust for 143 years … I am sad to say that I look around today and see virtually no trace of the culture that made me love working for this firm for many years.

“… These days, the most common question I get from junior analysts about derivatives is, ‘How much money did we make off the client?’ It bothers me every time I hear it, because it is a clear reflection of what they are observing from their leaders about the way they should behave.

“Now project 10 years into the future: You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the junior analyst sitting quietly in the corner of the room hearing about ‘muppets’, ‘ripping eyeballs out’ and ‘getting paid’ doesn’t exactly turn into a model citizen.”

The question of how widely spread the attitudes Smith exposes really are will undoubtedly be the topic of conversations in many places, with executives rushing to distance their own firms from any such practices or corporate philosophies. Goldman Sachs, of course, is doing everything possible along the damage control front. I’m not in a position to know the extent of what really happens in such offices. Few people are. Yet what happens has a significant effect on how the rest of us will live, in that the national and global economies are dependent on what happens in those corner offices. Is profit the only motive for decisions, or is public interest anywhere in the equation?

On one level, this might be a topic best left to the experts in finance and economics; that’s a position for which I do not qualify, since my experience therein is limited to managing some of the investments made by a very small bank for a short period of time (a long time ago). Why bother with it when there is little we can can do about it? On the other hand, we can at least use this as a lens through which we peer into the soul of a culture—not just the financial culture, but our entire western, specifically American culture. And the view isn’t pleasant.

I doubt that the people alluded to by Smith are all that different from the majority of folks. They’ve been brought to this point in their lives by the same values and attitudes that have been carrying the culture, many of which are the inevitable result of a morally destitute worldview. The culture that doesn’t know anything for sure except a badly skewed idea of tolerance and diversity will have a hard time producing leaders in any segment of the business world, political world, or entertainment world who have a true (no, really, I mean ‘true’) sense of the interests of others at the center. What the Smith letter frighteningly reveals is that not even when our own interests in the long-term will be jeopardized by ignoring others in the short-term are some folks capable of doing what is right.

I also suspect that there may be an underlying fear among those who take what they can take now. It is the fear of someday not having enough and not having the opportunity to obtain it. And this may well be an indicator of the lack of hope that lies at the core of the culture without grounding in truth. Hope. Where can it be found? When we yield the ground of truth, hope cannot be anything more than wishful thinking—and that’s not a very convincing resource to take with us into the battle we all have against the temptation to accumulate for ourselves at the expense of others.

On Being Nice and Being Right

Where have all the nice guys and gals gone? They seem to have disappeared. At one time it was not necessarily a compliment to refer to someone in such terms; it was the sort of thing one might say about someone who was not distinguished in any way, but had also managed to avoid giving any particular offense. The result is a nice, as in unremarkable, person. But how often do we hear of someone being admiringly referred to as a nice person, one whose manner of being is such that it stands out for its consideration of others, its unrelenting search for something good to say about a person others would just as soon dismiss? It’s the sort of person U2 sings about: “Grace finds goodness in everything.”

They certainly are not found on tv, though once they were. For all of the bashing 1950s and early 60s shows have taken, there were nice people on virtually all of them, from June Cleaver to Ben Cartwright. See any of them on “Desperate Housewives”? Even the main characters of today’s shows always seem to have an edge about them, one that encourages us from getting too close because of a dangerous personality quirk or thinly veiled troubled past. Nice people are harder to find, maybe because we have this tendency to prove the flaws in anyone presented as a candidate for the title. It’s almost as though one should apologize for being referred to as such, hastening to point out the flaws which disqualify them from holding it. And we all know what happens to good guys in politics. Where do we turn to find lawmakers like Senators Simon and Brooks these days? It’s little wonder that scoring points with the cameras and microphones counts far less than compromising and actually legislating. Woe be to the candidate who doesn’t have swarms of operatives digging up dirt and innuendo on his or her opponent. Again, soundness of positions and proposals is secondary.

Maybe we can find the nice people in the churches of our land. And, indeed, there are many there who might fit the description. Yet I sense that many of them are so in spite of, not because of the leadership of many of our more prominent spokespersons and influence peddlers. In what might be termed the power centers of many a Christian movement or organization, the need to distinguish one’s interpretation, goal, or cause from the plethora of similar ones provides powerful temptation to leave behind the thought that Jesus might want us to actually consider kindness, gentleness, and peace as qualities worth cultivating. Some of the same sort of dirt-digging which we despise in politics happens in churches that need to point out all the obvious errors of others, leaving the listener to conclude that only here will the truth be found.

Don’t misunderstand. Niceness is insufficient for the furtherance of the gospel and its leavening effect in a culture and its call to a rather broken world to seek wholeness in Christ. Niceness in itself does not redeem. There is a real Christ among the various and variously limited presentations of his nature and his continuing ministry in the world; and we should be diligently seeking the real thing. But I suspect rather strongly that this real thing is found equally in the doing as in the seeking. In other words, we cannot—absolutely cannot—get the right answer without being concerned about “doing” the very kind of life He told us to live. And most of us would do well to begin that with a simple commitment to be nice in a very unkind world. Maybe someone might actually ask us what’s up with that; and we’ll be able to tell them what we think is right.

Saturday’s Stray Thoughts

A return to a subjects old and a testing of subjects new. Let me know if the latter our of interest as future post topics.

To start this edition I am drawing attention to a subject to which I am likely to return—the story out of England that raised again the idea that ending the life of newborns is just as acceptable as ending the lives via abortion. The twist is that this is not a pro-life position, but one that acknowledges what prolifers have said all along, with every scientific argument on their side: prenatal life is human life. A segment of those who support legal abortion now agree; but the argument turns on the personhood rather than on humanity of the fetus/child. The critical issue to which we absolutely must give attention here is that personhood cannot be scientifically but only philosophically established. And the nature of the reigning philosophy can take us in a number of directions, some of which are reminiscent of a certain twentieth century movement in Germany or another in Russia. Stay tuned.

Since I’ve made reference to the presidential campaign in previous stray thoughts, I’ll simply observe here that there isn’t a lot of reason to get excited about the Republican candidates. I am trying, however, to make sense of Mrs. Romney’s comment early in the week that she doesn’t think of herself as rich. Now that is certainly a statement over which Democratic strategists are salivating. But the context of the statement was one in which she continued by saying that her riches were in her family, relationships, and other non-material goods. I wonder whether that will do. On one hand we would certainly agree that these goods and values are a better measure of anyone’s possession of the good things in life; on the other, does not the possession of so much monetary wealth as the family undeniably holds come with a responsibility of recognizing and acknowledging the privileged status it provides? Whatever its source, wealth does give tremendous advantage in terms of whether one’s voice is heard and one’s overall interests are protected. These privileges can be borne well or poorly. But pretending they do not matter is darn close to arrogance.

It seems apologizing is becoming one of the necessary practices of life. Fair enough; it should be practiced as often as it is called for in one’s personal life as an expression of both one’s humility and of the other person’s humanity. I’m not so sure, however, about public apologies being demanded for offenses real and imagined, most of which had nothing to do with the intent or knowledge of the alleged perpetrator. Sometimes it is asked for by groups one might not even be aware of, whose symbols and beliefs are therefore unknowable. Or we are asked to apologize for something done generations ago by people to whom we have only the faintest connection to. That seems meaningless. It’s not that there is nothing to do about those things which have resulted in injury and injustice; when these things come to our attention we should seek to correct them for the people now living, lament the difficulties brought upon previous generations, and work for the redemption of what is now redeemable. I raise this because of the increasingly divided and divisive culture we now live in, according to which self-definition is the prize. When self-definition turns on the identifying of “the other” there will always be new things to apologize for when we find ourselves in the role of that other.

Just when it was seemed safe to allow the Jerry Sandusky case to be just that, and not a story about his former boss, the governor of the commonwealth renews the charge that the now-deceased boss in question should have done more to pursue the case. Let’s get this straight: a man who was not a material witness to a crime, had only incomplete, second-hand knowledge of an incident which, according to what he was told, might or might not have been criminal behavior, directed the witness to go to the authorities with his information—this man is said by the attorney general, whose office had knowledge of the allegations and responsibility for prosecuting the same, to not have done enough to pursue the case. So if Joe Paterno had done what might have been construed as interfering with an on-going investigation, then maybe Tom Corbitt would have done what was already his job. Okay, got it. What is totally incomprehensible is why Corbitt feels the need to raise this yet again. The tributes to Paterno and his character, care, and investment in the lives of people appeared yet again in “The Penn Stater”, the alumni association publication. Coincidence? Probably not. One thing is certain. When Corbitt leaves this earth there will not be the kind of remembrances and outpouring of love and respect from thousands of lives as we continue to witness for the former coach. Yeah, this last thought is given in some measure of anger.

I’ll have to work on that.

Something more positive to close. I attended a session of the state high school wrestling championships this week, in support of a friend whose son was competing. When I met this boy a few years ago as interim pastor of his congregation he was a somewhat skinny kid, not terribly imposing or vocal. Now in the state championships, with the body one would expect of a competitor in this arena; but also with a desire to continue his education toward ministry. That’s good stuff. And even better is the investment made by his family in shaping and directing him; by caring coaches and mentors along the way; and by the almost countless number of people who volunteer or receive minimal remuneration for their time and efforts to make such events possible. We need these things and these people. Oh, you might want to remind the governor of this.

Atheistic Biblicism?

Anyone watching news from Harrisburg, Pa., has undoubtedly come across a recent flap over a billboard sponsored by a group of atheists and unbelievers (I’ll let them quibble over the difference). The billboard, placed in a predominantly African-American community, consisted of Negro (the word being used at the time supposedly represented) in neck shackles, above which were the words, “Slaves, Obey your Masters. Col. 3:22.”

The ad was in response to the Pennsylvania legislature’s declaration of 2012 as The Year of the Bible, something about which this blog commented a few weeks ago. The intent of the prominent sign was to show that the Bible is in fact an evil book, one which is totally inappropriate for the dignity granted by the legislature. There are a couple of additional posts which come to mind, one dealing with stupidity and several dealing with the issue of biblicism. As to the former, the working definition was “poor reasoning, entrenched mental habits and unexamined assumptions.” The reader may draw her or his own conclusions as to whom the label may apply; I’ll draw mine. As to the latter, however, there is little doubt that the atheist responsible for the choice of messages was doing just what too many Christians have done for far too long: using a non-contextual verse or phrase as the entirety of what “biblical” teaching is on a given subject.

The ad seems to have backfired, though they have promised to give us more of the same. It backfired for a couple of reasons. First of all, it failed the sensitivity test. The persons in charge had no understanding of the people who would have to look at this billboard, thinking nothing of how deeply the very image was to them, as it has been for several generations. Compounding this failure of discernment, however, is the fact that many of these same people are devout Christians. While the intent was to show them from the Bible that Christianity was inherently contrary to their own interests and well-being, the opposite happened. The believers in the community know their Bible better than that; and more than that, they know the purpose of the Bible better than that.

The purpose of the Bible is Jesus the Christ; Jesus, the Liberator; Jesus, who frees from oppression that goes even beyond the horrors of slavery and relegation to second-class status; Jesus, the one who gives hope, a commodity never delivered on by any form of atheism, in spite of the false inspiration of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” And the irony is that they know it better than most White American Christians, who rightly or wrongly are associated with those who use the very verse in question as the devil’s justification of nineteenth century slavery. And, by the way, that form of brutal slavery had very little in common with the practices of the first century world in which the words of Paul were offered. In that context, servants were far more like household helpers, with their families being considered the responsibility of the homeowner. Some were well treated and loved; some were not—just as employees experience in different work settings through the ages. But none were treated the way all too many plantation owners treated those whom they bought and sold.

I am curious to see the promised future ads from the atheists and unbelievers; maybe some of them will last more than the one-day run of the billboard in Harrisburg. I do hope they’ll be better reasoned and more worthy of debate. This one was just plain stupid.

Sometimes “Thanks” Isn’t Enough

Giving thanks for good things received is a good practice to establish. It recognizes that one is dependent upon the efforts, gifts, and sacrifices of others; it builds the soul by accepting the fact that we need other people, humbling ourselves in the process. Saying thanks says we cannot repay everything done for us. It grants value and dignity to the one who has given or acted on our behalf. One memory I’ll always have goes back to my college days at Penn State, where I was running across the campus, taking every conceivable short-cut in order to arrive at Rec Hall by tip-off time for a basketball game. My route took me through a building where the door was being approached by a female student supporting herself with braced crutches. She stopped—and held the door for me. That was humbling indeed, and I had to stop long enough to give thanks. Not nearly long enough.

Today I pause from the theological, philosophical and sometimes political ideas generally filling this page. I do so to say thanks, knowing it isn’t nearly enough to scratch the surface of the debt. Today my parents, Eugene and Elsie, celebrate their 63rd wedding anniversary. Sixty-three. Yes, I know it isn’t any kind of record, but it is noteworthy nonetheless; and I write this not only in their honor, but in honor of all other couples of similar standing, whose contributions to the communities we live in will not be accounted by donations or inscribed on memorials. Instead, they will be found, for those who take the time and care to look, in the fabric of communities themselves. They are the ones who did not take the easy way out, who thought their children’s success to be worthy of every sacrifice they needed to make, whose investments consisted of love, care, character, and faith.

We seriously undervalue the models of marriage in the culture. In the church, we look (in true biblicist fashion) for the perfect scriptural definitions and guidance to create Christian marriages. We overlook how much this ignores what actually is given in terms of the few marriages of which we get a glimpse in the Bible itself. Do we really want to use Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Leah and Rebecca, or maybe Judah and—oh, wait, that was his daughter-in-law, or David and . . . as our models? Do we realize that virtually every instance of a “real” family in the Bible was an instance we would immediately recognize as dysfunctional? But we do gain insight into how to do it better from scripture; not just the text of scripture, however, but from them only as the principles are inculcated into a real husband and wife, raising real kids with real challenges. Challenges like serious illness, even death; challenges like loss of work, growing desires of the children to do more things in more places, dangers of wrong associations, balancing school, church, social and other legitimate demands.

That’s what it was like for my parents. I have three brothers, and three sisters, one of whom was lost to us at the age of seven after a short, excruciating illness. The one thing we never lost sight of, in spite of anything and everything life threw at us, was faith. Not words of faith, but the real thing expressed in all the little things—such as the little stacks of coins we would each be given to contribute to different offerings to be received at church, all lined up on a table for us as we headed for the door, ready to pile into the car (before seat belts and most other standard safety measures we are all well accustomed to now) for another trip to the country church in Hosensack.

Neither Mom nor Dad had an opportunity to go to college. They did, however, value our education, even though the income was insufficient to provide the funds for us to attend. Yet all of us did receive some sort of post-secondary education. The influence spread by their children and grandchildren is quite far-reaching considering their humble beginnings as age nineteen, when vows were exchanged. A pastor, two teachers, a professor, and business owner, and a commercial artist among the children. The next generation is well underway in similar pursuits. The number of people touched through them is staggering, and does not include the many other lives that have passed through that little country church since we all moved on.

I just want to say thanks. And I ant to encourage anyone who reads this to consider making the uplifting and recognition of all like my parents, who quietly, yet faithfully, make it possible for others to believe that God really does do things with people who trust Him.

Time to Finalize the Divorce?

I know, it’s a radical suggestion. And it is fraught with difficult side issues and entanglements which make it a hazardous direction by any account. Children, inheritance, estates, custody, property, visitation rights, medical guardianship, and probably a lot of other matters would have to be accounted for. But maybe it’s time to begin the conversation (one which has in fact already begun in some circles).

The divorce I am thinking of is not one between two people, but between the church and the state as that relationship pertains to the legalization of marriage. Is it time for the church to have nothing further to do with what state-sanctioned marriage proceedings? Neither the state nor the broader culture seem to have little knowledge of and even less concern for what Christian marriage is; and maybe it is time for the church to claim its ground, at least among its own people. This idea is, to be sure, prompted by the news this week that Maryland has become the eighth state to legalize marriage between same-sex partners. There is little short of divine intervention that will keep that number from growing rapidly in short order.

On one hand, it is perhaps of little concern to those who do not walk in this way; no one says a person must marry one of the same sex. But on the other, it may well come about soon that anyone authorized by the state to legally sanction any marriage may be required to do so for whatever is declared by the state to be a marriage; and that will have ever more fading resemblances to Christian marriage. Odd, isn’t it? A rapidly increasing number of heterosexual couples eschews marriage for simple, convenient co-habitation, while same-sex couples want increasingly to opt in to what is by all accounts a fading institution. And on the other side of the courthouse, where marriages are legally de-sanctioned via divorce, we have mountainous evidence that the permanence assumed by Christians to be part of the substance of marriage is a sham at best and a rejected idea at worst.

It is enticing to say that Christian churches should have their own ceremonies, independent of the state, whose legal recognition a couple could seek independently if they wish. It is no longer a matter significantly noted by the community that a couple living in the neighborhood is or is not legally married. Such a drastic step should only be taken, however, after a thorough teaching of the ontology of marriage. Yes, that’s a philosophical term. It refers to the belief that marriage is not a nominal matter—something that only exists because we have given a name to it, a name with which we can interchange shapes and meanings. Instead, we believe it to be grounded in God and revealed to us through general as well as special revelation. The latter is plainly given in the earliest portions of the Bible, continuously reaffirmed throughout its unfolding story; the former is witnessed to by the virtual universality of male-female marriage through all manner of cultures, notwithstanding the many differences in roles and expectations. If there is an ontological reality to marriage, we can call something else by the name all we want; it does not make it so.

Perhaps there are good and sufficient reasons for the state to grant legal recognition to unions of same-sex persons. I am not fully convinced, particularly in light of the diminishing respect for marriage among the general population. But there are good reasons for Christians in particular to distinguish these from holy matrimony.

These thoughts are just beginning to gain some traction in my own thinking; I’m not sure where they will end up. What are your thoughts?