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[Chalice] The Spiritual Roots of the Economic Crisis: [Chalice]
Pastor Niemoller Revisited

Presented Mother's Day, May 10, 2009, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

Listen to a recording of "The Spiritual Roots of the Economic Crisis: Professor Niemoller Revisited"
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Opening words from Thomas Jefferson:

"I have come to a resolution myself, as I hope every good citizen will, never again to purchase any article of foreign manufacture which can be had of American make, be the difference of price what it may."

And from Pastor Niemoller:

"In Germany, they came first for the Communists, And I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist; And then they came for the trade unionists, And I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist; And then they came for the Jews, And I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew; And then . . . they came for me . . . And by that time there was no one left to speak up."

We have talked about important things this year: racial issues and race relations, how to live more in harmony with the earth, Jesus as the victim of political empire, forgiveness . . . It's been a great year. But what we haven't talked about is what everyone is concerned about: the severe economic problems, so severe we don't argue about the "r" word recession and some even use the "d" word, depression.

The current economic situation is serious and alarming. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs, millions more are worried about whether they will lose their jobs, unemployment is nearing 10%, consumer spending and consumption generally has dried up, auto companies are bankrupt, the stock market has gone from 1300s to the 700s. And you hear this phrase over and over again in the media: "the worst economic downturn since the great depression."

This "worst economic downturn since the great depression" is so severe that everyone or almost everyone is affected, and nearly everyone is scratching their heads and wondering how the heck did we get here?

A year ago at this time those of us in our country who read newspapers and follow national and world news were hearing about the sub-prime mortgages, falling housing market, and a rising number of home foreclosures. But whoever thought then that this would lead to the collapse of huge investment banks, 800 billion government bailout of the financial industry, rapidly rising unemployment, a stock market in the 700s, and the worst economic downturn since the great depression?

I'm not here to explain the financial meltdown and how we got here to this "worst economic downturn". Probably everyone of you understands high finance more than I do and some of you understand it way better than most of us. I will say if you are trying to understand you should watch the episode of the PBS series Frontline titled Inside the Meltdown, broadcast originally back in February.

I'm less concerned with an economic analysis of how our economy got here than I am with a social and ethical analysis of our culture. What does our current economic crisis reveal to us about our contemporary American culture, about what our values are, what type of people we are, about what we value? This cultural criticism from an ethical and a religious point of view has been entirely nonexistent during this economic crisis, and I find that lack of critical analysis of ourselves, of our culture, of our values appalling.

So that is what I would like to open up today, open up the question of what this current economic downturn says about us, our culture, ourselves. I would like to do that through these 3 touchstones we have already mentioned and contemplated: the passage from Martin Luther King's essay "The Drum Major Instinct" about the material temptations of American society; the brief passage from Buber's I and Thou where he says the will to profit has to always remain tied to the will to interhuman relation; and that famous mea culpa by the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller that has become so famous that it is put on posters and hung on walls, that mea culpa that is really a testament to narcissism, that tendency to ignore and tune out human suffering just as long as it is happening to other people.

There is little debate about the fact that this economic crisis began in the sub-prime mortgage markets. That is said over and over again in the media. But what does that mean? It refers to various institutions in the mortgage industry discarding commonsense practices in lending like loaning money to people who have a job, who have an address, credit history, who can demonstrate an ability to pay it back. The housing bubble and deregulation of financial industries led banks and mortgage companies to lend to people without jobs, income, even addresses. And no longer were there simply the standard 15 or 30 years mortgages. There were 40 and 50 year mortgages, loans without any money upfront, loans where you just paid the interest and didn't even start paying on the principal for 5 years or 10 years. These sub-prime mortgages sound crazy, but by 2003 and 2004 they became so lucrative and such a big percentage of the profit in the industry that even Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac got in the business of subprime mortgages.

In a real sense this current economic crisis has its roots in these practices that more than enabled but invited and enticed people to live foolishly and unrealistically beyond their means, and so we need to really think about and talk about why people in our culture today feel the need to do that, to live beyond their means and act and look wealthy. In our dire economic situation today we come across MLK and his essay "The Drum Major Instinct" and his words of financial advice seem old-fashioned, even quaint. You might read that passage today and automatically think a new coat or a new car no problem..just buy it on credit. Economist today might call this keeping up with the joness' that MLK talks about "competitive consumption" and a lot of people would simply say that is what keeps our economy going, that is what it is based on. Has not our culture become so much more materialistic since MLK wrote that essay that we can understand why in our super materialistic culture that it really is difficult to feel happy and feel good about yourself if you don't have the house, the clothes, the car, the big screen TV, the i-pod, cell phone, etc. Our material success, our possessions, is our sign of success to others and often to ourselves too. In our culture today we are measured by and often measure ourselves by how much stuff we have. So it is little wonder that so many people took advantage of the opportunity to look wealthy and to have, since so much of what our culture values is wrapped up in having and appearing. Who would doubt that this valuing of ourselves and others through wealth and possessions has become the dominant way our culture thinks and operates since MLK wrote his essay?

In our current economic crisis people often refer back to that movie from the 80s Wall Street. We always remember that slick, well-dressed, super wealthy Gordon Gecko and his famous line "Greed is good." What we forget is another, smaller, not very well-dressed character, the union leader, blue collar guy who has lived his life to help his fellow blue collar workers. At one point, when he is arguing with his slick, stockbroker son, he says: "I never measured a man by the size of his wallet." Our culture is so materialist today that such words make him something like a dinosaur today, as old-fashioned sounding as MLK. Of all the words and statements that MLK's writing still challenge us with today, I think one line in particular would seem most challenging and even un-American to a lot of people and especially a lot of younger people today. He said in an interview in 1965: I think I'd rise up in my grave if I died leaving two or three hundred thousand dollars. One of the most consistent lessons the life of MLK teaches us today is that human life has many more important tasks than just making money and having stuff. A true human life on this planet is not about the Bling! But somewhere along the way between 1965 and now our culture seems to have lost its grip on that essential truth. We do measure other people and ourselves by the size of our wallets, and of course of our houses, our cars, our retirement plans. This sad spiritual truth is why so many of our fellow citizens fell into the huge financial sink hole opened up by the subprime mortgage craze.

I think we can see another and an even more serious spiritual and ethical problem within this sub-prime mortgage mess, and this one takes us to our second touchstone, from Martin Buber. Think the problem now not from the perspective of the person wanting the mortgage but from the perspective of the people and institutions writing the loans and mortgages. The person who works for the banks and financial services industries is now providing loans on ridiculous terms, loans that will drastically increase over the term of the loan, loans that the person will probably not be able to pay back, loans that will bring upon the person serious financial problems, loans that may well devastate the person or family and cause them to even lose their house. But you write it and process it anyway because that is what you do and how you make money, and your bank or mortgage company is making a lot of money this way too. The bank or company you work for bundles the loans and sells them to another financial company so they don't care if the loan ever gets repaid or causes havoc on the person who signed the loan. Everyone is making money, everyone is happy, and no one cares about anything else and anyone else. The loan officer doesn't care about the person taking out the loan, the bank or mortgage company doesn't care about the terms of the loan or its soundness and just bundles it and sells it, and the bank or company that buys the bundles is just happy to have more loans and more profits, and the people in the insurance investment companies that ensure the loans are happy making money ensuring the loans and apparently don't care what would happen to their company if all these bad loans became toxic assets. This is how we get to the collapse of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers and to the 800 billion dollar now possibly 3 trillion dollar bailout of AIG and all the rest.

What fuels the entire disastrous collapse is complete indifference to anyone or anything outside yourself. Each person or industry is exclusively concerned with his or her or its own short term profit. The people within the financial industries are making money hand over fist, and I'm sure they are feeling great about themselves and probably buying a lot of stuff, like big cars and big houses, because they are writing so many loans and making so much money for their banks or mortgages companies, and no one really cares about anything else but themselves and their own profit.

This brings us, of course, to these fragile little lines in the early 20th century classic by Martin Buber: the will to profit is fine but it has to be tied to the will to human relations. Sure, I can make money in a capitalist system and have no reason to be ashamed that I have to make a living but the entire system is only ethical, justifiable, and spiritually alive and healthy if the people remember that people-even people who are not me or mine-are so vastly more important than the profit.

Our current financial cataclysm has provoked a lot though still not enough thought and conversation about the deregulation of the financial industries. Deregulation helped caused the problem, for sure, but so did the loss of the will to human relation, that tie and connection to other people. The problem in large measure was caused by people in the financial sector who basically said I am making money and I don't care what effect it may have on the people I am dealing with. There is no will to human relations; there is only the will to profit. That is capitalism. Deregulation and the moral phenomenon of narcissim-that what happens to other people is no concern of mine and I don't care because there is no connection between us-together created this current financial crisis.

The pain of this "worst economic downturn since the great depression", started as it was by people who were making money and not caring about the fate of their clients and customers, should really cause us to think about this problem of narcissism within our capitalist economy, this mentality of just not caring about other people, of feeling no tie, no will to human relation, when it comes to others. This narcissism goes far beyond the banking and mortgage industries. It may even be at the very core of our late capitalist economy, essential to its operation.

Just think of how this narcissism has snuck into, grown exponentially, and now completely taken over in our own age of late capitalism without us even noticing or thinking about it very much. A generation ago if an American bought a TV or a shirt he or she knew or could well imagine something about the life of the person who built, assembled or created it. That person made a decent living, perhaps belonged to a union, had laws to protect him or her from being exploited, worked in human and humane conditions, probably even had a paid vacation every year. Now we can know that or expect that from almost nothing we use, and certainly nearly nothing we wear. Our age of late capitalism enables us to purchase more and more, which is great, but the more and more is more and more made and created by people thousands of miles away who are exploited and who work in miserable, semi-slave conditions, and for the most part we don't think about that or that is fine with us as long as we get more and more stuff cheap. Late capitalism is great at severing the tie between human beings. The people who make become more and more the world's far-away exploited and wretched, and we become more and more the owners of more and more stuff who feel more tie, more connection, to our stuff than we do to the people who make it. This phase of late capitalism makes us more than competitive consumers. It makes us narcissists.

Now I am not saying that buying a pair of Nike's is the same thing as making a loan to a person right in front of you that you know may well cause them financial ruin, nor am I saying these two actions are morally equivalent. But I am saying that the common denominator in each of these and in so much of our lives within late capitalism is narcissism, that indifference toward and lack of concern for or connection to other people.

I could say that our American super capitalistic culture is so narcissistic that we may actually be led someday into a war where we invade and occupy another country and destabilize it and cause all kinds of havoc in the society and meanwhile not even pay very much attention to what is happening over there, but of course that is exactly what has already happened.

We here in this church and certainly Unitarians in general, we are people who do care and are connected. We do read the newspaper, follow and discuss politics, world affairs. We care and are connected enough to be tuned in to what is happening in the world. But sometimes I don't think we can really get into and fully understand the tuned out, disconnected, narcissistic mentality so prevalent in our society that makes our own late capitalist culture perhaps the most narcissistic culture in the history of the earth.

Walk for a while within this tuned out, disconnected mindset. Joe Biden? Not sure who he is but think he's a politician. Fallujah, Sunni Triangle, Maquata al Sadr? Abu Ghraib? Never heard of them. Reason for the Iraq war? Fighting terrorists. Rationale for the Iraq war as opposed to the rationale for the war in Afghanistan? Didn't know we were in Afghanistan but sure it is the war on terror. Chance for peace between Sunni and Shia? Who are they? Even in the worst times in 2006 and 2007 how many soldiers got killed in Iraq this month? No idea, but I do support the troops. Who attacked us on 9/11? Terrorists. From what country? Lots but mostly from Iraq, I guess.

If you think I made these questions and answers up, talk to people who aren't in this church, as I do every day in my other work place. This semester I have been teaching a course at QU on violence and the philosophy of nonviolence. I have come to a rather clear and frightening conclusion: of all possible violences in the whole world, for a country to invade another country, radically destabilize it to the point that civil unrest causes the violent deaths of as many as 100,000 people, and takes many more lives of our own soldiers than anyone expected, and the people in the invading country don't even really care and pay attention-this is the worst violence.

This of course takes us to our third touchstone this morning, the familiar quotation from Pastor Niemoller. As a person who teaches about the Holocaust I might take comfort in the fact that this statement about helping other people has become so well known that it even appears on posters on walls in college dorm rooms. As ubiquitous as it is, I wish it were better, more profoundly understood for the real moral lesson it teaches. The fact is that Martin Niemoller really knew what he was talking about. He really didn't care and really did feel no connection to those German Jews. Even when the Jews were being openly harassed and persecuted, even when they were having their lives severely restricted and their basic human rights taken away by their own country, he was still in his pulpit speaking against Judaism and against Jews. He felt no tie or connection to "the Jews." What was happening to them was no concern of his. His statement we put on posters displays a recognition of the moral failure of narcissism. Other people's suffering only became a problem for him when he suffered the same oppression they suffered. Then he knew there was a real problem. We may hang his statement on the wall, but does that make it any less applicable to our own situation today? Couldn't one simply rephrase it to apply it to our own situation now during this "worst economic downturn since the great depression?

"We bombed and invaded Iraq on the most questionable of grounds but I didn't care because I was not an Iraqi Tens of thousands of sunnis killed tens of thousands of shia and vice versa for years but I paid no attention because I wasn't a sunni or a shia.

Our soldiers suffered terrible physical wounds, casualties, and psychological trauma but I didn't really know about it because I didn't have any of my family in the army.

Poor people and especially poor people of color were abandoned in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina but that didn't concern me because I am not black or poor and am not from New Orleans.

The housing bubble burst and people in subprime mortgages were ruined and lost their homes, but this wasn't my concern because I didn't have a mortgage like that.

But then the financial markets collapsed and the stock market dropped in half and now my retirement accounts are only half of what they used to be, and now I am really hurt, worried, and upset and cannot even sleep because of all my financial problems."

If you rewrote the Niemoller quote in this way, I am afraid it would describe a high percentage of people in our culture today. Today, today . . .."the worst economic downturn since the great depression." This is our situation today, and this has affected all of us. But after all that has happened in these last several years, after all the suffering and mourning within our military families, while the entire country of Iraq has become the scene of constant trauma and mourning and still is, and while the situation in Afghanistan gets worse and worse for our troops and for the Afghani people, to talk as if the fact that our stock portfolios have been cut in half is the worst thing that has happened is morally obscene. It also shows us that the problems in our culture today are not just financial, even as we try to make our way through "the worst economic downturn since the great Depression."

©2009 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Rev. Dr. Rob. 2009. The Spiritual Roots of the Economic Crisis: Professor Niemoller Revisited, /talks/20090510.shtml (accessed July 16, 2020).

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