Each year, over one thousand global leaders gather at a retreat center in Davos, Switzerland, to discuss the major economic, political, and technological forces currently at work in the world. Top executives from Google, HSBC, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, and Morgan Stanley all gathered in Davos (officially titled the World Economic Forum) last week.
This is an elite group of leaders with almost mind-boggling capacity to impact the global economy and, hence, the lives of millions. Little demonstrates this better than the fact that the decisions by the very same financial corporations represented at Davos helped bring about the economic crisis that plummeted struggling nations into deeper poverty and many Americans into joblessness and foreclosure.
Providentially, faith and values were on the agenda this year. The Forum commissioned a poll and a report on "Values in the Post-Crisis Economy." More than 130,000 people from across the world weighed in via facebook and 15 global faith leaders offered reflections. Unsurprisingly, two-thirds of people surveyed believe the economic crisis is also a crisis of ethics and values. These faith leaders from the Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, and Muslim communities offered a tremendously profound and challenging perspective on what brought the world to economic disaster and what's now required of the global community.
In his address at Davos and his recent book, Jim Wallis has been encouraging everyone to ask the right questions. In their report on post-crisis values, many religious thinkers also sought to remind Davos participants of the right purpose of the economic sphere. Economic and financial activity is not an end in itself, but an instrument that must be guided to the benefit of people and the common good, many wrote. Dr. Lesley Anne-Knight, General Secretary of Caritas, a confederation of Catholic agencies, describes exactly how the global economy went off the rails over the last decade when detached from moral purpose:
What was clearly lacking in the strategies and decisions that led to the crisis was any concept of respect for the human person. Attention was focused on financial mechanisms, profits, bonuses -- anything but the human beings at whose doors the trail of disaster ended: poor people largely, people who had been given loans they would struggle to repay and who would subsequently lose their meager savings and homes as a result.
Similarly, less that a year ago, Pope Benedict invited those in the financial sector to remember the ethical foundations of their work.
I cannot help but ask whether all this faith-rooted wisdom transformed hearts in Davos. If, as Jesus teaches, receptivity to truth has a great deal to do with the listeners' readiness to hear ("Those who have ears to hear, let them hear," he said) I can't help but wonder what kind of listening took place in Switzerland last week.
Among the Davos observers, many adopted a cynical stance toward the proceedings. Some report an atmosphere of self-congratulation within the financial sector and continued blindness to the impact of their excesses on the welfare of the globe. Others note a tinge of self-pity, citing a financial executive who complained, "tobacco companies have it so easy by comparison." Although reporters also suggested that participants adopted a humbler tone at the event's conclusion, acknowledging the cost of the financial crisis in loss of trust.
Pragmatically, I don't expect executives to leave Davos radically transformed. But I do believe and pray that God's spirit moves in mysterious and challenging ways. I also believe God's spirit can move through us as we lift up the questions that faith leaders posed at Davos so that when the time comes, those who have ears will hear.
Rachel Hope Anderson works at the Center for Responsible Lending. You can follow her writing about faith, debt, and lending on twitter and read more on predatory lending and the financial crisis here.