COMMENTARY: Hubris and chutzpah

(UNDATED) What a hard week for hubris! You couldn't make up this stuff.

Last week, a square-jawed financier who bears an eerie resemblance to Superman was shown the door at Merrill Lynch. It seems that John Thain, the financial giant's toppled head, downplayed material information while hawking his firm to Bank of America last fall.

And lobbied hard for a $30 million-or-larger personal bonus despite Merrill's self-inflicted woes.

And went skiing as the bad news of a $15 billion quarterly loss was breaking.

And raided Merrill's cash cupboard to award large bonuses to his buddies just days before the Bank of America deal closed.

Now the Bank of America executive who cut the deal with Thain and then fired him is facing the same music, even as talk accelerates of nationalizing America's banks as the only way to curb their greed and resolve their toxic assets.

"Masters of the Universe," as novelist Tom Wolfe so presciently called them, don't feel bound by normal rules of proportion or accountability. They also crash harder because they have farther to fall.

My, how far, and how fast, the mighty have fallen.

Two days earlier, on Inauguration Day, I heard the dying gasp of Christian triumphalism. It's the kind of hubris and chutzpah that can't die quickly enough.

I had affirmed President Obama's pragmatic selection of conservative megachurch pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at the swearing-in, especially when Obama balanced him by selecting an openly gay bishop for another prayer duty.

Yet I hadn't expected the parody of piety that followed, as Warren gave a look-at-me prayer that seemed shallow, strangely narrow in its sectarianism, and tone-deaf to a moment when people-including Obama-want an end to those triumphalist "childish things" that Paul denounced in 1 Corinthians.

This was a moment for decisive magnanimity, for affirming the religious yearnings of an entire nation, and for celebrating humanity's capacity to move beyond greed and malice. Instead, Warren tried to declare his faith as normative for all as he led a shocked crowd in the Lord's Prayer. In the church where I watched, people grimaced and remained silent.

Camelot ended, too, as Caroline Kennedy abandoned her claim to Hillary Clinton's old Senate seat from New York. Despite having earned abundant respect for her intelligence and character, JFK's photogenic daughter discovered that talent, charisma and celebrity aren't enough. To govern effectively in difficult times, one needs grit, transparency and a willingness to take politics to the people.

Hubris-what the dictionary calls "wanton insolence or arrogance resulting from excessive pride or from passion"-isn't enough anymore. It's what got us into this mess, but it will take more to get us out.

Maybe we are sensing that the "axis of evil" doesn't yield to gunslingers and prideful deciders, after all, but rather requires intelligence, subtlety, an eye to nuance, and an ear for common yearnings.

It's no wonder why ancient Greeks considered hubris-just like they did assault and battery-a crime.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of "Just Wondering, Jesus," and the founder of the Church Wellness Project, http://www.churchwellness.com. His Web site is http://www.morningwalkmedia.com.)

KRE/AMB END EHRICH