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thoughts on “inside job”

June 21, 2011

Linn & I recently watched Charles Ferguson’s film “Inside Job”. It is a documentary about the housing industry related financial crisis of 2007-2010. The film won an Academy Award this year for Best Documentary.

The film does a great job of explaining the complex world of the financial services industry and many of the issues that led to the wide-spread banking and financial meltdown of 2008. In addition, it unveils some very troubling relationships between government regulators, the financial services industry and higher education. It also exposes the unbelievable hubris of some individuals intimately involved in the world of high finance. I won’t bore you with the details, as there are other people that can do a better job of explaining the film’s storyline. But I think it is sufficient to say that the film is disturbing, eye-opening and worth seeing.

But for all its strengths, the film has a fairly significant weakness. The problem is that it follows an all-too-familiar (and all-too-simplistic) moral formula that conceals as much as it reveals. The formula goes like this: rich guys are evil, little guys are innocent.

This formula may be comforting to us little guys. But it is ultimately not helpful in forming us as disciples as it does not give us a Biblical perspective on life. I want to counter the film’s moral formula with three Biblical principles.

1)   Wealth Is Not Evil. The not too subtle subtext of the movie is that wealth is bad. The film does a masterful job of building emotional climaxes into moments where executive salaries and bonuses are revealed. The takeaway is that we are to be suspicious of (if not appalled by) wealth.

The only problem is that this isn’t a Biblical view of wealth. In the Bible, wealth is viewed as a blessing from God. Although it is true that the “love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (I Timothy 6:10), it is not therefore true that wealth is bad. Many of God’s people have been very wealthy. When Abraham’s flocks and herds grow greatly in Genesis, you don’t hear Darth Vader’s theme music playing in the background. His flourishing is a sign of God’s blessing. Later in the “love of money” passage in Timothy, Paul reminds the young minister to tell the wealthy that “God provides us richly with everything to enjoy.” (I Timothy 6:17)

2)   Wealth Can (and should) Be Used for Great Good. There is no doubt that a great deal of sin happens on Wall Street. But the problem isn’t the money—it’s the love of money. In Scripture, what are the wealthy commanded to do? They’re not commanded to feel bad about being wealthy. They’re commanded to “to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share” (I Timothy 6:17).

One example that hits close to home here is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. They give away approximately $1 Billion a year. Where does that money come from? The vasty majority of it comes from Wall Street. So even though bashing the wealthy can be soothing and make us feel virtuous, it is a myopic way of viewing the world.

 3)   All Have Sinned. In the film, absolutely zero blame was placed on the “little guy”. Ferguson apparently thought that the greed of Joe Homeowner (who took out a mortgage he knew he couldn’t afford) played little or no part in the housing bubble. It doesn’t matter that Joe Homeowner took out that loan because he wanted to make money—fueled by the assumption that home prices were going to steadily rise forever. Why is it OK for Joe Homeowner to want to make money while it’s evil for Joe CEO to want to make money? Is Main Street greed any less problematic than Wall Street greed?

Furthermore, whenever you get into the area of seeing someone else’s sin, Jesus’ famous words should be ringing in our ears: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3). Moral analysis begins at home. The stock ethical formula of “Rich guys are evil, little guys are innocent” effectively insulates us little guys from considering what role we have to play in problems that plague society.

What we really need is a film about the financial crisis that causes us to say, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips.”

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