THE DEVIL AND ARTHUR ANDERSON:Paul Krugman’s column in today’s New York Times has crystallized some of my anger about the growing number of corporate accounting scandals. Twenty years ago, I suspect a lot of us would have read the paper, nodded our heads sagely about the temptations of greed, and moved on to the sports pages. Most of us weren’t heavily invested in the stock market.
But things are different now. For the last decade, we’ve been exhorted to save more, to take more responsibility for our retirement and for our children’s college education. We were told that we couldn’t depend on Social Security, or on getting a pension after 30 years of service with the same company. We had to stand on our own two feet.
A lot of us took that advice seriously. I know I did. We’ve got a “homemaker” IRA for my wife and part of my take-home pay goes right into a company-sponsored 401(k). Everything we’ve read for the last 10 years has been saying “stocks, stocks, stocks.” I’m not just talking the overheated rhetoric from CNBC and MotleyFool.com. Serious investment professionals would tell you that if you have—as we do—a 30 year investing horizon, it makes sense to put about 80 percent of your retirement fund into stocks. So that’s what we did.
Except it turns out the game was rigged. It was rigged in favor of insiders. Every day we read about new CEOs who used funny accounting to run up their stock price, exercised their stock options, and then walked away to let the rest of us take the fall. Some of America’s biggest companies were engaged in this kind of behavior.
This isn’t about risk. I can handle risk. I’m willing to take responsibility for my investment decisions. But in order to calculate my risk, the information needs to be good. Any first year economics student will tell you that. But the information wasn’t good. It was bad. And it wasn’t just bad because the companies and accountants were sloppy. It was bad because they deliberately set out to deceive us. They lied.
And those lies had consequences. Oh, don’t weep for me. My wife and I have plenty of time to make up what we’ve lost. But a lot of other people, particularly people close to retirement, aren’t so lucky. It may not seem very p.c. to get worked up about a lot of middle class investors. But there are a lot of teachers, firefighters, nurses, programmers and others who took all the rhetoric about “taking responsibility for your retirement” seriously. Hopefully there will be enough time for them to pick up the pieces.
In the end, I think this scandal is as much a moral crisis as it is an economic crisis. I suspect most of the insiders of one form or another who profited from these little Ponzi schemes are not ‘bad people.’ They probably love their children, coach little league, and volunteer their time for a worthy cause or two. I suspect a lot of them even go to church on Sunday. But when the crunch came, being a ‘good person’ wasn’t enough.
It’s doubtful that human nature is any more corrupt today than it was 1,000 years ago, or even 10,000 years ago. What we have lost—particularly among the affluent—is an awareness of that corruption. As C.S. Lewis once said, “we are not merely imperfect creatures that need improvement: we are rebels that need lay down their arms.” For all of our affluence, our education, and our sophistication, we are still a people desperately in need of salvation.
PACIFISM BLOGGING: The debate continues. Eve Tushnet has posted a considerable amount on this issue today. She makes an interesting comparison between celibacy and pacifism, suggesting that both are forms of eschatological witness that some--but not all--Christians are called to. Ranting Screeds wrestles with Romans 13 (Paul's famous discourse on how Christians should be subject to the civil authorit. Ranting asks "If God the Father confers civil authority, and he has conferred it upon a Christian, and he authorizes the civil authority to do certain things (including bear the sword), why would He prohibit His believers from performing the legitimate (in God's eyes) functions of the civil authority?" Telford Work responds that while this passage may legitimate the use of force by the civil authority, it does not necessarily authorize Christians to do so.
Those interested in reading my post on this topic should scroll down to Monday's postings, or click on the Greatest Hits archive in the upper right hand corner of the page.
AFTER SUICIDE:Father Ron Rolheiser has a wonderful column this week on suicide that ought to be photocopied and distributed to anyone who has lost a loved one to suicide AND anyone called to preach at the funeral of someone who has committed suicide. Here's an excerpt:
Suicide is an illness not a sin. Nobody just calmly decides to commit suicide and burden his or her loved ones with that death any more than anyone calmly decides to die of cancer and cause pain. The victim of suicide (in all but rare cases) is a trapped person, caught up in a fiery, private chaos that has its roots both in his or her emotions and in his or her bio-chemistry. Suicide is a desperate attempt to end unendurable pain, akin to one throwing oneself through a window because one's clothing is on fire.
Many of us have known victims of suicide and we know too that in almost every case that person was not full of ego, pride, haughtiness, and the desire to hurt someone. Generally it's the opposite. The victim has cancerous problems precisely because he or she is wounded, raw, and too-bruised to have the necessary resiliency needed to deal with life. Those of us who have lost loved ones to suicide know that the problem is not one of strength but of weakness, the person is too-bruised to be touched.
WELBORN ON WILLS: There is an interesting discussion going on at Amy Welborn's site about Gary Wills and his new book Why I Am A Catholic. Those who know Amy will not be surprised to learn that she disagrees with Mr. Wills on a number of points, but she takes no cheap shots and her critique is serious and well-reasoned. Amy raises some larger points about the "submission of faith" that are interesting and that I may get around to responding to next week. Sursum Corda--for good or ill--does not move at Internet speed.
Now, as I pray, I imagine God as a Divine Archer. We’ve released Larry into the world, a “living arrow” with his own unique destiny. Now our task, it seems to me, is to focus not on Larry’s life but on our own—to remain the “stable bow,” at once flexible and strong, able to pull back and hold steady.
Inside myself I feel a new capacity to love and accept Larry, even when I don’t agree with all his actions. And I feel some new certainties: We must all keep talking and listening, we must learn more, we must be open with each other and with other family members, we can’t force Larry to change. While once I felt embarrassed that Larry had “come out,” I now appreciate his honesty about who he is.
Wright poses an interesting thought experiment. He asks us to imagine two parents, both of whom have genes for Cystic Fibrosis and Huntingdon's disease, but who have given birth to a daughter, Chole, who has neither disease. She dies, and the parents choose to clone her rather than take the risk that a baby conceived naturally will have one or both of these conditions. Wright argues that the parent's decision is none of the government's business. Fukayama's response is interesting:
I think that the closest parallel to a ban on reproductive cloning would be the existing ban on incest. Incest, as you know from your work on evolutionary psychology, is actually a fairly rare thing that people by and large are not itching to do, and yet all societies have passed laws restricting sexual and reproductive rights in this regard. If you asked people why they support an incest ban, they would respond with some mixture of safety/health and moral concerns (though maybe attitudes are changing even on this …). It is possible to construct a sympathetic incest scenario, similar to your Chloe case. Perhaps a brother-sister or father-daughter pair had lived apart, but met, fell in love, and suddenly discovered that they were the most perfect people for one another. We could test for double-recessive genes to make sure they didn't pass on birth defects—so why should we keep them apart just because they are genetically related?
The fact that you can describe a sympathetic scenario is no more a justification for permitting incest than it is for cloning. (Indeed, you could find sympathetic scenarios for doing many things that are banned today, like murder, robbery, fraud, and the like.) Reproductive cloning, like incest, would be a fairly minor issue either way: There aren't likely to be many Chloes out there, just as there won't be a lot of teen-age bombshell clones tempting their fathers. The reason for an outright ban is, as in the case of incest laws, a mixture of safety/health and ethical reasons.
Check out the rest of the discussion. It's worth your time.
Some years ago, I was active for a time in what might be broadly termed the “peace movement,” where I came into contact with religious pacifists, mostly Quakers, but some from other traditions as well, including Catholicism. What struck me about these individuals was that their pacifism was not merely rooted in an aversion to violence per se. Rather, it arose from a strong commitment to living as disciples of Jesus Christ and this was a commitment that permeated every aspect of their lives. I could not help thinking that if all Christians were like this, the truth of the Gospels would require no further argument.
Despite these experiences, I have still found myself unable to fully embrace pacifism. This is not merely because I am a Roman Catholic, raised in a tradition that holds that the use of force can be morally licit under certain narrow circumstances. There are certainly Catholics throughout history who have been pacifists and the Church has not condemned their witness.
My difficulties with pacifism fall into two broad categories, the first being what I might term practical difficulties, and the second theoretical or—perhaps more appropriately—theological difficulties. I want to begin with the former.
By practical difficulties, I mean the problems I have with pacifism as it is currently practiced and how it expresses itself (or at least appears to express itself) as an actual social and/or religious movement.
Christian pacifists tend to be at their best when they are making a broad religious argument about the need to be faithful to the Gospel, whatever the cost. We should be willing to give up our lives, the lives of those we love, and to see our land despoiled and conquered rather than betray the Gospel. I think there is a more truth in this position than many contemporary Christians are willing to admit.
But problems tend to arise when pacifists have to deal with an actual threat of war. Particularly in a religiously pluralistic society like the United States, pacifists have a tendency to downplay the religious arguments for non-violence in favor of prudential arguments: “We should use non-violent means, such as sanctions;” “bombing just allows the terrorists to recruit more followers;” “lifting the arms embargo against Bosnia will just further militarize the conflict,” etc.
There are two problems with these arguments. The first is that they usually feel contrived, because it’s clear that those making them are opposed to war in any circumstances, not just because the current circumstances are arguably unfavorable.
The second problem is that these arguments often come across as woefully naïve about the nature of the evil being faced. After a decade of watching the Iraqi people suffer under U.N. sanctions while there has been no discernable change in behavior on the part of the Iraqui regime, can anyone still seriously maintain that a more aggressive program of sanctions would have forced Hussein out of Kuwait in 1990? It is one thing to say that we must not resist evil with evil; it is quite another to claim that the evil we face is not really that evil after all, particularly when the latter claim is demonstrably false.
Occasionally, in their desperation, some pacifists have been known to lose their moral bearings entirely, as was the case during the recent U.S. military action in Afghanistan. Several anti-war web sites (some affiliated with Christian pacifists) were circulating ever higher estimates of civilian casualties in an effort to discredit the U.S. operation. Michael Walzer, who has probably done more thinking about just and unjust wars than any other contemporary philosopher, denounced these efforts in the Spring 2002 issue of Dissent:
A few left academics have tried to figure out how many civilians actually died in Afghanistan, aiming at as high a figure as possible, on the assumption, apparently, that if the number is greater than the number of people killed in the Towers, the war is unjust. At the moment, most of the numbers are propaganda; there is no reliable accounting. But the claim that the numbers matter in just this way, that the 3120th death determines the injustice of the war, is in any case wrong. It denies one of the most basic and best understood moral distinctions: between premeditated murder and unintended killing. And the denial isn’t accidental, as if the people making it just forgot about, or didn’t know about, the everyday moral world. The denial is willful: unintended killing by Americans in Afghanistan counts as murder. This can’t be true anywhere else, for anybody else.
The last point raises an issue that is particularly challenging for religious pacifists as they work in coalition with other organizations that do not share their religious commitments. There are parts of the peace movement (although not the majority of it, I would hold) that are deeply infected with the virus of anti-Americanism. This is not to say that the foreign policy of the United States is beyond criticism (I have spent a fair amount of time on picket lines dedicated to the contrary proposition). But the Christian witness of pacifism is weakened if it appears to take more from the writings of Noam Chomsky than the Gospels.
But all of this I think I could overcome—indeed, I would have to overcome—if I truly believed that pacifism was a non-negotiable demand of Christian discipleship. I concede that there are strong arguments on both sides of the question, but in the end I do not find the arguments for absolute pacifism convincing.
Given that religious pacifism has strong roots in Protestant Christianity, it is not surprising that many of the arguments about whether pacifism should be normative for Christians come down to questions of biblical interpretation. I make no claims to be a scripture scholar, but I often find myself uncomfortable with the way that many pacifists use scripture, lifting particular quotes (“if a man strikes your right cheek, offer him your left as well,” “put away your sword,” etc.) out of their historical and literary context.
It is also hard for me to read the scriptures in their totality—Old and New Testament together—and conclude that the God of Moses, Joshua and David who became incarnate in Jesus Christ is calling those who believe in Him to absolute pacifism. Christian pacifists are quite facile at using historical-critical methods to soften the violent imagery of the Old Testament, but when it comes to the Gospels, the words of Jesus are thought to be clear and unambiguous.
I make this argument with some trepidation, because I am aware of a number of serious works of biblical criticism that attempt to refute the very argument I am making. I have not yet had time to digest them all and I am very open to the possibility that my interpretation is the one that is incorrect.
I also sense a more subtle theological problem with Christian pacifism, although this, too, may be a misreading due to my ignorance. The Christian pacifist seems to see the means of salvation as the action of the Christian community, which brings about the Kingdom by emulating the way that Jesus lived his life. This runs the risk of reducing the significance of Jesus to the power of a good example and appears to minimize the soteriological significance of his death and resurrection. It may be precisely because we live in a world where the complete emulation of Christ is humanly impossible that His salvific death was necessary. In a fallen world, sometimes there are no good answers.
In the end, it is precisely because of the complicated nature of this dispute that I am drawn back to my faith as a Catholic in the Tradition of the Church. One way to look at that Tradition is as the collective wisdom of generations. The consensus of that Tradition—gradually developed and modified throughout the centuries—is that there are a narrow set of circumstances under which acts of war can be morally licit. The fact that the criteria for a “just war” have been abused by states seeking to justify their military actions does not invalidate the criteria. Those who employ the criteria will ultimately be held answerable for the use to which they put them.
I wish I could say that the many years I have spent wrestling with this have made me more comfortable with my position. They have not. It is easy to lose sight of what we are talking about—the taking of human life. Being a civilian, I have given consent to others to kill on my behalf. Whatever the cause, I cannot help but see that as the greatest of tragedies. Sometimes I wonder whether all of these arguments are just clever ways of evading the simple truth of Jesus’ words, in which case I will have to answer for it.
This is why I cannot agree with those who condemn the pacifist as a coward or an accomplice of evil. God forbid we should ever be without pacifists. God forbid we should ever forget how terrible it is to take life. God forbid that Christians should fail to recognize the ways that our use of violence undermines the Gospel message. Should the last pacifist vanish from the earth, then we will know that God has truly abandoned us.