A religious response to the financial crisis

By Jim Wallis
Sunday, January 3, 2010

One cold morning the week before Christmas, I found myself huddled with a group of homeowners and religious leaders on Pennsylvania Avenue, in the shadow of the White House and the Treasury building. The homeowners, who had all worked hard to buy their first homes, and most of whom had put enough money down to qualify for fixed-rate mortgages only to be persuaded into more exotic mortgages, were facing imminent foreclosure. We had come to stand with them.

I have been talking with people in similarly desperate circumstances more and more these days, as have pastors around the country. The foreclosure crisis has become both a personal and a pastoral issue for us, and we are struggling to make sense of the fundamental unfairness that underlies it. The banks and other financial institutions whose behavior is most responsible for this crisis have been saved from failure by the American taxpayers, while many of those least responsible are losing jobs and homes.

As I grapple with this contradiction, I keep coming back to the concept of grace. When the government tried to save the economy from meltdown, real grace was extended to the big banks -- but now the banks seem unwilling to extend grace to anyone else, including homeowners struggling to make mortgage payments. I am reminded of one of the parables of Jesus, wherein a master forgives the debt of one of his servants out of pity for his circumstances, but then that servant refuses to forgive the debt of another servant who owes him a little money. The master gets angry and throws the unforgiving debtor into prison. The money-changers in the temples of Wall Street would do well to take note.

Clearly, the financial crisis is a structural meltdown that calls for increased government regulation of banks and other financial players. Members of faith communities, such as those who joined me in front of the Treasury building, are helping to push for this sort of reform.

But at its core, this is also a spiritual crisis. More and more people are coming to understand that underlying the economic crisis is a values crisis, and that any economic recovery must be accompanied by a moral recovery. We have been asking the wrong question: When will the financial crisis end? The right question is: How will it change us? This could be a moment to reexamine the ways we measure success, do business and live our lives; a time to renew spiritual values and practices such as simplicity, patience, modesty, family, friendship, rest and Sabbath.

Faith communities can help lead the way, challenging the idols of the market and reminding us who is God and who is not. "The Earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the world, and they that dwell therein," say both Christianity and Judaism; the Earth does not belong to the market. Human beings are stewards of God's creation and should preside over the market -- not the other way around. We must replace the market's false promise of limitless growth and consumption with an acknowledgment of human finitude, with a little more humility and with some moral limits. And the market's first commandment, "There is never enough," must be replaced by the dictums of God's economy -- namely, there is enough, if we share it.

Many of our religious teachings, from our many traditions, offer useful correctives to the practices that brought us to this sad place. Jesus's Sermon on the Mount instructs us not to be "anxious" about material things, a notion that runs directly counter to the frenzied pressure of modern consumer culture. Judaism teaches us to leave the edges of the fields for the poor to "glean" and to welcome those in need to our tables. And Islam prohibits the practice of usury. (Muslim-owned financial institutions that charge fees for service rather than interest have done amazingly well during this crisis; their practices offer some interesting models.)

We need nothing less than a pastoral strategy for the financial crisis; we must use these religious teachings to develop Christian, Jewish and Islamic responses to it. What should people of faith be thinking, saying and doing now? What is the responsibility of the churches, synagogues and mosques to their communities, to the nation and to the world?

Already, pastors, lay leaders and innovative faith-based practitioners are suggesting creative answers: mutual aid; congregational and community credit unions; and new cooperative strategies for solving such problems as hunger, homelessness and joblessness. If these initiatives succeed, the economic crisis may offer congregations a rare opportunity to clarify their missions and reconnect with their communities.

At Vineyard Church of Columbus, in Ohio, Pastor Rich Nathan appealed to his congregation last Palm Sunday to help families and individuals who had lost jobs with a special offering; the $625,000 collection that followed staggered everyone. Nathan's church is using these funds to provide coaching, counseling and networking events to help both parishioners and members of the wider community find employment.

In my home town of Detroit, which has been hit especially hard by the recession, with unemployment levels over 30 percent, the Capuchin Fathers are giving away hundreds of thousands of plants, helping to seed a renaissance of hundreds of urban gardens and family farming plots, and providing healthy food, work for the unemployed and an activity for the community to gather around. It may be in the places like these -- where all that is left is hope -- that new life first shoots up.

I keep hearing about churches that are starting adult Sunday school classes on economic values, personal finances and community social responsibility. And congregations are deciding that if issues of compassion and justice were central to the ministry of Jesus, they should also be at the heart of their missions.

Moving forward, I hope local congregations and national denominations alike will begin reflecting on where they keep their money and how their investments reflect their faith. I envision congregations creating checklists to evaluate who they do business with, and national church bodies considering where they should invest their pension funds.

When I recently told a few friends that my wife, Joy, and I had decided to close our little account at Bank of America and move our money to a local bank that has behaved more responsibly, I was amazed at the response. Religious leaders and pastors from around the country called to say that they, too, were ready to take their money out of the big banks that have shown such shameful morality and instead invest according to their values, by putting money into more local and community-based institutions.

So we've decided not just to remove our own money, but to invite other Christians, Jews and Muslims to do the same. Already we are hearing reports of whole congregations, groups of churches and faith-based organizations, from California to New York City, deciding to transfer their funds to local banks and credit unions.

The banks say they are "too big to fail." So let's make them smaller. We might finally get Wall Street's attention.

Jim Wallis is the author of "Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street -- A Moral Compass for the New Economy," due out Tuesday. He is also the editor in chief of Sojourners magazine.


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