Economics

Where the Heart Is

In these early years of the 21st century, investment dollars are hard at work doing a lot more than making money. They’re supporting conservation measures, fueling humane labor practices, and rewarding companies for shunning groups with ties to abortion service providers and gay rights activists. From Wall Street to Hong Kong, they’re doing all this and much more in the name of God.

Religious mutual funds have exploded over the past decade. Since 1997, assets under management in funds with an explicit faith-based mission have ballooned 35-fold from $500 million to $17.5 billion, according to data from fund tracker Morningstar. Such dramatic growth makes the sector one of the fastest growing in the financial services industry.

A couple of reasons account for the recent growth spurt. In some cases, strong financial returns are attracting new investors just as pollen draws bees. The Amana Income Fund, an Islamic fund that avoids gambling, tobacco, and meat-producing stocks, outperformed all 180 funds in its equity-income category between 2004 and 2007. Investors have piled in, and not always because they were seeking a clean conscience, according to Deputy Portfolio Manager Monem Salam.

Plus, many investors are apparently motivated by more than mammon. The past decade has given rise to new families of funds aimed not only at liberal Protestants but also politically conservative evangelicals and Catholics. Meanwhile, older funds with secular as well as Christian roots now get a hearing, at least sometimes, when they vie to impress their social visions upon corporate cultures. Socially responsible investing (SRI) has morphed from a quirky (and relatively small) niche in the 1980s to a $2 trillion mainstream industry today.

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Sojourners Magazine May 2008
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Practicing Sabbath Economics

Theologian Ched Myers characterizes “Sabbath economics” as the basic struggle of mammon vs. manna. “Mammon” is the Greek word (from Aramaic) used in Luke 16:13 when Jesus notes that “no slave can serve two masters ... you cannot serve God and mammon.” The word is translated “wealth” in the NRSV, and is portrayed a few verses later as the “love of money” (Luke 16:14). Mammon is then illustrated by a tale Jesus tells in Luke 16:19-31, in which a rich man feasts sumptuously and stores up luxury goods even as a poor beggar lies right outside his door. The economy of mammon is one of excess accumulation for some and poverty and deprivation for others.

“Manna,” on the other hand, refers to the story from Exodus 16 in which God rains down “bread from heaven” (Exodus 16:4). The Hebrew people were instructed to gather neither too much nor too little of the manna, but rather enough to meet their needs. And they were not to gather manna on the Sabbath day itself, making this manna story one of the first illustrations in all scripture of the meaning of Sabbath. In contrast to mammon economics of excess and deprivation, this model of manna or “Sabbath” economics stresses God’s abundance and provision. That abundance carries with it the accompanying instruction not to gather too much lest others go without.

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Sojourners Magazine May 2008
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Whom Do You Serve?

Why does money have such control over us? Before I read French theologian and social critic Jacques Ellul’s Money and Power, I thought money had little or no influence on me. I had grown up with just enough to have all I needed without getting spoiled by superfluous luxuries. Since college my life has since been filled with a passion for the hungry. Surely money wasn’t a problem for me?

But it was—and is. Ellul’s writing made it clear that we all make some kind of a god out of money. Perhaps we have too much of it and therefore hoard it. If we have too little of it, we no doubt covet it. Or—and this is the stickler—we have the right amount and are such good stewards of it that we are not generous.

That was my problem—and one of the three might be yours. Money sneaks its way into our thoughts and desires and takes over more of our time and attention (or affection) than it ought to have. There is no such thing as another god beside the one true God (1 Corinthians 8:4), the apostle Paul insists, but he also admits that “in fact there are many gods and many lords” (8:5), and money easily becomes one of those gods in our lives.

So why does money have such control over us that it becomes one of our gods? And how does our faith in Christ overcome money’s grip on us?

Principalities and Powers. Even before the time of Jesus, some philosophers recognized that wealth poses a grave danger to its possessor. Jesus used the Aramaic word “mammon” in warning against a preoccupation with money (Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:11, 13). As a re­sult of those warnings, however, most Christians have thought that money was neutral and became a problem only if people thought about it inordinately or acted to gain it immorally.

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Sojourners Magazine May 2008
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A Better Answer to High Fuel Prices

Recently, both President Bush and an oil company spokesperson, speaking to the rising gas prices, pushed for building more refineries and upping the production of oil here in the States. No mention of exorbitant oil company profits. No mention of our need to drastically reduce use of cars and gasoline, to change lifestyles. No mention of the working poor who are stuck without public transportation to jobs remote from their inner-city or inner-ring suburban homes.


Reducing dependence [...]

How About That Economy?

While Congress debates President Bush’s FY09 budget and tries to find the responsible middle ground between hopeless optimism and criminal self-delusion, economists are looking at the current fiscal crisis to determine whether the economy is:

a) at the beginning of a recession,

b) experiencing a mid-course correction, or

c) caught in a raging river of financial despair without a paddle, a life preserver or, for that matter, a Life Saver. (Not that fruit-flavored candy would help in a time like this, but I’ve found that eating a red one can turn a frown upside down. It’s my Happy Color.)

Many of you are already convinced this country is in recession, given that you’ve lost your job, or your home, or your savings. But I remind you that yours is merely anecdotal evidence of a downturn, and hardly germane to the broader economic conversation. You can’t just up and use the “r” word without proper credentials. That’s for the financial experts, who know what they’re talking about—since they talk about it all the time on television. And attractive people on television are never wrong.

According to these people—who, to their credit, live in at least one of the houses they own—a recession is only recognizable after it’s ended. I mention this only to reassure you that, as hard as things are for you right now, you really don’t have to worry. The experts will be just fine. Because they’re rich.

BUT RESPONSIBLE Americans need to get their economic house in order (those who still have a house), cut back, roll up their sleeves (those who haven’t sold their sleeves for food), and generally be more responsible with their spending.

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Sojourners Magazine April 2008
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