byFaith | September 2014
By Alan Dowd
We’ve heard a lot about “Wall Street greed” the past several
years—and understandably so. The get-richer mentality fueled speculation and created
gigantic bubbles in the housing and stock markets that burst in 2008.
The long-and-short of the market meltdown, as Princeton
University economics professor Burton Malkiel explains, is that government
lenders “securitized home loans and encouraged originators to make credit
available to borrowers who could not afford to make substantial down payments.”
Since these loans had implicit government backing, investment houses began to
buy up scores of prime and subprime mortgages, bundle them together and then “produced
very highly rated securities…even though the underlying mortgages might be of
relatively low quality or subprime.”[i]
When the bubble burst, the housing market lost $9 trillion[ii]of its peak value, and $16 trillion[iii]in household wealth was erased.
To many Americans, “Wall Street greed” was the culprit. The president, for
example, inveighed against “greed and irresponsibility on Wall Street” and the “breathtaking greed” of “banks and
Leading newspapers like the New York Times, USA Todayand Washington Post peppered their pages
with the phrase “Wall Street greed.”
Headlines such as “Greed on Wall Street Prevents Good from
Happening,” “On Wall Street, a Culture of Greed Won’t Let Go” and “Wall Street’s
Greed Is Fueled by Fear” dominate search returns. And underneath those
headlines are scathing attacks on Wall Street’s banks, investment houses and
financiers. “Something beyond reason and beyond ordinary ambition has been
feeding this runaway avarice,” explains one reporter. According to another, the
financial system was “brought to the precipice by Wall Street’s greed and
irresponsible risk-taking.” And in perhaps the most pointed attack on Wall
Street’s “one-percenters,” a pair of Cal-Berkeley scholars bluntly concludes, “Unethical
behaviors among the wealthy are as timeless and pervasive as the ethical
principles that try to rein them in.”
diagnoses and commentaries are all true, but they don’t represent the whole
to the Gordon Gekko character in the 1987 film Wall Street, followers of Christ know that greed is anything but
good. It’s a sin—plain and simple. We
should also know that Wall Street doesn’t have a monopoly on greed—and the poor
and middle class don’t have a monopoly on virtue. As Francis Schaeffer observed,
“We are not automatically spiritual if we despise money”—or, for that matter, if
we don’t have much of it.[iv]
fact, “Main Street greed” is arguably just as culpable for our national
problems as the preferred scapegoat of “Wall Street greed.”
After all, what motivated most of us on the Main Street end
of the economic spectrum during the housing
boom—the working poor who simply were not yet ready to become homeowners, the average
homeowners who built “McMansions” they could not afford, the house-flippers who
bought with the sole intent of selling for a hefty profit, the millions of middle-class
Americans who used their mushrooming home equity as collateral to open huge
lines of credit, buy lots of stuff and take on lots of debt?
The answer is greed, and it has nothing to do with Wall Street.
Why do we Americans owe $845
billion in credit-card debt, and why is total consumer debt in America—mortgages,
car loans, credit cards and student loans—$11.4 trillion?[v] To
be sure, there are lots of understandable and even good reasons people go into
debt: medical issues, education, launching or growing a business. But there also
are lots of bad reasons people rack up debt. Greed is a major contributing
factor—greed for something newer or bigger or better or faster or sleeker or
shinier—and it has nothing to do with Wall Street.
Why do we want just a little more free time, just a little
less work, the last word or the last slice of pizza? The answer is greed, and
it has nothing to do with Wall Street.
Why do so many of us say we
oppose big government, but then support candidates who promise “free” health
care, “free” prescription medicines, “free” phones, “free” college education,
“free” this, “free” that? And why do politicians make such promises?
The answer is greed, and it
has nothing to do with Wall Street.
are we so angry when it seems the wealthy don’t “pay their fair share” and yet
happily take every deduction, every break, every refund the tax code offers us?
answer is greed—perhaps mixed with a little envy—and it has nothing to do with
Wall Street. By
the way, those wealthy “one-percenters” on Wall Street actually pay more than their
fair share of the tax bill: The top 1 percent of taxpayers pays 35 percent of federal
income taxes; the top 5 percent pays 57 percent of federal income taxes.[vi]
have we seen a 25-percent increase in the number of Social Security disability claims
since the start of the Great Recession?[vii]
The answer is greed, and it has nothing to do with Wall Street. Make no
mistake: The Social Security disability program serves an important and
necessary purpose, namely, helping those who are unable to earn a living due to
major health problems get the basic necessities of life. In a rich country like
ours, there is a place for such a program. Indeed, this is the very reason for
a safety net—to provide some measure of security when circumstances overwhelm
we know there wasn’t some sudden epidemic
that left millions of Americans stricken with career-ending disabilities at the
outset of the Great Recession. The hard truth is
that some number of people who are not disabled chose to access the disability
system because they concluded it would be easier than the alternative.
This kind of greed is every bit as “unethical” and “breathtaking” as what
happened on Wall Street before the mortgage meltdown. And the fact that
government is sanctioning this kind of Main Street greed only serves to
underscore the similarities with Wall Street greed: In both instances, government
is rewarding bad behavior by bailing out those who engage in it. The difference
comes down to the number of zeroes on the check. Before
scoffing at this—before using scripture’s injunctions about social justice to
explain away this strain of Main Street greed—remember that justice works in all
directions, that scripture condemns laziness as well as acquisitiveness,
that the Lord sees one man’s envy and another’s greed as two halves of the same
Cause and Consequence
In short, greed is a humanity-wide affliction. “From
the least to the greatest,” the Lord declares
in Jeremiah 6, “all are greedy for gain.”
It may afflict some of us more often and more obviously than
others. But just because a sin is more obvious in one person than in another
doesn’t make it more wrong.
For example, the rich young ruler had a greed problem—Jesus
exposed it to him and to the world—but so did Judas, who was anything but rich.
Like the other apostles, Judas “left everything” to follow Jesus, had no home
and had no income.[viii]Yet what the world didn’t see, Jesus knew and John later revealed: The
penniless Judas was devoured by greed. All along, John explains, Judas was more
interested in money than the Messiah. “As keeper of the money bag, he used to
help himself to what was put into it.”[ix]Judas was poor and greedy, and he compounded the sin of greed by maintaining a
pretense of piety to make himself look better than everybody else.
In today’s parlance, the rich young ruler succumbed to Wall
Street greed and Judas to Main Street greed.
Regardless of the address, the cause and the consequence of
greed are the same. The
cause is selfishness, and the consequence is separation from our Father and
from our fellowman, as scripture reminds us from the very beginning.
The Father told Adam and Eve, “You are free to eat from any tree in
the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”[x]
This one tree was
not theirs to have, not theirs to take or pick or harvest. But in Genesis 3,
Eve saw that the fruit of this tree was “good for food” and
“pleasing to the eye.”[xi] Interestingly, Genesis 2 uses the very same language to
describe other things the Lord had created for Adam and Eve: “The Lord God
made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good
for food.” However,
those trees were not this tree; those
trees were not Adam and Eve’s; those trees were no longer “desirable” to them.
Driven by selfish desire, they took what was not theirs,
severing their connection to the Father—and to one other. Note how Adam blamed
“the woman you put here with me”[xii]when confronted by the Father. There was no “we” in Adam’s defense. So much for
the “flesh of my flesh.”
This curse of greed would be passed down like a genetic
deformity. It was greed that spawned Cain’s jealous, violent rage. The Bible
takes care to report that Abel sacrificed from the “firstborn” of his flock,
while Cain merely brought “some of the fruits of the soil” as his offering.[xiii]The implication is that Abel offered more of a sacrifice. As one scholar
observes, “The contrast is not between an offering of plant life and an
offering of animal life, but between a careless, thoughtless offering and a
choice, generous offering.”[xiv]In other words, Cain was greedy. Indeed, in Hebrew, Cain is derived from the
same word as “acquire” and “possess.”[xv]As Rabbi David Fohrman, a professor of biblical studies at Johns Hopkins
University, has observed, “Cain the ‘acquirer’ seeks to ground himself in
After Cain and Abel, the poison
spread throughout God’s story: Jacob was greedy for Esau’s birthright; Esau was
greedy for Jacob’s stew. Their covenant of greed fractured their relationship
and devastated their dad. David was greedy for Uriah’s wife, and it destroyed
at least four lives. Judas was greedy for power and money, and it led to
betrayal and brokenness. Ananias and Sapphira were greedy for place and
prestige, and it literally killed them. Perhaps with their story in mind, Peter
warned that even church leaders must guard against being “greedy for money.”[xvii]
In the Ten Commandments, the Lord
tells us not to covet anything that belongs to our neighbor. In
Ecclesiastes, He declares, “Whoever loves money never has enough.” In Jeremiah,
He preaches against “dishonest gain.”[xviii] In Ezekiel, He condemns those who are “greedy for unjust gain.”[xix] And in Luke 12, He warns us, “Be
on your guard against all kinds of greed”—not just Wall Street greed, not just the greed of the rich man to
acquire, not just the most obvious expressions of greed, but any desire for
more of something than is needed, any desire for another person’s wealth or
property or possessions.
adjectives are irrelevant to God because the cause and the consequence of this
sin are the same, whether we live on Main Street or Wall Street or Easy Street.
If the cause and consequence of
greed are the same, so is the antidote.
knew “what it is to be in need” and “what it is to have plenty,” Paul spoke
with some authority on the subject of wealth, and he let us in on the secret to
being content: Whether we live “in plenty or in want”—and
relative to the rest of history and the rest of humanity, even the poorest
Americans live in plenty—we should live for and in and through Christ.[xx] Importantly, Paul offered this advice not while
studying in the comfort of Gamaliel’s classroom, but while he was in prison.
So how might
we apply Paul’s advice in our daily lives?
remember our savior is both the King of Kings and the Suffering Servant. He was a refugee child who possessed
unimaginable riches; He traded a crown and streets of gold for a stable and
filthy feet. In other words, how we think of Him will affect how we think of
wealth, how we think of those living in poverty and how we think of those
living in plenty—and how we treat wealth, how we treat those living in poverty
and how we treat those living in plenty.
We should work, and we should do our best at work. “Whatever
you do,” as Paul exhorts, “work at it with all your heart, as working for the
Lord, not for men.”[xxi]
We should spend less than we earn. Applying this simple rule
of economics to our personal—and national—finances would save us much grief and
worry. “The borrower is slave to the lender,” as Proverbs 22 warns.
understand that anytime we allow our stomach—the hungry, un-satiable
self—to guide our thoughts, purchases, decisions or bank accounts, we are
succumbing to a kind of greed and replacing God with something else.[xxii] The antidote is the good and
satisfying fruit of the Spirit. This
fruit, however, doesn’t blossom overnight.
keep in mind Christ’s
admonition that “to whom much is given, much is expected.”
Interestingly, He doesn’t define what “much” is. And equally
interesting, He issues this warning in response to a question from Peter, in
the context of a “servant who knows the master’s will.”[xxiii] A servant.
that admonition on our hearts, we should store up treasure in heaven by
sharing what we have. That’s true of the poor widow and her tiny temple tithe,
the wealthy Zacchaeus and his ill-gotten riches, and all of us in between—on
Wall Street and Main Street—struggling with our own varieties of greed.
[i] Malkiel, “Market Risk-Taking Must Be Restrained,”
BusinessWeek, December 12, 2009, http://www.businessweek.com/stories/2009-12-31/malkiel-market-risk-taking-must-be-restrainedbusinessweek-business-news-stock-market-and-financial-advice
[ii] Ilyce Glink, “Home value loss reaches $9 trillion,”
CBS News, April 26, 2011.
[iii] Peter Weber, “Great Recession hangover: what happened
to America’s lost wealth,” The Week, May 31, 2013.
[iv] Schaeffer, No Little People, p.236.
[vi] Tax Foundation, Summary of Latest Federal Income Tax
Data, December 18, 2013.
[vii] See http://www.aei.org/article/economics/americas-growing-social-security-disability-problem/ and
[viii] Mark 10, Matthew 19.
[ix] John 12.
[x] Genesis 2.
[xi] Genesis 3:6.
[xii] Genesis 3:12.
[xiii] Genesis 4.
[xiv] Text Notes, NIV Study Bible, 1995 Edition, p.11.
[xv] David Fohrman, “The World’s First Murder: A Closer
Look at Cain and Abel,” Jewish World Review, June 2005.
[xvii] I Peter 5:1-3
[xxi] Colossians 3.
[xxiii] Luke 12:35-48.