Sunday, October 16, 2011

Confessions of a guilty Christian bystander

Ron Dreher is an American Tory...that is to say he is a conservative in a very different mold that the Tea Party or the "pro-business at all costs" approach of the self-styled Objectivists. He wrote an essay in the American Conservative in which he reflects on the Occupy Wall Street movement and the implications of the unbridled, unregulated wealth of the financial system we now inhabit.

Much of the response to OWS has been either abject horror or undying adoration. Two summers ago before the Tea Party was bought, packaged and re-purposed a corporate-owned re-branding of the GOP at a frat party, I was on the "abject horror" side of their movement. That's why this essay came to me a kind of tonic. In it Dreher offers a third way of approaching the discussion of Occupy Wall Street...and, as I said, perhaps as an overly late corrective to the original Tea Party movement.

After observing an "Occupy Easton" demonstration up close yesterday, I found myself struck by both the anger and the naivete of the participants.

Most of all I was taken by the cozy libertarianism of the group that cut across political lines. There were young second amendment fundamentalists holding signs right along side modern day punks, grown up hippies and guys who went to college on the original GI Bill. The place they picked was a park in downtown Easton that was close to a publicly financed playground for their children. Everyone was angry at Wall Street and Government, those amorphous entities, and well they should be. But very few were thinking about how their anger was shaped by the very values that drove the financial crisis we are now in.

Their anger at Wall Street was that they were not receiving their fair share of the pie. Their anger at Government was an oscillation between not checking the greed of the Street and fear that the Government will take more of "what's mine."

Now Dreher and I are not on the same page ideologically. Where he says that is not possible to be a Christian and a communist or a fascist, I would add that one cannot be a Christian and an (so-called) objectivist. And where he sees the "the most natural political orientation for a serious small-o orthodox Christian is on the Right", I would say that the most natural orientation for a serious small-o orthodox Christian is on the Left. I also think that Dreher pulls his punch when he says: "I do believe it’s vulgar and borderline blasphemous for a political party to claim Christ." There is nothing borderline about the vulgarity. When a political party claims Christ as their own, it is blasphemy. But I quibble over details.

Here are snippets. It is worth reading the whole essay. Especially the story of the epiphany that his financial industry friend experienced.

...I don’t believe that God has a political plan. One can be a good Christian as a socialist. One can be a good Christian as a monarchist. One can be a good Christian as a Republican or a Democrat. One almost certainly cannot be a good Christian as, say, a Nazi or a Communist, because what those political theories require one to believe is antithetical to Christian truth. My point is simply that it’s not easy to discern a particular political program from the Gospels, only general principles. In most cases, there will probably be tension between our political party and our faith convictions. There ought to be. Jesus said that His kingdom was not of this world. As soon as we think we can use politics to create heaven on earth, we lay the groundwork for the corruption of faith, and far worse. Personally, I believe that in this time and place, the most natural political orientation for a serious small-o orthodox Christian is on the Right, but I do believe it’s vulgar and borderline blasphemous for a political party to claim Christ.

And yet we cannot be serious about our faith and act as if it had no political implications. No one can take the Bible seriously and believe that the truths it teaches have nothing at all to do with how we order our common life. There is the matter of human dignity, and justice. The Bible has much to say about the poor — and what it has to say about the rich is not very complimentary, to put it mildly. I believe the free market, for all its flaws, is the economic system that is not only the fairest, but is also the economic system that best conforms to our human dignity. But the market must be seen not as an end, but as a means to an end....

...By this standard, I cannot see how a system that allows so many people who work in finance to grow so spectacularly rich while so many others struggle to get by can be reconciled with Christian truth. But honestly, that is the least of my concerns about Wall Street now (by “Wall Street,” I mean the financial sector in general). What I find far more worrying is the power these men have to control by their actions the fate of the nation. No, I’m not talking about conspiratorial nonsense. I’m talking about the fact that because our political system has given them so much freedom to do what they want to do, our fates are tied to theirs in ways that are incredibly unjust and harmful to the common good. We all know about “too big to fail.” Ever thought about what that means? It means that TBTF institutions cannot be allowed to be responsible for their actions, because if they fail, they take all of us down with them. Wall Street, broadly speaking, has immense power, but no responsibility. Alessandro Rastani may or may not have been real, but he’s telling the truth about global finance: these men don’t care about their countrymen, they only care about making money for themselves and their clients. That is their prime directive....

...It is hard for many American Christians, especially we conservatives, to think of Christian morality as applicable to money. Personal sins — lust, immorality, the usual — we understand. But we shy away from thinking in a Christian way about money, and the way our society is structured economically. I wonder: Do we Christians not fear a reckoning in all this...?

...And so we come to the Occupy Wall Street movement. I have not been impressed by the things I’ve seen and read about them. I don’t know for sure, but I doubt very much that I would be at home with that crowd. Some of the quotes I’ve read from those people are obnoxious and offensive. Many more are just foolish. I don’t look to OWS for any relief, except comic.

But I have to say, I am impressed by this line from Almond’s piece: “They want the traders who work on Wall Street to face the human consequences of their machinations.” Maybe the way they’re calling Wall Street out is silly, pointless, and foolish in a thousand ways. But at least they are there. Where are the Christians? Where are we conservative Christians, who claim to really believe what Scripture says, and look down on liberal Christians for picking and choosing what they want to believe on sexual morality to suit their desires? Do we not have a blind spot when it comes to wealth? Why does the immense power Wall Street wields over the fate of the nation because of its wealth not trouble us enough to bear public witness? Why does it not trouble us much at all? It troubles me, but I don’t know what to do about it. This won’t do.

In that sense, I’ll give Occupy Wall Street its due, as a guilty Christian bystander. There’s a tale about Billy Graham, possibly apocryphal, in which he met a stuffy Anglican prelate on one of his first crusades in England. The story goes that the bishop sniffed to Graham, “Sir, I must say that I do not approve of the evangelism you do.” Graham supposedly replied, “Sir, I prefer the evangelism I do to the evangelism that you do not do.” Quite.

No comments: