An exploding flash-bang fractured the skull of a Marine veteran of two tours in Iraq. The device was thrown at his head. Anger is now rage, and the cycle of violence is escalating.
While this tragedy continues to unfold, it is clear that the violence is both unfortunate and unnecessary. The Occupy protests were intended as peaceful alternatives to the violent protests in other countries. For many in the protests, the Occupy movement is some form of action, preferable to the media’s passive storytelling that, when spun through the pundits and regurgitated by politicians, deliberately shields those responsible.
What is truth? Like Pilate to Jesus, the question of what, exactly, has happened is a mystery to many. Who is to blame? Why are we here? Accordingly, and intentionally, interest in the truth withers, the cameras fade. As Christians, we understand that Pilate’s question was an attempt to avoid responsibility and tune revelation out. Therefore, as a people of both salt and light, baring truth is being light.
Part of that truth is found in the testimony of Alan Greenspan, given in October 2008 before the House of Representatives Committee on Government Oversight and Reform. He stated: “I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms.”
In a nutshell, the former Federal Reserve chairman championed disastrous economic policies based on his belief in responsible selves acting in self-interest (his “world-view” and “ideology”). He assumed that firms, in their self-interest, would operate with a certain level of care and responsibility. He believed that firms would do their homework and executives would not hide or engage in unnecessary risk. He had faith that the “good” of stability and security for individuals, institutions or marketplaces outweighs unnecessary risk. Accordingly, oversight and regulation were anathema to the cause.
Of course, he was never alone. This political “religion” has trickled down into every crevice of civic policy (on a global scale) over the past 30 years. The “invisible hand” of the “new” god now exerts a stranglehold upon areas as diverse as public utilities and infrastructure (read Enron/privatization of public utilities in the Third World due to IMF debt restructuring), as well as our own educational system. In the end, the current raison d’être of our modern societal structure revolves around free markets and competition among enlightened, self-interested actors.
This disastrous “civil religion” is, in part, the intellectual offspring of Ayn Rand’s “new” model of Egoism (Greenspan was a close friend and “student” of her writings). According to this ideology, the highest moral purpose for human life is personal happiness (self-interestedness). To this end, the whole of humanity’s moral landscape is the gain or deprivation of this moral good. Among other “entities” seeking their own good, the dramatic backdrop for humanity’s moral destiny is competition. Individuals acting with calculated reason to achieve this good is assumed by the model. If things go well, people have reasoned well. If things turn out badly, people lack knowledge or are incompetent.
As Greenspan would later admit, incompetence and lack of knowledge are not exceptions to the rule of self-interest. For human beings, knowledge is very limited and reason is not a companion to desire, but its slave. Desire blinds us to what reason might reveal. All those self-interested firms and institutions are made up of self-interested actors who will act according to their immediate self-interest and desires despite potential repercussions. Unlike Greenspan, at least Rand was consistent in championing self-interest as a naked will-to-power.
Our fellow citizens are marching in the street because of this naked will-to-power. Although their reasons for being there are varied, the protestors share a fundamental realization: Self-interest as a highest moral good is empty — the emperor has no clothes. The protestors want us to take a long, hard look at our center of values.
Yet, truth-telling is incomplete apart from action. We are also required to be salt. Why wasn’t the church demanding a re-evaluation of our values long before Oakland? Throughout the heart of the gospel and our Christian tradition, the understanding that self-interest is a disguise for unmitigated self-gratification is foundational. Furthermore, the church has often defined itself, through apologetics, as a body that rejects the exploitive tendencies of societies centered on personal happiness. When the church has not confronted this tendency, it was usually because the church was part of the problem.
It is not difficult to apply the words of St. Augustine (addressed to a defeated and debauched Roman culture) to the foolishness of Wall Street: “For certainly your desire for peace, and prosperity, and plenty is not prompted by any purpose of using these blessings honestly, … your purpose rather is to run riot in an endless variety of sottish pleasures, and thus generate from your prosperity a moral pestilence which will prove a thousandfold more disastrous than the fiercest enemy.”
Augustine used unbridled, self-interested desire, masquerading as piety, as the primary invective to criticize the Roman center of values. The same criticism applies in our day and age. Sin’s distortion of the human heart is the problematic root. As a result, we scramble to find a foundation of confidence to base our lives upon. This is evident even in the Occupy movement. While the frustration of the protestors is directed in a generally good direction, a central question remains: “What, then, will be our center of value?”
As the church, we need to realize that we have a “twilight of the gods” on our hands. Why, then, do we fumble around for a response? Unfortunately, this “civil religion” of self-interestedness has infiltrated the church. How many times, from seminars to the floor of presbytery meetings, have you heard that we should administer the church according to the “business model?” On another front, when we use words like “polity,” “stewardship,” or “essential tenets,” sometimes we simply mimic this pattern of self-interest and domination.
This sin is compounded by “new” forms of the faith like the “Prosperity Gospel.” Equating personal happiness and success with faith in God is ruinous to the heart of the church’s message about her master who was her slave. Given this pattern of behavior, the church fails to be the only true alternative to the pantheon of gods outside her door.
Nevertheless, the church of Jesus Christ is in once-in-a-generation position to declare the Good News of the Kingdom of God. Our culture is desperate to hear that there is another way of being. I remain hopeful that the church will respond faithfully, but pessimistically so. Reinhold Niebuhr, addressing his own historical circumstance, is a personal consolation despite my doubts: “[The individual] will feel in that tension between what is and what ought to be the very glory of life, and will come to know that the perfection which eludes him is not only human possibility and impossibility, but divine fact. … To such faith the generations are bound to return after they have pursued the mirages in the desert to which they are tempted from time to time by the illusions of particular eras.”
If we are to have a new future, the church must become a gathering house for a people who are both salt and light. As the god of self-interest exits stage left and the generations turn away from mirages, we must be that deep pool of hopefulness that calls people towards God. It is time for the church to return to apologetics and engagement in the world.
SAMUEL WEDDINGTON, a teaching elder in the PC(USA), is currently the director of English Ministries at Presbyterian Church of the Lord (Ju Nim Whe Gyo He) in Seoul, South Korea. You can reach him at [email protected]