Principles in an Unprincipled Crisis

By Jim Wallis 9-29-2008

The meltdown of the nation's financial systems has stunned the country, and the imminent dangers to the entire economy have placed many Americans in the deeply anxious position of both confusion and fear-with many already suffering and many more feeling very vulnerable. Even many economic "experts" say they don't really know what is going on or what to expect next. The economic and political chaos of last week was breathtaking.

We can now say that the crisis is both structural and spiritual: a combination of a bad economic philosophy called "deregulation" and a bad cultural ethic that has encouraged and rewarded greed. The solutions going forward will be a combination of both social regulation and self-regulation. Restoring both the idea of the common good (which has been lost) and the practice of moral behavior in regard to money (which has been forgotten) are now critical to our future.

I have been writing and saying for years that budgets are moral documents-how we allocate and spend our money indicates our priorities-from families to nations. As the "bailout" of Wall Street has been debated and a new proposal is now likely to be voted on even this week, we have the opportunity to examine its principles. While the Bush administration first asked for a $700 billion blank check to buy bad debt from Wall Street in order to "rescue" the economy from collapse, many questioned its underlying principles.

Many have noted how angry the American public is about how their lives and futures have been put in great jeopardy by economic giants who have placed their personal greed over the public good. I suspect that God is angry too. As new proposals are introduced and debated this week, I would suggest they be examined by the following principles rooted in biblical justice and the common good.

  1. The reckless and selfish financial managers and Wall Street CEOs most responsible for this financial disaster should not be rewarded but brought under public accountability and, where appropriate, receive actual punishment for their behavior. Not only should there be no excessive compensation for the CEOs of firms that now need public assistance, but there should be a whole new level of public oversight as to the price of that assistance.
  2. Any new proposal for financial rescue should benefit the taxpayers as much, or more, than the financial institutions; it should also give the public a real share and future stake in those institutions and their assets, if and when the market recovers.
  3. Any new proposal should focus as much upon those homeowners whose houses have been foreclosed as those investors whose assets have lost their value. And the "rescue" should include those who are losing their fragile security, as well as those who are losing their excessive profits.

Bailing out the banks and the financial managers whose behavior has caused this crisis, while millions of homeowners are losing their homes and their jobs, violates any basic or biblical sense of justice. The Bible says that which you sow, you should also reap-not that which you sow shall be bailed out while others reap the destruction that you have caused.

The idea of bailing out Wall Street raises many issues and problems of oversight, transparency, accountability, and fairness which we should all be examining in the new proposals this week.

The Wall Street crisis presents us with both danger and opportunity (the two Chinese symbols of which combine to form the symbol for "crisis"), which is to suggest that this could also be a teachable moment of rethinking most basic assumptions, values, habits, and practices that have gone unexamined for far too long-hence the present crisis of, yes, biblical proportions. Perhaps this crisis will prompt the nation's congregations and pulpits to preach again about the biblical principles regarding money, work, credit, lifestyle, generosity, stewardship, and justice. Maybe it's time for a new Sunday school curriculum on our economic decisions and practices-an adult Sunday school curriculum introduced in the churches of both Wall Street and Main Street.

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