February 28, 2009

A Recovering Banker's View of the Economics of Jesus

When I was just a young grunt working on Salomon Brother’s capital markets desk, one of my tasks was to structure what were then cutting edge products known as option-embedded notes. Typically, the investments were designed to pay a fixed coupon, but return principal based upon the performance of an index. My job was to manage and close the transactions, which involved pricing the deals and then negotiating and finalizing their terms. One day a senior salesperson came to me and said a client of his—one of the biggest institutional investors in the world—had a pile of cash to put to work and wanted to see investment ideas, including the products I developed. Then he told me what his client wanted to achieve in yield.

The first thing I did was to check with our banking group on the borrowing rates of various high-grade issuers. After making a few calls and running some numbers, I couldn’t believe what my spreadsheet was telling me: We stood to make tens of millions of dollars on the deal! I confirmed with our traders that my calculations were right, and then thought: Why be greedy? Give the investor a slightly better yield and give the issuer a slightly lower cost of capital. They’ll both be giddy and Salomon will still make several million dollars for the effort.

Before I could talk to the various parties, however, my boss caught wind of my intentions and called me into his office. The next thing I knew, he was yelling and screaming and doing what people sometimes refer to as rip me a new one. Before it was over, he’d impugned my intelligence—not to mention my manhood—and offered me two rules, which he said I should live by, if I wanted to amount to anything on Wall Street. The two rules were:
  • Never leave money on the table
  • Protect the firm

I never forgot his words. In fact, I bought into them like they were the last two Beanie Babies at Walmart, but a year later circumstances caused me to recognize how the rules could be at odds with each other.

At the time, we had an aggressive government trader, who was known for bumping up against volume limits at Treasury auctions. During one such auction he—in violation of the rules—sent in principal orders that were destined for Salomon’s own book and disguised them as agency trades for clients. He was able to do it, because Wall Street firms use fictitious street names when bidding on behalf of others. As you probably already know, however, the trader was caught and the SEC fined us. Since other sanctions were possible, Salomon was put on credit watch and clients left us, especially those who were involved in my structured trades.

Eventually our stock price fell to such an extent that investment guru, Warren Buffett, couldn’t resist but purchase a controlling share in the company. To put Salomon’s fiscal and operational house in order, he fired people, changed our management structure, established new rules for the business and met with key clients in an effort to keep them loyal. Later, as the new face of our company, Buffett was called to testify before a congressional committee to speak of the changes occurring at the firm. And here I’m getting around to making my point.

At that extraordinary session before a congressional committee, Buffett was asked a question I’ll never forget. The inquisitor—a congressman who’s name I don’t remember—asked about one of our traders, a man named Larry Hilibrand, who had negotiated a sweet compensation package that included a piece of every dollar his proprietary trading desk earned. The prior year Hilibrand had been paid a whopping $15 million, which prompted the congressman to ask what the trader had done to deserve that kind of money, adding that traders, after all, did little else than buy low and sell high.

Buffett, in response, agreed with the congressman’s assessment, but used a baseball analogy by claiming that Hilibrand—while only a trader—had been the equivalent of a .400 hitter and had made the firm a lot of money. (I can’t help but digress here: To say a trader only buys low and sells high is akin to claiming Maxwell only solved a nifty little arithmetic problem. Most of the proprietary traders on Wall Street are physics and math Ph.D.s, which indicates how numerically rigorous and demanding the work is). But let me get back to the point. The congressman, in reply, said he couldn’t understand how a trader, who did nothing else but buy and sell for a profit, could make millions of dollars when our country’s most dedicated and inspirational teachers—teachers who were preparing future generations for success—were earning barely enough to survive.

Wow, I can’t tell you how much I thought about that statement. In fact, over the years I looked at it from all directions. At first it made me angry. I wanted to write the congressman and tell him how my job was different than any other in the world—that by me saying, “You’re done,” I could send billions of dollars across the globe. My job, I wanted to say, brought liquidity and stability to the marketplace, which is something that can’t be valued. Besides, I lived a principled life—a life ruled by two aphorisms: Never leave money on the table (after all, as Ivan Boesky once said: Greed is good) and protect the firm.

After a while, however, that question poked and prodded me. Why does a teacher—one like my high school choir teacher, Renee Henderson, who inspired so many kids that the community named a 2,000-seat auditorium in her honor—get paid so little. After all, if a teacher by his or her acts inspires students such that they stay in school, avoid drugs and unplanned pregnancies, and otherwise contribute to society, what is the value of that? If that value is greater than their pay, what accounts for the difference?

That’s when I began to view free-wheeling economies (and the increasing gulf between haves and have nots) in a whole new light. Even the staunchest laissez faire economist admits that capitalism breaks down to a less-than-optimal solution in certain situations. When monopolies occur, for example, they tend to restrict production and keep prices higher than would be the case in competitive marketplaces. Furthermore, monopolies are a natural end to certain markets that require infrastructures that are difficult to duplicate—like telephone landlines, for example, which is why AT&T had a telephone monopoly before it was broken up in the 70s.

There’s another downside to capitalism that’s referred to as the problem of externalities. Many externalities occur because ownership rights aren’t clearly defined. For example, the sky gets polluted, because there is no clear owner of it and therefore no one who is bearing the cost of ownership. If, on the other hand, the sky could be parceled out to individuals, who each then carried around his or her portion that was affected only by what he or she did, the sky would be much cleaner. Individuals would consciously weigh the tradeoffs between pollution in their personal spaces and the value of their pollution causing activities.

Perhaps a better example of an externality is how we care (or don't care) for public land. Without clear ownership rights or regulations, forests are harvested without concern for how they will be replaced. Public policy regarding such externalities is generally designed to induce people to act like owners. The development of green credits is a case in point. When a company buys a green credit, it’s paying for the cost of the pollution it’s putting in the air and begins to think like an owner by weighing tradeoffs of further production. Similarly, forests are parceled to timber companies through long-term leases that give them the benefits of proper stewardship. They become better caretakers, because it’s in their best interest to do so.

Now, here is where I make a leap in logic, but let me introduce it with a question: What is our greatest resource? If you’ve ever been to a graduation ceremony, you know the answer. Our children are our greatest resource. They’ll eventually pay for our mistakes, not to mention our social security benefits. But do we treat them as such? Going back to the question that Warren Buffett was asked, the fact that teachers are paid so little seems to indicate that we feel little “ownership” for society’s children. As a result we incur the costs of economic externalities in the form of crime, drug use, and the wasted lives of young people.

While a successful trader can negotiate a portion of the profits he or she generates because the profit is calculable and “owned,” when it comes to the cost of failed education, there is little attempt at a proper calculus, because we don’t seem to take ownership in the resource it’s meant to develop. But this is just an example of a much larger problem that is vectoring us toward a catastrophe. The gulf between executive pay and compensation for the working class is unconscionable and unsustainable, especially when considering the costs of decisions made by Wall Street CEOs—not to mention the strategic choices made by auto executives—that have led to today’s economic malaise. When a CEO screws up, chances are he or she has pocketed millions of dollars leading up to the mistake. It’s a condition that encourages enormous risk taking, while in the end failure hurts the working class most. Shouldn’t that be part of the payment calculus for all people involved?

For this, and a host of other reasons, we must encourage companies—and other public institutions—to look for ways to put ownership into the hands of workers.

February 20, 2009

Walking My Dogs In Briones

I’m so angry, I could spit.

For a couple of days now, I’ve been thinking of the ways in which we practice a cultural Judaism that ignores what Christ tried to teach, when a perfect example slapped me with a citation. Do you mind if I vent a little?

This morning I took my dogs to a wilderness area not far away. It was still early and no one—not a single solitary soul—was in the staging area. I scanned it to make sure and then did something that was technically wrong. You see, the dogs aren’t supposed to be off-leash until they’re on a trail beyond a gate approximately a hundred yards from where I parked. To get to the trail—again, only a hundred yards away—I had to walk through an open field that includes a number of picnic tables and barbeque grills, where the dogs are supposed to be on leashes. Now, it seems clear to me that the reason for the rule is to prevent unrestrained pets from becoming nuisances to the people who are enjoying the picnic area. Since I was all alone, I freed the dogs and they immediately headed for the trail. They know where it is.

Twenty feet short of the gate, I stopped to pick up some poo—I’m very conscientious that way—when a cop drove up and told me to leash my animals. He then asked for my ID and told me to wait while he ran a check on it. Fifteen minutes later, I was still holding the bag of dog poo, when he cited me. I don’t know what it will end up costing, neither did he. I asked why a ticket was necessary, when at 7:30 in the morning there was no one in the park to disturb. His answer: “It’s the rule.”

I know what you’re thinking: We can’t be arbitrary about how laws are enforced—that was his point, too—but quite frankly that’s a load of…well, it’s a load of what I had in the bag when he gave me the citation. There are all sorts of laws that are arbitrarily enforced. Californians, for example, aren’t supposed to use hand-held phones while driving (now, that’s a heck of a good idea) but I’ve never seen it enforced. Yet, the more important point is this: When we’re so caught up in the technicalities of rules, rather than the intent behind them, we haven’t gotten beyond the nitpicking that Christ described as, "Strain at a gnat and swallow a camel."

Even as I vent, however, I understand the allure of having clearly defined standards to define our acts, whether they be good or evil. I, too, am seduced by the belief that our regulations can and should be enforced in all circumstances and in all places. The Mosaic Law was meant to do that and it did a lot of thinking for us in the process—going so far as to dictate our actions when one of our oxen gets stuck in the mud on the Sabbath—but Christ wants us to use our heads and hearts. He doesn't want us to be commanded in all things. His gospel sounds simple, but it’s infinitely complex. In short, he tells us to love and then He does a remarkable thing: He lets us decide how to accomplish it. The trust implicit in that is astounding. Can we do the same for each other?

Perhaps not, but I feel so much better, now. Thanks for listening.

February 18, 2009

We All Play Together

The house is quiet now, but when the kids were with us, we were always surrounded by music. We made them practice their instruments in the living room so we could hear the progress they made. Boy, am I glad we did. Though in the beginning the sounds they made were more reminiscent of geese flying overhead than anything musical, they improved.

Josh, who is a genius and therefore welcome to make his own mistakes, left school for a period of time to play guitar in an alternative rock band, which is to say he really waited on tables. He had one of those VH-1 Making the Band experiences and is now back in school. Matt, while an undergraduate studying physics at Berkeley, was the principal bassoonist for the school orchestra. He's scheduled to begin a Ph.D. program in the fall, but I'm sure if he had his choice, he'd play for the San Francisco Symphony instead. Aaron is the most serious musician of the bunch. A jazz trumpet player and multiple DownBeat Award winner, he's the 2008 Jimmy Lyon Scholar at the Berklee College of Music in Boston (the other Berkeley).

When I was a young father, my dream was to have a family band. You'd think it had been within my grasp. Unfortunately, our tastes in music are so different that when we try to play together, we nearly come to blows. Yet, my sons are my greatest joys. Music, as you'll see here, is pretty high on the list, too.

A week before I began my sixth-grade year in school, my father set in motion a series of events that would lead to nearly every good and wonderful thing that has happened to me since.
And he did it against my will.

Early that morning, before he left the house to register me for my classes, I reminded him of the courses I didn’t want. At the top of the list were these: art, drama and music—especially music.
Back then I had a clear vision of my future self. I would be the kind of man who could walk into the hills with just a pocketknife and a shaker of salt, then return two weeks later with a full belly and the stink of wood smoke and something feral. I wanted to attend formal gatherings dressed in thermal shirts and mukluks, knowing all the while that other men envied me. I planned to be a boxer—and not just a boxer, but the undisputed champion of the world—because Ultimate Fighting wasn’t an option at the time. And that picture of me as an adult didn’t include a musical sound track.

After registering me for school, my father returned home, carrying something that resembled a briefcase. It must be a tool kit for shop class, I thought, but no. My father handed it to me and said: “This is what you’ll be playing for your middle school band.”

At first I figured he was only kidding, but then I opened the case and there inside was a shiny brass trumpet. To this day I have no idea why he did it. Music wasn’t important to my folks and we rarely listened to it at home. If you were to ask my dad who the greatest musician of the twentieth century was, he’d probably shrug and say: Hank Williams? Patsy Cline? I can only suppose my father was motivated by the kind of inspiration to which loving parents are entitled.

But for the first week of band I didn’t play a note—only sat and fumed. The second week began in much the same way, except that I began to listen and critique the kids around me. (Johnny keeps missing that F#, I’d think, and Mary can’t count to four). Then at home I’d take the trumpet out and play it when nobody was listening. By the third week I was an unapologetic band geek.

I couldn’t get enough of music, so in high school I joined the choir. Oh, I still played sports and went camping, but music became a passion. My best friend then was 6’6”, 220 pounds and as strong as an ox. He would eventually play college basketball, but he was first and foremost a choir nerd. We would go moose hunting each fall and, while traipsing through the woods, we’d sing from Mozart’s Requiem Mass. We especially liked the bass line from Dies Ire, which is a movement about the Judgment Day. We would sing it like we were Pavarotti and Domingo. Unfortunately, the music’s effect on moose was to put the fear of the Judgment in them and cause them to flee.

Then on Easter morning in 1975 I had the opportunity to sing at the Vatican with a wonderful choir and my life changed completely. We were ushered into an alcove off the main dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, were we began to sing Karl Heinrich Graun’s motet: Surely, He hath Borne Our Griefs. The piece begins with the word “surely” sung in a pensive minor chord, followed by a rest. It was after we gave voice to that first chord and we were waiting for the director’s next cue that two disarming things happened. First, we heard our own voices whispering through the catacombs in the back of the basilica, repeating with quiet assurance: surely, surely, surely, surely. Then the second thing happened: My eyes filled with tears, my voice choked up, and I couldn’t sing another word.

I was completely unprepared for what happened. At home my parents didn’t talk about spiritual matters. My mother had been raised a Buddhist and my father was a self-proclaimed “Jack Mormon”, who would roll his eyes at any reference to religion. As a kid, one of my few experiences with the church occurred a few months after we moved to Alaska and two men dropped by and knocked on our door. I suppose my father’s membership records had finally made their way to the local branch, but Dad wasn’t ready for any welcome committees. He glanced out the living room window and said quietly, “Don’t nobody move.”

That’s when one of the men—the one whom I would later know as Brother Carlson—rapped a knuckle on the window and said: “We’re your home teachers and we can see you in there breathing.”

Dad told us to ignore them and eventually they went away, but they continued to rap on our window every few months, only to be ignored again or told to go away. My father was dismissive about them and wouldn’t explain who they were, aside from telling us they were nuts. The whole affair was quite bizarre to me. What were the men hoping to teach us—some Tony Soprano-styled lesson? And why were they spying on us? My brothers and I wondered if we’d moved to Alaska under the auspices of some witness protection program.

I tell you this to describe just how unprepared I was when the spirit touched me that day in 1975. As I stood there in St. Peter’s Basilica, I wondered what could inspire someone to compose such a beautiful motet, but that only led me to ask other similar questions. Where had Michelangelo obtained the inspiration to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and sculpt the Pieta, both of which I’d seen that day? And what had caused so many people to sacrifice so much to build the edifice in which I stood?

In the end I could only conclude that it had something to do with the man, Jesus, of whom I knew so little and must know more. Within days after I returned home, Brother Carlson’s son, Dave, invited me to attend church with him and I couldn’t refuse.

Taped to a wall inside the middle school band room where my kids once played is a list of rules the students are expected to follow. The first rule is my favorite. It reads, quite simply: We all play together.

The ideal of playing together is one reason why music is so compelling. No matter the geography or culture of origin, all musical forms share an oddly familiar beginning. You can hear it in the melodic chants uttered during a bar mitzvah, or a Buddhist funeral, or a Native-American powwow, or the Islamic call to prayer. In every case, they are meant to join communities of people in a spiritual communion. When all our voices blend together—expressing longing and joy, angst and perfect love—the nature of that communion puts us as close to heaven as nearly any other earthly experience. But what if we don’t sing in tune or in perfect rhythm? If getting there is half the fun, the road to perfect harmony can still be exhilarating, despite the occasional need for a tune-up.

I had a dear friend once who happened to be a dog. Jesse loved music and had impeccable taste in it, preferring the masterworks of the Late Baroque composers. It didn’t matter where he was, whenever Lori played a movement from Handel’s Messiah, or some other similar piece, Jesse would come running. He’d flop down beneath the piano’s soundboard and roll onto his back with legs in the air and ears outstretched to capture every note. The grin on his face suggested a kind of spiritual ecstasy. A year before he passed, Jesse was diagnosed with a tumor in his hip that required one of his hind legs to be amputated. Afterward he couldn’t balance on his back anymore, but he still loved to lie beneath the piano. I don’t want to be maudlin here, but Jesse seemed to take refuge in music, as if it transported him to a dog-version of heaven, like the long walks through the woods we eventually had to curtail. Is there any wonder why David tells us to, “Sing to the Lord a marvelous song?”

February 15, 2009

Justice and the Higher Law

I grew up in a fishing village called Kenai in Southcentral Alaska. It’s an idyllic place with a history rich in interesting anecdotes and colorful people. One of the town’s more fascinating stories dates back to 1778 when the British sea captain, James Cook, discovered the rocky bluffs and the quiet bay at the mouth of the Kenai River.

At the time of his visit, a tribe of Athabascan Indians were living there. When they saw Captain Cook’s ships, Resolution and Discovery, the natives thought the vessels were whales of some large breed they’d never seen before. So, a few of them approached in seal-skin canoes to investigate. When they got close, they were met by an awful stench. Shipbuilders at the time sealed the hulls of large ships with tar to protect the timbers against the caustic effects of salt water. The Indians had never smelled anything like it before and the scent made many of them sick. A few brave souls, however, ventured onto the ships and were immediately amazed by the things they saw.

In particular, two observations had a lasting influence on them. First, the Athabascans had never seen people smoke tobacco before and they found the habit fascinating. Second, they were amazed by the unusual clothing that Cook's men wore and they were especially impressed with the rows of brass buttons sewed onto the men's sleeves. Later that day, the natives returned to their village with an astonishing, but perfectly understandable, story. They had met a fire-eating and smoke-breathing breed of men, who had arms like octopi and lived on the dead and decaying carcasses whales.

I tell you this story to illustrate a point: It’s quite easy to create and perpetuate a myth. And I hope you forgive me when I say there are many myths surrounding our views of justice. In particular, the way it intersects with our concept of the atonement is contrived in such a way that it causes Christ’s followers to live a lesser Mosaic Law. Consider the following question:

What’s the purpose of justice?

A. To protect the innocent?
B. To rehabilitate the guilty?
C. To prevent crime?
D. To restore a cosmic order to the universe?

I’m certain most people will say the right answer is some combination of A through C, but now consider another question: What does our concept of the atonement say about the purpose of justice? Follow that line of thought and see why it makes me want to pull out my hair.

Most descriptions of the atonement follow a logical argument similar to that which Anselm of Canterbury proposed in his treatise Why God Became Man. His reasoning is as follows.

  • The existence of sin wounds God's honor, a condition that demands justice
  • Because God is infinite, any acts to satisfy the demands of justice must also be infinite
  • Since humans are not infinite, they are unable to satisfy such demands
  • Satisfaction is only possible through the sacrifice of Jesus, who is sinless and exempt from punishment due to sin
  • Since Christ’s sacrifice is voluntary, the merit of the act is therefore infinite and God's justice is thus appeased, allowing mercy to be extended to humankind.
If that seems contrived and confusing, it is, at least for me. It’s an example of apologetic thinking, which first assumes a set of axioms as factual and only then seeks a way to explain them logically. I’ll let you decide whether the argument accomplishes the latter, but consider a similar analogy proposed by a general authority of my church. Though it seems to clarify the argument, its implicit conclusions remain troubling.

There once was a man who wanted something very much. It seemed more important than anything else in his life. In order for him to have his desire, he incurred a great debt. He had been warned about going into that much debt, and particularly about his creditor. But it seemed so important for him to do what he wanted to do and to have what he wanted right now. He was sure he could pay for it later. So he signed a contract. He would pay it off some time along the way. He didn't worry too much about it, for the due date seemed such a long time away. He had what he wanted now, and that was what seemed important.

The creditor was always somewhere in the back of his mind, and he made token payments now and again, thinking somehow that the day of reckoning really would never come. But as it always does, the day came, and the contract fell due. The debt had not been fully paid. His creditor appeared and demanded payment in full. Only then did he realize that his creditor not only had the power to repossess all that he owned, but the power to cast him into prison as well.

"I cannot pay you, for I have not the power to do so," he confessed.

"Then," said the creditor," we will exercise the contract, take your possessions, and you shall go to prison. You agreed to that. It was your choice. You signed the contract, and now it must be enforced."

"Can you not extend the time or forgive the debt?" the debtor begged. "Arrange some way for me to keep what I have and not go to prison. Surely you believe in mercy? Will you not show mercy?"

The creditor replied, "Mercy is always so one-sided. It would serve only you. If I show mercy to you, it will leave me unpaid. It is justice I demand. Do you believe in justice?"

"I believed in justice when I signed the contract," the debtor said. "It was on my side then, for I thought it would protect me. I did not need mercy then, nor think I should need it ever. Justice, I thought, would serve both of us equally as well."

"It is justice that demands that you pay the contract or suffer the penalty," the creditor replied.

"That is the law. You have agreed to it and that is the way it must be. Mercy cannot rob justice."

There they were: One meting out justice, the other pleading for mercy. Neither could prevail except at the expense of the other.

"If you do not forgive the debt there will be no mercy," the debtor pleaded.

"If I do, there will be no justice," was the reply.

Both laws, it seemed, could not be served. They are two eternal ideals that appear to contradict one another. Is there no way for justice to be fully served, and mercy also? There is a way! The law of justice can be fully satisfied and mercy can be fully extended—but it takes someone else. And so it happened this time. The debtor had a friend. He came to help. He knew the debtor well. He knew him to be shortsighted. He thought him foolish to have gotten himself into such a predicament. Nevertheless, he wanted to help because he loved him. He stepped between them, faced the creditor, and made this offer.

"I will pay the debt if you will free the debtor from his contract so that he may keep his possessions and not go to prison."

As the creditor was pondering the offer, the mediator added, "You demanded justice. Though he cannot pay you, I will do so. You will have been justly dealt with and can ask no more. It would not be just."

The mediator turned then to the debtor. "If I pay your debt, will you accept me as your creditor?"

"Oh yes, yes," cried the debtor. "You save me from prison and show mercy to me."

"Then," said the benefactor, "you will pay the debt to me and I will set the terms. It will not be easy, but it will be possible. I will provide a way. You need not go to prison."

And so it was that the creditor was paid in full. He had been justly dealt with. No contract had been broken. The debtor, in turn, had been extended mercy. Both laws stood fulfilled. Because there was a mediator, justice had claimed its full share, and mercy was fully satisfied.

What is it about Anselm’s argument and the preceeding analogy that bothers me? Here are my reasons, in reverse order of their significance—the first I see as mere logical inconsistencies, the last is more problematic.

  • The basis of the argument—which John Calvin first referred to as penal-substitution—indicates that justice can be accomplished through an injustice. I can think of nothing more inherently unjust than punishing someone who is innocent, but that’s exactly what is said about the atonement. Christ, according to common thinking, volunteered to be punished—I understand that—but such punishment could not have been a requirement of justice. Not only is it improper to punish an innocent person, it is also improper to forgive a guilty person based on the suffering of someone else. If the existence of sin causes justice to be satisfied, the penal-substitution theory has an odd approach, since its solution runs counter to the basic premise of what is just.
  • At first glance, the analogy explains why God cannot forgive the sinner by introducing a creditor, who would not receive money that he was rightly owed. We take comfort in the argument, because in a financial transaction there is no injustice in someone paying the debt of another. But the analogy contains a subtle sleight-of-hand that breaks down when we map it to the real world. The debt—which represents the punishment required for sin—can be paid justly by another, but punishment should not. Why? Because there are real world debits and credits associated with financial transactions. To assume the same about the transferability of punishment is problematic. How would you like a court of law to incarcerate your mother, for example, because you broke a law?
  • There seems to be no real-life analog to the creditor. Is it Satan? To assume so would indicate that Satan has a vested interest in our repentance. Is God the creditor? To believe He is wounded by our sins (aside from the sadness a parent feels) is to believe He isn’t much of a God. The alternative—to claim there are cosmic debits or credits that we rack up by our actions—leads to a similar conclusion, since it points to a construct that even God must obey. Furthermore, saying God only forgives the debt after it is fully paid is tantamount to saying God does not forgive, which runs counter to Christ’s higher law (see below). Finally, is justice the creditor? That seems to make no sense, because the conclusion brings us back to the idea that justice demands an injustice and that there are demands that supersede God’s will.
  • Finally and most importantly, our notion of justice is an Old Testament, rather than a gospel, requirement that stands apart from what Christ teaches about the nature of God.
Since the last point is critical, let me develop the argument further. The idea of justice was born out of a different time and comes from the Mosaic requirement that can best be described as an “eye for an eye.” Recall the history of the Jews prior to the time Moses received the Ten Commandments. They were a people who were first slaves to the Egyptians, then led through the wilderness as vagabonds. As slaves, they'd lived a hand-to-mouth existence. Their only laws, enforced by the whips of bondage, were based upon survival of the fittest. Punishments, at the time, far exceeded their attendant infractions—steal a crust of bread, for instance, and off came your hand. Under such conditions, an eye for an eye was less a requirement than a restriction meant to insure punishments were reasonable.

Christ, however, wanted his followers to exercise a higher standard. Jesus expressed this idea in the Sermon on the Mount by saying:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
This is consistent with other utterances He made. For example, when Peter asked how often we should forgive a brother’s sins, Jesus answered, “Until seventy times seven,” a euphemism that meant always.

It would be easy to wonder, therefore, why God would demand one standard for His children (forgive all) but employ another for Himself (justice without exception). The answer is, quite simply: He doesn’t. To understand why this is the case, go back to the Sermon on the Mount and chapter 5 of Matthew. Christ ends His discourse regarding lesser and higher laws with an interesting admonition that sheds light on the true (not the Mosaic) nature of God:

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

By this directive, Christ says His description of the higher law—the gospel that includes forgiveness—is the same variety of perfection that God practices. Accordingly, I believe He forgives in all instances and does not demand any cosmic rebalancing of sin’s debits and sacrificial credits aside from our truly repentant hearts. Though repentance may require restitution when it’s feasible, I cannot believe God requires a justice that is based upon an apparent injustice. Yet, even while I write this and understand what it implies about the atonement, I remain in complete awe and reverence for what Christ did for us. It does not diminish my love for Him.

A final note: Human society is imperfect. Earthly justice, therefore, continues to be necessary in order to protect the innocent, rehabilitate the guilty and discourage criminal acts. Anything more than this, however, is inconsistent with Christ’s teachings. In particular, to demand justice only as payback for crime is little more than revenge.

February 14, 2009

The Power of Hope

A few miles from the town where I grew up, there’s a boulder—cup shaped and tilted on its side—near a place that has been turned into a campground. God must have made it for bait fishing because it’s high in the back, sloped to the river and covered with soft moss. It juts off the bank and causes the water to eddy downstream, so silver salmon rest at its foot before moving on. As a kid, I used to cast into the swirl, lie on the rock and wait for a strike. It was as cozy as a favorite chair and I suppose that I caught my share of fish from it.

The rock gets traffic from the campground these days, so I don’t think of it as mine anymore and since I fish differently these days—with a method requiring floating line and a lot of walking—I haven’t been back in a long time. Yet, I still think about the boulder and love it for the way it was.

I learned things while sitting there, things about human nature and me. One summer I pulled two grown men from the river after their canoe tipped. Once safe on the rock, they watched their camping gear float away and the first words either of them could say was: “Hell, there goes my cigarettes.” I laughed until I recognized a sad side to wanting.

Yet, that didn’t stop me from doing the same thing, too: wish for things that seemed to be drifting away. At one time or another, I wanted to be a dozen different things, including a baseball player and a writer. Those dreams seemed within my grasp, until I would step away from the rock and strike out on curve balls or flunk a spelling test. Still, I could go back to the rock and plan and hope. (That’s when I decided to step up in the batter’s box to get a crack at curve balls before they broke away). Though I was never much of an athlete, the planning seemed to raise my batting average a few points.

Since I’ve gotten older, my dreams have changed. I’m not sure if they’re any more mature than my childhood wishes. At times they haunt me, as a good chunk of my life has already passed without accomplishment. But I know this much: when our wishes are right, they make our lives worthwhile. Hope is what whispers that when life is trying, the best we can do is try. Success isn’t what makes life joyful. It’s hoping and dreaming a better world into existence.

February 12, 2009

His Name Was Emil

When I was a kid, my family lived on a road that ran through thick woods. A mile behind our house, in an area we referred to as our backyard, a narrow creek flowed at the bottom of a gully. One day I was on my way to fish the creek and happened across a small shack made of old logs and roofing material. Judging from its signs of wear, the structure had stood there a long time. I walked towards it until movement showed through a tiny, curtain-less window.

"Who’s that?" I heard an old man's voice say, but more than a little frightened, I walked away without replying.

The thought of an old man living alone in our backyard was disconcerting. Perhaps he was an escaped convict or a deranged lunatic. Yet, after relating the meeting to my parents, my mother made a strange request. She asked me to take food to the man and check to see if he needed our help. Despite my feelings of apprehension, Mom couldn’t be dissuaded. In that gentle, but firm, way mothers come to master, she encouraged me to take an extra plate of dinner to our neighbor.

Within seconds of meeting him, I could tell my concerns had been overblown. He had one of those ambiguous, part-Russian, but mostly-Alaskan native, faces that sported a week's worth of sparse stubble, deep wrinkles and an almost toothless grin. He told me his name was Emil Dolchuk and when he saw the food I carried, his cloudy eyes opened wide. Emil invited me into his one-room home where the smell of urine and mildew jolted me as I entered. Inside, the shack's meager decor included a cot along one wall, a fold-up table opposite from it and two unmatched chairs. There was no electricity and no running water. His source of warmth was a wood-burning stove constructed out of tin tubing and a 50-gallon drum.

As he ate, Emil talked without pause. He seemed compelled to share stories of his life, but I can remember none of them, because I could only think of leaving—to be gone from the sight of the old man's poverty. During the following months, checking up on Emil became a family project, but after moving form the area, we lost track of him. Then several years later, we were reminded of our former neighbor in a startling way: an obituary notice in the local newspaper marked his passing.

Now, the story would end there except that after the passing of a few more years, I went to the city library to research the area's early history. There I found a shelf full of old journals written by Orthodox priests, commercial fishermen and homesteaders. As I read the sour-smelling and forgotten pages, I was impressed by several references to a man—a former city father. He’d been first to suggest the need for a new school (which he'd helped build and, thirty-years later, I attended). He had been a member of Kenai’s first volunteer fire department and for many years, as the village post master, he had braved winter toil by delivering mail to the town via dog sled.

The man's life took on shape and substance as I read. I could imagine him preparing to pick up the mail at Moose Pass 200 miles away. I could see him take a cautious step onto the crust of old-fallen snow and grimace as he fell through. He would grumble as his breath formed a lazy vapor that disappeared slowly into empty winter air.

In those days, unbroken and thinly-crusted snow was his greatest nightmare. It required him to "break trail" by running ahead of the dogs. With snowshoes lashed to his feet, he would land spread-legged and heavy on the snow's frozen crust to create a pathway for his huskies. While inching across wind-swept and frozen tundra, the sled would shimmy and shudder along the jagged edges of the scarcely broken trail.

After traveling only a short distance, but already wet with his own sweat, he would tell himself that Soldotna Creek was only twelve miles away and that he could rest his aching lungs there. By the time he would reach the cache, winter’s fleeting light would already have left the sky and he would still have much to do. He would need to build a fire and dry his drenched clothes before the night settled fully and sought to freeze him in his own perspiration. He would go to the cache and bring out dried chum—dog salmon they called it because the fish filled local rivers like maggots on a carcass and gave homesteaders the chance to catch a year's worth of dog food during a few summer weeks of gill netting. With coarse tools and nature's gifts, this remarkable man helped carve a community out of the wilderness. And his name was Emil Dolchuk.

If Emil were alive today, his stories would be worth gold to me. Unfortunately, all that reminds me of his good works and wisdom are a few scattered entries in hand-written journals. Yet I am fortunate to have them, for they are testimonies to the contributions of a man I've learned to appreciate and long to see again.

February 8, 2009

The Gospel In Practice

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.

Christ made the declaration just before introducing His gospel as a requirement of greater standing than the prevailing Mosaic Law. What did He mean by the assertion? In particular, what does the reference to “fulfilling” the law and prophets suggest? Here are my thoughts.

Since His followers were required to obey the Mosaic Law—albeit by adherence to the higher standards of the gospel—Jesus didn’t destroy the lesser law. Obedience to the Ten Commandments, in fact, remains a necessary condition to living a Christian life, but while it may be a necessary condition, it’s also insufficient. We’re asked, in short, to be better than the demands of the Old Testament (see my first blog on the topic). Consequently, Christ fulfills the Mosaic Law in two important ways. First, He represents the culmination of the Messianic prophecies and associated promises of spiritual freedom contained in the Old Testament. Second, He asks us to fulfill the lesser law (in the way graduation from high school is a requirement to enter college) on the road to greater levels of spiritual advancement.

But why is this important? Consider the following.

Case 1—Geoff walked up to an ATM, intending to take money out of his account. The screen, however, asked if he wanted another transaction and he quickly realized that the previous user hadn’t logged out. He had access to someone else’s funds! Geoff looked around and saw that no one was watching. At first he considered making a withdrawal from the account, but decided it wasn’t the Christian thing to do.

Did Geoff do the right thing? Certainly he did by not stealing. However, a helpful construct to consider is contained in the following question: What standard was followed? While the Mosaic Law prohibits theft, Christ asks that we rise to a higher plateau. It’s not enough that we avoid acts that do harm to others. The gospel asks for clean hearts, as well. The fact that Geoff was tempted to steal runs counter to Christ’s directives against immoral thoughts and unbridled emotions such as lust, greed and anger. These are not only precursors to sinful acts, but they lead to spiritual decay even when the behaviors are avoided. Clearly, following Christ’s admonition in this way is easier said than done. We may never achieve complete purity of thought, but it’s the standard to which Christians are to aspire.

Case 2—Geoff agreed to perform landscaping work for a new client, but before he could draft and execute an agreement, a more lucrative opportunity fell into his lap that would take up all his spare time. Since he wasn’t contracted with the first client, he decided it was fine to walk away from the deal.

Though the Mosaic Law required the performance of oaths—and prescribed a hierarchy of their countless varieties—Christ would have a person’s word be his or her bond under all circumstances. However, in this way our culture is far more Judeo than it is Christian. For example, the requirement to swear on a Bible prior to giving legal testimony, smacks of Leviticus rather than the Sermon on the Mount. Christ wants our communications to be Yeah or Nay and our performances to be perfect regardless of whether an oath (or contract) was executed.

I have more to say on this topic as the idea of justice, in particular, is quite interesting and complex. Moreover, what Christ has to say on the topic runs counter to our usual practice, which again is more closely aligned to the Mosaic Law than the gospel.

February 6, 2009

Scribes and Pharisees, Hypocrites!

Did you happen to notice where our president had to go to rally his troups last night? After everything our illustrious elected officials have said to condemn lavish junkets made by bankers, what do you think our leaders did? Yup, you guessed it, they gathered at an exclusive resort. As CNN's Campbell Brown said:

Leave it to members of Congress to be completely daft, entirely clueless, and unbelievably out of touch. Seriously, only a member of Congress can make a Wall Street executive seem like a sympathetic figure these days. And boy, do they make my job easy. Yes, while our representatives have been jumping up and down screaming about the excesses of Wall Street, condemning those corporate boondoggle trips to luxurious resorts, what do they do? They all go away on retreat together to a luxurious resort. First it was Republicans, who last week decamped to the lovely Homestead Resort, famous for its golf, fly-fishing, and luxurious accommodations, with its own golf course and five star amenities. Now, in fairness, members do pay for lodging with personal funds or their campaign accounts. But yes, taxpayers do foot the bill for some of the expenses. For example, according to Politico.com, we all paid about $70,000 for Democrats to take the train down to last year's getaway. Then they racked up phone and Internet bills of more than $40,000 on our dime. Not to mention the enormous security costs, which are even higher this year with the president and vice president both stopping by. How exactly in this economic climate Congress could possibly see the need to all go on a spa retreat together is frankly beyond me. Their offices are next door to one another. They see each other every day. Yes, they have important businesses to do on behalf of all of us. But can't they do that in Washington?

February 1, 2009

Random Musings

On God’s First Commandment—Do you recall God’s first instruction to humanity? It was this: Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. While human history suggests we’d rather leap over these initial directions on our way to subduing the earth and exercising dominion over its creatures, the priority of God’s commandment lands squarely on our responsibility to be good stewards. Shouldn’t Christians, therefore, be the greenest of all people?

On Levels of Heaven—Followers of my religious tradition believe heaven contains various degrees of glory and that those who attain the highest level become like God Himself. If the notion is true, I believe our Heavenly Father will allow us to select our various kingdoms. If we weren’t comfortable hobnobbing with the sanctimonious here, we won’t feel any different beyond the veil. As for me, I think perfection is overrated. Quirky is my preference. I’d rather associate with people who can fart and laugh about it than with the pious creatures who believe they deserve Godhood.

On Mercy and Justice—Who invented the need for justice? Justice by another name is payback and is little more than revenge when its sole purpose is to exact an eye for an eye. Does justice restore the eye? If not, what cosmic order does it maintain? To punish a child already bludgeoned by guilt is akin to piling on and demands more than any reasonable parent would ask. But to assume God—who knows the content of our hearts—does so is antithetical to the idea of a loving father.

On the Atonement—Why did Jesus have to die for my sins? Even an imperfect court of the land would balk against incarcerating my brother for a law I broke. Why would God require something so blatantly unfair? In the end, I’d rather burn—if that’s what justice truly demands—than allow someone I love to pay for my sins. Hopefully, I’ll have a choice in the matter.

On Praising the Lord—To assume God needs us to praise His name is to believe He has a self-esteem problem. Conversely, if we think He’s offended by what we say or think, we really don’t believe He’s much of a God. Worship, as a component of any other relationship, is unhealthy. Why must it come between us and the father of our souls? To me, it seems far better to approach God as one would a respected and trusted teacher. Worship is more akin to fear than love.

On Eternal Rest—What kind of a reward is eternal rest? The notion causes me to shudder. Death, without the gospel, gets us the same thing. As for me, I hope there will be plenty to do when this life is over. Even bowling would be a better option than rest.

What bothered me most about my church’s response to Prop 8—While so much zeal was applied to passing the proposition, there was nothing said about the people who would be most affected—no prayers were uttered on their behalf, no outreach of love and concern was ever offered. So many of our young gay members have gone on missions and tried to live the church’s directives, only to resign themselves to who they are and commit suicide with feelings of utter desolation. If you believe God condemns gay marriage, campaign against it, but also pray for gay men and women everywhere that they will find refuge and God’s love somewhere. Hopefully, we can be instruments of peace in that regard.

On Satan's Role—If we're to be tested here on earth, couldn't the devil defeat God's plan by withholding temptation?