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the trouble with normal

April 30, 2010

The week has brought us more than the usual measure of abuse of the common good and the public trust by our most powerful institutions. Goldman Sachs, a symbol of economic power and prestige, is dragged before congress to justify its role in the economic debacle that was the fall of 2009, and more particularly the packaging and sale of derivatives. Pope Benedict, the personification of religious power in the western world, continues to struggle with the relationship between leadership and transparency, holiness and confession in the acknowledgement of significant priestly abuse of children in the care of the church. British Petroleum, representing the industrial production of energy, responds to and at the same time denies the unfolding effects of a major ecological catastrophe in gulf region of the U.S., an event that threatens vulnerable species and wetlands, and, as a result, a way of life for the citizenry in one of the poorest areas of our country.

The distrust of institutions is almost palpable: do we really expect the CEO of Goldman Sachs, or the Pope, or BP to have the common good and the public trust in mind as they go about their professional activities? Is avoidance of responsibility normative? Does anyone, at the highest level of authority, take responsibility for his or her institution? Or must we settle for a series of weak explanations: the investor in fact wants "exposure" in a risky market, the question of defrocking a priest is theologically problematic, there is no "significant difference" between 1000 barrels of oil spilled in a day and 5000 barrels.

I am reminded of the wisdom of the singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn: "The trouble with normal is it always gets worse."

Can we expect a financial institution to be truthful with its clients? Can we hope that the followers of Jesus will care first for "the least of these"? Can we imagine a company that extracts resources from the earth to care for it? And, if we examine ourselves, are we complicit in these developments, to some extent, are we affluent citizens whose psychological well-being mirrors the the New York Stock Exchange, people of faith whose prophetic voices are silent, consumers who use and yes, at times waste the resources that place our ecosystems in peril.

As we do harm to our world---in the economic, ecclesial, ecological spheres---we do harm to ourselves. As the theologian noted, "we drink from our own wells".


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