The Common Good

Time to Change the Rules? Examining Our Relationship With Money

I have a confession to make.

I am addicted to office supplies. I grew up in a small town in Mississippi and my family business was the weekly newspaper. Since it was such a small town, we also did printing and the front office sold office supplies.

I could go to town after school and just hang out, earning 25 cents an hour, dusting the fountain pens, and occasionally selling some poster paper or a stapler. Staples. Paper clips. Pads of legal forms. I remember being totally enamored when the first felt tipped markers arrived.

My confession is that that childhood obsession has continued, and to get myself organized these days I'm totally dependent upon all varieties and colors of post it notes, flip charts, and colored markers, both dry erase and permanent.

I produce conferences and festivals and I almost always reserve the last minute run to the office supply store for myself. The onsite office at the Wild Goose Festival is always FULLY prepared.

BUT based on my new relationship with office supply stores, I may have to give up the habit. Go cold turkey.

A few weeks ago I signed a petition on Change.org in support of employees of Staples who were asking people to help them send a message to the company’s management, because their hours were being cut in order to avoid paying health insurance.

So I wrote the CEO of Staples to tell him that in my baptismal covenant I had promised to 'respect the dignity of every human being.' I can't do that AND shop at a company that cuts the hours on their employees to fewer than 30 hours a week just so they won't have to provide the most basic health insurance. And I promised them I wouldn't be shopping there until this policy is reversed.

The next week, the founder of Office Depot – a fellow named Ken Langone, a practicing Roman Catholic – said he is so upset Pope Francis has called for reforms in financial systems that give preference to the rich, that he is going to do something about it.

Pope Francis said that he is concerned that our culture of prosperity is leading to the wealthy being incapable of feeling compassion for the poor.

So Mr. Langone began surveying potential seven-figure donors to the Catholic Church and threatening to recruit them to join him in boycotting their planned donations. He wants them to withdraw their help with the restoration of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City unless the Roman Catholic hierarchy will lobby the pope to stop 'meddling' in finance.

He’s basically using the power of his philanthropic money to tell the pope "to mind his own business," complaining that the pope just doesn't understand the rich and how donations work in America.

The pope went from INFALLIBLE to BUSY BODY in 2.9 seconds, simply because he started talking about what?

MONEY!

In the work that I do in one of the conferences I produce about social entrepreneurship and impact investing, the conversations about money and its ability to do good are growing, but the church still has a really hard time with this. Yet this 'new' pope has really begun to help that conversation accelerate and spread.

Two and a half years ago, All Souls Cathedral in Asheville, N.C., and I co-conspired to start a new position, "Canon for Money and Meaning" and it has been really slow going. The people at All Souls are courageous in their support of the conversation, but the church in general has been pretty co-opted by the prosperity gospel which I believe is just a disguise for our attachment to power ... and wealth.

And the modern American system of capitalism has "conveniently" led us to believe that IT is in charge and there's nothing we can do to change it.

And in believing that, we put our trust in the market in front of our trust in Jesus.

Jesus was quite clear that our allegiance was to be with the POOR, not the barons of Wall Street.

God's laws are immutable Gravity. Aging. Those sorts of things. We cannot change them. But we DO know that mere humans MADE UP the laws of the market economy and we don't have to follow its rules. We can choose to, but it’s a choice.

The rules that run our capitalistic system were invented by us. And we really do not have to play by those rules.

For example, we do NOT have to put savings that our congregations might have scraped together into an FDIC approved financial instrument; we can invest in our local communities.

We CAN lobby to insure that the investments in our clergy retirement accounts, or endowments, also follow our understanding of doing good.

We can REJECT the idea that our money must make the highest financial return possible with no regard to the evil it might support.

We CAN make decisions to ensure that any money we invest is working toward our goal of following Jesus.

We do NOT have to GIVE money away only to nonprofits. Individuals actually CAN 'give' to for-profit companies that are doing good in the world.

If for-profit companies are doing good and need support, you can give money to them, too. You won't get a tax write-off. That's one of the ways "they" enforce the "rules," but since when is a tax write-off the only reason to do something that is the clear and right thing to do?

Money is a moral and ethical extension of who we are. We can and we must insist that our money does good work, too.

The traditional church is boxed in and needs a person like Pope Francis – who appears to have the courage to not be bribed or held hostage by the rich – to lead it out of the morass it is in. And you and I can do something about this, too.

We can begin to say that we want new structures that are not based on the old way of doing things. We can announce loudly that we want to have 'new rules' that give preference to the poor instead of continuing to participate in a system that just makes the rich richer.

We can start with NOT being silent about what is happening in the institutional church.

When you see an opportunity for change, don't be afraid. Speak up. Stand up. You might be surprised who has been waiting for someone to show up and support them. We just might start a revolution about how the church views, understands, and uses its money. (Our money.)

And we can begin to make changes in our own lives and relationships with money and see the reign of God begin to emerge in new and exciting ways through our actions. Through our money.

And yes, I have more ideas.

First of all, I believe we need to stop thinking about what 10 percent of our money, the tithe, is doing. This is about 100 percent. This shift is about ALL of our money.

So, where is that money? You can start by moving your money, or at least some of it, out of the big banks that support unfettered capitalism. Instead, do your banking with a local credit union that uses your money that is on deposit with them to help the poor and the community.

Enlist your congregation to join the new movement, 1K Churches. They can teach you biblically sound ways to invest in local micro-businesses that help move money and power to the poor.

Somewhat like an investment club, you can form a giving cooperative with friends through CommonChange.com. Go in together and pool your money and together make a SIGNIFICANT investment (in the form of a gift) in an organization – or an individual who is changing the world.

Do your homework. Pay attention. Whenever possible (isn’t it always?), don't shop with companies that treat their employees badly, don't pay a living wage, or support people's rights to collective bargaining.

Instead of a movie or fancy coffee, spend a little more from time to time on buying produce or eggs from local organic farmers. They are working to save the world. You can help them.

Look for fair trade products whenever possible. Yes, they cost more, too. If you need to justify it, why not consider that premium as a part of your giving? And you CAN justify it because that fair trade premium makes a significant difference for workers and their families living in poverty.

There is precedence for this. To follow Jesus, we have to make money a part of the examined life and kick those money-changers out of our churches and out of our pocketbooks.

Having an unexamined relationship with money isn’t healthy for us. For the sake of our souls, our planet, and for the sake of the poor, we really must start paying attention!

The Rev. Canon Rosa Lee Harden is an Episcopal priest who produces conferences and events in support of bringing together people who want to change the world. You can learn more about her work at both www.socialcapitalmarkets.net and www.wildgoosefestival.org . Her work in the church is located at the Cathedral of All Souls where she is Canon for Money & Meaning.

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