Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Total Depravity

Two incredible events of the last few days would seem like they came from stale plots from a bad television show if they were not happening under our eyes. First, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has filed a criminal complaint, complete with wiretapped telephone conversations, showing that Illinois Governor Blagojevich was attempting, for all intents and purposes, to trade the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by President-Elect Obama for political favors. Secondly, a securities dealer specializing in services to the rich and famous has been charged with fraud, conducting for years what appears to be essentially a Ponzi scheme, with fraud in the billions.

The lesson from this is that human beings are, to steal a phrase, “totally depraved”. This does not mean that human beings are incapable of good: that’s obviously not true. What it means is that our sinfulness is capable of touching all aspects of our humanness. As an economist, I think that is particularly relevant when people insist on associating the marketplace with greed, allegedly quoting Adam Smith, but more likely channeling some Hollywood screenwriter. Governor Blagojevich corrupted the political sphere. And, Ponzi schemes are not simply a violation of trust in the marketplace, they are already illegal under our political system. So sin touches our economic, political, social, familial, congregational and even our spiritual lives.

In fact, as Doug has argued in several places, the morality of an economic or political system is directly tied to the morality of the people in it. Immoral people can and do taint the market, the government, the voluntary association, the family, and the church.

Jesus called for us to repent. That is our daily charge as Christians, but it is an impossible task if we are left to our own devices. No one, no Christian, no congregation, no denomination is exempt. After all, long before Gov. Blago the pre-reformation Catholic church suffered from “simony,” the sale of church offices. In the 1970s, the Methodist Church-sponsored “Pacific Homes” group of retirement homes was ensnarled in legal problems that have been described as running a Ponzi scheme. In the 1990s, several people were convicted in the bankruptcy of the Baptist Foundation of Arizona. And, just in the past couple of years, a high ranking employee of the Presbyterian Church USA was accused of a massive embezzlement scheme. I John says:

“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

It is the forgiveness that comes from Jesus Christ and the transformation of the Holy Spirit that are our hope. I recently heard a hymn performed by Red Mountain Church. The author is apparently unknown, but the title is “The Christian’s Hope Can Never Fail.”

Coming up soon: how are we all, in our own way, little Blagos and Ponzis?

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