Facing Our Inner Enron

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I just watched “Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room,” a “documentary of the sham that was once the seventh largest corporation in America.

In Enron you see a microcosm of what has happened in America over the past few decades of greed. “Greed is good” the movie Wall Street told us and Enron proves that a lot of people believe that is true. Enron was a corporation headed by Ken Lay, a former pastor’s son with a PhD in economics, and Jeffery Skilling, who in an interview for admittance to Harvard announced he was “fu–ing” smart. The movie chronicles how the “smartest guys in the room” walked away with millions, while the “Little guys,” employees, pensioners and stockholders were left with nothing. Watch this if you want to see injustice in action. I am writing this during the highly publicized trials of Ken Lay and Skilling; both men proclaim their innocence, but in their hearts they must know they are guilty of either illegal activities or complete incompetence or both. Their defense is that “they knew nothing” about how their company was operating despite reaping all the financial benefits of operating it.

The way Enron created and exploited the California “energy shortage scandal” is particularly troubling and is summarized by Roger Ebert in his review of the film. [“The most shocking material in the film involves the fact that Enron cynically and knowingly created the phony California energy crisis. There was never a shortage of power in California. Using tape recordings of Enron traders on the phone with California power plants, the film chillingly overhears them asking plant managers to “get a little creative” in shutting down plants for “repairs.” Between 30 percent and 50 percent of California’s energy industry was shut down by Enron a great deal of the time, and up to 76 percent at one point, as the company drove the price of electricity higher by nine times. We hear Enron traders laughing about “Grandma Millie,” a hypothetical victim of the rolling blackouts, and boasting about the millions they made for Enron. As the company goes belly up, 20,000 employees are fired. Their pensions are gone, their stock worthless. The usual widows and orphans are victimized. A power company lineman in Portland, who worked for the same utility all his life, observes that his retirement fund was worth ($) 248,000 dollars before Enron bought the utility and looted it, investing its retirement funds in Enron stock. Now, he says, his retirement fund is worth about ($) 1,200 dollars. Strange, that there has not been more anger over the Enron scandals. The cost was incalculable, not only in lives lost during the power crisis, but in treasure: The state of California is suing for $6 billion in refunds for energy overcharges collected during the phony crisis. If the crisis had been created by Al Qaeda, if terrorists had shut down half of California’s power plants, consider how we would regard these same events. Yet the crisis, made possible because of deregulation engineered by Enron’s lobbyists, is still being blamed on “too much regulation.” If there was ever a corporation that needed more regulation, that corporation was Enron.”]

For religious conservatives it ought to be particularly disturbing that all this took place in Texas, in the Bible Belt where employees were good church-going folks with Ken Lay at the helm, a man who proclaimed his commitment to uprightness at every turn and was a major benefactor to evangelical causes.

Before we get downright smug and self-righteous we ought to remember that in a certain way, Enron represents idolatry–putting anything ahead of God, and in this sense, Enron is us. How many Americans can say they are more concerned about God than anything, including their 401k account, new car or nicer home? How many would rather have Jesus than silver or gold? How common is the belief that by following Jesus you get Jesus PLUS silver and gold? How widespread is affluenza in us and our kids? How many of us attend worship services where the sole aim is the glorification and worship of God? How often do we measure the success of a church by its size or the newness and brand of cars parked outside? Marva Dawn reminds us “that every action of our lives molds our character.” She said this in her book “Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down,” a study in America’s “self-oriented” worship. Many can see this clearly in Joel Osteen’s transparent self-serving, mindless heresies, fewer see it in the broader movement of evangelicalism, which for those with eyes to see, is riddled with the “success in size” mentality of Enron.

I happened to be in Jeremiah chapter 9 in my Bible reading today and it describes a period of time in Israel’s religious history not unlike ours. It reads like an indictment of our “inner-Enron.”

“falsehood and not truth has grown strong in the land;for they proceed from evil to evil, and they do not know me, declares the LORD. Let everyone beware of his neighbor, and put no trust in any brother, for every brother is a deceiver, and every neighbor goes about as a slanderer. Everyone deceives his neighbor, and no one speaks the truth; they have taught their tongue to speak lies; they weary themselves committing iniquity. Heaping oppression upon oppression, and deceit upon deceit, they refuse to know me, declares the LORD.”

The bad news is this era of “everyone looking out for their self-interests” ends in judgment.

“the LORD says: “Because they have forsaken my law that I set before them, and have not obeyed my voice or walked in accord with it, but have stubbornly followed their own hearts and have gone after the Baals, as their fathers taught them. Therefore thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold, I will feed this people with bitter food, and give them poisonous water to drink. I will scatter them among the nations whom neither they nor their fathers have known, and I will send the sword after them, until I have consumed them.”

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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