An article in the Washington Post On Faith section in response to their question: Are the economy’s recent financial failures also moral failures? Are credit and debt religious issues? Do you have faith in the economy?
Money lies closer to people’s souls than they like to admit. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. destroyed other men’s fortunes as he ruthlessly built his own, but he assuaged his conscience by believing that God gave him every penny. Call it the Protestant work ethic gone berserk or hypocritical denial, the mechanism works. We manipulate our image of God to justify how the world is treating us. This is very far from Christ’s essential teaching that God abides in a higher world, but he left enough room for Christianity to believe that sin is punished by depriving the sinner of money while virtue is rewarded with a full bank account. Actually, Jesus went out of his way to warn his followers, in the Sermon on the Mount, not to store up riches on earth but in Heaven. The message has largely been ignored.
The great change today is that people expect sin to bring the greatest rewards. Who doesn’t feel at least a slight pang of envy to learn that Yasser Arafat, while ostensibly acting as a freedom fighter, secretly amassed billions in Swiss bank accounts, a pattern followed successfully by Saddam Hussein and the Iranian mullahs? The pious can point out that neither Arafat nor Saddam lived to profit from their stashed billions, but plenty of Mafia bosses died in bed after a lifetime of ill-gotten gains. Lest we limit this to the nefarious, almost every congressman expects to raise millions in re-election funds and earmarks once elected. This money may not go directly into their pockets — an open question these days — but they feel virtuous taking it.
On Wall Street we are told that the current domino effect of collapsing firms is the result of unbridled greed, a Christian sin, but not sinning meant a lower paycheck, if not getting fired. Traders are expected to maximize returns for their clients. The real problem was irresponsibility, lack of repercussions, and speed. Traders could move millions of dollars with the push of a button, no one cared if the institution they worked for was being pushed to extremes of risk, and now that Lehman Brothers has collapsed, the executives who skimmed millions off the top in bonuses will walk away whistling. At least they weren’t as bad as Enron. In this climate, it’s not how much you sinned but how much you took away before the bubble burst. None of this behavior reflects on God, however, or sin for that matter. As in Abu Ghraib, a climate of wrongdoing was created, morality became numb, and peer pressure did the rest.
We are divided about money because we are divided in ourselves. We hate Exxon for exploiting the general population as oil prices soar, but given the means, we’d buy their stock. The urge to covet wealth is shadowed by a rage that would tear the rich down. In India I was taught as a child that the deciding factor is Karma. Earn your money by good and virtuous means if you want your life to be good and virtuous. This is a reformulation of the biblical “as you sow, so shall you reap.” In our fantasies we hope that bad people suffer for their bad money, but the law of Karma — or Jesus’s sowing and reaping — doesn’t work that simply. To be honest, I have no confirmed idea how good is finally balanced with bad, or how karmic repercussions are timed. So I prefer to stick with what my mother told me and try to keep my gains as well-gotten as I can.
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