Some thoughts about conservative Christianity and Occupy Wall Street
Ever read The Browser? If not, you should. It’s the best aggregator around. I run across articles there that I wouldn’t see otherwise. It happened to me today. I stumbled upon an essay by someone named Steve Almond, who writes about conscience and the Occupy Wall Street movement. Almond is a democratic socialist who believes in OWS. I am a Christian conservative who is deeply skeptical about OWS, but who strongly believes that things have gone seriously wrong with our society, especially with the commanding position Wall Street holds over our collective fate. But I don’t know what to do about it. Almond is, unsurprisingly, in favor of OWS. In fact, I disagree with most of his essay. But this small section got to me:
The movement is called Occupy Wall Street. It’s not called Destroy Wall Street. Or Burn Wall Street. The protestors want to be physically present. They want the traders who work on Wall Street to face the human consequences of their machinations. And they, the protesters, also want the chance to gaze upon the traders:
As in Psalm 52:
Behold the man! He did not take God as his refuge, but he trusted in the abundance of his wealth, and grew powerful through his wickedness.
When I read that, I was immediately reminded of one of the most powerful stories I’ve ever heard. I told it on my old blog, but I have many different readers now, so I’ll repeat it. It was told to me by a friend who worked for many years high up in Wall Street, and I’ll never forget it. His story begins around 2003 or 2004, when the global economy was booming. The investment bank for which he worked brought its top people to a highly exclusive resort for an annual meeting. He said this place was unspeakably luxurious, and all the bankers had the run of the place. People were ordering Cristal Champagne (which costs hundreds of dollars per bottle) virtually by the six-pack, sent up to their rooms. That was the kind of working holiday they were on, and my friend was smack in the middle of it, enjoying himself.
One night he came down to the cocktail hour, and saw before him a spread of opulence that would have made Caesar blush. Rich food, vintage Champagne, rare Scotches, and more of it than anybody could possibly imagine, and all his banking colleagues having the time of their lives. Suddenly my friend had a terrifying epiphany. “I realized that we had lost our minds. All this money had made us crazy,” he later told me. “And that’s when I knew that this was going to end very badly.”
For my friend, that moment was a turning point in his life. It scared him so badly that he returned to the practice of his Jewish faith, which he had discarded. He later left the bank, worked in high finance for a few years longer, and ended up moving all his investments to safe harbor before the crash. What my friend understood in that moment was what all the great religions teach: that you cannot serve both God and Mammon. That great wealth makes you see the world falsely. That it corrupts one’s judgment, and one’s soul.
It’s not that all rich people are bad. Certainly not! My friend is wealthy, but the diligent practice of his faith has given him firm moral grounding, and a proper perspective on it. It brought him back down to earth.
As I recalled that story today, I began to think about what my own Christian faith tells me about how to think about Wall Street and the common good. Here is what I came up with, for now; I invite you to read on, and help me think through this:
Cards on the table: I am a Christian, and a conservative, in that order. My Christianity is Orthodox, and it is what is often called “conservative.” It is incomparably more important to me to be a faithful and obedient Christian than it is for me to be a good conservative. It happens, though, that I find that my religious convictions more often than not put me in the camp of conservatives in our culture, at this time. It is not always an easy fit. My book “Crunchy Cons” basically emerged out of my beginning to think more deeply about my religious convictions, and integrating them into a more comprehensive worldview, which I found put me off the Republican Party reservation in certain basic ways — usually related to economic issues. I came to realize that I had been a neoconservative but because of my religious convictions, had come to be more at home in traditionalist conservatism. This has deepened in the past few years. I am basically a Tory. It’s definitely a minority position on the American Right.
Anyway, I should say too that I don’t believe that God has a political plan. One can be a good Christian as a socialist. One can be a good Christian as a monarchist. One can be a good Christian as a Republican or a Democrat. One almost certainly cannot be a good Christian as, say, a Nazi or a Communist, because what those political theories require one to believe is antithetical to Christian truth. My point is simply that it’s not easy to discern a particular political program from the Gospels, only general principles. In most cases, there will probably be tension between our political party and our faith convictions. There ought to be. Jesus said that His kingdom was not of this world. As soon as we think we can use politics to create heaven on earth, we lay the groundwork for the corruption of faith, and far worse. Personally, I believe that in this time and place, the most natural political orientation for a serious small-o orthodox Christian is on the Right, but I do believe it’s vulgar and borderline blasphemous for a political party to claim Christ.
And yet we cannot be serious about our faith and act as if it had no political implications. No one can take the Bible seriously and believe that the truths it teaches have nothing at all to do with how we order our common life. There is the matter of human dignity, and justice. The Bible has much to say about the poor — and what it has to say about the rich is not very complimentary, to put it mildly. I believe the free market, for all its flaws, is the economic system that is not only the fairest, but is also the economic system that best conforms to our human dignity. But the market must be seen not as an end, but as a means to an end, which is the common good. Pope John Paul II, in his encylical Centesimus annus, said this well:
Returning now to the initial question: can it perhaps be said that, after the failure of Communism, capitalism is the victorious social system, and that capitalism should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society? Is this the model which ought to be proposed to the countries of the Third World which are searching for the path to true economic and civil progress?
The answer is obviously complex. If by “capitalism” is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a “business economy”, “market economy” or simply “free economy”. But if by “capitalism” is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.
By this standard, I cannot see how a system that allows so many people who work in finance to grow so spectacularly rich while so many others struggle to get by can be reconciled with Christian truth. But honestly, that is the least of my concerns about Wall Street now (by “Wall Street,” I mean the financial sector in general). What I find far more worrying is the power these men have to control by their actions the fate of the nation. No, I’m not talking about conspiratorial nonsense. I’m talking about the fact that because our political system has given them so much freedom to do what they want to do, our fates are tied to theirs in ways that are incredibly unjust and harmful to the common good. We all know about “too big to fail.” Ever thought about what that means? It means that TBTF institutions cannot be allowed to be responsible for their actions, because if they fail, they take all of us down with them. Wall Street, broadly speaking, has immense power, but no responsibility. Alessandro Rastani may or may not have been real, but he’s telling the truth about global finance: these men don’t care about their countrymen, they only care about making money for themselves and their clients. That is their prime directive.
Look, I’m not saying that everybody who works in finance is Evil, or that the financial sector is inherently wicked. That would be untrue and flat-out stupid. Nor am I saying that Rich People Are Bad. I know some fairly wealthy folks, Christians who are among the most compassionate and generous people in my life (because, like my Jewish friend, they are well-grounded in their faith, and understand in their marrow what wealth means, and the responsibility that comes with it.) I do not sit around worrying that Lloyd Blankfein and his Goldman Sachs team are raking in tens of millions in salary, and I am not. I’m grateful for what I have, though I think it is absolutely fair to question whether or not a society can withstand such gross inequity of distribution over the long term. I am far more concerned, though, about the commanding role the way they make their money has in our economy. For one: What are they creating? For another: are they creating so much moral hazard for the entire country with the risks they are allowed to take that we are all put in intolerable jeopardy? For a third: are they making their piles of money in an honest, straightforward way — or are they taking advantage of people? I know sincere, hard-working Christians in the finance industry, even in New York. But I’ve heard from some of them a great deal of concern about where this is all going. None have put it to me as starkly as my Jewish friend did, but they all think, more or less, that insane amounts of wealth sloshing around Wall Street has made the people who handle it and generate it morally unhinged. The rest of us are an abstraction to Wall Streeters — but they cannot really be an abstraction to the rest of us, because the decisions they make, and the reckless morality they live by, affects all of us profoundly. As Christians, we know, or we ought to know, from Scripture what great wealth can do to people. Why so many of us think that the money and power on Wall Street, and that Wall Street exercises through its Washington cronies, is of no proper moral concern to us, as followers of Christ? Do we really believe that the God who said through the Prophet Isaiah, “What mean ye that ye beat my people to pieces, and grind the faces of the poor?” is satisfied to have his people remain indifferent to the Wall Street mandarins, or even to defend what they do?
It is hard for many American Christians, especially we conservatives, to think of Christian morality as applicable to money. Personal sins — lust, immorality, the usual — we understand. But we shy away from thinking in a Christian way about money, and the way our society is structured economically. I wonder: Do we Christians not fear a reckoning in all this? I am reminded of the following account from a book of stories about Father Arseny, a Russian Orthodox priest who was thrown into the gulag by the Bolsheviks for his faith. At one point, he was dragged into an argument among prisoners about who was responsible for the curse of Communism coming to Russia. He told the men:
“You say that the Communists have arrested the believers, closed churches, trampled on faith. Yes, it does look that way, on the surface, but let us look into this more deeply, let us glance at the past. Among us Russian people many have lost the faith, lost respect for our past, we lost much of what was precious and good. Who is at fault? The authorities? No, we are at fault ourselves, we are only reaping what we ourselves have sown.
“Let us remember the bad examples set by the intelligentsia, the nobility, the merchants, and the civil servants. We in the priesthood were the worst of them all.
“Children of priests became atheists, and revolutionaries, simply because they had seen in their families lies and a lack of true faith. Long before the revolution priests had already lost the real right to be the shepherds of their people, of their conscience. Priesthood became a profession. Many priests were atheists and alcoholics.
“From among all the monasteries of our land, only five or six were real beacons of Christianity. … Others became communities with almost no faith in them. What could the people learn from such monasteries? What kind of example was set?
“We did not raise our people right, we did not give them the basis of strong faith. Remember all this! Remember! This is why the people were so quick to forget all of us, their own priests; they mainly forgot their faith and participated in the destruction of churches, sometimes even leading the way in their destruction.
“Understanding all of this, I cannot point a finger at our authorities, because the seeds of faithlessness fell on the soil which we ourselves had prepared. And from there comes the rest: our camp, our sufferings, the wrongful deaths of innocent people. …”
He was an innocent man, and a good priest, but he surely spoke the truth to a great degree. In Father Arseny’s view, the curse of Bolshevism, and the persecution of the Church, came upon Russia in part because the priests who had been given so much responsibility failed so miserably. You could say the same thing about the Tsar and his government, and the aristocrats of the pre-Revolutionary era. Don’t misread me: what followed the old order was far, far worse. The point is simply that corruption in high places, even if it involves the breaking of no law, can have terrible, unforeseen consequences, not only for the corrupt, but for everyone.
And so we come to the Occupy Wall Street movement. I have not been impressed by the things I’ve seen and read about them. I don’t know for sure, but I doubt very much that I would be at home with that crowd. Some of the quotes I’ve read from those people are obnoxious and offensive. Many more are just foolish. I don’t look to OWS for any relief, except comic.
But I have to say, I am impressed by this line from Almond’s piece: “They want the traders who work on Wall Street to face the human consequences of their machinations.” Maybe the way they’re calling Wall Street out is silly, pointless, and foolish in a thousand ways. But at least they are there. Where are the Christians? Where are we conservative Christians, who claim to really believe what Scripture says, and look down on liberal Christians for picking and choosing what they want to believe on sexual morality to suit their desires? Do we not have a blind spot when it comes to wealth? Why does the immense power Wall Street wields over the fate of the nation because of its wealth not trouble us enough to bear public witness? Why does it not trouble us much at all? It troubles me, but I don’t know what to do about it. This won’t do.
In that sense, I’ll give Occupy Wall Street its due, as a guilty Christian bystander. There’s a tale about Billy Graham, possibly apocryphal, in which he met a stuffy Anglican prelate on one of his first crusades in England. The story goes that the bishop sniffed to Graham, “Sir, I must say that I do not approve of the evangelism you do.” Graham supposedly replied, “Sir, I prefer the evangelism I do to the evangelism that you do not do.” Quite.