Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Credit Crisis: A Proper Penance

The New York Times published on Monday a lengthy look into the innerworkings of Washington Mutual (WaMu), one the the banking institutions at the epicenter of the recent financial earthquake. See
"Saying Yes, WaMu Built Empire on Shaky Loans"
. It's the most revealing peek I've yet seen into how our current credit crisis came to pass. In it, a number of (mostly former) WaMu employees tell the story, and (assuming the stories and this report are reasonably accurate) it's clear that the excesses at WaMu, anyway, were the result of policy. Wholesale giveaways of loan money to those who could not possibly repay it, and the subsequent sales of those bad loans as "securities" to unsuspecting investors was dictated by those at the top eschelons of the company's management structure. Board Chairman Kerry K. Killinger is credited as the chief culprit, and he alone reportedly took home millions of dollars while his bank careened toward insolvency. The evidence is that management teams at similar banks took a similar path, and pocketed billions.

No doubt there are those who think Killinger and other banking institution top kicks who encouraged (and in the WaMu case, at least, demanded) that underlings flout ethical propriety for pernicious profit should be arrested, tried and jailed. That they certainly might deserve such an end will not be debated here. But I'd like to suggest that there are a couple of things wrong with that scenario from a Christian perspective. First, while their cases are adjudicated, many these execs and ex-execs will almost certainly spend large portions of their ill-gotten fortunes on costly legal defenses (one need only remember that former Qwest CEO Joe Nacchio's case is still in the court system, after years of legal wrangling, while he apparently enjoys life relatively free on bond). Second, Killinger and his ilk could not have plundered the housing market without the aid of the thousands of employees who processed the loans and looked the other way, many collecting bonuses and other albeit lesser financial rewards. Keep in mind, there was not a single whistleblower among them. This debacle is not the fault of a few, but of many — including the house hunters who willing went along with real estate agents and mortgage lenders who fed WaMu and other banks loan applications that were preposterous fabrications. If Killinger is to be tried for a crime, should they not be tried as accomplices?

The Pharisee in me would no doubt be pleased to see all get the penalty for their greed. I can feel that rising tide of self-righteousness every time I think about it. As one of my friends recently remarked, America is getting a spanking which it deserves. And that's quite true.

That said, nothing — least of all, justice — will be served simply by jailing anyone. That returns no money to investors. And it does nothing to remedy the ills the perpetrators have brought on themselves and others throughout the world. No less disconcerting is the fact that imprisoning credit-crisis offenders will swell the ranks of a prison population that already strains impossibly overlarge local, state and federal budgets. Justice, it seems to me, would be better served by something a bit more pragmatic.

The Biblical remedy for theft (and theft is most surely what this is, if we're honest) is restitution. Killinger and his lending institution comrades, should put what remains of their millions in escrow, and that money should be made available to investors who have a claim that is affirmed in a court of law. Why would he want to do that? Maybe he'll need to be offered a choice: restitution or the inevitable loss of your freedom and fortune after a long bout in court. Mr. Killinger and other ex-execs have one thing we need: management acumen. They built illegal edifices, maybe, but they built them, nonetheless. Why should we not reemploy them as carefully supervised advisors, at a reasonable wage (with a large portion garnished to pay what they owe) of the army of people it will take to sort out, reclaim and repay money that belongs to investors, giving priority to those who are least able to recover on their own? And helping to reconfigure bad loans, in hopes of preventing further foreclosures. There's a public works project Mr. Obama could create. They also could provide extremely detailed testimony about how and why the excesses occurred, giving regulators background information as they propose new rules and more potent safeguards to prevent further banking-system breakdowns. (One caveat, however: Congress should pass a law immediately to limit the fees lawyers can collect on such claims. Surely what we've learned about the absolute bankruptcy of greed should now constrain us from encouraging a feeding frenzy by lawyers.)

This idea may seem like a stretch, but it is, instead, a time-honored and very successful strategy for dealing with solcalled "white-collar" crime. The popular movie "Catch Me If You Can" chronicled the criminal exploits of a master forger who later lent his considerable expertise (rather than languish in prison) to the FBI in its efforts to combat check and document forgery. And that company you buy your virus software from to protect your PC? Many of the people who supervise those who write the code that now protects you once wrote the code that crashed your hard drive. (In fact, the police have been known to employ, as "snitches," low-level criminals who aren't in the white-color class, allowing them to continue their relatively modest criminal activities, in order to maintain and information pipeline to the bigger fish who far more seriously threaten society.)

The bank managers (high and low) who got loan applicants, lending institutions and investors into this fix should be offered (and strongly encouraged to take, as noted above) the opportunity to help them get out.

Public policy less concerned about punishment and more concerned about prevention and preservation of proper economic practice could go a long way toward repairing the damage done. And for those who willingly turned their talents from plundering the system to rescuing it, it could be a fitting penance.

Studies Show Greater Self-Control in "Religious" People

There is apparently a large and growing body of social scientific evidence, in the form of numerous studies conducted over several decades, that indicates that "religious" people tend to have more self-control than those who aren't religious. This New York Times article dated today,
"For Good Self-Control, Try Getting Religious About It"
, goes on to say that the greater self control is exhibited not by those who belong to religious organizations for social or cultural reasons, but only by those who truly believe in the tenets of the religion. (To read the article, you might have to sign up for the free online subscription to get it if you don't already have one. I did; not sorry I did.)

Definitely an interesting read.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Inaugural Controversy

I've watched with great interest and growing respect as President-elect Barack Obama and Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren have entered into a conversation, risking much by doing so. Obama, clearly supportive of gay and lesbian political aims, nevertheless went to Warren's church, to answer cordial but not untough questions in a very public forum. Warren's place in the Inauguration festivities, as a result, has enraged gay and lesbian rights groups. Obama has, thus far, withstood intense heat from those committed to inclusion, who insist that Warren should be excluded. Meanwhile, Warren's support of civil union, but not marriage, between gay and lesbian couples has dismayed both friend and foe, going much too far for the one and not nearly far enough for the other.

This surprises us. It's unprecedented. But the fact that we find it so odd is a measure of how far we have strayed from the Gospel. Both of these men claim to be Christian. Both claim allegiance to the same God and both have confessed allegiance to the same Jesus. We analyze the statements each make, applying litmus tests, looking for the right buzz words, shaking our heads if each does not say our "holy words" just exactly the way we like to hear them. (On that note, I confess to some doubts about Mr. Obama's confession of faith. I also confess to doubts about Warren's megachurch empire — I've never been a fan of religious empires and tend to distrust organized religion in general). But regardless of my (our) personal misgivings, these men — two men of like and unlike faith — have each refused before the world to disown the other. And in this, do they not embrace Christ's command?

How can we miss that? To engage with rather than to retreat from the "unclean" was Jesus' mission. A mission for which he was roundly criticized by the self-righteous of his day. And, we can't afford to forget, its a mission he handed off to us and commanded us to continue.

Skeptics dismiss Obama's and Warren's attempt to reach across the abyss of human alienation to those with whom they significantly disagree as publicity stunts. But its hard to believe it's merely that. Both are under fire from all quarters. Neither will see any political profit from Warren's prayer of invocation on Jan 20. Worse, each will be judged by many for what appears to be lack of commitment to the truth. But I would suggest that it is their mutual commitment to truth that has brought them together.

I have to put my hope in such audacious, fragile acts as these, for in them any hope we have as a nation is embodied. Those who rage at it, from right or left, attempt to hold hope hostage. Love, however flawed, must carry the day or, ultimately, the hate-mongers win and the Truth has died in vain.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Incarnation Day

The descendant of a shepherd king,
To shepherds on the hills did sing
The host of angels, near the little town

To lowly Bethlehem they ran
and through a stable door
and in to see the Savior's clan —
a family but poor!

The child abed on straw and fed
amid the foals and fodder
would he slow tread the hills and spread
good news of living water?

The master of the stars that ring
The heavens did each magi/king
haste to follow as the Eastern Star came down

To lowly Bethlehem they rode
and through a stable door
in what was not a King's abode,
An infant to adore.

The child abed on straw and fed
amid the cold and cattle,
stirred wild hatred — King Herod's dread —
and here began the battle!

"What child is this?" the choirs since sing
Why born so low, to us to bring
the message that he came to claim the Crown?

In lowly Bethlehem, God came
behind that stable door
Perfection took a human name
became what we deplore

The child abed on straw and fed
amid the farms of Ephratha
Gold crown he shed for thorns instead
on a trail that would end at Golgotha

When we to Nativity do cling
We miss or lose the "Lamb of God" thing:
True God, true man he turns all upside down

In lowly Bethlehem, he's born
of heavenly power and glory, shorn
our thoughts, our pain, our skin, he's worn
behind that stable door

The child abed on straw and fed
like His sheep all gone astray
is the Man we've fled, Shepherd King we dread
When we sheep continue to stray
When we wander from The Way
When we forget the dreadful Day
when we'll stand face-to-face before Him.

When the creator
who became the created
who identified with our lost cause
Asks: Have you loved as I've loved?

Will we have embraced our own stable
or strode out the door
seeking glory and greatness
and become truly poor?

Or will we have followed Him meekly
From Ephratha to Golgotha
Seeking sheep that continue to stray:
Answering kindly to harsh words they may say
Touching "lepers" — not, in fear, run away —
Not insisting on black/white for every grey
Loving e'en those who reject the Way
serving all, friend or foe, till that Day
When we all come weakly before Him
With no plea but "mercy," before Him
With no hope but His favor, before Him
who in our Manger once lay?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Called Out of Darkness

This book, by former vampire-series author Anne Rice (Interview with the Vampire and a number of others, several of which became hit Hollywood movies) chronicles Rice's journey from faithful Catholic in New Orleans' dense and ultra-conservative 1950s Catholic enclave to radical Berkeley-educated atheist intellectual to a devout, albeit socio-politically-at-odds return to faith. It should be an illuminating read for disaffected evangelicals who struggle with faith even as they take refuge in the mysteries of the liturgical church.

On the surface, Rice has little in common with evangelicals. When she was a child, she wanted first to be a nun, then a priest (and was mystified by the prohibition against women priests). Unlike the average evangelical, she never bought the party line on gender. In fact, she was and still is absolutely committed to a genderless priesthood and sits at the very far left on gender-related social issues. Off to college in the 1960s (Berkeley, no less), she found an intellectual community that more clearly reflected her social views, and she walked away from the church without looking back.

The book describes her return to faith, after 35 years as an atheist, which she terms "an act of the will." She felt drawn, she says, by the story of Jesus. The audacity of it. She read the Bible for the first time in her life (pre-Vatican II, Catholics typically kept the family Bible, if they had one, laid out carefully on the coffee table — it wasn't read so much as admired, an icon rather than a resource). She read the scholars (and wondered at how liberal scholars could question the story of redemption she saw so clearly). She read widely, everything from Rick Warren's Purpose Driven Life to N.T. Wright and C.S. Keener, crossing denominational and socio-political lines freely.

She describes herself as a "Christmas Christian" — wholly, unreservedly certain of God's Incarnation in Christ and its central importance, if we are to believe he also was crucified bodily in our place, for our sins, and then resurrected to the life that we will share with Him. She also is unreservedly devoted to the Catholic Church, its worship and the iconography that gives it shape. Unlike many cradle Catholics, she was not put off by the changes she saw, despite the fact that she was (pre-Berkeley) raised with the Latin Mass. Surprised by the post-Vatican II Church, she nevertheless embraces the English Mass and accepts all the attendant transformations.

Upon her return, she discovered the Nicene Creed, and marveled at its succinct encapsulation of what she had come to believe. (For the litmus-test crowd, yes, she can say "Jesus is Lord.") She also "prayed, studied, cried" and asked Him for guidance. And what she got was a simple mandate, which she says was a significant turning point in her life, straight from the Sermon on the Mount: That she must love both her friends and her enemies. (How she came to this realization, the subject of Chapter 13, says much about the value of coming to the scriptures wihtout preconceptions.)

What she did not get was a command to abandon her commitment of love when faced with those who live outside the church's declarations on gender roles and sexuality. Her views affirmed at Berkeley remain unchanged. A lifelong Democrat, politically, she says she finds nothing in the Scriptures that has moved her to change her party affiliation or her social views, including her affirmation of gay and lesbian aspirations to marriage and family. But she also allows that, even in the secular world, the jury is still out on what effects such social changes may have. And she allows for the possibility that she is wrong. Further — and this is the salient point — she has purposed to set aside her vast differences with the Church hierarchy on issues of gender and human sexuality. Her return to Christ and to His Church, she insists, is permanent:
Too many make the mistake I made. They leave the loving figure of Jesus Christ because they feel they must leave His churches. I will never leave Him again, no matter what the scandals or the quarrels of His church on earth, and I will not leave his church either.

Noting that it is often more difficult to love one's friends than one's enemies, she says:
I'm convinced it takes immense courage to remain in a church where one is surrounded by hostile voices, and yet we must remain in our churches and answer hostility with meekness, with gentleness, or not at all!

Setting aside what divides us for the sake of love and unity? Allow for the possibility that we might be wrong? Could be an important word for evangelicals. Can we hear an admonition from across the aisle? Of all the things that Jesus could have named in John 13:34 as the way the world would know that we are His disciples, he chose "if you love one another." Radical stuff.

[Note: I suggest reading this post in context. The preceding post sets up a discussion that begins in this post and will continue through the next several. - Mike]

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Radical Re-embracing

When you haven't blogged for more than a year, the first thing you do (after you try to remember your log in) is read your last post. You come to it with a mixture of anticipation and fear, asking: Is that still me? Am I still in that space? Will I look back with chagrin, wondering what I could possibly have been thinking?

This time (I've been away, before), I breathed a sigh of relief. Yes, I still can embrace the me that was then. In fact, I feel a measure of peace and encouragement. The me that is me now has not been moved. I still stand where I stood. And I'm grateful to God.

In the last 17 months, "the world, the flesh and the devil" (I must add, both inside and outside the Church) have mounted a most merciless attack on my position. I've been wounded, but these forces have not prevailed. I'm still here.

That's not to say I'm unchanged. In some ways, I hardly recognize me. A good portion of my internal landscape has been scraped off and is in a rebuilding process ... but the key is that it still rests on the same foundation.

While the world has experienced its financial meltdown, I've watched something similar happen to the internal, eternal economy that keeps me going in the spiritual realm. As those who put their hope in money confront, rather dramatically, the inevitable bankruptcy of such a hope, I've had to confront my own bankruptcy. That's been a good thing.

It has not been fun, however. One must confront one's demons at times like these ... and its not pretty. And I'm not sure I can talk about them all. I'm not sure, either, whether that's what is necessary. What I can say is that I hope to join the ranks of those who quietly love their neighbors and their enemies alike and persist in love, doing what they see Jesus doing. Offering the thousands of little ministrations that make them, mostly unheralded, the Light of the World. And my mission here, if there is only one, is to cast a bit of light on what I think (but do not know) that kind of love might look like. Anyway ... that's the plan.

We'll see.

One thing I won't be doing is redesigning my blog, or shopping around for a new blog host site. I see people doing that a lot — they have an upheavel in their life, or it enters another stage, and they retitle their blog, change the colors, post new pictures, etc. Having been away for a while, it would be a natural thing to do. But not doing that, for me, is important. Although a lot has changed, my mission is still the same: Embracing the Shadow.

As I embrace that in me that is not light, and enlighten it with the love of Christ, I find that I can, at last, begin to embrace that which is not light in others. We are all sinners in need of a savior. I revisited, recently, that powerful thesis statement from the Gospel of John, the one you memorize in Sunday School but never quite get your spiritual arms around:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.

What does he love? Not just the Church. Not just Christians. Not just "good people." But the world. Who has life? Whosever believes. Radical stuff.