In Greed We Trust

Greedlock and the god of fiduciary responsibility: The question of idolatry is with us still

by Ken Sehested

       You likely heard recently that former hedge fund manager-turned-entreperneur Martin Shkreli’s company, Turing Pharmaceuticals, bought the patent to a drug treating toxoplasmosis, a potentially deadly parasite disease, increasing the per pill cost from $13.50 to $750. (Before being sold several previous times, the Daraorun medication per pill cost was $1.00.)

        Now San Diego-based Imprimis Pharmaceuticals has announced it would manufacture customized versions of the drug for less than $1.00 (though the Federal Drug Administration has yet to sanction the new drug).

        In his announcement, Imprimis CEO Mark L. Baum conveys the contradiction in which we live. He begins with generous sentiment, saying “recent generic drug price increases have made us concerned” for the well-being of “a needy population.”

        But then he continues, “While we respect Turing’s right to charge patients and insurance companies whatever it believes is appropriate. . . .”

        (This, in case you didn’t know, is the meaning of “fiduciary responsibility,” the legal imperative dictating that rate of financial gain must trump all other investment considerations.)

        People of faith and conscience need to say a loud no to the “whatever” portion of Baum’s statement. There should be no respect given for such a decision: no justification, no rationalization, no exoneration.

        Greed should be named for what it is: avarice, gluttony, piggishness. The notion that the common good will best be served by establishing self-interest as the unquestioned criterion and singular motivation for economic activity is patently absurd. As Voltaire noted, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

        Otherwise we should be honest and say, with stockbroker Gordon Gecko (the fictional character played by Michael Douglas in Oliver Stone’s movie, “Wall Street”): “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works.”

        “What we need,” as Anne Brower famously wrote, coining a new word, “is a cure for greedlock.” What we need—speaking here more confessionally—is a confrontation with idolatry.

        The question of idolatry remains at the center of our vocation. It’s not a question of statues in the temple or figurines on the dashboard, but rather confusion over whose presence, promise and provision can be trusted to secure the future.

        Idolatry? Really? The suggestion seems anachronistic, a problem for ancient and primitive peoples. What does the standard for economic decision-making have to do with idols? Didn’t modernity thrust us beyond such superstition? Shouldn’t we leave economics to the economists, politics to the politicians, national defense to military planners and environmental questions to the scientists?

        Such questions reveal the extent of our biblical illiteracy. It exposes the degree to which spirituality—following Jesus, as we Christians would say—has been emptied of its content, still occasionally “full of sound and fury” (I think of the TV marketeers of piety, the kind Will Campbell called “soul snatchers”) but largely “signifying nothing.” (Shakespeare had a way with words.)

        “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth’” (Deuteronomy 8:17), God warned, by way of Moses to the Sinai assembled children of Israel. “You cannot serve God and mammon,” (Matthew 6:19) Jesus warned atop another Mount to a later assemblage—“from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and from beyond the Jordan”—mammon being a common Aramaic term for wealth-assured security.

        “We’ll worship the hind legs off Jesus, but not do a thing he says,” Clarence Jordan sharply noted. Or, as in the “Family Circus” cartoon appearing on Mother’s Day some years ago, young Billy says to his sister Dolly, “I think I’m going to give Mom a spiritual bouquet and save my money for a catcher’s mitt.”

        Of course, recognizing that the God of Scripture does in fact have a bias for those on the margins of social, economic and political life (and marginalization is manifold in its variety—most of us having at least a little of both) does not effortlessly resolve our dilemmas or easily answer all our questions. Unfortunately, Jesus was notoriously vague about details involved in following the Way, something which theologians and preachers and everyday believers have worked ceaselessly to overcome for two millennia. The terms still require discernment, within communities, even tumultuous and competing conclusions by equally devoted hearts both within and among such communities.

        I can imagine Jesus saying “I didn’t promise it would be easy. I said it would be worth it.”

        We live and breathe, work and pray, not with confidence in privileged access to the Mind of Christ amid all disputation. We rest in the kind of stillness where God is found, and cooperate with the Spirit’s mobilization against both personal meanness and structural injustice, because we know that the Way involves an ongoing act of repenting vain self-centeredness and anxiety-driven security demands. And we learn, time and again and from risky lived experience, that it is from the margins that God’s restfulness and God’s energy intersect.

        Prayer unfolds as care, and care drives us deeper into prayer.

        Such is the posture and geography of honest-to-goodness freedom—contra the greedlock of free marketeering, in iconoclastic resistance to the god of fiduciary responsibility—while we simultaneously plow and plant and water and hoe what Clarence colloquially referred to as “demonstration plots” for the truly Common-wealth of God, liturgically returning—traditional or contemporary-styled, it matters not—to that original praise song, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth. . . .”

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I am indebted to my longstanding friend, Andy Loving, for the phrase "God of fiduciary responsibility." An ordained minister, Andy and his partner/spouse Susan Taylor devote their full-time attention to encouraging and facilitating socially-responsible investing. See more at Just Money Advisors.

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