Sunday, December 12, 2010

Can Christians be bankers?

The parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18.23-35 is justly famous as an illustration of the gratuitousness of divine forgiveness. The debt of the first servant is larger than the entire GDP of multiple Roman provinces at the time (or so I have heard). Don't ask how this man had amassed such a debt; dodgy loans are apparently nothing new. Perhaps someone got a tasty commission and knew there was little regulatory oversight. But I digress...

The main point of the parable, however, is not the enormity of the debt forgiven the first servant, but the failure of that servant to treat his neighbour in the light of the forgiveness he himself had just received. It is a striking image of one of Jesus' central teachings: that we are to forgive others as we have been forgiven by our heavenly Father.

Yet listening to this parable in church last Sunday made me wonder: the image is financial; is the application also financial? That is, when Jesus warns against a failure to cancel the debts of one who cannot repay us and says that God will not forgive us if we do not forgive others, is he only talking about moral or relational debts? Are actual monetary debts excluded? I see no reason that they should be. And Jesus isn't talking about restructuring bad debts, or recovering what can be recovered. The entire debt is forgiven.

This is a profound teaching and would, it seems to me, effectively make it impossible for a Christian who takes the teaching of Christ seriously to work at any of the major banks. Thoughts?
I also cannot see how a Christian can work in (much of) the advertising industry either, but that is for other reasons and is perhaps a post for another day.


byron smith said...

Or do we imagine that we can cancel any personal debts we are owed and yet turn around and act as debt-collectors for 3rd parties?

Anthony Douglas said...

Shoot down a Starr-Bowkett scheme, and then we'll talk ;-)

Anonymous said...

Name an industry that a Christian could work in might be a better start?

Plessey Mathews said...

Waiting eagerly for the advertising industry post.

Stuart Heath said...

I've got a few thoughts, but I thought I should clarify: is your objection to lending in general, or to the practice of lending to those who can't repay, or to the actual collection of debts?

Anonymous said...

This question has been on my radar for quite some time now... and I'm still working out a proper response.

First, though, I'd mention that whenever I recite the Lord's prayer, I tend towards "debts" over against "sins" or the rhetorically uncomfortable "trespasses" because this enables one to remember the very real financial meaning of the term in the Greek. Admittedly, the financial meaning is not the only one, and it is a metaphor, but it seems that we so often disembody these metaphors from their practical contexts in our liturgical practice, and a little emphasis in the opposite direction can't hurt here...

As regards the economic details...

On one hand, post-medieval social mobility was enabled in part by the expansion and democratization of money-lending. The biblical injunction is specifically against lending with interest or trying to enforce debt collection with force or violence. There is, as many have noted, some wiggle room here. A commission can be charged rather than interest over time, and one can post collateral, provided it is not oppressive or exploitative (and doesn't void the Jubilee laws) in the case of repossession.

So it bears mentioning that if we were to turn off lending (which is not necessarily guaranteed, but is at least a possibility with Christian disengagement from these financial structures) many folks who are currently not landowners would potentially not be able to become one. Albeit, this might expose the need for land redistribution on a governmental level rather than relegating capitol availability to the private sector, so it's not clear to me that this is a deal-killer.

As you rightly point out, however, the reluctance towards some practices in the financial sector, need not be based purely on OT text, as this idea has equal provenance in the NT.

There are a number of financial practices which aren't always properly disentangled in contemporary critique of financial practices: the disembedding of wealth from real material contexts; the virtualization of money; the disconnection of wealth from land; the development of complex fiscal instruments for annuating risk and so on...

In the end though, I don't think the kingdom of God would be well served by a complete retreat of Christians from banking, but it might be worth considering if Christians should participate in a far more radically configured financial institution. On a really practical level, banking with cooperatives and credit unions would be a good start, as would lending liberally at no interest, but perhaps expecting repayment is not entirely out of the question...

Anonymous said...

One last comment... it's also worth asking (and perhaps even more appropriate) whether Christians should be customers of banks.

Mike B said...

@Anonymous: farming? clothesmaking? police?

@domesticatedtheology: the customer question is an interesting one. I'm also feeling increasingly guilty about being a customer of oil companies, esp. after hearing a report on the ABC cf. Shell getting oil out of Nigeria by paying off a few fatcats, so the public don't benefit from their own resource.

@byron: I'm tantilised by the advertising thing. I've been wondering how a Xn can make a career out of tricking people into thinking that unimportant stuff matters. Then again, advertising can also be used for tricking people into seeing that important stuff matters - e.g. road safety ads.

Anonymous said...

Here's a great anecdote from Augustine on the subject:

"Do not be a moneylender. You find fault with scripture when it speaks of a good man who has not put his money out to usury (Ps 14(15):5). It was not I who wrote that, nor did it come originally from my mouth. Listen to God. But he retorts, “It only means that clerics must not be moneylenders.” Very likely the person who takes you to task is not a moneylender himself. But if by chance he is--let us suppose he is, for the sake of argument--then is God, who speaks through him, a moneylender?

Yet moneylenders have the effrontery to argue, “I have no other means of supporting myself.” A robber caught in the act of murder might say the same; so might a burglar caught climbing into someone’s property; so might a pimp selling girls into prostitution; so might a sorcerer weaving evil spells and selling his wickedness. If we ever tried to forbid any of these professions their practitioners would all reply that they had no other livelihood, that they must engage in such business to feed themselves--as though they were not especially deserving of punishment for choosing to earn their living in a wicked profession and to feed themselves in a way that offends God, by whom all are fed."


(Exposition of Psalm 128, §6; see also Exposition 3 of Psalm 36:6)

byron smith said...

Hi all - apologies for delay in replying. I've been away for a few days (this week's posts were scheduled in advance) and have only just returned.

Jeremy (=domesticatedtheology) - Loads of great thoughts there. The Augustine quote is an excellent deflation of the "I'm just earning a living" defence, and could fairly easily be extended to the "but it's necessary for the economy" defence.

Lord's Prayer - debts/transgressions: Yes, it was reflecting upon the image in the Greek of forgiveness (which very often has financial overtones) that led me to hear this passage in Matthew in a new light while listening to the sermon.

And yes, I am not against all lending in any form. From my (very limited) reading, the medieval concessions may well express some deep wisdom since lost.

And I suspect that you are right about the need to disentangle some threads in any serious critique of the contemporary financial system. I look forward to your upcoming posts on the topic... ;-)

My post title and final question, as you rightly point out, are somewhat narrow. I had considered putting the title "Can Christians be creditors?" but changed my mind at the last minute. And it is important to remember that when you give your money to a bank, it is no longer legally your money, but you are the bank's creditor and it is the bank's money. So, yes, I think as Christians we do indeed need to think carefully about whether we can in good conscience be customers of the major banks. I think we are basically decided that we ought to switch to a credit union or other institution, though haven't yet done the research on which one. Any suggestions? Basically, I don't want to be helping to fuel the next speculative bubble, or helping to pay for arms races, for the destruction of the atmosphere and the strip mining of the soil (and so on).

byron smith said...

Plessey - I've worked out the title (and central idea), but am still trying to work out the implications. It's been sitting as a draft for months (I have many posts like that - half-formed ideas that would take too long to complete on most of the occasions that I sit down to schedule a post or two). I did post this quote a while back and it generated some interesting discussion.

Anon - Are you satisfied with Mike B's answer to your question? I think there are all kinds of ways that Christians can be a blessing, though few if any are without potential pitfalls. Some are more fraught than others. From my (quite limited) perspective, the banking sector as it is currently run (at least by the major banks) is deeply troubling. It is not beyond redemption (and Jeremy has suggested some very interesting ideas), but for a Christian to work for a major bank at the moment raises all kinds of very thorny issues.

Mike B - Yes, there is a difference between community service announcements and corporate advertising. The former I would put into the broader (and neutral) category of persuasion. See also the discussion that followed this post. Btw, how do road safety ads "trick" people? I guess I would see the real problem in advertising is not "trickery" (which is also used by artists, of course), but the corruption of desire (Plessey - that is the key idea I mentioned above).

byron smith said...

Stuart - I don't have a problem with lending per se, though I have problems with lending to those who obviously (or even likely) cannot repay when their default will be accompanied by violence. I don't have a problem with lending to those who may be unable to repay if a default leads to the forgiveness of the debt.

From the parable, both servants are unable to repay the debt (though in the second case, it is at least conceivable) and request leniency. The failure of the first servant is to treat his fellow servant harshly after having received abundant mercy himself.

byron smith said...

Stuart - I'd love to hear any further thoughts you have on this.

Unknown said...

@domesticatedtheology +1 re post-medieval social mobility

Re the SB Scheme - also worth mentioning Muhammad Yunus and his Nobel Prize for organising microfinance to third world countries. These default about 10% of the time and are unenforceable - so naturally this confuses the issue between being money-lenders and enforcing payments.

Your point from the previous posts seems to be that Banking is a disproportionate stake in the costs of the economy to the benefits it provides - this acts as a counter to the argument that banking organisations are massive non-government employers. (The idea being that we need to legislate financial services to be a utility and our workforce can be directed elsewhere).

So Byron, how about a post on the wastefulness of big government? :)

(or maybe civil unions...)

byron smith said...

These default about 10% of the time and are unenforceable - so naturally this confuses the issue between being money-lenders and enforcing payments.
Does this confuse the issue or provide a model of more humane banking? Or were you suggesting that they confuse the issue in a good (more humane) way? From the little I know about Yunus and micro-financing, it sounds much more attractive than giant banks.

Your point from the previous posts seems to be
I assume you were referring to this post, which was a link to someone else's argument?

Banking is a disproportionate stake in the costs of the economy to the benefits it provides
My point is that current banking practices are morally bankrupt and in need of serious rethinking by Christians.

So Byron, how about a post on the wastefulness of big government? :)
I'm not sure I follow. Was this suggestion linked to your previous point, or was it simply floating an idea?

I've done at least one recent post on big government. I am no fan of big government, and am suspicious of any concentration of power (including the massive, growing and largely unaccountable power of multinational corporations).

I'm also not quite sure what the link to civil unions is. Or is that simply another topic you're interested in?

byron smith said...

Speaking of microfinance, I've just learned about Kiva, a website which accepts loan deposits, which are then used to finance small loans to individuals in the developing world.

byron smith said...

The great bank heist of 2010:
"This was the year America finally took on the power and greed of the Wall Street banks.

"And the banks won.

"They dodged the bullet of real reform, probably for all time. They bounced back to post huge profits, helped by legal theft from the middle class. They completed their takeover of both political parties — and bought themselves a new Congress even more pliable than the old one.

"Middle-class America is flattened, devastated and broke. The bankers that caused it all have escaped punishment. They’re raking in huge profits. Oh, and the tax cuts just got extended for high earners, too!

"Game over."

Terje said...

Some interesting thoughts! I have also been contemplating how Christians should relate to the banking system, and have come to the conclusion we should avoid it. I share some of the reasons why I came to this conclusion in the article I wrote at:
Any comments on the article are very welcome :)