Noël and I watched a PBS documentary on Tuesday about the great stock market crash of October 29, 1929. You probably know the story. For almost eight years straight stock values had been rising. “By 1929, there seemed to be no upper limits in this world of paper, numbers and dreams.”
For the first time in history, the little man could get in on the dream of quick wealth. The key it seemed was, borrow money, invest in the market. Sell high, pay back your loan and get rich. It was called “buying on margin.”
“You only needed ten percent down. Just $1,000 would get you $10,000 worth of stock. Suddenly, you were in the same league with the big players or so it seemed. But the stock market was not a level playing field.”
Michael Nesbitt said,
It was an arena of unbounded opportunity where somebody like my grandfather could come into it and make a fortune. So many people made so much money in the market that late in the 20s, it seemed that you just couldn’t go wrong buying stocks in American companies.
But there were warning signs. In March of that year the market started to fall, and was only rescued by the infusion of 25 million dollars of credit from a single banker.
On Friday, March 22nd, all eyes were on that august government body in Washington, the Federal Reserve Board. The board distrusted the boom. They saw the speculation as reckless and dangerous because it was based more and more on the shaky foundation of borrowed money, margin. The board had the power to curb the borrowing, the market was now dependent on borrowed money. Without margin, it would collapse. The board met day after day. Would they ask for regulation of the stock market? They issued no public statements. Their silence was terrifying.
Things were very fragile:
With everyone trying to borrow money to cover the falling value of their stocks, there was a credit crunch. Interest rates soared. At 20 percent, few people could afford to borrow more money. The boom was about to collapse like a house of cards.
John Kenneth Galbraith, Economist was the most blunt in his assessment of what happened:
It was this nature of mass illusion. Prices were going up, people bought. That forced prices up further, that brought in more people. And eventually, the process becomes self-perpetuating. Every increase brings in more people convinced of their God-given right to get rich.
There was no correlation between the rising worth of a company on the market and the actual strength of the company. The market correlated only with the optimism of the people and the availability of credit — that is debt.
But on October 29th no one could stop the slide. The bubble had burst.
It was like trying to stop Niagara Falls. Everyone wanted to sell. AT&T down 50 percent. RCA, once $110 a share, couldn’t find buyers at $26. On the floor, they had never seen anything like it.
Tom McCormick, Former Stock Sales Clerk said,
Just chickens with their head cut off, they didn’t know which way to run. They were panicking, screaming. Everybody was bumping into everybody else.
Then comes the comment from John Kenneth Galbraith that has arrested me and shaped what I want to talk about for a few minutes with you:
There’s nothing unique about this. It is something which happens every 20 or 30 years because that is about the length of the financial memory. It’s about the length of time that it requires for a new set of suckers, if you will, a new set of people capable of wonderful self-delusion to come in and imagine that they have a new and wonderful fix on the future.
Every thirty years “a new set of suckers”. And new set of “people capable of wonderful self-delusion.”
One way to state the aim of Bethlehem College and Seminary is that, we aim to graduate people who are not suckers — anywhere, ever. We aim for our students to be as undeceivable as possible. We aim to free them from “wonderful self-delusion.” We aim to impart habits of mind and heart that keep them from being dupes. Easily deceived. Wonderfully deluded.
You can see that we do not put the focus primarily on vocational training, but on intellectual and emotional freedom from deception and delusion. We put the focus on building a way of seeing and thinking and feeling and acting and creating, not on a set of vocational skills. Those must be learned, eventually. But millions of people, who were highly skilled in their jobs, brought American to ruin in 1929 because they were suckers, not because they were vocationally untrained.
Being a sucker is not good for the soul, the family, the church, or the nation. So we believe very strongly that what we are doing here is crucial for the soul, the family, the church, the economy, and the moral fabric of the nation. It is necessary that a critical mass of citizens not be suckers.
I know that I could structure this message around the positive concept of wisdom, and say our goal is to graduate people who are wise and discerning, and judicious, and perceptive and astute, and eagle-eyed. Yes, I could. And that would be true.
But the Bible says it both ways. Be wise, and don’t be a fool. My own sense is that there are so many suckers in the world today, the time is right for saying: Don’t be one of those. And welcome to Bethlehem were we aim to make it very hard for you to be a sucker. We aim to make you as undeceivable as possible.
Blue Sky Optimism
The song that captured the delusional optimism of the roaring twenties just before the crash, was Blue Skies written by Irving Berlin, in 1926.
Blue skies, smilin' at me, Nothin' but blues skies do I see. Bluebirds singing a song, Nothin' but bluebirds all day long. . . Blue days, all of them gone Nothin' but blue skies from now on.
One of the daughters of a great financier of the 20s said,
That was the whole tenor of the day. I mean, people believed that everything was going to be great always, always. There was a feeling of optimism in the air that you cannot even describe today.
So it seems that the sucker-fever of the twenties had to do with excessive optimism. An inability to consider that something other than blue skies might be coming, personally and nationally.
It is remarkable, therefore, when you turn to the New Testament to study the habits of suckers this is what you find. Now, there is the problem that the word “sucker” doesn’t occur in the Bible. In fact the use of the word “sucker” to refer to a person who is easily deceived is not attested before 1836.
So instead I looked up all the places in the New Testament that refer to being deceived. A sucker is gullible, easily deceived. So when the New Testament warns against being deceived it is warning against being a sucker. It is calling Christians to be as undeceivable as possible.
I expected to find lots of concern in the New Testament with the folly of being a sucker and I expected lots of warnings not to be one. That was correct. But what I did not expect to find is the correlation between the two most frequent kinds of sucker in the New Testament and the blue sky optimism of the 1920s.
And you may think, well today we don’t suffer from that blue sky optimism. But be careful. The kind of deceived optimism the New Testament warns against, globally and personally, is very common today.
On the one hand, the blue skies of the 20s were viewed as global, historical realities. The whole world was onward and upward. History had arrived. And on the other hand, the blue skies were very personal: I too can be rich and there is no limit to my possibilities. These two paths of blue sky optimism are the very ones the New Testament refers to most when you focus on the language of deception. Let’s look.
Consider, for example, the occasions where Paul tells people not to be deceived — not to be suckers. Five times he tells them not to be suckered into the blue sky optimism that there is no judgment coming.
1) 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived [do not be a sucker]: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
In other words, someone was trying to deceive them into thinking that there is no judgment coming on these impenitent behaviors. This kind of global, eschatological optimism is almost universal today. People may be pessimistic about ISIS, but they are blue-sky confident that no judgment will fall on nice people who break God’s word and seek no forgiveness.
2) Galatians 6:7-8. “Do not be deceived [Do not be a sucker]: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.”
Again it seems that someone is trying to deceive them into thinking: you can sow what you will and there will be no reaping of judgment. Paul says, Don’t be a sucker: you will reap what you sow.
3) 2 Corinthians 11:3. “I am afraid that as the serpent deceived [suckered] Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3). And what was it that the serpent said to Eve in Genesis 3:4, “You will surely not die.” Blue skies. There will be no judgment.
4) Ephesians 5:5-6. “You may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words [don’t be a sucker], for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.”
Don’t be a sucker, wrath is indeed coming. Anyone who tells you it’s not, is trying to make a blue sky sucker out of you.
5) 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3. “Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, . . . that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way [don’t be a sucker]. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction.”
The point is: Some were saying, Hey, the Day of the Lord is past. You don’t need to worry about a future judgment. Paul’s response: they are trying to make a sucker out of you. It is coming. And a great apostasy is coming first.
So five times Paul uses the language of “don’t be deceived.” Don’t be a sucker. And in these five cases the issue is the delusional optimism of blue skies, nothing but blue skies do I see. No judgment.
That is the world we live in. People may fear ISIS or economic breakdown or Ebola (for a moment), or cancer. But they do not fear the judgment of God. And in that sense we live in a world of suckers. And the New Testament is a voice crying in the wilderness: Once I baptized with the Spirit. I will yet baptize with fire. Wake up. Don’t be a sucker.
The same is true in the New Testament at the more personal level of blue sky individualism. “I have a right to be rich. Nothing can hold me back. Nothing but blue sky affirmation in my mirror.”
When we take another pass at the New Testament this too stands out with amazing prominence. The issue here is flattery. Being suckered by flattery — we love to be made much of. And so we are sitting ducks when someone flatters us and makes much of us. So our goal here is to make you as undeceivable as possible — to give you vaccination against the power of flattery. This seems to be a great burden of Paul and John.
1) Romans 16:18. “They do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve [they make suckers out of the naive].”
They sing with smooth song: blue sky, nothing but blue sky for you. You can see it in the mirror. You are a blue sky kind of person! And so the craving, ego-hungry become suckers for the latest scheme and doctrine.
2) 1 Corinthians 15:32-34. “What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’ Do not be deceived [Don’t be a sucker]: ‘Bad company ruins good morals.’ Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning.”
You think you are so good that you can ignore the ancient wisdom: “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Proverbs 13:20). If you think you can love keep your hands happily in the fire of sinful friends and not be burned, you are deceived. They have you suckered.
3) Galatians 6:2-3. “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” He’s a sucker. When you blue sky in front of the mirror with no sober assessment of your sin and utter dependence on God, you are deceived. A self-made sucker.
4) 1 Corinthians 3:18. “Let no one deceive himself [Let no one be his own sucker]. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise.” Better to let the world think you are a Christian sucker than to join them in their “wonderful self-delusion.”
5) 1 John 1:8. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves [suckered by our own high view of ourselves], and the truth is not in us.” Only suckers think they are sinless.
6) Romans 7:11. “Sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me [made me a sucker] and through it killed me” (Romans 7:11). In other words, sin takes the very commandment of God — holy and good — and holds it in front of your face and says, you can do this. You can make law-keeping the basis of justification, and the road to heaven. You can blue sky with works of the law all the way to heaven! And so sin suckers us into legalism and death.
It is astonishing to me that most of the warnings in the New Testament about being deceived being a sucker deal with the folly of blue sky optimism. First, the kind that says, “There’s no final divine judgment to worry about.” And then the kind that says, “Your are really something in yourself apart from grace. Don’t worry about those depravity-mongers who point out your sin and weakness. You have powers in yourself that they may envy.” And so flattery destroys the blue sky sucker.
Our aim here at Bethlehem is that our students be as undeceivable as possible. We aim to graduate people who will not be suckers. There is a true way to deal with coming judgment. And it is not denial. And there is a true way to deal with our own personal sin and imperfections and weaknesses. It is not the blue-sky mirror of self-exaltation. It is gospel way. The way of Jesus Christ crucified and risen. It is so solid and so sure that no one who believes it becomes a sucker of naïve blue sky optimism. Our joy, our hope is too solid for that.
“God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him” (1 Thessalonians 5:9–10). If God is for us like this, who can be against us. No flattery, no wishful thinking, no “wonderful self-delusion,” no blue-sky hysteria can ever make us suckers again.