I believe our state must enter rehab. Moral rehabilitation.
Repossessing Virtue: Ayman Amer on No-Interest Banking and a “House of Finance”
» download (mp3, 20:24)
Amara Hark-Weber, Production Intern
Throughout recent discussions of our current financial crisis, I have been struck at how few leaders are willing to imagine changes or alternatives to the system that has faltered. In this conversation, Mount Mercy economics professor Ayman Amer delves directly into this topic, outlining financial alternatives as they are practiced in the Islamic world. He ruminates on the shared responsibilities of government, lending bodies, communities and individuals discussing how they can they work together for mutual success. Amer uses the Islamic financial practices of no-interest banking as an example of an alternative method that could realistically be applied here in the United States.
As a scholar with an understanding of the financial structures of both the Islamic world and the United States, Amer pushes us to remember that in times of assessment and reflection it is as important to look outward as it is to reflect inward. He helps us do just this, asking how can we improve our own practices and challenging us to see examples elsewhere.
A New Jubilee
Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer
Just when I thought I’d had my fill of historical Jewish customs for the time being (last week I waist-deep in Scott-Martin Kosofsky’s The Book of Customs for our Hanukkah program), I ran into an interesting Financial Times article referencing a tradition of routinely absolving debts described in the Old Testiment and Torah.
Deuteronomy dictates that “at the end of every seven years you shall grant a release of debts.” After seven of those seven-year cycles (called Sabbatical cycles), comes the jubilee year — a year where material possessions and land are returned to their original owners, and servants are emancipated. The FT article suggests that one solution to the current economic crisis could be to have our own version of the jubilee year — not by absolving debts outright, but by converting them into government-backed, low-interest loans.
I was equally intrigued by the image that was selected to accompany this article: The Moneylender and His Wife, by Flemish painter Quentin Metsys (seen above). According to the description on the Musée du Louvre’s Web site, “the shiny gold, pearls (a symbol of lust), and jewelry have distracted the wife from her spiritual duty, reading a work of devotion.” The objects behind the two figures are also ripe for interperetation, but perhaps the most potent item in this painting — especially for an artist intending to send a moral message — is in the foreground: a mirror “reflecting” the world outside.
Find more of our coverage of the economic downturn, see our Web site for Repossessing Virtue.
Repossessing Virtue: Prabhu Guptara on Applying Personal Moral Sense to One’s Work Life
» download (mp3, 14:33)
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
We’re continuing our exploration of the economic crisis by asking a fairly specific set of questions:”Do you see this as a spiritual and moral crisis?” “Where are you looking now for leadership, for guidance?” As promised, we turned to a financial expert operating within the banking industry, Prabhu Guptara.
Several years ago, Krista spoke with Guptara when the fallout of the Enron scandal was wreaking havoc on the U.S. economy and shaking investor confidence in corporate practices and business fundamentals. His PowerPoint presentation titled "The Gods of Business" resonated with many listeners at the time. His message was simple but challenging, and also quite liberating for much of our audience — bring your personal values into the workplace. For Guptara, doing this is one of the best ways of making ethical decisions that will lead to moral integrity — and less corruption and scandal.
In the coming days, we’ll make available Kate’s interview with medical researcher Dr. Esther Sternberg. Unlike Prabhu Guptara and Martin Marty (listen to his thoughts on trust in uncertain times here), Sternberg doesn’t view this as a moral issue at all, but a biological one. And, we’re in the process of editing Krista’s conversation with Quaker educator Parker Palmer, which will be released via podcast on December 11th.
We’re releasing all of these mp3s for download in our podcast. And, check back here at SOF Observed for future conversations with wise thinkers, including Shane Claiborne.
Also, we’re looking to our readers and listeners for fresh thinking and language about how to talk about the current economic crisis. How has this changed you, your family, your community? And not just financially, but in terms of personal conscience and values? We’d like to hear from you. Tell us your first person story about your experiences.
Repossessing Virtue: Rebecca Blank on the Ethics of the Free Market
» download (mp3, 7:36)
Rob McGinley Myers, Associate Producer
The financial crisis has been a topic at all of our recent staff meetings, and we’ve been looking for different ways to address it. One idea was to begin conversations with thinkers in a variety of fields about the moral implications of what has happened and why. For the first of those conversations, we called up the economist Rebecca Blank, co-author of the book Is The Market Moral? She brings together a faith in the power of markets and her life-long Christian faith, providing a unique ethical perspective on the free market at a time when even Alan Greenspan has been expressing his doubts about it.
Give a listen and let us know what you think. And while you’re at it, share your story of how this crisis is affecting you, what you think the implications are, and where you’re looking for wisdom and strength in this shifting economic landscape.
(photo courtesy of PBS)
Editor’s update: Changed the title to include in our Repossessing Virtue series.
Hard Times, Hard Times (Come Again No More)
Kate Moos, Managing Producer
In 1934, on August 16th my mother, Marva Maxwell, turned 18. She had graduated at the top of her class at Sacred Heart High School. That was the public high school in Sacred Heart, Minnesota, in the western, sugar beet-growing part of the state, where her father grew crops for feed and raised beef cattle.
My mom had saved money up in order to attend college a hundred miles north and east of her home town at the Normal School for teacher training at St. Cloud, a little burg on the side of the Mississippi River. She had made money over the years candling and selling eggs and walking beans. If my memory preserves her story accurately, in August of 1934, with her whole life in front of her, she had 200 dollars in the bank, and a scholarship to college. Then the bank closed. It had already been hard times. Now times had gotten worse.
I heard her tell this cautionary tale hundreds, if not thousands, of times over the course of my childhood: when it was time for school to start her father drove her to St. Cloud, dropped her off at the residence hall, Schumacher (which she would later get kicked out of for smoking), and handed her a $20 bill: “I hope everything works out for you here,” he told her, “because we don’t have anything much for you back home on the farm.”
Years later, during World War II, my mother took the train to San Diego and Camp Pendleton where my father was assigned as a Navy dentist, with her first child in tow. They sucked on malt tablets (not the candy but a nutritional supplement) to keep their hunger pangs at bay. From this era of her life came the stories of butter and sugar and gas rationing, and of living off-base in a house where precious avocados and oranges grew on trees in the backyard where she could gather the windfall for lunch.
These stories explain things about my mom — and others of her generation. Like why she always had 6 cans of 12 varieties of Campbell’s soup in the basement pantry at any given moment, and if the supply fell lower than that it was immediately replenished. This was the generation that came home from the world’s greatest war and never threw away another piece of string or aluminum foil so long as they lived.
We want to believe that hardship will ennoble us and teach us virtue, without robbing us of the aptitude for joy, or making us mean and peevish. In reality, sainthood is a by-product of adversity only for a few. The rest of us struggle through, managing a little generosity here with a large dose of self-interest there.
I think often of my parents’ generation as the uncertainty of the global economy continues to roil and brew. I am not worried so much about our generation’s ability to survive hardship in the sense of giving stuff up and doing without. But I worry quite a lot about our ability to live with uncertainty.
What my mother really gave up as she stepped away from her father’s car as he left her at college, or rode the train pell mell to a California she had never even dreamed of, was her sense of control over the future: that she knew what was coming next — and could count on it.
I’m pretty sure I don’t know what will happen next, and it makes me jumpy. I take comfort in my usual sources of sanity: work, yoga, my family and friends. At SOF we’re starting to dig hard into some of the questions that come up for us personally. We’d love your help:
For starters, in what way(s) do you consider this a moral or spiritual crisis? Of your own? Of our culture’s?
What moral and spiritual resources, what virtues, do you bring to approaching it — in your own life, with colleagues at work, in your family, in your religious or other community settings? What are you doing now that is different? How is it different, and why?
What kind of wisdom and leadership are you looking for at this time, close to your life? Where are you finding it?
In addition to posting and collating your responses, we’ll be reflecting on these questions in our production process and our blog and posing them to wise thinkers in the realms of business, education, philosophy, science, and religion.
(photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library)
Memories of a Pro-Life Childhood
Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer
A few times when I was in elementary school, my mom took me out of school to go to the annual pro-life march at the Minnesota state capitol. I remember waiting for a shuttle from Colonial Square in Wayzata, standing in Rexall Drug’s entrance next to a woman with a sign that read, “Real Feminists are Pro-Life.” At that age, I didn’t know what a feminist was and remember asking my mom, but I don’t think her answer made it any clearer for me. Isn’t everybody for women’s rights?
One particular year we were at the capitol and I remember signs that had pictures of aborted fetuses pasted to foamcore; another striking display was a grim reaper effigy being toted around by a cross made of 2x4s, which the strong winds made even more terrifying. My memory tells me that each time it was a gray, overcast January day, with exhaust-covered snow heaped upon the banks of the streets. I don’t know what I was thinking of it at the time, but my recollection is that we were doing what was needed.
I remember screenings of The Silent Scream were offered in my church’s basement. My parents never let me watch it. I guess I was too young to witness that strong a message. But I went to the capitol each year because it was what my mom asked of me. I would do it for her then, and I would like to say I would support her today, a little over a year since she passed away, but I cannot be sure.
My mom always called me her “Jesus-baby,” a moniker my siblings still give me grief about (and perhaps now my colleagues), and an affection my mom expressed to me as late as her death bed. I’m not sure I know the entire story behind this nickname, but I do know that mom quit smoking and drinking two years before I was born and also had a born-again experience during the time when charismatic Christianity was firing up Roman Catholic parishes in the early 70’s. I also know that her doctor tried to persuade her to have a hysterectomy around this time — my mother had had 5 children already. I don’t know how much of this, or all of it, is what shaped my mom’s views on abortion, but they do represent some of the circumstances.
I am very conflicted on where I stand on abortion. I can’t say I would abide by the pro-life position if my wife and I found ourselves in a place which would be too challenging for us at some stage in our lives. I do, however, wish that there were fewer abortions, as I think it is a choice and commitment of such anguish for a woman that no one ever wants to undertake, if possible.
And so this contentious struggle continues, without much progress. Maybe I have softened due to the inevitability of maturing, though doubtful. But I can point to something Rod Dreher said on a recent SOF program that was revealing to me.
"If I were pro-choice, I would feel very strongly about it and I would find it very difficult to compromise."
What’s there to do when you can’t compromise and are unwilling to see the opposite perspective? When I say that I am passionate about my beliefs, I guess I am speaking theoretically. My problem is that I see both perspectives as valid, a convenient strategy my dad and I argue about that he calls situational ethics. He feels that there are absolutes in one’s faith and you need to abide by those, no matter the scenario. I feel as though no decision is free from the circumstances, and it is the very apt approach to regarding hindsight or looking back on previous decisions that allow us to progress.
Perhaps that’s what I am, pro-gress. But I am sure we all are.
[Editor’s note: Out of the hundreds of responses we’ve received about abortion, many people are wrestling with same personal and societal conundrums of legalization. I encourage you to visit our map and read some, and submit you’re own perspectives.]
Stepping Outside the “Moral Matrix”
by Andy Dayton, associate web producer
Recently on my way to work I watched Jonathon Haidt’s TED talk on “the real difference between liberals and conservatives.” I’m sure it’s no mistake that this talk was published last week — whether you aim to participate or not, partisanship is almost impossible to avoid this close to an election.
In his talk, Haidt breaks down human moral values into five basic elements, then shows how an individual’s placement on the liberal-conservative spectrum is determined by how much emphasis that person puts on each of these values. Once an individual settles into a particular place on that spectrum, that person becomes stuck in what Haidt describes as a “Moral Matrix” (yes, he is alluding to the movie) — we cease to be able to see a moral reality other than our own. The major thrust of Haidt’s talk seems to be that, even though it’s human nature to settle into a moral viewpoint, we can all benefit from “taking the red pill” and stepping out of our “Moral Matrix.”
This interests me especially because, while for many it’s something to work toward personally — like recycling your plastics or eating enough leafy greens — for myself and the rest of the SOF staff it’s a job requirement. Being new to journalism, this is one of the things that caught me a little bit off-guard when I first started working here. For a good portion of my life I have seen political involvement as an inherently virtuous activity — something any upstanding citizen should do. So it was a little strange to realize that as a producer for a journalistic program I was now obligated to think about “conflict of interest” when considering my involvement in any kind of political activity. This issue has become more present than ever now that we are in the middle of producing a two-part series focusing on American politics (you may have already seen the preview of Krista’s conversation with Amy Sullivan), and as our staff discussion of the presidential election sometimes walks the line between editorial analysis and personal belief.
This brings me to one other thing that interested me about Haidt’s presentation: although his message was about moving away from partisanship, he also acknowledged that the audience he was speaking to was predominately made up of social liberals. However, rather than challenge this bias, he definitely played directly to the crowd with the sort of humor he used. It seems that there’s an unavoidable irony in this approach, but perhaps Haidt felt it was more constructive to say “hey, I’m one of you” so that his message would be more openly received. I couldn’t help drawing another parallel to Speaking of Faith: as a public radio program, we can often find ourselves in a similar predicament — both in the makeup of our listenership and of our colleagues. How much is it acceptable to “play to the crowd,” if at all? Do you feel that Speaking of Faith is operating inside a particular “Moral Matrix,” and if so, how?
Whenever I was on the plane heading to Washington, my wife was kind of looking through… actually some verses in her Bible — and she handed her Bible to me. It was Romans 13, verses one through five, and verses four and five were the verses that she told me to read. And, I mean I’m not gonna sit here and quote Scripture or whatever, but if you’re interested in that, those are the verses I read. And I needed to tell the truth.
The verses read:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience.
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor