The realism of faith and the fantasies of finance

Luke BrethertonLuke Bretherton

This article is part of a series on faith and finance.

The scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam share the view that to be a lender and borrower are good things. To be a lender and a borrower is to be situated within economic relations of inter-dependence, cooperation and mutual responsibility. But the modern financial sector refuses to recognize human inter-dependence, seeing societies as a crowd of competitive individuals with no real connection or common life. This is why the campaigning work of organisations such as Citizens UK is so vital.

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As the economic crisis broke during 2008 a coalition of churches, synagogues, mosques, trade unions, schools and other civil society groups listened and responded. They responded by formulating a responsible lending campaign. The coalition in question is named London Citizens, which is a broad-based community organisation. It is affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation in the US founded by Saul Alinsky in 1940. It is a democratic organisation that enables its members to build relationship with each other and work constructively together in pursuit of goods in common such as safer streets, affordable housing or a living wage. It is not aligned with any political party or ideology but will work with anyone, believing that while the market and the state have a place, they must know their place. It is the experience of its members and the teachings of their scriptures that it is not good for anyone if the power of money or the state or the interests of the few are too dominant in shaping family and work life and the neighbourhoods where they live.

London Citizens derives its programmes from listening to the real experiences and interests of its members and formulating innovative and creative responses, calling on politicians and business leaders to listen, respect and respond to these proposals. On occasions this involves tension and conflict in order to establish collaborative and constructive relationships: to be good neighbours sometimes involves provoking others to recognise that I am indeed your neighbour on whose welfare your own welfare depends and not someone you can ignore and pass by on the other side of the street.

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“Being a good neighbour sometimes involves provoking others to recognise that I am indeed your neighbour on whose welfare your own welfare depends.”

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It was through listening to the experiences of its members and how they were affected by the financial crises and subsequent recession in 2009 that London Citizens came to call on the banks to be good neighbours by undertaking to be responsible lenders. The response formulated in 2009 was based on ten years experience of working to have a living wage paid to low wage workers across London. Out of that experience London Citizens began to listen to the people in its member institutions and work places to hear how the economic crisis was affecting them. It held up to a thousand one-to-one meetings over the summer of 2009, followed by over 100 house meetings within its member institutions to discuss the impact of the recession on ordinary people and to begin to formulate a constructive response, one built on the values of taking responsibility and reciprocity. At the end of September 2009 around a hundred representatives from across London met to debate and formulate what had been learnt to refine a constructive response. These proposals were then voted on at three assemblies at which over seven hundred people took part. At the end of this process, the members set themselves the task of ensuring their proposals were included in one or all of the manifestos of the major political parties in Britain in the 2010 General Election. Contrary to many popular and academic accounts of the relationship between ‘religion’ and politics the process saw many very conservative congregations engaged in one of the most sustained and wide-ranging democratic responses to the Great Recession.

nehemiah
Nehemiah 5:1-13: “I accused the nobles and officials: ‘What you are doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies? I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let us stop charging interest!’”

At an assembly in the Barbican theatre on November 25th 2009, at which the proposals were initially put forward, Nehemiah 5:1-13 was read aloud by Christian, Jewish and Islamic leaders as a prelude to the cross-questioning of a senior representative of the City of London Corporation. In the Biblical passage read, the leader of the people, Nehemiah, gathers an assembly in order to call on the elites of Jerusalem to repent of forcing their poorer neighbours into debt slavery. The reading dramatized the moral and political conflict between the financial elites and institutions located in the City of London and their neighbours living in the boroughs around them.

Echoing the Nehemiah passage, the thread running through the proposals that were developed was the need to re-balance the relationship between ‘money power’ – as embodied in the financial services industry – and the power of ordinary people. At the heart of the proposals was a call to restore responsibility to both borrowing and lending, and to demand greater accountability from financial institutions. Hence the five proposals: the living wage is the best insurance against the working poor being forced into debt; the cap on interest rates safe-guards against the borrower being caught in a debt trap; the re-capitalisation of local, mutual lending ensures responsible, community-based forms of credit are available, so breaking the monopoly of the banks on the one hand and the power of the loan sharks on the other; programmes for financial literacy enable people to be more aware of the mechanisms of credit and the consequences of debt and to take responsibility for managing their money; and a statutory code for fairer lending binds the financial services industry to greater accountability and transparency.

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“The Abrahamic faiths dogmatic commitments that usury is a sin and the pursuit of profit over people is idolatry generated a powerful critique of the prevailing economic consensus.”

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Take together the proposals constitute the basic necessities of sharing a common home. A house needs ceiling (legislative limits and frameworks), and furniture (different forms of credit provision). But a place to live also requires a floor. In the contemporary context, a floor is constituted by a living wage so that people are not dependent on redistribution mechanisms of the state to make a life but can act for themselves in relation to others. A floor below which people cannot fall is needed in order to ensure there is a level and secure base from which all citizens can act

All three political parties have subsequently taken up elements of these proposals. The most significant outcome of the process London Citizen’s initiated (but by no means brought to conclusion) was the announcement in November 2013 that the government were to introduce statuary limits to cap the overall cost of credit and severely restrict the business practices of payday and other predatory lenders. Back in 2009 the call for such measures was seen as highly controversial and outlandish. Yet it was one that emerged from the heart of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions that makes up the majority of membership institutions of London Citizens. It was precisely their dogmatic commitments that usury is a sin and the pursuit of profit over people is idolatry that generated the critique of the prevailing economic consensus that there should be no limits to the market. In New Testament terms, the admonition that we cannot serve both God and Mammon (Mt. 6:19-24) is not a trivial matter. To put the pursuit of money before the welfare of people, and use money to dominate and exploit people, especially the poor and vulnerable, is to turn your back on God’s salvation and deny in practice the revelation given in Scripture of who God is. However, to use money to strengthen the commonwealth, and in particular to relieve the poor, is a mark of having received salvation. Here the parables of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31) and of the Rich Fool (Lk. 12:16-20) are instructive. In these parables the wealthy who hoard their riches, using them for their own aggrandizement and benefit instead of giving and lending to others in need, are condemned as not only foolish but damned.

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“If one part of the body suffers, or if only the interests of the few are attended to, eventually all suffer as the system collapses.”

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The scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam share the view that to be a lender and borrower are good things. To be a lender and a borrower is to be situated within economic relations of inter-dependence, cooperation and mutual responsibility. To lend and borrow is to be drawn into real relationships that demand we have to negotiate a common life in which my flourishing is dependent on the flourishing of others. They are real relationships because, in a sinful world, they make explicit issues of power, risk and conflicts of interest that have to be addressed if we are to be real neighbours rather than a crowd of competitive individuals with no real connection or common life. Of course, and herein lies the irony we discovered in the recent economic crisis, the idea that we can be a crowd of competitive individuals is a utopian fantasy that does not connect with the reality of borrowing and lending where relations of interdependence and mutual responsibility are inherent. If one part of the body suffers, or if only the interests of the few are attended to, eventually all suffer as the system collapses. Maintaining economic relations so they reflect the reality of inter-dependence and mutual responsibility requires limits to ensure that the vulnerabilities involved in being a lender or a borrower do not become occasions for exploitation, oppression and abuse. But it seems many of our politicians and business leaders are still keen on putting their faith in a fantasy rather than reality. The proposals of London Citizens were an attempt to deal with the world as it is rather than a utopian one.

As a form of interfaith relations, the work of London Citizens and the proposals it developed points to a deeper conflict between ’faith’ and ‘finance’. What the proposals encapsulate is the claim that legal limits, a participatory democratic politics, upholding the dignity of labour, and the re-embedding of market relations in social and political relations of reciprocity are needed if money, markets, and property are to serve socially and politically productive purposes. Faith is not alone in emphasizing that people, not profit, should come first. We see a similar emphasis on reciprocal relations being maintained and the need to embed the market in prior moral, social and political relations in the self-ascribed names of ventures intended to provide an alternative to capitalist modes of production, redistribution and exchange: cooperatives, mutuals, credit unions, and social insurance. But then again, religious communities have and continue to be at the heart of many such initiatives. By contrast, the prevailing orthodoxy in the world of “high” finance is that limits to the market are an anathema. Much work remains to be done so that the realism of faith rather than the fantasies of finance prevail in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

Luke Bretherton is Associate Professor of Theological Ethics and Senior Fellow of the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University. Prior to that he was Reader in Theology and Politics at King’s College London. His book ‘Christianity and Contemporary Politics’ (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010) won the 2013 Michael Ramsey Prize for Theological Writing.

http://divinity.duke.edu/academics/faculty/luke-bretherton

https://duke.academia.edu/LukeBretherton

Follow Luke on twitter @WestLondonMan

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