Check Stubs and Moral Seriousness
The late Lutheran poet and seminary professor Gerhard Frost wrote a short poem entitled “Autobiography,” which opens with four questions a person might ask themselves as they sit down to write an autobiography. He closes, though, with a single, simple thought. I don’t need to write anything more, because I’ve already written enough for you to see who I am. Concludes Frost: “My check stubs are enough.”
I thought of this poem as I came across these words yesterday from former Chancellor Canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Giles Fraser back in June 2010: “the best way to assess what someone believes is to look through their bank statement. Forget fancy words and sermons, money is the way we mean it – or we don’t. Money is the sacrament of moral seriousness.”
Using religious language to talk about money fits easily with Wall Street. In every bank and brokerage house, from the lowliest trader to the occupant of the corner office, money is how you are measured. MOTU bosses assess their peons: “What did you earn for us this year, this quarter, this month, this year? How does that stack up with what everyone else around here did? How does it stack up against our competitors?” Meanwhile, clients ask about return on investments, asking “could we have done better with a different company?”
In DC, things are no different. Lobbyists soak up money from their clients and spread it around to try to get what they want, and money is how their performance is measured. K Street bosses assess their staff: “What did you earn for us this year, this quarter, this month, this year? How does that stack up with what everyone else around here did? How does it stack up against our competitors?” The clients ask the same questions about return on investments: “Could we have done better with a different firm?”
In DC and on Wall Street, money is worshiped and praised. Those who have it are exalted while those without it are dismissed.
Except when those who are without stand up and refuse to be dismissed.
That, in a nutshell, is what I see as the message of the Occupy movement.
Put Frost and Fraser together, and you get a profound and simple way in which to assess the moral character of MOTUs on Wall Street, lobbyists on K Street, or businesses on Main Street.
Or, like Frost, it’s how we assess ourselves. Pull out your checkbook, and look at the entries. How would you feel if you could look over the shoulders of your descendants, as they pored through your check stubs?
That’s either a comforting or confrontational question. Given the reactions of the MOTUs and many of the 1%ers, I’d say they are profoundly threatened by it.
And the next time someone calls this “class warfare,” just tell them you’re engaging in applied moral theology.
photo h/t to CarbonNYC
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