Lately I've been thinking about corruption. Maybe it's because we're in the season of Lent.
Or perhaps it comes of seeing "The Big Short," a based-on-a-true-story movie about the 2008 meltdown of the housing market. Unscrupulous real estate companies sold millions of subprime mortgages to clueless buyers for homes they couldn't afford. Then greedy bankers bundled and sold the doomed loans to other entities that turned around and sold them yet again.
Even though the film goes to great -- and humorous -- lengths to dumb down labyrinthine financial deals, they are still pretty confusing to non-experts. Given the complexity, it is easy to understand how bankers could be confused too, except, well, isn't it their job to know everything about their financial products?
Michael Burry, a brilliant antisocial introvert, figured out two years ahead of the crash that the subprime market was doomed. Rather than do anything to stem the tide though, he raked in millions by shorting the system. He bet with smug and ignorant bankers at places like Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Deutsche Bank and Morgan Stanley that their supposedly "too-big to fail" home mortgage market would, in fact, fail. Which it did, as millions of homeowners defaulted on mortgages they should never have been sold in the first place.
The film is fascinating, funny and ultimately very sad. For one thing, none of those multi-millionaires are particularly happy wallowing in their wealth. For another, it's hard to watch all those men (and they were mostly men) make obscene amounts of money on the backs of struggling homebuyers.
Even though the film ignores or understates new protections from Dodd-Frank legislation and other international regulations, it remains a searing exposé of "excessive capitalism," (in Pope Francis' words) at its worst.
For me, "The Big Short" is a metaphor for my own long held belief that evil bears within itself the seeds of its own destruction.
Ok, so maybe I am the proud owner of rose-colored glasses, but what else is one to conclude from the failure of such massive, systematized greed?
In an unsettling twist, the film spotlights Wall Street traders making money from the destruction of Wall Street. Now that's true degradation.
When I read a recent Pro Publica investigative piece documenting how a low level U.S. diplomat brought the Salvadoran military to justice, I was prompted to view corruption through another lens.
H. Carl Gettinger's story is the opposite of "The Big Short" debacle because rather than gaming a corrupt system for his own benefit, he used it to bring justice.
In the early 1980s thousands of Catholics watched in horrified disgust when high-ranking officials in the Reagan administration repeatedly denied that the Salvadoran military had murdered four U.S. churchwomen. On Dec. 2, 1980, Maryknoll Srs. Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Ursuline Sr. Dorothy Kazel, and lay missioner Jean Donovan were raped and killed by Salvadoran soldiers under orders from higher-ups.
Jean Kirkpatrick, a top advisor to President Reagan, immediately and falsely accused the women of political activism on behalf of left wing guerillas. Kirkpatrick was the chief architect of U.S. policy supporting the corrupt Salvadoran regime and would become Reagan's ambassador to the United Nations.
Later, Secretary of State Alexander Haig repeatedly demanded that Ambassador Robert White send cables to Washington documenting progress in the Salvadoran government's nonexistent murder investigation.
White's reply was blunt: "Well, Mr. Secretary, that would not be possible because the Salvadoran military killed those women, and the idea they're going to investigate in a serious way their own crimes is simply an illusion."
Because White refused to lend his name to this appalling charade, Haig removed him as ambassador, even going so far as to force him out of the Foreign Service completely.
You see it wasn't only the Salvadoran government that was corrupt.
But one U.S. employee did not agree with Kirkpatrick's cynical policy. Gettinger was a 26 year-old diplomat stationed in El Salvador. He knew Dorothy and Jean and was doggedly determined to bring their executioners to justice.
Thanks to his Mexican mother, Gettinger spoke fluent Spanish, had a knack for listening to people, and quickly won the respect of the locals. He developed a relationship with a disaffected lieutenant in the Salvadoran military who freely admitted to executing suspected guerilla sympathizers, including children. The lieutenant was also contemptuous of wealthy oligarchs who used the military to do their dirty work.
Gettinger gave the lieutenant a tiny tape recorder and he proceeded to secretly tape a conversation with Colindres Aléman, the sergeant in charge of the soldiers who had raped and killed the four women.
Thus began a chain of events that finally led to convictions and 30 years in prison for Aléman and his men. It was the first time a Salvadoran soldier had ever been prosecuted for human rights abuses.
Gettinger would eventually receive one of the State Department's highest honors, the W. Averell Harriman Award for "creative dissent." Harriman commended the brave diplomat for "arguing his conclusions whatever the potential risk to his own career."
So here we have two different responses to two grievous examples of massive, systematized corruption.
"The Big Short" response fed the dysfunction and corruption of our financial system: Wall Street.
Gettinger's "creative dissent" response, on the other hand, strengthened the healthiest elements in another corruption-prone system: our State Department.
Corruption is tough to fight, largely because most of us are enmeshed in it in some way. We either choose to resist or risk becoming numb (or gobbled up) by an evil we barely comprehend.
For me, this is precisely where Jesus comes in -- right into the stinky, confused heart of it all.
Who else can save us from ourselves?
Sometimes people object to "Jesus our redeemer" language because they think God deliberately allowed the death of Jesus in order to save us. That is a gross injustice to God -- and to Jesus who was murdered by human beings who hated his passionate opposition to their corrupt systems, both religious and civil.
We forget that in biblical times, slavery was everywhere. For the people of Jesus' day, to be redeemed meant to be released from very real chains limiting one's ability to be fully human.
Is unbridled greed a chain? What about blind ambition? And what about poor unsuspecting bystanders drowning in the quagmires created by ambitious, greedy and ultimately blind people?
We need Jesus' saving, powerful light if we are to choose aright. And then perhaps we can begin to transform the many corruption-prone systems that plague our world.
This Lent, which response will you choose?
[A Sister of St. Joseph, Sr. Christine Schenk served urban families for 18 years as a nurse midwife before co-founding FutureChurch, where she served for 23 years. She holds master's degrees in nursing and theology.]
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