Let's learn from this 'teachable moment'

  • October 20, 2008
For all the damage it’s doing, the crisis shaking the foundations of the world’s financial system has spawned at least one booming industry: economic punditry.

If you haven’t been camped out in Algonquin Park for the last two months, you are surely familiar with what I’m talking about: the endless parade of experts before the cameras of cable TV news networks, each with learned opinions about what’s gone wrong with the world and what’s to be done about it. Finger-pointing abounds. Some blame consumers, chronically addicted to the cheap, easy credit of the last several years. Others confidently blame “predatory” lenders, or absent-minded regulators, or the profligacy of public-sector spending by governments living far beyond their means.
But while ready to parcel out responsibility for the turmoil, few of the pundits see a workable way out of it: TV viewers and newspaper readers are by this time very familiar with the oft-repeated sentiment that “we are in uncharted waters.”

And so we are. The dire situation of the international investment and credit markets is extraordinarily complex. The remedies on offer from economists, politicians and other shapers of public policy are all hugely expensive, full of risk and largely untested. Most ordinary citizens are left to worry about our jobs, mortgages and investments, while the decision-makers everywhere frantically seek to steer the Titanic of the globalized economy away from the iceberg of worldwide depression looming up ahead.

I do not wish to simplify the problems faced by our leaders and their advisors. But for everyday Christians, the troubles of the economy call for something beyond the kind of structural tinkering and repair being prescribed by the financial wizards. We are living in what theologians call a “teachable moment” — one of those times when the moral underpinnings of self and society are suddenly exposed and found wanting, when each of us is summoned to intense reflection on God’s word and His revelation in the church. It is also a time when we are called to reject the sorry game of placing the blame on others — banks, Wall Street and Bay Street, the government — and to find in ourselves the courage to repent of the sins that have led to the present impasse.

What are these sins? As the most candid observers, Christian and non-Christian, have been pointing out throughout the crisis, there are two: greed and fear. Both these sins are profoundly insidious, easily working their way into the disordered human heart, and both are very dangerous.

First, greed. While there is nothing wrong with desiring to fulfil one’s needs, greed can distort this desire into a lust to possess money, property and even other people for the sake of sheer possession.

But supine agreement with mass cultural trends can be as morally deadly as active grasping for money and things. Most people in industrialized societies, for example, would never tolerate slavery, which is one manifestation of greed. Yet for many years, we have tolerated the impoverishment of the many — through stagnant or falling real incomes, through the encouragement of borrowing far beyond the ability to repay — and the enrichment of few at the expense of everyone else.

Current expressions of greed cannot be separated from the “greed is good” ideology that has pervaded North American society since the tumultuous cultural transformations of the “liberated” 1960s. The American philosopher Julian Edney has written that “we exist in a kind of void, in which individualism flourishes (along with) narcissism, ego, materialism, the pursuit of self, wealth, status and greed — but nothing that moves the masses together.”

In the absence of common social purpose, each person is encouraged to grab everything for himself in a self-destructive attempt to win happiness, security and the bliss proffered by a consumer society. The present financial crisis, which has been largely fuelled, the experts agree, by excessive public and private borrowing and the longing for extravagant returns on investments, is one consequence of such behaviour by the millions.

In the current circumstances, fear, the other besetting sin of our time, has returned with a vengeance. Christians must resist the temptation to fear by reasserting our faith in God’s providence — the divine ordering of time and history that is leading the pilgrim church to the Kingdom by way of “teachable moments” of judgment and cleansing discipline such as the present one.

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