Jesus Didn’t Work At Goldman-Sachs

In 2008, at the height of the banking crisis, Lloyd Blankfein attended a meeting with government officials about the insurance giant AIG.  As chairman of Goldman-Sachs, he presided over the purchase of insurance on investments the bank knew would go bad.  Along with other banks who did the same thing, they drove AIG, the world’s largest insurance company, into a bankruptcy that threatened the global banking system and required a federal take-over.  Owed reimbursement for the insurance, from a company now owned by American tax-payers, Mr. Blankfein walked into the gathering and asked, “So, when is the money going to be paid out?”

The money paid to Goldman-Sachs amounted to nearly thirteen billion dollars of taxpayer funds.  The government also gave the bank a ten-billion dollar TARP loan, which it used to make money for a year or two.  For 2009, Goldman-Sachs posted earnings of nearly fourteen billion dollars, and paid sixteen billion dollars in compensation.

In turn, some of that same money went back to the lawmakers who gave it to the banks.  The top twenty-five recipients of government bailout loans in 2008 spent seventy-one million dollars lobbying Congress in 2009.  For politicians, it’s called a return on your investment.  The capillarial flow of cash between the rich and the powerful resembles a circulatory system without a heart.

This is nothing new, of course.  John of Patmos, who wrote The Book of Revelation, used the image of a Babylonian whore to picture the connection, sitting on a throne, dressed in scarlet and bedecked in jewels.  Around her sprawled the great city, unmasked as a place of faithlessness, violence, and greed, as the market where life is cheap and principles are traded for personal gain.  All the nations have drunk deep of the wine of her prostitution, which obviously includes us.

Writing when he did, John had the Romans in mind.  They were the ones who banished him to the desolate Isle of Patmos because of his beliefs.  But Rome was like other empires, ancient or modern.  Conquests produced wealth, and wealth maintained power, enabling more conquests.  Little has changed over the centuries, other than we prefer elections.

As in Rome, money is the life-blood of American power, and asserting power helps to produce money.  America’s wars are expensive, which means some people get rich.  Politics is a form of warfare, as is business, and both are always looking for allies.  Cash infuses it all.  And the value attached to humans is not what makes a person powerful or wealthy.

As in Rome, Americans require an underclass.  Somebody’s got to earn less so some can earn more.  After all, not every business can afford to pay its employees five-hundred thousand dollars a year, which was the average pay at Goldman-Sachs in 2009.  If we paid janitors thirty dollars an hour, nobody could afford to live here.  Big Macs would cost fifteen bucks.  Wal-Mart wouldn’t be cheap.

As in Rome, the underclass helps to populate the army.  America wants people to choose military service without having to pay them a hundred thousand dollars a year to risk their lives.  Unsurprisingly, that choice is attractive to young Americans in the lower half of our economy.  The military can offer a step up in society, if you survive.

And, as in Rome, highly-trained soldiers make possible wealth-producing wars.  The United States admits to spending two billion dollars a week on the war in Afghanistan.  Unless you’re an opium farmer, war is the main Afghan economic engine.  The Iraq War price tag is three trillion dollars.  More than fifteen billion has simply disappeared, without receipts or explanation.  The Halliburton Corporation, where Vice-President Cheney was once CEO, received over seventeen billion dollars of war-related revenue simply between 2003 to 2006.

But Halliburton is not alone.  The Pentagon contracts many services to private businesses, including cooking the food, erecting the barracks, and providing security.  The U.S. weapons business is the largest in the world, accounting for forty percent of global sales in 2009.  We recently completed a deal to sell sixty billion dollars in weapons to Saudi Arabia, while also arranging for Israel to buy twenty-five of our newest jet fighters.  We’re willing to arm both sides.

Business is good, even if that money buys death.  Tens of thousands of dead and wounded have been caused by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  But, for America, as for Rome, such statistics are merely part of the cost equation.  We can live with a certain number of casualties, and have factors for acceptable and unacceptable losses.

It’s the great city in action, where people are traded for cash and personal aggrandizement, accepting that a certain number won’t survive, or will be damaged, or will go broke, or will simply burn-out.  The accrued money and power is worth the sacrifice.  We’ll put a plaque in the park and misplace you at Arlington.

It’s also systemic, institutional prostitution.  Goldman-Sachs and the Pentagon are not disconnected from each other; they make each other possible.  And Jesus wouldn’t have worked for either one.

Jesus viewed humans differently.  He didn’t assign a dollar sign or a numerical value; people weren’t cost units.  Their worth wasn’t judged by a budget.  This is the man who refused to write-off one lost sheep out of a hundred.  That isn’t standard accounting procedure in the realm of acceptable losses.

Jesus saw human beings as priceless; everything else was cheap.  No amount of money was equal to a life.  No amount of money was worth causing harm.  No amount of money was more important than caring for others.  What does it profit a person to win the whole world and lose their soul?  What’s a soul worth?

But that’s not the perspective found in America, or the other political economies around our globe.  Souls are fairly cheap.  Whether it is profiting from a bankruptcy or a death, both are simply matters of calculation, just as Wall Street and warfare are matters of business.  Peace exists in our world on a cost-effective basis.

I’d like to believe that’s not the way it has to be.  I’d like to believe we have the ability to admit our greed, to recognize our common humanity, to love all our neighbors, to listen to Jesus and the other spiritual masters, to create a world that looks like the faith so many profess.  But, from all appearances, those developments are not imminent, even in a nation where seventy-eight percent of the citizens claim to follow Jesus.

Surrounded by the great city, the whore enthroned, Christians demonstrate little in the way of protest.  Astonishing greed is condoned.  Continuous warfare is accepted.  The poor are stigmatized.  John of Patmos would say we’re consorting with the prostitute at her place.

I will admit this.  The Romans were more ostentatious.  They enjoyed military parades through the center of town, flaunting the loot, with the victorious general dressed like a God and showered in adulation.  Americans don’t like that kind of display.  We prefer parades for ball teams, pretending we’re not like the Romans.

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About Bucky Dann

I teach religion, sociology, and psychology at Southwestern Community College in the Smoky Mountains. I have worked in the United Methodist ministry and in the substance abuse field. I possess a Masters of Divinity, a Masters of Philosophy, and a PhD in the sociology of knowledge.

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