Thursday, April 29, 2010

Gambling our future away

Listening to defenses that Goldman Sachs exec gave in yesterday’s Senate hearings 0for their actions were full of emotion and denial. They claimed shock that anyone could question their actions. They, the self claimed Masters of the Universe, were unapologetic in the response. We have heard this attitude again and again from Wall Street, whether it is Merrill Lynch, AIG, Lehman Brothers execs. It got me wondering.

Many of the Wall Street critics have claimed that Wall Street has become a gambling casino in the last decade or so since the deregulation of the derivatives market. If push fully to its logical conclusion, would not then Wall Street breed in its midst gambling addiction?

This description comes from Gamblers Anonymous site:

What are some characteristics of a person who is a compulsive gambler?

1. INABILITY AND UNWILLINGNESS TO ACCEPT REALITY. Hence the escape into the dream world of gambling.
2. EMOTIONAL INSECURITY. A compulsive gambler finds he or she is emotionally comfortable only when "in action". It is not uncommon to hear a Gamblers Anonymous member say: "The only place I really felt like I belonged was sitting at the poker table. There I felt secure and comfortable. No great demands were made upon me. I knew I was destroying myself, yet at the same time, I had a certain sense of security."
3. IMMATURITY. A desire to have all the good things in life without any great effort on their part seems to be the common character pattern of problem gamblers. Many Gamblers Anonymous members accept the fact that they were unwilling to grow up. Subconsciously they felt they could avoid mature responsibility by wagering on the spin of a wheel or the turn of a card, and so the struggle to escape responsibility finally became a subconscious obsession.
This may explain much of Wall Street’s failure to understand Main Street’s anger over the outrageous bonuses, the extravagance, and ethical system based only on making money out of air. It explains why they refuse to change even though their actions nearly got us all to hit rock bottom. It also explains why the emails released sound so much like immature teenage boys bragging. It seems many on Wall Street live in a gamblers delusional fog.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Sin by any other name would still smell as foul

Listening the chatter defending Goldman Sachs actions round a set of investments they sold reveals just how much Wall Street has lost its ethical bearings. Much of the defense can be summarized as follows. One, they were smart about the upcoming collapse of the housing market, and they should not be penalized for being smart. Two, those that bought the CDOs were sophisticated investors who knew the risks.

So, what did Goldman Sachs do? They worked with another investor, John Paulsen, to create an investment he (and they) were planning to bet against. Since he profited from its failure and not from its success, how much motivation would he have in making sure it would succeed. They then sold this investment to others without mentioning to them that Mr. Paulson was involved in creating it. When the investment lost value, both Mr Paulson and Goldman Sachs made money. The issue is not whether they were smart enough to foresee the falling housing market, but that they created and sold a product to fail while they claimed the product was sound, and profited when that particular product failed. Imagine if a doctor allow a the person, who had taken out a million dollar life insurance, into the operating room, then claimed shock when the patient died from what the doctor and that person did.

Were they smart in creating a product designed to fail and made a bundle on its failure. Yes. They made a bundle. Was it immoral? Yes, again. What about their defense of the investors that lost being smart as well? Boiled down to its basics it is “Don’t blame us, we ripped off smart people.” Does that defense sound like it is based on any ethical system other than the code of conmen? Was what they did illegal? Unfortunately, probably not. Deregulation of the past twenty years have created loopholes in the system that almost brought down the house in 2008. We need to close the loopholes, which is what the current bill being debated, before we suffer any more.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Emerging Church's Whiteness and the Arizona Law: The connection?

The seminary ethics professor, after a heated class in which a Mexican-American student broke down, look straight at me said, “Yes, but you have assimilated.”

I know he did not understand how offensive his statement was, and would be appalled to see his statement as racist, but racist, nonetheless it was. His racial concern was condescending. I have found the same condescending among many n the Emergent Church. 

Being a progressive Christian, he sees himself as a champion of the downtrodden. Yet, he did not see was his view as the champion of the downtrodden made himself above those very same people. As a Mexican in America, I have had to face many forms of racism, jokes about being a wetback, and an illegal. The worst from my and others perspective is the ones that come from people who think themselves above being racists like the ethics professor. Comments like I must be Italian because I don’t look Mexican, or I am too white to be a Mexican or this one about being assimilated, as if I had turn my back on my culture. They could only see being Mexican out of their view of oppression, ignoring the rich history which has nothing to do with the big neighbor to north. What BS. 

He said it because I held a different opinion than what he thought I should as a Mexican. I did not fit his story, based on only on white oppression, about how Mexicans should react to the real life situation he had us reenact in class. He expected a Mexican to react like the Mexican-American girl, with anger. Being brought up in the border of culture, I learn to translate from culture to build a bridge, and I responded that that was what the situation needed. The main issue being a difference in the understanding of time, American vs Mexican. Most of the class, dominated by progressive Christian, came to the rescue of the crying student. She was crying that the Anglos should understand the differences in how Mexicans view time. The funny thing was girl was an American born of Mexican heritage, and it was clear to me that she did not have a clear handle on Mexican time either. Further, It became clear that her response was welcome by the white students. They can say they felt sorry and then did not have to actually change any of the power dynamics. Feeling guilty got them out of any action.

It was one of my first experiences with Christians who would become the Emergent Church. Young, hip, and already looking to forge a newer and better Christianity than the one they grew up in. When I read Soong-Chan Rah article in Sojourners about the whiteness of the Emergent Church and the reaction to it, I wanted to write about it, but knew I had to wait. Better to reflect than to react. Then Arizona passed the toughest immigration bill, and I knew I gad to speak.

One of the first things I notice about Rah’s article is that it took American distinctions and narrative about race as the starting point. “White people” was taken as normative, even though many scholars have pointed out the “white people” really is distinction make as a not… white people not being black, Asian, Hispanic (at the turn of the 20th century non white included Italians). “The History of White People” (Norton; $27.95), Nell Irvin Painter being the most recent. Also, Kelefa Sanneh has a great mediation on the idea on “white peop;e” on the New Yorker.

The narrative that these thinkers isolate is the idea that whiteness is something that needed to be protected. This is the fear driving the Arizona law, a fear of needing to be protected from the hoards of Mexicans wanting to take jobs, health care, and whatever else. Could it come from a sense of historic guilt? After all, Arizona, California, Texas New Mexico all came into the union via illegal immigration that turned violent and ended with the US army in Mexico City. 14 million dollars is a good deal for all that land if you head is at the wrong end of a gun barrel. Clearly, there is a fear and a wanting of defense, so much so, that Arizonians are willing to pervert their values.

The second thing I notice was the reaction to Rah’s article was similar to the one I experience in class. Emergent Christians feel bad about the racism in the past, but their feeling bad and trying to do better should gives them points. As the saying goes, trying is lying. And the second, there seem to be a lack of understanding that being multicultural is not medicine to be taken as repentance, or the eating of another’s food, but the acceptance of the other’s dignity. Moreover, it is that the other has something to teach us.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Poor, feed them to the lions

I have written about the Credit Default Swaps (CDS) and how they led to the Great Recession of 2008-2009. Now that Goldman Sachs has been charged with fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission, it is time to reflect theologically on the economic mess.

A quick review of Goldman Sachs actions. They are being charged with first packaging, bundling and selling Mortgage back bonds and securities, while at the same time using CDSs to profit when those securities failed. They allowed an investor, Henry Paulson who was going to bet against the abacus CDO bond help create that very CDO. Shockingly, the CDO failed bringing Paulson (as well as Golden Sachs) huge profits. Goldman Sachs first shot a defending itself that those that bought the CDO were sophisticated investors, which mean what? They are good at ripping off smart people? While it is questionable how legal Goldman Sachs actions, ethically it is clear. Goldman Sachs action were evil.

They raked in big profits on the failure of the very products they sold. Imagine if we found out that Toyota made obscene insurance profits from the crashes caused the accelerator problem. The public would be rightly outraged. The question is why has the financial sector been given a pass.

The old adage about the victors writing the history seems to be in play here. Wall Street has done a masterful job of creating the narrative that irresponsible poor people caused the Great Recession. The banks were forced to give mortgages to people who could not handle it, the story goes and now the rest of us are paying for it. The narrative basically says that the poor people did it with the help of congress. It does not account for most of the losses, nor does it account for the damage done by CDSs, and it certainly does not factor in the facts, but it does play to class divisions in American Culture. I have heard this explanation given by several friends who work in financial sector, church members, in many major media like the Wall Street Journal.

"Congress has not even held hearings yet in the area where it is most clearly responsible: social engineering through banking by pumping mortgages to unqualified borrowers via Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and laws that required banks to make bad loans."

The poor people were the problem. I wonder if Paulson and Goldman Sachs will find a way to blame the poor people for their fraud?

It is seductive to blame a group with little power when it gets you off the hook. Reality is seldom considered, even when the narrative makes no sense. (If it was the mortgages that went under and the poor people caused the mess, why was the biggest sellers of CDS like Lehman Brothers and AIG the first to be hit hard, and then be hit the hardest? Why was Commercial Credit frozen if it was the mortgages were the ones that failed?) Where are the tea partiers protesting the root of the problem?

When Roman Emperor Nero facing criticism over the great fire of Rome, blamed it on the Christians, even though it flew in the face of the facts. The Christians were a politically weak and poor. Better blame them and feed a few to the lions than actually take responsibility. The question is where were the execs of Goldman Sachs fiddling when Wall Street was burning? Are the Masters of Universe or Masters of deceit?

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Binding of Isaac

Faith is in the living, and living is in the blood, bodily excretions and breath. I know this as my son is going through his struggles and surgery.  When we prepped him, he was unaware of the major trauma he was about to endure. I held him until the doctor took him away to be gassed.They would then cut open his skull and correct the damage caused by his condition, NF-1. I held him in love before the knife lowered. The next time I would see him, he would have over 130 stitches. The tragedy of being a father is knowing the suffering will come and being with your child afterward and giving all you can give, your presence.

Sometimes parents comfort themselves with the idea that they are suffering more than their sick children. A defensive tool we use to hold back the misplaced guilt of seeing our children suffer. But I know my son had to face more pain and suffering than I did through his operation. The truth was I am helpless in the face of his pain. The surgery was necessary and the truth was he had to go through his pain. I fell powerless in the face of his pain, even as I understood it. Isaac held the knife about his son, I led my son unsuspecting to the knife. He did not understand my words yet, much less the seven hour plus operation. Yet, I love him. I felt the pain of seeing him with dried blood on his scalp. I rejoiced when he awakened and would repeat my lip smack. Healing comes slow.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

True Art goes to the Potts

When free speech, art and religion collide controversy is seldom far from erupting. Through a talented 10 year old into the mix and it can go global over night. Such is the case of the Jason Potts the II. Jason is a ten-year old boy from Houston who created a piece for Xnihilo Gallery about the Jesus’ last walk with the cross. The image that young James created was a photo of a modern day police man beating a young boy. The idea was that the police man, like the roman soldier he represents, was just doing his duty in beating the innocent Jesus, represented by the young boy. It proved to powerful of an image and the Church that houses Xnihilo Gallery, asked for the photo to be removed. He replace it with a more palatable image of a boy (his brother who also played Jesus in the banned photo) holding an ornate cross. We want our crosses save, it seems.

The first image was too close to home. I wonder if Mr. Potts had simply used Old World imagery of a Roman Soldier and a stereotypical image of Jesus? Would the church have found the image offensive? Most likely not, and that is the trouble with burying the Gospel in history, it keeps the power of the Cross at arms length. Mr Potts saw this and created an image the brings the offense of the Cross home to us enlightened people of the 21 century. Our sin still mounts the innocents onto the cross as the crowd cheers on. Jesus carried his cross through the mud and dirt of life. He carried the cross through the jeers of the crowds, us. He faced the blows from human authority for the sake of what we humans think of as order, better safety than justice. Can we understand Easter without Good Friday. Our sins remain as Jesus asks us to pick up the cross and follow.

So what happened: A young child in Houston saw this and shot a photo to reveal his insight into the reality of the cross and the reality of life. Adults got offended. The photo came down, replace by a safe and cute photo. Jesus continues to ask us to follow, but will we follow when it leads to the cross? Will we continue to be offended?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Love pierces the darkness

The Sombrero Galaxy in Infrared Light
Hate is easy and the domain of the lazy. This insight came in the darkness of the early morning. I wish I could say that it was due to a Lenten meditation that pierced my own darkness, but alas, it rose as I got up too late to do my study. As I rushed around trying to beat my car pool’s arrival, I suddenly thought about Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. The story of how Jesus transformed her has always haunted me, and it came back in the rush to comb hair, brush teeth, and get lunch. I kept thinking about how much she was hated by her community. So much so, she came to get water alone at worst time of the day. Yet because of Jesus’ engagement, she led the whole town, the town that hated her, back to met with Jesus. Why did Jesus take so much time with her? Why, for that matter, does Jesus take time with me?

People who hate do so out of laziness. How much vile toxins are there in our arguments about health care, immigration, global warming, taxes, and the rest of our political discourse? Looking at debates about religion between Christians, Muslims, Jews, or Atheists is usually looking at a soup made mainly with bile heated by the fire of quick judgments. Judgments form quickly and without time considering the other. The other becomes the problem, and it does not depend who the other is. They are seen as stupid, ignorant, or plain evil for holding a different opinion than ours.

I also see it in the mundane world of sports and entertainment. More than once I have been called various names for being a fan of the wrong team. Pop stars face hatred for the smallest reasons like a change in hairstyle.The most vicious blogs are not political, but those that track the comings and goings of celebrities.
Of course, I am saying nothing new, like pointing out the air. It is all around us, this easy hate. The truth is that it is easy to find this hate within ourselves, within myself. The temptation to look at the other as the source of the hate shows the laziness again. To rid ourselves of hate is to rid ourselves of those who hate, we delude ourselves into thinking, hate the hater. Yet, if I look at the hate within myself, I realize my hate comes from not wanting to understand the other. It comes from being lazy with the other, like a bad reflex, hate becomes a default position with others I disagree with.
Why? Jesus spent time with the woman at the well, and that made all of the difference. He refuse to simply see her as evil, but loved her, though he shows no sign of accepting her bad choices. He chose the narrow road of love. He instructs us to love our enemies. Noble thought in the abstract, but can conservative Christians say they love President Obama or progressive Christians say the love President Bush? To say it and mean it means a lot of work. Easier to hate.
One might think this is a Rodney King, “Why can’t we all just get along?” piece, as that would be, in my context, both trite and silly, both meaningless and boorish. I realize that we humans will continue to hate. First century Jews hated Romans. I will hate those whom I see as wrong — two thousand years of no progress.
Then Jesus breaks in, and I can repent and love.

In my recent post about my son, I was  awed by how much support, prayers, and love my family has received, regardless of political views. Easter is a time of God breaking into our swirl of hate and offering us a way out of the madness, a time of repentance, a time of preparing to learn love and finally a path out of being alone. Living Water brings life. Jesus bring us life.Star Cluster


First posted on Sojourners.

Friday, April 2, 2010

"They" are after us

The other has been a philosophical idea with a rich history. The idea is how do individuals relate with the other, whether the other is defined by different genders, cultures, class, religion, age, or any of the multitude of ways we humans divide ourselves. Millions of gallons of ink have been spilled on the scholarly battlefields on this concept, as it seems to be a primary condition of being human.
For the followers of Jesus, we are commanded to deal with the other with love, hence the image of the cross: “for all are one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28). Loving our enemies can only lead to the cross, which in turn leads to Easter. This is our hope and our strength in Christ.

While there has been much talk about the other, there has been less conversation about the use of they. By this, I mean the way the word creates a narrative, and then how it divides the world through this narrative. The narrative is easy and has been with humans from our earliest days. The story goes like this: the problem with the world is they, and if we got rid of them all would be good. They are the problem. This narrative creates an us opposed to the them. It gives humans a way of shaping the world that is both simple to understand and a call to arms. It gives individuals an us to be part of and a them to oppose. The they narrative is seductive.

Look at classic Marxism and communism through the above narrative. They are the moneyed classes. If get rid of them, then we would have the workers’ paradise. They will be overcome through violent revolution. The undercurrent is that they can only be violently removed. Unfortunately for humanity, violence and the forcible removal of them has been all to common. The blood of Jesus flows through our long history.

Listening to Glenn Beck and his use of they, we can see the narrative at work. His they consists of vague concepts which he can fill as needed with progressives, liberals, or RINOs (republicans in name only). They are the problem. Whoever they are.

The temptation when labeled as the they is then to label the other side as the true they as opposed to the us. They then become those who listen to Fox News and vote for those people as opposed to our us. They, whoever they are, need to be removed like a cancer. But is not the narrative of they the temptation to be led into darkness? You need only look at the comment sections of blogs dealing with Mr. Beck’s social justice comments. The us vs. them narrative holds the comment section in bondage. Each hopes to prove the other as the they. But then what?
As a Christian, I know the problem. The problem is me and my sin. My heart is full of darkness that needs to be redeemed by the love of Jesus. I am part of the them as I am part of the us. Jesus becomes a bridge to which we can walk to meet Glenn Beck. Can we love one another? Can I love Glenn Beck? Can he love me? Not without risking the cross.

“Were you there when they crucified our Lord?” the hymn asks. We all know the answer in our own hearts: yes. On this week, Jesus entered Jerusalem. He is labeled the problem and killed. Then he will come back to us to give hope and salvation. It through his cross that we approach life.

First posted on Sojourners