Friday, November 25, 2005

Coming Home to Roost

How should one describe the news that the world’s largest automaker and the United States’ biggest corporation, General Motors (GM), will cut 30,000 jobs (17% of its 173,000-employee North American workforce) and close a dozen facilities by 2008? By all rights, Americans should consider it to be huge news. Yet, the announcement on Monday has already begun to fade as the news cycle picks up and runs with more interesting stories like the return to Crawford, Texas, of Iraq War protester Cindy Sheehan and the pandemonium of Black Friday.

Financial analysts have seen this coming. GM stock has fallen to as low as $20.60 per share in the past year, an 18-year low, while its credit rating has plummeted to junk status. The company’s market share has fallen seven percentage points over the last decade (to 26.2%), as it has struggled to sell cars in competition with, frankly, better designed, better priced, and higher quality foreign models. The automaker lost nearly $4 billion in the first nine months of 2005, and $1 billion in the last quarter alone—and this during its massive employee-pricing sales drive and continued offering of low-interest loans through GMAC, its in-house finance unit.

Beyond this, GM has massive wage and benefits problems. Its unionized employees have perhaps the most generous labor contracts in the industry, and the unions are so far unwilling to make significant concessions, blaming management for the firm’s poor performance. However, its biggest burdens are healthcare and pension costs. Each GM vehicle includes $1,500 in healthcare premiums in its price tag, and unlike most U.S. workers, GM employees do not pay any deductibles on their coverage and only 7% of the premium (compared to about 30% in other industries).

In addition, the company’s pension system is being strained to its limits. Each active worker is contributing to the pension coffers for 2.5 retirees, an increasingly untenable situation, threatening them with the specter of GM eventually walking away from its pension obligations just as Delta Airlines recently did through bankruptcy. Rival Ford has similar problems looming.

Such monumental problems do not just happen—they are caused. GM’s woes appear to be the consequences of sins coming home to roost. Both the Old and New Testaments contain similar principles: Numbers 32:23 says, “. . . be sure your sin will find you out,” and Galatians 6:7 reads, “. . . whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (see also Luke 12:2-3). At the root of American industry’s troubles are policies and practices that are bound to result in conflict, injustice, and perhaps the demise of many once-indomitable companies.

Some might argue that these companies are just poorly managed, and there is some justification for such a conclusion. But why are they badly run? Behind the lack of financial and business acumen is a fundamental spiritual problem, which usually can be summarized in one word: selfishness. Other spiritual failings that may be included under this catchall are pride, greed, hatred, envy, corruption, deception, and a host of others that often come to the fore under intense competition. When careers and big money are on the line, all the stops come out.

The best we can do these days, it seems, is to lament that, for the most part, gone are the days of business providing a quality good or service at a fair price. Perhaps small businesses can still work from this model, but big business is too ruthless to operate on such a “na├»ve” principle. Good guys do not last long among the wolves of the business world because, by refusing to join the pack in its sordid activities, they find themselves weak, isolated, and marked for attack. Today, if one is not a predator, he is prey.

God prophesied of this condition by the prophets. In Hosea 12:7-8, God speaks directly to businessmen: “A cunning Canaanite [or merchant]! Deceitful scales are in his hand; he loves to oppress. And Ephraim said, ‘Surely I have become rich, I have found wealth for myself; in all my labors they shall find in me no iniquity that is sin.’” Here, the Israelite merchant brushes away his sin by saying that his wealth proves he is blameless, yet God shows him for what he is: a boastful, deceitful, and oppressing sinner.

Amos 2:6-7 expands on some of his deeds:

Thus says the Lord: “For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not turn away its punishment, because they sell the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of sandals. They pant after the dust of the earth which is on the head of the poor, and pervert the way of the humble.”

From His vantage point in heaven, He sees businessmen selling out their employees for a little extra profit. He watches them greedily taking advantage of every opportunity to squeeze every last bit of wealth out of customers, especially the poor and the weak. He takes note of every time they corrupt someone to fatten their bottom line. He later mentions their trampling of the poor, harsh terms, and profligate lifestyles (Amos 5:11); their taking of bribes and interfering in the judicial system (verse 12); and their undermining of religious practices, cheating, and selling inferior products (Amos 8:5-6).

Isaiah adds that this condition runs rampant through the entire nation, not just the mighty businessmen (see Isaiah 1:4-6). He suggests that, if the common man were in the high-and-mightys’ shoes, he would do the exact same, sinful things! He mentions them in verses 21-23:

How the faithful city has become a harlot! It was full of justice; righteousness lodged in it, but now murderers. Your silver has become dross, your wine mixed with water. Your princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves; everyone loves bribes, and follows after rewards. They do not defend the fatherless, nor does the cause of the widow come before them.

What we are observing in American business was inevitable. The anything-for-increased-profits model of business can only produce inequities, mediocre products and services, and strife, and these, along with the workings of a relentless market economy that punishes inefficiency, will destroy even the mightiest of corporations. And who usually ends up suffering? The little guy, the poor, the weak. We need to watch for these business breakdowns, as they are signs that a crisis looms.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Giving Thanks

The Thanksgiving holiday has crept up on many of us this year. Here in the South, the weather has just turned cool enough to make us wonder if autumn has really arrived. Not only that, Christmas ads began to appear on television and radio just after Halloween, making it seem as if Thanksgiving had been skipped this year. In fact, trying to recall any hullabaloo over Thanksgiving this annum is an arduous task.

Perhaps this suggests that Americans are too busy buying more stuff to be grateful. Why take time out to consider and appreciate all that we have when that time could be better spent getting more? On this end of the year, the holiday calendar—considering only the major holidays—goes from getting candy to giving thanks to getting presents, and which one of these does not look like the others?

Maybe Thanksgiving gets short shrift because its marketing department has not kept up with the times. Halloween has its grinning Jack-O’-Lantern, spooky ghosts, and frightful witches—all in their bright oranges, ghoulish greens, and macabre white on black. It is all quite visually stunning, and participants get mounds of sweets, to the delight of dentists everywhere.

The stars of Christmas, of course—jolly old St. Nick, red-nosed Rudolph, and cute little elves, nicely accented in reds, greens, and pure-as-the-driven-snow whites—are eye-candy, if there ever was such. When the big day arrives, the undersides of living-room conifers are piled high with glistening packages of loot, and revelers spend all of a few minutes ripping and tearing and goggling their gifts. Some even like them.

But Thanksgiving? Front and center are some dour-faced, buckled-down, blunderbuss-toting Puritans and their buckskin-clad sidekicks, the native Indians. Not to mention that no matter how hard an artist tries, it is impossible to make a turkey even remotely cute. And not to belabor the point, but Thanksgiving makes one feel obligated. That smacks of duty, indebtedness, accountability, gratefulness, and recompense, which are all subordinate positions and terribly formal and responsible. We like our holidays to be more uplifting and carefree—and certainly self-indulgent.

As Thanksgiving Day approaches, it is assured that we will see or hear a reporter, microphone in hand, take a quick, man/woman-on-the-street poll, posing the question, “What do you have to be thankful for this year?” We will hear the usual responses: “I am thankful that . . .

. . . I can put food on my table.”

. . . my job is secure.”

. . . I live in the land of the free.”

. . . my student loan is finally paid off.”

. . . I can afford to buy heating oil this year.”

. . . the Michael Jackson trial is over.”

. . . I have lived to see both the Red Sox and the White Sox win a World Series.”

Most of these are wonderful blessings for which to be thankful. Many of us could say the same things. Yet, these are off-the-top-of-the-head, I-really-don’t-have-time-for-this responses. But what would we reply to such a question if we took the time to sit down and ponder what we really appreciate? If we took a deep look at our present circumstances and the state of the world, and imagined what life would be like if this had happened or that had not happened, for what would we give thanks? Whom would we thank?

Being appreciative is fine, but it means very little unless we act on it and actually thank the person who has made a difference in our lives. It is not good enough to feel grateful—all warm and gooey inside. That, in essence, is purely self-serving. One must give thanks for gratitude to be effective. Gratitude is like a present: worthless unless it is given.

The real reason Thanksgiving is not a wildly popular holiday in America is because Americans, frankly, do not want to give Almighty God any credit for their peace, plenty, and power. Why? They realize that acknowledging God’s part in America’s present prosperity or even in their personal lives would make them obligated to Him. They would be obliged to obey Him—and that would spoil all their fun! Instead, year by year, this holiday has turned into Turkey Day and little more.

Christians, more than ever, need to give thanks—and not just on Thanksgiving. Times are becoming tougher, the world is moving faster, and life is seeming more precarious with every passing day. Gratitude helps to lift us above these pessimisms, focusing us on what is good, making us count our blessings, forcing us to remember that we have help. And it reminds us that we do indeed have obligations to meet before God, divinely appointed responsibilities that we dare not shirk. Thus Paul writes, “See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil . . . giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:15-16, 20).

Friday, November 11, 2005

Man's Natural Spirituality

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It is not uncommon to hear of hardened soldiers—trained to fight, kill, destroy, cuss, and drink—throwing themselves on grenades to save their buddies. Perhaps we catch a news broadcast about a multimillionaire donating a large chunk of his estate to pay for scholarships for the disadvantaged. Maybe we notice a food-and-coats-for-the-homeless drive held by a group of schoolchildren, or we applaud an honest Joe who turns in a lost wallet or a purse full of cash.

Many of us have scratched our heads over the fact that some unconverted people in the world do a great deal of good. Every community has a handful of souls who lead lives of self-sacrifice and kindness toward others. Some of these people have a kind of piety and faith that puts some of us to shame. Indeed, some would argue that, not too long ago, the average person on the street was more sincere, generous, and devout than many Christians are today. Frankly, these charitable behaviors make Christians wonder whether there is much difference between themselves and those in the world—or even if these people are more converted than they are!

What gives? Why do we struggle to do good, yet some people seem to do it so naturally?

Elihu declares in Job 32:8, “But there is a spirit in man, and the breath of the Almighty gives him understanding.” Job’s young friend utters a truth that is self-evident to those whose minds God has opened but is hidden from carnal perception. God has endowed man with a human spirit that places him higher than the animals, giving him intelligence, emotion, speech, skills, and abilities similar to but lower than God’s own abilities. This spirit allows humans to function with free moral agency, to choose what behaviors they will follow.

This human spirit, however, has no moral compass in itself; it is essentially neutral, though it tends to be dragged down by the needs and desires of our flesh. A young child can become a saint or a sinner, depending on the training he receives, but if he is left to his own devices, as Proverbs 29:15 warns, he will ultimately bring shame on his family. This principle results from the fact that Adam and Eve, who, as mankind’s representatives before God in the Garden of Eden, set the pattern of choosing the knowledge of good and evil rather than God’s offer of knowledge that leads to eternal life (Genesis 3:1-6; 22).

Human beings, then, come in an array of moral hues, from black as sin to white as the driven snow and every shade in between. Humanity has produced Adolf Hitler, who attracted millions to his cause, as well as Mother Theresa, who repulsed millions with her Catholic beliefs. At base, we are all mixed bags, capable of the heights of altruism and the depths of egoism. It all depends on what we choose to do, yet our record tends toward the dark rather than the light.

In I Corinthians 2:11-13, Paul explains that man’s essentially neutral spirit is distinct from God’s Spirit. The human spirit understands only what the human mind can discover. If a man wishes to understand and do truly godly things, he must have God’s Spirit, which He freely gives upon repentance and conversion. This Spirit from God is “not the spirit of the world” (verse 12), which is “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2). Paul goes on to say that God’s Spirit teaches us things beyond any wisdom discovered by the human spirit (I Corinthians 2:13).

Within this passage, Paul hints at the fact that the human spirit, when it is under the inspiration of the spirit of this world, can counterfeit the wisdom that comes from God’s Spirit alone (see II Corinthians 11:13-15). A carnal person’s works may seem “right,” but they are still acting under the guidance of the “natural spirituality” that is part of the spirit in man.

Consider the Ten Commandments. Most of us probably know people who agree that they are fine laws and strive to keep them. Does this mean they are converted? No! At best, men naturally follow at least the last six because they can see by the human spirit that they produce an ordered and peaceful society. The first four commandments, however, require God’s Spirit to understand fully.

Paul confronts this issue head-on in Romans 2:14-15, admitting that the unconverted often follow God’s law even if they have no knowledge of it. He calls them “a law to themselves,” meaning that the rules they follow are their own, not God’s, though they may agree with God’s law at points. How? Because the spirit God breathed into Adam in the Garden of Eden allows them to reason out a correct moral sense—at least partially. Generally, though, man’s moral sense is partly right and partly wrong, yet fundamentally hostile to God (Romans 8:7).

Nevertheless, the human spirit is so incredible that, in varying degrees depending on the individual, it can reason out parts of God’s truth on its own and put them into action. But by no means does this mean such people are converted! Jesus and the apostles are unambiguous about conversion being a special calling by God (John 6:44; II Timothy 1:9), marked by the indwelling of another Spirit (I Corinthians 3:16; II Timothy 1:14), God’s Spirit, that is holy and begets us as His children (Romans 8:9-14).

In Acts 5:29, 32, Peter provides the key to the difference between the converted and the “good” yet unconverted of this world: God’s people obey Him rather than men, and God gives His Spirit to those who obey Him. In other words, a converted person will have and use God’s Spirit and obey His law diligently and increasingly, while natural man will be guided only by his “natural spirituality” and be a law to himself. Because He will do what feels right “in his heart,” he will occasionally perform good works with which God would be pleased. As Jesus so bluntly puts it, even evil men give good gifts to their children (Matthew 7:11). Even a blind squirrel finds an occasional nut.

So, while we may be put to shame by someone’s good works from time to time, remember that God’s Spirit working in us makes all the difference: “But we have the mind of Christ” (I Corinthians 2:16)!

Friday, November 4, 2005

What We Don't Know

During its approach to a mooring mast at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey on May 6, 1937, the German dirigible Hindenburg, filled with hydrogen, went up in flames in less than a minute. Thirty-six people—13 passengers, 22 crewmembers, and one member of the ground crew—died in the disaster made famous by a newsreel dubbed with the radio commentary of eyewitness Herbert Morrison. In it, he uttered the well-known cry of despair, “Oh, the humanity!”

It is commonly thought that the Hindenburg conflagration killed the majority of those on board, and the newsreel footage certainly makes such an assumption plausible. However, only a little more than a third died in the disaster, as there were 97 people aboard the giant airship when it ignited. In addition, most people believe that these deaths were caused by the terrible fire, seen so vividly against the evening sky in the film, but this, too, is a myth. Most of these people died because they jumped to the ground in their fright.

In a sense, what they did not know, or failed to realize, killed them. Hydrogen, being the first element on the periodic table, has an atomic weight of one. As such, it is lighter than air, composed predominantly of heavier nitrogen and oxygen, so when it combusts, the explosion and flames shoot upward. In other words, the fire on the Hindenburg, for the most part, remained above the passengers and crew, who were confined to the gondolas and cabins in the lower part of the ship. Had they just kept their heads, they would probably have glided down to an albeit bumpy landing, yet suffering only bumps and bruises and a few burns.

God makes a similar declaration in Hosea 4:6: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” Of course, the context makes plain that He means Israel will undergo disaster after disaster because she rejects God’s knowledge, the truth about moral conduct and right relationships that produces a stable, prosperous, peaceful society. Yet the principle stretches to cover more than just spiritual knowledge. What we do not know about physics, biology, medicine, economics, politics, business, and so many other matters can land us in a heap of trouble.

Within this truth, however, is a paradox: We do not know what we do not know. How, then, can we avoid disaster due to our ignorance? There are two steps we can take to lessen our chances of being bitten by our lack of knowledge: 1) We can develop a habit of learning, of seeking knowledge, and 2) we can admit that we do not know everything. The first is an action and the second is an attitude, and they must be put into practice together.

One of mankind’s greatest fears is of the unknown. This is what makes death, darkness, and many other phobic things so terrifying; people have no idea what to expect from them, so they allow themselves to imagine bogeymen at every turn. Yet knowledge about these “unknown” matters can alleviate our fears and enable us to conduct ourselves with poise and confidence when they confront us. Thus, with the knowledge provided by God’s Word, death, though it remains a hated enemy, becomes, in Paul’s more comforting term, “sleep” (see I Corinthians 11:30; 15:51; Ephesians 5:14; I Thessalonians 4:14). Without this truth, as we witness in the actions of men ignorant of it, there is no telling what people will do with their lives.

Human beings do and say stupid things out of ignorance all the time, and it often comes back to bite them. A recent example from the news illustrates this point. Though Americans live in the most prosperous nation on the face of the earth, they are among the most ignorant when it comes to economics. Even the simplest workings of supply and demand seem to be beyond them, as we can see in the strident calls for price controls on gasoline and/or punitive regulations on oil companies for taking “exorbitant” profits during the recent run-up in gas prices.

A little knowledge of basic capitalism, however, puts what has happened over the past months into perspective. If either supply falls or demand rises, prices will naturally edge upward. In the present situation, supply has been reduced due to the destructive power of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (among other factors), while demand has remained essentially constant (it has actually decreased slightly). Thus, when the supplies were tightest—right after the storms struck—prices rose, and now that new supplies are coming online, prices are falling back toward their previous levels, though it will take some time for that to occur completely, if ever. This is how a market economy works. If there were a glut of oil, or if demand fell precipitously, the gas price would plunge, and the oil companies would take a financial drubbing.

The most recent financial statements of oil companies belie the accepted wisdom concerning their “outrageous” profits: They are making about ten cents of profit per gallon of gasoline. In percentage terms, they make single-digit profits. In comparison, a profitable stock or well-managed mutual fund will garner 10-15% earnings for the investor over a year’s time. One could easily conclude that the oil companies are, in fact, bringing in only mediocre returns for their stockholders. (By the way, the government makes an average of forty-six cents on each gallon of gasoline in taxes.)

What happens if the government places price controls on gasoline? When this was tried in the 1970s, the price of gas actually doubled as supply shrank (nobody wanted to produce gasoline anymore, since there was no profit in it). Lines of cars waiting to fill up their tanks stretched down the road and around the corner. Despite their promise, price controls end up hurting both businesses and consumers.

What happens if the government punishes oil companies for windfall profits by raising their taxes? The same thing. If selling gasoline is not profitable for the oil companies, they will cut production, and the motorist will suffer higher prices and dwindling supplies.

This is Economics 101, but most Americans seem to know little about it. In their ignorance, they could listen to populist politicians who want to pass legislation instituting price controls and/or taxes on windfall profits—and end up worse off than before!

What we do not know—about the properties of hydrogen, the principles of capitalism, or some other matter—could destroy us. This is especially dangerous spiritually, which is why Peter urges us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (II Peter 3:18). Similarly, Jesus commands us to “seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33), and to ask, seek, and knock (Matthew 7:7-11). God promises to answer our requests with gifts that will help us unlock the shackles of ignorance, producing the confidence to live by faith even while the world falls to pieces around us.