faith and the financial crisis
Jim Consedine takes a look at the economic meltdown, points to its basic cause in the light of the gospel, and suggests some answers
There is no easy way to write about the financial crisis which has hit global economy these past months. In New Zealand, more than 20 financial institutions have gone to the wall. The pain of people who have lost their life’s savings is intense and real. Many carry a sense of betrayal. They feel they have been duped by financial institutions. To a large degree they are right.
Unbeknown to the average Joe and Betty investors was the fact that they were sinking their money into sand castles. Even Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the US Federal Reserve (1987-2006) admitted as much. For years he held that ‘markets worked best, so let them’. He argued that government intervention would be a problem, not a solution. How wrong he was.
On 23 October 2008, before the US Government Oversight and Reform committee, Greenspan finally admitted a ‘flaw’ in his ideology of market forces. He confessed his faith in deregulation was shaken and said he was in a “state of shocked disbelief”. What went wrong, he suggested, was “securitising home mortgages. Excess demand for them. And failure to properly price them”. He failed to mention unbridled greed, huge fraud and no oversight.
The market heresy
Greenspan’s thinking, which reflects the ideology of global capitalism, is fatally flawed. The real evil of this collapse lies at the feet of the most educated and privileged people on the planet, who were trusted with other’s investments and cold-bloodedly used the system for their own gain. The common good was simply ignored.
Finally, Greenspan has accepted that ‘the market’ doesn’t have a soul. It doesn’t respond to the need for compassion, mercy, healing, forgiveness, tolerance, generosity, social justice. These are the core values which give meaning to life. The market sees only the need for continually increased profit.
At the heart of the philosophy of market values lies the sin of usury – increasing wealth through non-productive means. We have created a global system built on usury. It’s a monster and will never be just, because its foundation stone is greed. For 19 centuries the church recognised this evil, and usury was condemned as a mortal sin. Relying on the market to regularise itself in the interests of the common good and justice is a false premise. It was always a lie, will always be a lie. It never did regularise itself. It never can. The Kiwi version, Rogernomics, is a lie for the same reasons.
Some of the underlying reasons for the crisis are theological. At the heart of the issue lies the flawed nature of humanity, as expressed in the church’s concept of original sin. Underpinning the whole idea of redemption is the notion of a new elevated status of humanity, redeemed in Christ. Good Friday and the Empty Tomb have a lot to say about future social relations of a redeemed humanity and speak directly to this crisis. ‘Market forces’, however, take no notice of these things and rely on prevailing systems to work things out for the common good. All the evidence is – these systems can’t and don’t. They are social systems driven by avarice.
Look for instance at the gap between rich and poor nations. Hear the cries of the 30,000 children who, in a world full of resources, die from hunger every day. Look at the lack of human rights denied through prejudice to billions in the world. Look at the ongoing wars for resources with thousands of fresh victims every year. As long as we continue to act as if we are not redeemed, these catastrophes will continue.
Such issues, huge as they are, are all solvable. But only a humanity which recognises its need of redemption and changes the way it operates can do it. Here the role of the teaching church is critical. She supplies the heartbeat and the vision. But only if she engages, believes and practises what she preaches herself. In the past 20 years we have generally reverted to being a devotional church, and social justice issues have been largely ignored.
To take one example, Wal Mart, one of the world’s largest corporations, pays its workers in Bangladesh between 13-17 cents per hour for working seven days a week, 16 hour days. No unions. No overtime pay. The cheap imports made by such corporations come to Western countries. Could we not simply refuse to buy these imports? Dorothy Day noted such practices “constituted a sack from which blood is oozing”.
Jesus addressed some of these issues in his teachings. He unequivocally condemned exploitative systems and provoked the wrath of the political and religious power brokers of his day. “No healthy tree bears bad fruit”, he said, “no poor tree bears good fruit. Each tree is known by the fruit it bears” (Luke 6). He warned against avarice and greed. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt 6).
The ‘heart’ of capitalism lies in making money. It worships wealth. John Paul II gave a severe warning against it in his encyclical On Social Concerns (March 1988), calling such a system “structurally sinful”. In effect, the Pope was saying the capitalist emperor had no clothes and that so called market forces were a fraud. But who took that warning seriously? Catholics are just as dominated by capitalist ideology as the next person.
What therefore can we do? There are many notions which have appealed to thinking Christians for centuries: financial co-operatives, microcredit banking and a range of mutual benefit societies. One Biblical idea is the Jubilee Year, whereby all debts still outstanding after 50 years are pardoned.
Is it such a radical idea that voluntary poverty should be promoted by Christians? Peter Maurin, cofounder of the Catholic Worker in the midst of the Great Depression, sought to feed, house and clothe victims by challenging Christians to accept personal responsibility for their needy neighbours and share their resources with the poor. This was nearer the Gospel ideal of the early church.
Such an option for voluntary (or evangelical) poverty is praised in the Gospels (Matt 5, Luke 6). However, we must be careful never to romanticise poverty. Severe material poverty leads to malnutrition, violence and premature death. Voluntary poverty however doesn’t mean destitution, which is sinful and an enslavement rather than a free state. Jesus came to free us. No one should be destitute.
In simple terms, voluntary poverty recognises we are all part of one another and “what we own over and above what we need does not belong to us but to the poor who have nothing” (St Basil, 4th century). It involves acting justly and with generosity with our money and resources “because our neighbour is in need”. As the Second Vatican Council pointed out: “It was the ancient custom of the church to give generously, not merely out of what was superfluous but even out of what was necessary” (LG, No 89).
Voluntary poverty insists that usury is sinful and shouldn’t be tolerated because it steals from the neighbour. The primary reason why poverty exists at such scandalous levels in so many countries today is that international banks charge usurious interest rates on loans that the countries can never repay. They can’t repay even the interest, much less the capital.
Sixty years ago Dorothy Day wrote: “The present vast possessions of the robber barons need to be overthrown, cast down, appropriated, decentralised, distributed etc. A vast reform is needed. The power of the great corporations… the great banks, will all be overthrown. And that is something to look forward to” (Dairies, Duty of Delight, 1948).
Just imagine if one billion Catholics took a stand together for economic justice in their lives and in society. It’s a pipe dream – but the world would change overnight and economic justice would be seen in every street.
Sadly, ideology rather than faith remains the predominant force in so many lives, Catholics included. Some continue playing financial games in what Dorothy Day called “that filthy rotten system”. The contemporary financial crash reminds us once again us that we do so at our peril.
Christchurch priest Fr Jim Consedine is an author, editor and world authority on Restorative Justice
born one of us Mike Riddell
"The essence of Christianity is the appeal to the life of Christ as a revelation of the nature of God and of God’s agency in the world. The record is fragmentary, inconsistent, and uncertain. . . But there can be no doubt as to what elements in the record have evoked a response from all that is best in human nature. The Mother, the Child, and the bare manger: the lowly man, homeless and self-forgetful, with his message of peace, love, and sympathy: the suffering, the agony, the tender words as life ebbed, the final despair: and the whole with the authority of supreme victory.” (Alfred North Whitehead)
It is easy to despise the core of our faith. What does this primitive Christmas tale – of shepherds, magi, a young mother, a manger, a birth, a hovering star, choirs of angels – what has this to do with a complex world of internet porn, prime mortgage collapse and early-onset Alzheimers? A charming tale for children, perhaps; a marketing ploy for retailers; a magical episode of escapism from the pain of existence.
We are quite grown up – cosmopolitan people of the world, sophisticated and savvy citizens of the Third Millennium, stitching together meaning from the frayed rags which critical minds have left us. Much as we might admire the naïve faith of earlier generations, it seems there is no road back to a simplistic security based on primitive notions of how the world operates. Many people will look to a seasonal Lotto win as a more likely source of salvation than to the story of Bethlehem.
As we all must learn to our bitter disillusionment, there is no road back in life. We move forward, carrying with us the bruises, disappointments and disfigurements of experience; never quite able to recapture our lost innocence. A commitment to honesty in practical as well as spiritual life leads us into territory where there are no familiar landmarks. There may be moments of clarity, but they come amid a more persistent fog of uncertainty and fragility.
And yet... the recounting of the Christmas story contains within it a devastating simplicity, not easily dismissed. Given a small opening, it is capable of puncturing our cynicism and world-weariness. In essence it says this: God has become one of us. The surprising thing is that so few words are able to express all that is necessary to the navigation of our human existence. It is to the eternal benefit of our faith that what lies at the heart of it is not so much a doctrine as a story. And that it is one of wonder and illumination.
The retelling of this story is still capable of creating awe. It tells us these things about our lives: we are not alone; even in darkness there comes a light; the lowly is precious; the strange is not to be feared; the divine is fragile; humanity is blessed; life is a gift; and that the life of God and our lives are inextricably bound. These basic insights are enough to lead us through the best and worst of times.
Through listening attentively we may know certain truths which are still of relevance to this era in which we find our way. That how we treat others is of significance; that God moves among the poor and the immigrant; that the earth and all life in it is gifted to us to care for; that no person is to be despised; that darkness cannot extinguish light; that every moment of every life is charged with potential; that nothing is lost; that God is as close as your own flesh; that peace is not the absence of conflict; that none of us is ever abandoned.
Many around the world have celebrated the election of Barack Obama. His acceptance speech following the result was one which lit up the face of the crowd and brought the shining light of hope to them. It seemed to many who listened that he represented the end of a dark night. Whatever will become of him is yet to be revealed, but we do know that such a resurrection of belief in the future is a faint analogy to that story we hold so dear – the hope which springs from an unlikely quarter and is able to change the way that people act.
The ground zero of our faith has always been Bethlehem. It has been sullied by commercialism and crassness. But we followers of Christ will return again and again until the bare events become part of the story out of which we live and see the world. We will teach our children and marvel at their response. We will find our own doubts and misgivings overcome by a mature sense of wonder. God is among us.
To light a candle in a dark space is an act of base simplicity. To share the light with those standing near us requires no great courage. To sing ancient hymns in the midst of children asks only humility. To see faces of strangers lit by the light demands little but the opening of our eyes. To recognise our own flowering hope in the blooming of pohutukawas is the beginning of understanding.
The birth of our Christ, the Christmas story, is profoundly simple.
Christian author Mike Riddell is based in Cambridge, Waikato.
His principal present focus is writing screenplays for upcoming films.
If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.
It’s the answer told by lines that stretched around schools and churches in numbers this nation has never seen, by people who waited three hours and four hours, many for the first time in their lives, because they believed that this time must be different, that their voices could be that difference.
It’s the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled – Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states.
It’s the answer that led those who’ve been told for so long by so many to be cynical and fearful and doubtful about what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.
It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this date in this election at this defining moment, change has come to America. (Barack Obama)