Sagging Fortunes

Thirty years ago today I was sitting in a mission board meeting in Muguga, Kenya.  Feeling about as hopeless as many feel about the U.S. economy today.  I was wishing for some kind of bailout, but realized none was about to happen.  The Orthodox Church in Kenya was in turmoil on many levels, partly due to failed leadership, jealousies, infighting, and a lack of vision.  We were trying to work with the then Bishop George Gathuna (in the photo), but he was certainly a major stumbling block preventing progress.   There was a strong tendency among the Kenyans at that time to show total respect to Bishop George because he was a mzee – an honored elder.  But he was past his prime, and there seemed to be no Christian way to oppose or confront his failing leadership.  What follows are what I wrote in my journal about the mission board meeting – trying to put at least a metaphorically creative spin on the disaster unfolding at the meeting – there was no way to put a positive spin on the meeting as it accomplished nothing and derailed again the plans we had agreed on to move the mission forward: 

“Our meeting at Muguga was hopeless.  I really feel depressed about the state of the Church and its leadership.  Fr. N (the board secretary) was late as usual.  Bishop George wanted to get going anyway because he had a city council meeting to attend that afternoon. (He was on the Nairobi city council.  He should attend to his Church, but he chooses his priorities and the church “ain’t” first.  So we suffer with and without a leader).  We first began to discuss the mission newsletter which I am in charge of.  As the discussion was just getting underway, the bishop like a cyclone at sea suddenly blew in and began talking about who has friends and enemies and how many they have.  Like a cyclone he hijacked the meeting and sent us all adrift at sea.   All sat in silent respect as the bishop got lost in his idea, which didn’t silence him one bit.  The Newsletter discussion was blown off course and got lost off the map somewhere.  The bishop floated around on his sea of thought (ever dangerous for all of us), looking for a port to land in.  As far as I could tell he never came ashore but remained lost on the high seas darkened by the stormy clouds of his paranoia.  We all nearly drowned in despair.  I looked around at the blank seawall of stares on each face.  Another shipwreck of our time and efforts.  I’m defeated by the very man I’m trying to help.” 

Unrelated to the meeting, I recorded the following, still timely thought:

“I have discovered here that I’m totally energy conscious – in this place where I have precious little energy to tap into.  At home in the U.S. I never really think that electricity or gas will run out, or that I am wasting energy.  But here, energy is  very limited and comes in containers – a small propane gas tank which we use for cooking.  That one tank is the limit of our gas supply and I’m ever mindful that it might run out of gas – right in the middle of cooking!  I fear using it up too fast or too much.  Then there are our flashlights which you can practically see them growing dimmer daily and know you have to replace the batteries which are expensive here, especially on our salaries ($200/month).   Maybe if Americans had to buy energy in containers and then had to dispose of the containers they would be much more conscious about how much energy they were using – and wasting daily.”

(In the photo some of the woman work to prepare a communal meal at a church for a wedding reception)

The American Financial System: Castles in the Air

I profess to not really understanding what brought about the current world financial disaster, but do think greed had a lot to do with it.  In an article by Robert Bryce in U.S. News and World Report, From Enron to the Financial Crisis, With Alan Greenspan in Between, he attributes it to something called “derivatives markets” (I didn’t understand the Wikipedia explanation much better than the term itself).

Bryce said it was because of a government regulatory failure, which may also be true, but somewhere along the way it was a moral failure by individual human beings compounded by the greed of many individuals working together to take as much money from the system as they possibly could.    When a society has no recognized limits to greed, it can expect regulatory need and regulatory failure.   Somewhere along the way we do have to understand there really are sane limits to everything including profit, prosperity, wealth and greed.

Somewhere I heard a news commentator say that many of the financial institutions CEOs walked away from responsibility – of course they also walked away with tens of millions of dollars in their pockets!

Somewhere we got it into our heads that endless financial growth was sustainable and without any cost to anyone.    We so loved our prosperity that we thought of it as an entitlement – housing prices would always go up in value, so would our stock portfolios, our net worth, gold, retirement funds, antiques, you name it.  We believed that myth and turned that myth into the foundation of our personal, national and world finances.  

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”   (Henry David Thoreau)

That of course is how a poet or philosopher might try to build it, and maybe it is not too late to put a foundation under the American financial system.  It would seem wiser to build upon something solid – morality for one thing, a true human concern for others, and then a regulatory system that can sustain the growth and prosperity.   Greed causes us to be addicted to more and greater wealth, which in turn makes us value wealth all the more and others – people, humans – less.  As long as our addiction is being fed, we care little what happens to anyone else.  A very poor foundation for living in a world of 6 billion people.

An aphorism to remember:  “Money is a good servant, but a bad master.”