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Healing the economy means going beyond ‘What’s in it for me?’
By Douglas Todd 01-10-2009

Healing the battered economy means going beyond the ‘self’; ‘What’s in it for me?’ is not an attitude that will work in the times we face

Many Pentecostal Christians have been among the hardest-hit victims of the economic meltdown in North America.

“Victims” might not be the best word to describe their fate, though. Followers of the popular “Prosperity gospel” suffered because of their own desperation, naivete and uncontrolled desire.

Prosperity gospel adherents have put too much stock in certain Pentecostal leaders in the United States and Canada who preach that God will provide worldly wealth if you just give your soul to Jesus Christ and your donation to the church.

The most prominent proponent of this theology of cars, boats and houses is Joel Osteen, author of Your Best Life Now.

With virtually no assets, many financially struggling Christians attracted to the Prosperity gospel of Osteen and others were eager to jump at the subprime loans offered by sleazy brokers.

Prominent Pentecostals have admitted that many followers believed God was miraculously answering their prayers when a bank gave them a loan they couldn’t afford. However, it’s not only adherents of the Prosperity gospel who have spiritual and moral lessons to draw from the financial collapse. After all, they haven’t been alone in their struggles.

The larger spiritual themes behind this financial meltdown are those of too much blind optimism about the financial system, too much faith in leaders and too much unacknowledged self-interest.

Which brings us to greed.

There can be benefits from modest amounts of each of the Seven Deadly Sins: anger, lust, envy, sloth, pride, gluttony and greed.

While there is something to be said for moderate self-interest fuelling our lives and the economy, greed has careened beyond control on many economic fronts. In the movie Wall Street, Gordon Gekko was not much of an exaggeration of a real-life financier when he baldly preached, “Greed is good!”

Rebecca Blank, senior economic analyst for the Brookings Institute and co-author of Is the Market Moral?, recently said: “Greed is good to most economists. It’s greed that makes people work harder, be more productive, and helps the economy grow. Greed has certain economic advantages. It’s hard for an economist not to say that.

“But greed is clearly partially responsible for where we are right now. There’s a level beyond which greed can go too far, and . . . being greedy for more goods and to make another buck can make me stop paying attention to the effects of my action on you. That is when greed clearly becomes sinful — even, I think, in economics.”

Moral concerns about our over-avaricious attitudes have even been expressed recently by high-profile evangelical Christian leaders such as Chuck Colson (Richard Nixon’s former right-hand man), who has made a career of praising Jesus Christ in the same breath as free enterprise. Like theologian Michael Novak, Colson believes western democratic capitalism is like a three-legged stool, resting on political freedom, economic freedom and moral restraint. “Take away moral restraint and the stool collapses.”

But Colson’s solution — simply to talk more about morality in churches and elsewhere and to wish for greater moral behaviour — won’t make the economic system more stable or fair. That is what was uncovered through a revealing investigation of the moral behaviour of evangelical leaders by scholar Michael Lindsay, author of Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite.

Lindsay found precious few evangelical executives were “distinguishing themselves from their secular peers” by taking salaries capped, for instance, at a ratio between the highest- and lowest-paid employees of 20:1. Most tried to justify astonishingly luxurious salaries.

Just as the Communist Soviet Union fell apart because it wasn’t realistic to expect everyone to embrace the principle of equality, the western capitalist system cannot sustain itself just by hoping everyone will embrace justice.

Without regulations to enforce society’s moral ideals, the scoundrels prevail. Now nearly all of us are suffering because we were drawn, knowingly and unknowingly, into their unrestricted avarice.

As Aristotle said, “At his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice he is the worst.”

Spiritual insight into the economic collapse comes from Martin Marty, of the University of Chicago Divinity School, one of the most distinguished religious historians in North America.

Marty believes the economic meltdown grew out of a growing global obsession with the “self.” He points to the way many economists talk about how the “spreading disease” in the global economy will “self-heal.” But Marty believes the modern free world is fixated on terms such as “self-generating,” “self-developing” and “self-correcting.” It’s the kind of thinking that has led many to over-optimistically advocate for an “unfettered” and “unregulated” market that never impinges on the supremacy of the “self.”

But there are crucial limits to the “self.”

Marty suggests Americans (and, I’d add, many Canadians) haven’t been willing to face the dark, shadow aspects of an economic system and foreign policy that focused on serving only the “self” (including that of the nation).

Just as the Iraq war has proved disastrous on human and financial fronts, Marty says the battered economy is making us look at all aspects of what happens when “the self” is glorified as absolute.

“We are well aware of our own virtue, knowledge, power and security, and these are real enough to be celebrated,” he writes.

“But we did not recognize their undersides: vice, ignorance, weakness and insecurity, which overtook us.”

As a Lutheran, Marty responds to the financial crisis with a secular translation of the “body of Christ” theme, which teaches us to reflect on how “we are members one of another.”

Instead of “self-healing,” he wisely suggests the western economic system needs “mutual” healing.

To use the language of other traditions, a Buddhist might say we need economic solutions that recognize we are all interconnected.

In secular terms, the late American political philosopher John Rawls would teach that we need economic policies beneficial to us all, no matter where we find ourselves on the financial ladder.

The simplest way to put one of the spiritual lessons of the economic collapse, however, is simply to make it clear that creating a healthy society has to go much further than asking, “What’s in it for me?”

dtodd@vancouversun.com

http://communities.canada.com/vancouversun/blogs/thesearch/archive/2009/01/10/healing-the-battered-economy-means-going-beyond-the-self-what-s-in-it-for-me-is-not-an-attitude-that-will-work-in-the-times-we-face.aspx

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2 Comments

  1. Satan’s words to Eve in the Garden began with the promise “YOU” can be better. After asking Eve what God had said, he implies that there is more that God is not telling them. The serpent challenges the veracity of God’s word by saying “YOU shall not surely die… For God knows in the day YOU eat from it YOUR eyes will be opened, and YOU will be like God.”

    As I look at the “YOU’s” in satan’s words, I realize that the temptation “to be like god” was accomplished by directing Eve (and then Adam) to look at themselves as independent beings, apart from God. The “whats-in-it-for-you” question separated their identity from God. And once they considered that they might actually exist as creatures apart from the Creator, their failure was sealed.

    So it is with the “YOU” message of Joel Osteen’s books “YOUR best life now” and “Become a Better YOU” which can result in the same kind of departure from the Creator/Creature relationship. The allure of better things and the hope of self-improvement through self-effort is still a viable strategy of satan to get even believers off-center.

  2. I really like your coment and will be looking at your wbesite TY GREG


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