My eyes wandered beyond the sermon text to an addendum to the healing story of Naaman the leper by Elisha, the prophet of God. When Elisha refused payment for the healing, a servant decided to cash in.
He caught up with Naaman and fibbed that Elisha reconsidered and could use a few bags of silver. The servant hid his ill-gotten loot, but in the end contracted the leprosy that once had been Naaman’s.
The imagery of this ancient tale reaches through time to today’s headlines about the global financial crisis. After all, the servant only did what any enterprising person might do in order to get ahead. Seize the moment. Strike while the iron is hot.
But when you play with fire, you get burned.
My knowledge of economics and global financial systems wouldn’t fill a thimble. But I do understand greed, opportunism and fear. And as I watch the players in the global crisis (present company included because like most readers I have a retirement fund) and our attempt to point fingers at an identified culprit, I hear the childhood reminder that anytime you point your finger at someone, three other fingers on your hand point back at you.
We are all bathed in greed. Home buyers wanted more house for less money invested. Lenders wanted the quick payoff of signing up people for loans they knew were beyond the borrowers’ abilities. Banks wanted buckets of loans that could be sold off. Bundlers of loans had a profitable market for as many as they could create. People bought these bundled loans on the assumption that they were certain winners.
Meanwhile, those hired to regulate the process kept their hands off. They assert that there was nothing they could do; their job was to let the market keep growing.
Now we’re burned. The leprosy of greed has fallen on us.
Investigators today ask: Where were the watchdogs who should have foreseen this crisis? Didn’t anyone have second thoughts about this legal variation of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme? Didn’t anyone see that this was a house of cards?
Good questions, but here is my question: Where was the religious community? Where were those who speak of basic values like love your neighbor, as well as the evils of greed?
Where was the community who from the beginning has answered Cain’s rhetorical question, Am I my brother’s keeper? with a resounding, Yes, we are our brother’s keeper. We are all connected to each other.
This is the primal message, or should be, of all religious traditions: We humans are interconnected. We are all hardwired to a Source, and in the end our allegiance to this Source is measured by how we care for each other in our human family. An economic engine based on sleight of hand rather than the production of goods for trade is not only financially unsound, it is spiritually wrong.
That our system is greed-based is not justified by the familiar refrain everybody’s doing it. As parts of an interconnected humanity, it is morally and spiritually evil to perpetuate a system that benefits one group to the inevitable detriment of another.
National security personnel now tell us that the global financial crisis exceeds their concern for enemies with weapons of mass destruction. In light of this, a clearer understanding of the human family must play a more central role in how we live, work, govern and market products to each other — if not for God’s sake then for ours.
Joseph Phelps is pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., and a member of the board of directors of the Baptist Center for Ethics, EthicsDaily.com’s parent organization. This column appeared previously in The Louisville Courier-Journal.
A minister in Louisville, Kentucky, for 21 years as pastor of Highland Baptist Church, Phelps is now Justice Coordinator for Earth and Spirit Center. He leads, along with Kevin Cosby, EmpowerWest, a black-white clergy coalition calling for recognition, repentance, and repair of injustices to black Louisvillians.