Thursday, January 29, 2009

Scandal on Wall Street: Corporate Bonuses Amidst Depression = Class Warfare

While scandalously high corporate bonuses have been the norm of late, as executive "compensation" has badly outpaced the pay of people who actually work for a living, it seems especially flagrant to "reward" executives with hefty bonuses as the financial sector tumbles. Yet, according to Ben White of the New York Times, that is exactly what's happening.

My meager stock portfolio - like the portfolios of so many - is worth on paper a fraction of what it claimed to be worth a couple of years ago. Yet as banks fail and the financial sector raids the American taxpayers, first in the portfolio and then, gun and ski-mask in hand, in the form of government subsidies we laughingly call a "bailout," those who have run these economic institutions into the ground have been rewarded with billions in bonuses, the sixth largest such haul in history.

Bonuses, part of the great euphemistic system that grants "compensation" to the great sages of the marketplace with the rest of us earn our paltry salaries, serve a two-fold purpose: to reward performance, and to retain the services of those who have performed well. But who on Wall Street merits a bonus in this economic climate? White captures the scandal of it well in this understated line:

...Wall Street disbursed billions despite staggering loses and a shrinking job market.

In other words, to say that these bonuses - which amount to the sixth largest in history! - are without justification may be the greatest understatement I will utter this young year. They can't be a reward for good performance, as there has been no good performance to reward. In fact, many of the companies offering these bonuses have been run into the ground by those they are now "compensating." And, these bonuses are certainly not offered to retain the service of valuable employees. In this job market, where are they going to go?

White notes that Merrill Lynch - a once-proud institution who has now appeared twice in Washington, hat in hand, begging for a "bailout" - just paid out somewhere between $4 and $5 billion in bonuses. Let me get this straight. They did so poorly that they now need my tax dollars to secure their very survival, yet they can afford to pay out billions in bonuses to the people who have put them in critical condition!

I heard an awful lot, during the most recent presidential campaign, about "class warfare." Let me stipulate that this is class warfare. The use of my tax dollars to subsidize billions in corporate bonuses so that the rich don't have to give up their inalienable right to obscene wealth, is class warfare. It is robbing to poor to pay the rich, and should be infinitely more scandalous than president Obama's plan to raise the taxes on the highest income bracket to pre-Bush levels.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Good Tillich and Buber Story

Since two of my greatest theological debts are to Martin Buber and Paul Tillich (there may be no Jewish thinker to whom I owe more than Buber, and there is certainly no Christian thinker to whom I owe more than Tillich), I read the essay "Buber and Tillich" in Jewish theologian David Novak's Talking With Christians with great interest. It is a very interesting and important essay, and I may write a serious engagement with it later. However, what interests me most at the moment is a story that Novak relays. So, for the moment, let me simply share it with you:

...the relationship between the older Buber and the younger Tillich [Buber, born in 1878, was eight years older than Tillich, born in 1886. They both died in 1965. - CB] is best illustrated by the following story that I heard from someone who was in attendance at a lecture Buber delivered at Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1952, during his first visit to America, a visit that made a profound impression on American intellectual circles. At the end of the lecture, Buber indicated that he would entertain questions from the audience. From the back of the crowded lecture hall, Paul Tillich arose and quite respectfully (as was his usual manner) addressed a rather complicated question to Buber. According to my reliable informant, Buber looked up from his text and said, "Ah, Paulus, it is you." The he walked down the aisle and stood directly in front of Tillich, who was considerably taller than he, raised his index finger up at Tillich's startled face and said, "Paulus, Paulus, you asked me the same question in Germany thirty years ago. Don't you remember what I answered you then?!"

Monday, January 12, 2009

Being in a "Palace in Time"

On the seventh day God had finished all the work of creation, and so, on that seventh day, God rested. God blessed the seventh day and called it sacred, because on it God rested from all the work of creation.

- Genesis 2:2-3. The Inclusive Bible

The first creation myth in Genesis is generally attributed by scholars to the Priestly source, and reflects both the theological and social concerns of the class of priests of ancient Israel. For our purposes the details of those concerns matter less than an understanding that this text - though both Jews and Christians see it as the Word of God - has human authorship, and reflects deeply human concerns. In fact, rather than contradicting it status as revelation from and concerning God, understanding the human authorship of and deeply human concerns in this text may help connect us to God more deeply than seeing this text as a literal representation of concrete historical events.

There are two related themes in the first creation myth that I will gloss over far too quickly, before we discuss what I really want to deal with today: the Sabbath, Shabbat, what Heschel called "a Palace in Time."

The first that creation can be understood as an ongoing process.

An initial reading of the text seems to contradict this. After all, most English translations render the opening line of the myth (and, in fact, the opening line of the Bible):

"In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth..."

"Created" implies a past event, an event that has already been completed.

The closing also indicates completed past activity. After all, as we read above, by the seventh day God had finished. The activity is over, finished, through. It is/was an event in the past.

This reading of the text has the activity of creation completely in the past. It is a singular event at the dawn of time. But it is not the only way to read the text.

The tense of the Hebrew for the opening line is ambiguous. Thus, while most English translations render it "when God created" the Jewish Publication Society offers another, equally valid translation:

"When God began to create heaven and earth..."

Creation here is not a completed past event, but rather an ongoing process. A process that has been started, and started by God, but which is not yet complete. The activity of creation is not entirely in the past.

Of course, by the end of the myth the JPS translation has the activity of creation completed, noting in 2:1,

"The heaven and earth were finished, and all their array."

However, to say that this ending to the myth indicates that creation - whatever it is at the beginning of the myth - is understood as an entirely completed past event, is, in my view, to misunderstand how the myth functions. As a myth it is not the telling of some historical event, but rather a story designed to communicate the concerns of the authors, priests of ancient Israel. The activity of creation here takes place over the course of seven days not because the priests of ancient Israel believe that the activity of creation was completed in the course of seven 24 hour days, but because there are seven days in a week. In the story, those seven days are directional, moving to the seventh day, the climax of creation. Similarly, the Jewish understanding of the week is directional, moving toward the seventh day, the climax of the week. Ultimately, as we shall see later, this myth is about creation's movement toward Sabbath.

If the concept of Sabbath seems as strange and irrelevant to you as it does to me, I beg you to hang in there and keep reading. I promise this will not be some irrelevant abstraction that connects in no way to the concrete experience of your life. I'm growing less and less interested in theory, and more and more interested in application. If theology doesn't connect to the daily living of your life, then as far as I am concerned it is totally devoid of value and should be discarded at once. So this discussion of Sabbath as the climax of creation will, if I have any skill at all, ultimately connect with the daily living of life.

The second theme in the myth that I want to highlight here is related to the first. Not only is creation an ongoing process - a view much more in keeping with modern science, and also a view that invites human participation in the process of creation - but it is progressing somewhere. Creation is movement from chaos to order.

I have already written on this here, where I presented Israel Knohl's argument that this myth offers an explanation of the origins of evil. To rehash what i wrote there, the priestly creation myth depicts God not creation something out of nothing, but rather shaping preexistent primordial elements (earth - tohu v'vohu, darkness - hoshekh, and deep waters - tehom).

As I wrote in that post:

We see here a progressing process of ordering, making distinctions, and building up from preexisting substances. This movement from chaos to order in the myth is important, because it presents us with a both progressive and ongoing picture of Creation. Creation is not a one time event in the past, in which God made everything ex nihlo. Rather, it is an ongoing story that takes place in time, in which God shapes that which already existed, while adding to it, ordering it, and making important distinctions between "light" and "darkness," water "above" and water "below," and between "sea" and "land." These distinctions correspond to the three primordial materials that Knohl translates as "darkness," "deep waters," and "unformed and void earth."

The activity of creation is then the process of shaping chaos into order.

But ultimately the myth is less about the frenetic activity of creation, and more about the rest at the end. In fact, the rest, the abstention from doing, is not only the climax of the myth, it is also the most important activity. That's right, non-doing is here the ultimate doing.

Observance of the Sabbath is central to the Jewish faith, and an understanding of Sabbath is perhaps Judaism's greatest gift to humanity. And, speaking as someone who is not a Jew, but who would not have a religion if it weren't for Judaism's giving birth to Christianity, that's really saying something.

The Sabbath is so vital here that it has been written into the first creation myth in the Bible. There are here six days of frenetic activity, of doing. But the story ends with the seventh day, the day on which God rested from the activity of creation. Creation ends not with the activity, but with holy rest, not with doing, but with being. It is to that being that the activity of creation ultimately points. And, in my reading, at least, it is ultimately in that being that chaos is shaped into order.

Of the Sabbath, that holy day for being, Abraham Heschel, who along with Martin Buber is one of the two giants of 20th century Jewish thought, writes (in patriarchal language held captive to its time):

He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life. He must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of man. Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self...

The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of Sabbath. It is not an interlude, but the climax of living.

Heschel's language here is captivating not just for its poetic brilliance, but also for its incisiveness. We live in a culture dominated by doing, where identity is subsumed in vocation. We ask each other constantly, "What do you do?" and in doing so seek to find the identity of that person in their occupation. The psychological damage of this approach to identity is most evident in today's economic climate, where the "real" unemployment rate (as opposed to the official statistic, which makes Twain's observation of the three kinds of lies, "lies, damned lies, and statistics" seem most apt) is roughly 14%.

In the face of our flurry of economic activity and our anxiety about its ceasing, Heschel calls us to "lay down the profanity of clattering commerce." He calls us to "unyoke" ourselves from our "toil," to recognize the "nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness," to cease our constant "wringing profit from the earth." Not because these things are bad, but because they are not enough. They do not define us. And when we allow them to define us, when we reduce ourselves to cogs in an economic machine, defined purely by our labor and our utility, we are not only diminished, but very nearly destroyed.

The first creation myth of ancient Israel, the priestly creation myth, in building the Sabbath into the very shape and structure of creation, says that we were not made purely for toil. We are not principally about doing, a product of our frenetic activity. We - who are made here in the very image of God (a God who is here Elohim, a plurality!) and are called to be imitators of God - are made for being.

This can be very disconcerting, because, if we are honest with ourselves, being is much, much more difficult than doing. Anyone who has ever tried meditating can tell you as much. If you don't believe me, give it a try. Sit down and don't do anything. Just be. Just breathe. Find yourself alone with yourself.

If you're anything like me, you'll find that you are, in fact, your own worst enemy. That most of your problems - problems that you outsource, shift onto other people and outside situations - can be boiled down to this: you aren't comfortable in your own skin.

I'm certainly not. If I unyoke myself from my toil, if I calm the whirlwind of constant activity, constant doing, and try to just be, I find out very quickly who I really am, underneath the persona I put on each day to face the world. I am a bundle of neuroses and an accumulation of bad habits covered by a thin, shiny, socially acceptable veneer. I daily manufacture a thousand false dramas, creating my own suffering.

But, rather than cease from my doing to concentrate on being, on becoming comfortable in my own skin, rather than commit myself to the task of dominating the self by ceasing from time to time from my toil, from my frenetic activity, I look for more and more things to do so that I don't have to come to terms with myself.

I'll bet you do to.

All of our ceaseless toil serves to help us bury the persons we wish we weren't.

But we cannot be reduced to our activity. We ultimately are not our doing. And no amount of doing will keep us from ultimately having to come to terms with who we are, and who we are not.

We who do not come from a tradition of keeping Sabbath can learn something from the practice. We can even model it, not by identifying 24 hour periods of ritual observance, but by creating Sabbaths in the midst of our days. By looking for moments of mindfulness, times for being instead of doing - whatever we call such moments - we can learn to make peace with the stranger in our skin.

This is the ultimate creative act, the shaping of the chaos inside into order.