Saturday, October 25, 2008

Confession of sin

Each Sunday following the opening hymns and the prayer of invocation, the liturgist invites all worshippers to confess their sin before Almighty God, "first in unison and then (privately) in silence." The time that folows the spoken union confession is perhaps the quietest and holiest moment of the week. I am almost ashamed of myself for breaking this holy time of personal acknowledgement of sin by declaring the forgiveness that a loving and merciful God bestows upon all those "who humbly confess their sin." Confession, they say, is good for the soul. I believe it is also essential for clearing the way for progress towards overcoming the consequences of sin.
I thought about this when I read a transcript of former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan's testimony on Captiol Hill on Thursday. With the markets in turmoil and many fearing that a devasting world wide economic crisis is yet to come, Congress is doing what it does best: namely, point fingers of blame (but not at themsevles) after the consequences of greedy (read that sinful) behavior has created a mess.They try to close the barn after the horses have all escaped. In this way, Congressmen are like most Americans, when we hear a good sermon or listen to wise words of a prophetic voice, we think others need to heed the advice but believe that warning doesn't apply to us.

In most disasters, be they in interpersonal relationships or in large social contexts, there is plenty of blame to go around. The Apostle Paul said it well in Romans, "ALL sin and fall short of the glory of God." It is only when everyone acknowledges their sin and agrees to modify their behavior and change their wrong positions, that healing can follow. Without an admission of guilt and the acceptance of blame, you cannot begin to solve problems and start over.

Greenspan's reputation was enormous. Bob Woodward wrote a flattering biography titled "Maestro" celebrating his 18 years as Presdient of the Federal Reserve before stepping down in January 2006. During the stock bubble and the housing bubble, he was the voice people listened too when evidence of leaks in the soggy fiscal dykes and excesses were discovered. Greenspan was the "wizard" who pulled countless rabbits out of his hat. He calmed markets. He reassurred nervous regulators and main street bankers. He had the golden touch.
I admired Chairman Greenspan for not dodging this hard question by Henry Waxman, "You had the authority to prevent irresponsbile lending practices that led to the subprime mortgage crisis. You were advised to do so by many others. Do you feel your ideology pushed you to make decisions that you wish you had not made?"
"Yes, Mr Greenspan answered, " I've found a flaw. I don't know how signficant or permanent it is. but I have been very distressed by that fact."
No one likes to admit mistakes. Fewer yet admit that the bedrock ideas that have driven their actions are flawed. The ironic thing about Greespan, who lived through the great depression, was that he forgot the lessons of that historic depression. He went along with a culture that looked at debt and risk in ways that were far removed from his childhood. What bothered me about Greenspan was that he used his guru status to give the greenlight to credit default swaps and housing price surges that all serious economists were warning about. Now there is plenty of blame to go around. But someone has to challenge the "group think" that ovetakes a society. Someone with authority has to challenges the myths: that housing prices will always go up, that markets will always safely self correct, that Iraq has WMD. He didn't do it and since he was the "God" of our American system, greedy people in every line of financial profession began to act wrecklessly.

We are entering a period when we will be forced to question all the "group think" ideologices that we have been following so blindly. There will be people who are even more ideologically rigid then Greenspan who we refuse to participate in this evaluative process. We all have our own blindspots: only fools refuse to examine them.
Courageous people use crisis to examine their convictions. As Christian we have the great gift of knowing that God loves us in spite of our sinful behavior. In confidence we can put our convictions and actions up to the light of the gospel and find a new way to live and think. The mistake many Christians make is that they see sin as only an individual matter. They do not see how they contribute to corporate sin. Many followers of Christ have great personal piety and are highly ethical but come to applaud the "group think" of our greedy society.
When you see the air of your ways, take a cue from Alan Greenspan and confess your mistakes. When we do that, the road to healing and health cannot be far behind.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Overcoming Pessimism

My reading group is working our way through Thomas Friedman's "Hot, Flat and Crowded." Each chapter is rich with information from top figures in the fields of economics, the environment, and science. It seems like every day he is visiting another new place in the world and talking to another groundbreakering leader. I often feel like I have run out of ideas for sermons and this blog (notice how infrequently I write) because I am too tied down to Bowie. If we all traveled as extensively as Friedman we would all be more interesting.

Reading through his chapters on climate change can be pretty depressing. You know you are in for dire news when famed entomoligst Edward O. Wilson is quoted. On page 142 we find this Wilson gem, "Destorying a tropical rain forest and other species-rich ecosystemss for profit is like buring all the paintings in the Louvre to cook dinner." But with 1200 acres of tropical rainforest being destroyed every day, you might consider Wilson an optomist.

The real question is how to get humans to change their behavior? We know from experience people don't change because we tell them they should. People start to change when they convince themselves that they have no alternative. Since most of us don't notice the relentless and subtle changes that are occuring around us, it seems to take a crisis to get us to decide we have no alternative but to change. You know the old frog in the boiling pot analogy. If you take a frog and dump him in a pot of boiling water he will jump right out. But if you place a frog in a pot of cool water and slowly heat the pot up the frog will just stay in place until he gets cooked.

Thankfully Americans are coming to the realization that we must change our habits. The cost of oil is high and most Americans (not all) believe the high price is here to stay. After watching the Olympics we know that China is for real and with 1.3 billion people aspiring to an American lifestyle you have to be a moron to think oil is not going to be even more scarce and thus more expensive. Once again, we change when we convince ourselves it is the only alternative.

I think we will start to make some long postponed changes. As Friedman says, "later, is over." As one man in our group said, "in 10 years the two parties will be arguing for who gets credit for the shift towards alternative power." Both McCain and Obama are pushing for alternative energy. Only one of the 4 individuals on the two tickets is a climate change denyer. that is a 50% reduction in only 4 years.

The related issue is what to do about the anger that somehow we must punish those people who got us into this economic mess. You can point all sorts of fingers and be partially right. Yes, the Clinton administration pushed for greater home ownership rates for minorities. Since home ownership accounts for most of accumlated family wealth, this was a noble public policy goal. This however started the movement toward reducing underwriting standards. It also opened the door to all sorts of fraud where miniority borrowers were placed in subprime loans when they qualified for conventional loans. And yes, Alan Greenspans cheap money policy encouraged all sort of borrowing and since no one was regulating the underwriting standards and brokers were issuing bad loans and selling them to Fannie Mae and other financial bundlers who then sold them to investors looking for higher fixed income yields, the whole system got out of control. Our bad loans then got sold to the rest of the world so our financial meltdown is taking everyone else down with us. The US stock market is down 21% this year but everyone else is worse.

So here is what I say to the people like Lou Dobbs who want to start punishing people. "let the Wall Street people sufer even if i lose every dollar in my retirement accounts." "we need to teach them a lessons." If it were only that simple. Instead we need to look into the mirror. One of our greatest challenges is that we live in a society that tends to fear jdgment. The "problem" is always somewhere else other then here. The "sin" is always with people other than us.

All of us Americans seem to possess a steadfast refusal to be held accountable for our lack of responsbile stewardship of the resources God has entrusted to us.