It seems, however, that important events in recent history are slipping out of common consciousness. We still remember the Great Depression--even those of us who are two generations removed from the 1930s--but we seem to be hazy about 2008. Maybe we think if we pretend that beast from the last decade's nightmares is gone, it won't haunt us. Maybe we want to stay positive so our retirement funds can grow, feeding off our positive vibes. Maybe we don't want to think we can be financially hamstrung like that again.
I tend to think we ignore lessons from that financial crisis out of a combination of a sense that we need optimism in the marketplace and a basic failure to understand what the heck happened. Who were the bad guys? What were their names? How did China and investment products fit into all this? The average person didn't know in 2008 and what bits we might have understood then are growing hazy now.
Maybe we think it's time to forgive and forget. For those of us influenced by Christianity, this might seem like a good choice. Didn't Jesus say in Matthew 18:22 that we shouldn't just forgive, but we should forgive "seventy times seven"? Taking this literally, we ought perhaps to forgive the misdeeds of bankers exactly 490 times. Were I a CPA, I might be able to find at least this many infractions in the most notable financial institutions caught up in those scandalous days. But there is no need for all that.
To apply the concept of forgiveness in any way that perpetuates the injustices and corruptions of financial and political leaders and institutions is not what being a virtuous Christian (or anything else) is about. Faithful Masks is an organization that cares about living well in what Luther called the "Left Hand Kingdom". (You can find a translation of his discussion of this subject in "On Secular Authority" here.) Whereas the "Right Hand Kingdom" is concerned to share the Gospel, forgiveness, and unconditional love. The Kingdom of the Left is about applying the law in such a way that we have as good a society as we can manage. In this external kingdom, we ought not forgive and forget, at least not if what we mean by "forgetting" involves a failure to avoid repeating the errors of 2008.
It's hard for me to forget. I was trying to sell a home in Evergreen, CO during that year. Whatever was left of my IRA after it lost value was applied (some friends would say foolishly) to keep the mortgage payments going on my Colorado home. The same year, most of my extended family--all in some way connected to the housing sector--and many of my friends lost the homes they owned. Some colleagues who were about to retire could not, as they saw their retirement funds evaporate.
So why remember and recount all this? Masochism? No. Humans are resilient, and there is no need to dwell morbidly on the past. But we do need to recognize that the experiment of free markets and American-style self-determination can go horribly wrong without virtue. And virtue needs cultivation in a particular ethos. I side with Aristotle who, in his Nicomachean Ethics, books I and II, rightly argues that simply knowing what is good cannot make people behave well. They need to practice virtue so that it becomes part of who they are. And they will be more apt to practice virtue if virtue is rewarded and praised within a particular corporation's or community's ethos.
Every time there are business or financial-sector melt downs, I hear (as an academic) people bemoaning the fact that we don't have more ethics courses in MBA programs. Even though such courses might be good for me and my colleagues financially (I teach philosophy and and business and medical ethics courses promise to keep philosophy prof employed for decades to come), and even though I think such courses are worthwhile, they can't solve the problem. It's not that people didn't know the rules, it's that they were living in an ethos where it was acceptable to break the rules. It wasn't a knowledge problem; it was a character problem.
In 2008, Christopher Hitchens wrote an insightful piece for Vanity Fair that seems worth revisiting today. Responding to the idea that the crisis' financial villains had been reckless because they had nothing to risk, Hitchens responds: "... they did have something at risk. What they put at risk, though, was other people's money and other people's property. How very agreeable it must be to sit at a table in a casino where nobody seems to lose, and to play with a big stack of chips furnished to you by other people, and to have the further assurance that, if anything should ever chance to go wrong, you yourself are guaranteed by the tax dollars of those whose money you are throwing about in the first place! It's enough to make a cat laugh."
Hitchens goes on to ask whether anybody has been fired. This reminds me of something I noticed about England. While living there and watching the BBC news each night, my wife and I noticed that every time some bad thing happened, a director-level person was almost always "sacked." There was a stabbing in a courthouse, so the head of security was sacked. There was a fire at a factory, so the facilities manager was sacked. There was a cheating scandal, so a headmaster was sacked. At the time, I thought the Brits were a bit trigger-happy when it came to firing leaders who failed. It reminded me of Darth Vader's management style: fail the Sith Lord and Vader will use his force-choke magic on you. Maybe the British tendency to fire failed leaders goes overboard on occasion. But maybe Hitchens is right. Maybe we ought to be asking why the culprits aren't identified and properly shamed. Maybe there should be more people fired. Most importantly, though, maybe we should work to keep this crisis and all it's cousins in our collective memory.
Followers of Jesus will do well to extend grace and reconciliation to all: tax collectors, tax evaders, pimps and prostitutes. But while Christians joyfully enact that alternative kingdom of Gospel and forgiveness, let us not forget as a society that the U.S. economy at the end of 2013 remains too fragile to survive 490 more financial crises. For that reason, it's best we don't forget the financial sins we encounter in the kingdom of the left. Above all, those of us who don't understand finance as well as we ought can at least help by cultivating a generation that cares about virtue as much or more than they care about free markets.
Director of Faithful Masks
Associate Prof. of Theology and Philosophy at Concordia University, Irvine.
For more conversation about the ways in which the two kingdoms ought to remain distinct without abandoning the need for the influence of religious people upon society, tune in to our podcast, Virtue in the Wasteland: the next two weeks will tackle the theme of Church and State.