Voices: Religion has role in failing economy

Posted Sept. 26, 2008, at 6:07 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6:01 a.m.

Is religion responsible, at least in part, for the ongoing collapse of the private financial sector in America? Unrestrained greed has proven once again that the “invisible hand” of unregulated economics is, if anything, the devil’s hand — justifying unbridled avarice as the scheming alternative to the generous love taught by Jesus.

But how could religion be to blame? After all, wasn’t it the reductionism version of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” that led capitalists to the notion that greed is good? Didn’t they justify themselves in Darwin’s name, while religion argues that Darwin’s theories stand in opposition to the Bible?

In fact, the Bible has much to teach us about human nature, including the faults of established religions. Just what is it that allows a mortgage broker — a man or woman who would never steal someone’s wallet — to push that same person into taking on a mortgage they clearly can’t afford? The broker who wouldn’t use a mask and gun to rob a few hundred dollars, would, for a small commission, use lies, paperwork, and a ballpoint pen to ruin a person’s life. Is it because religion has taught them one thing is called stealing, while the other is called making a living?

And the further the wheeler-dealers get from the faces of the mortgage holders, the easier it is to steal, and the bigger the killing. Take the securities brokers, some of them pillars of their churches, who bundled these failing loans and marketed them to investors around the world. When these investments proved worthless, the leveraged deals backed by these toxic mortgage loans crashed and burned. Now it’s not just the little guy, but the whole world that stands on the brink of bankruptcy. And while all this is going on, where is religion?

Or is it that religion has assumed an us-against-them attitude, as well? There is a long tradition of so-called Christian denominations that compete for numbers — sects who claim they have the only God-approved religion, the only God-approved rituals, the only God-approved knowledge. “Others may call themselves Christian, but they don’t get it like we get it!” And the numbers wars aren’t just about membership, as some churches make tithing demands as usurious as the small-print clauses in those subprime, adjustable rate mortgages. “Pay up or get out of the pew” has all the ear-marks of spiritual foreclosure.

But I believe the worst offenders are those who proclaim God will snatch them away from earthly suffering in a pre-tribulation “rapture.” This notion is based on the misreading of a few Bible passages by John Nelson Darby, back in 1827. Darby’s idea gained traction most recently with the appearance of Tim LaHaye’s “Left Behind” series of novels about the Rapture.

The results of all this may be summed up in a popular bumper sticker, which proclaims: “Warning! In case of the Rapture, this car will be driverless!” That is, God will snatch drivers from moving cars, pilots from planes, and all those left can crash and burn. This “Ha, ha, I win, you lose!” attitude represents the ultimate us-against-them perversion of Christian love. It’s a spiritual bailout akin to the financial bailout the banks expect — they’ll fly away, leaving the guy with a mortgage and no job to crash and burn.

Too many religions have aligned themselves with the practice of unreflective patriotism and unrestrained capitalism; the same us-against-them notions which isolate us from one another and from the rest of the world. Politics is a corrupting influence, because it’s all about earthly power. (It’s worth noting that Tim LaHaye, the man who turned prophet into profit, has pumped his rewards into the Council for National Policy, a secretive political lobby.)

Politics of this sort is especially corrosive to faith in God, because it attempts to ally God with the powers of the world — economic and military powers anathema to God — because they are built on Satan’s philosophy of divide and conquer. This is a corrupting force we know is being used today in the politics of Islam. But beware. It’s also being used in the politics of “Christian” capitalism, as well!

Meanwhile, the lessons Jesus taught are all we need to straighten out the mess we’re in, in the church and in the world. Start with his righteous anger, and throw the money-changers out of the houses of God (Matthew 21:12). When modern-day Pharisees try to hassle you with religious tithes and regulations “for your own good,” tell them to remove the planks from their own eyes (Matthew 7:3-5).

Next, apply Jesus’ parables to relationships. Where there are hungry, sick and poor, be the Good Samaritan who stops and helps and gives from his own purse (Luke 10:29-37). When banks and big financial institutions ask for taxpayer bailouts, look and see how generous the banks have been with the people who owe them money, and then treat them the same way they have treated the homeowners in default (Matthew 18:23-34). When business leaders and your boss tell you greed is good, remind them that, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant to all.” (Mark 9:35).

When people tell you they’ve been saved by faith, tell them, “Congratulations!” But remind them, “Faith, hope and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (I Corinthians 13:13). And for that reason, when they tell you, “It’s great that things are getting so bad, because I can’t wait for the Rapture,” tell them, “Thanks, but no thanks. A loving Christian won’t leave his suffering brothers and sisters behind.”

Be assured, many of those in power in the world today —from certain politically influential clergy to the lobbyists, financiers and others who manipulate the politicians — would crucify the Son of God again if he were so presumptuous as to return as the teacher of 2,000 years ago. Do you want to ally yourself with the crucifiers or the crucified? This is the personal decision we are called by God to make.

Lee Witting is a chaplain at Eastern Maine Medical Center and pastor of the Union Street Brick Church in Bangor. He may be reached at leewitting@midmaine.com. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.

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