It came to him in the bathtub, though the phrase was coined by a professor at Yale. One doesn’t necessarily like to imagine someone like the chair of the Federal Reserve in the bathtub, but we all get ideas in the bath or shower, so there you are. The phrase itself was uttered in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute twenty years ago this coming December. The phrase was “irrational exuberance,” and the speaker was Alan Greenspan. He was referring to what he believed were the unrealistic valuations of dot-com companies. It was, he believed, a speculative bubble. Irrationality seems inherent in financial speculation, an exuberant feedback loop if ever there was one, in which the gap between prices and value widens until there is crisis and crash.
Humans behaved this way even before the shell game of our current financial system was invented, attaching insane values to real world objects. The first documented speculative bubble was Tulip Mania, which peaked in 1637. Though we think of tulips as a very Dutch thing, they were actually new to Europe at the time, imported from the Turkish realm of Suleiman the Magnificent. According to Charles Mackay’s contested 1841 account, at one point during the Dutch frenzy, a single bulb was traded for twelve acres of land, or the amount a skilled craftsman would earn in ten years. Then, the bubble burst, wrecking the Dutch economy.
The fantastical values of tulip bulbs were exactly that, fantasy, not based on reality. They were crazy. The same can be said of the late 20th century values of dot-coms, and of bundled sub-prime mortgages a decade ago. But finance is not the only realm of fantastical human thinking. While lemmings do not actually commit mass suicide, humans do so all of the time, and behave in other ways that result in destruction of the self and of others. I don’t need to tell you this. Just watch the news.
Every single one of us is a little crazy and a little rational, just like Paul in today’s reading. We choose our reality every single day. We assign values to some things, some creatures, some objects, some people, in ways that are completely arbitrary, then join in the mass delusion and cannot see what we and those who have gone before us have constructed. And we get really angry with folks who point out that the emperor is naked.
Paul wants us to be reconciled to the person of God. My understanding of God is not quite Paul’s, for I do not believe in a God that values some people and tribes above others, I do not believe in a God that needs human praise, that is desperate for human approval and obedience. But I believe in the call to reconciliation, just not reconciliation as divine action to restore lost divine honor.
God is that divine mystery that flows through the universe, that force for and of life and creativity and thriving, that force of what we can only call love, and that we recognize as especially present and active in the person of Jesus. He is the ultimate embodiment of divine reconciliation, not because he was a holocaust offering or divine scapegoat, but because he undermined the entire system of legalism, sanction, and exchange. A failure by any reasonable human standard, he was executed between two other troublemakers, and then his Hebrew reform movement was taken over by Gentiles, only to have it become an instrument and agent of the very sort of empire and religious oligarchy he despised, and yet, his subversive message is still there, still erupts in this world.
Centuries of theology: pay honor and receive payment in earthly or heavenly blessing; fail to honor and be conquered, defeated in this life or the next, all undone not because humans closed the gap and made up the lost honor of the Divine, but because the Divine chose to move toward us, ignoring the price, the debt we owed. We receive unearned grace in the traditional language of our Protestant faith.
Or, as Paul puts it “God was reconciling the world to God’s self through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them.”
No longer an economic exchange, no longer we have to earn divine blessing. God is reconciled to us through God’s love.
Here’s the crazy fantastic world we are called to live in, we are called to show that exact same radical movement of reconciliation toward others, to forget the exchange, the price. Grace, reconciliation is not about fairness or justice of equality. It is pure gift.
We can parse legal and theological codes, discuss institutional catechisms and culpability, can insist on penitence and restitution, but in the end, reconciliation is only real when forgiveness is freely given.
The families of those murdered by the white Christian terrorist Dylann Roof in Charleston a year ago offered forgiveness, not forgetfulness. They can never be repaid. Nothing that boy or the courts can do will ever repair what has been done, not even a state-sanctioned murder when he is executed. Those grieving families moved toward him in an act of love that reflects their understanding of reconciliation through Christ. Hanging on their own cross of mourning, their lives broken in an instant… they spoke the words of our Savior, “forgive him, for he knows not what he’s done.”
All too often we cling to offense that has about as much real value as a sub-prime mortgage derivative, as a 17th century Dutch bulb. The work to be done today is tremendous, the work of restoring community, of promoting the subversive justice at the heart of the Hebrew tradition we claim to follow, the work of reconciling the world to God through Christ. It is crazy, what we need to do. It is crazier still what divides us and prevents us from getting on with what needs to be done.
Which crazy will you choose? Which reason? Reconciliation or separation? Grumbling and fighting over the arrangement of the furniture?
God moves toward us. We are called to move toward one another, toward the oppressed and toward the oppressor.
Truth and Reconciliation as modeled in South Africa was a gift. The oppressed could have easily turned the tables, become to the white minority what the white minority had been to them, exactly what happened next door in Zimbabwe. But that is not what happened there, where a strong Christian leader was able to move toward the oppressor. Those oppressed under Apartheid moved toward their oppressors.
When to act, when to turn over tables, when to reconcile, to move toward one another… I stand convicted myself of digging in at times, hardening the defenses. I am more than ready to believe that some people are either evil or stupid, I can tell by their bumper stickers and t-shirts, which says as much about me as it does about them. Often they claim to speak for God, but even more often, they are just very angry and very afraid. Dare I move toward them?
Forgive if you want to be forgiven. Be reconciled.
It is so hard. Which crazy will I choose? Which reason? Can I be irrationally exuberant in offering forgiveness? In practicing reconciliation?
I stand before my God, trusting that God is moving toward me, praying that that Divine move will help me move toward others. May it be so.