I’ve been talking with people in 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 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.
And to make it worse, the news is now filled with stories of the enormous bonuses the major banks are paying their employees. The New York Times headlined a story “Banks Prepare for Big Bonuses, and Public Wrath,” and The Wall St. Journal added “Banks Brace for Bonus Fury.” The wrath and fury of the public are well-deserved. Profits made by an artificially created bubble and then a taxpayer-funded bailout should not be paid to the very people responsible for the crisis.
As I grapple with this contradiction, I keep coming back to the concepts of forgiveness and 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 that forgiveness and grace to anyone else, including homeowners struggling to make mortgage payments. They have decided instead to reward themselves. As a founder of Citigroup, John S. Reed, told the Times, “There is nothing I’ve seen that gives me the slightest feeling that these people have learned anything from the crisis. They just don’t get it. They are off in a different world.”
Clearly, the financial crisis is a structural meltdown that calls for increased government regulation of banks and other financial players. Members of faith communities around the country 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. This should be a moment to re-examine 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.
We need nothing less than a pastoral strategy for the financial crisis. We must use our 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? I keep hearing about churches that are starting adult Sunday school classes on economic values, personal finances, and community social responsibility.
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 an opportunity to clarify their missions and reconnect with their communities.
Now it’s time to take the next step. When I recently told a few friends that my wife, Joy, and I had decided to close our 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 immorality and instead invest according to their values, by putting money into more local and community-based institutions.
Arianna Huffington and friends have started a Web site called moveyourmoney.info, with a searchable database of community banks and credit unions. The idea has been picked up by several publications and is beginning to spread.
I hope local congregations and national denominations alike will reflect on where they keep their money and how their investments reflect their faith. I envision congregations creating checklists to evaluate whom they do business with, and national church bodies taking a deep look at where they invest their pension funds.
We’ve decided not just to move 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, deciding to transfer their funds to local banks and credit unions.
While the actual effect on banks will take some time, it is a statement of moral integrity that we can make. The unrepentant banks, whose greed destroyed our economy, who relied on us to regain their health, and who are now simply back to business as usual, must be sent a clear message that we find their behavior unacceptable. Removing our money can help send that message.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.