(First published in Huffington Post January 11, 2011)
In my sermon at the Princeton University Chapel this Christmas, I brought in good, old George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life. My reference to It’s a Wonderful Life was to pose the troubling question of which portrait looked more familiar: the bucolic final scene of Bedford Falls, or George’s nightmare of the brutal and callous Pottersville? Which depiction of America was a closer representation of the economic reality as we enter the second decade of the 21st century? One of the questions I asked my congregation to consider was the moral agency each of us possess to do good in this world by fulfilling God’s desire for the economic well being of all humanity.
A week later I heard about the Move Your Money movement, went to the website moveyourmoney.info and coincidentally saw a video that featured George Bailey vs. Potter. The video uses these archetypes to set up the distinction between big banks and community banks. The site encourages us to shift at least part of our money out of the banks that were too big to fail, and are now too big to loan money, and into community banks which are more likely to serve the needs of local people.
Religious people should seriously consider the merits of this growing movement, as the way we treat our money is tied into our spiritual commitments. The connection between religion and money is hotly contested. In one camp, we preach (impractically) that money is the root of all evil and we should rise above it; and in the other camp, we preach (untruthfully) that God blesses the faithful and wants each person to be fabulously wealthy. While money may be difficult to talk about within the religious setting, is not impossible. Indeed, the Hebrew prophets certainly took on the subject of economic justice, and Jesus talks about no subject with more frequency and passion than his concern for the poor.
How we, as individuals and as a country, deal with our money and our economy are moral questions. Rev. Jim Wallis is fond of saying that the United States budget is a moral document, but our national and our personal economic choices are also moral decisions.
Like the terms ecology and ecumenism, the word economy has the root oikos, which is a Greek word that translates as family or house. Any economy should be judged on its ability to provide for the needs of the entire human family it is meant to serve. Banks are an important part of our economy. As part of our economy they should be judged on how well they are serving our community and national family.
And the current answer is — not well.
My great grandfather, Louis D. Brandeis, wrote a series of essays in 1914 called “Other People’s Money, and How the Bankers Use It.” Brandeis warned of the ‘curse of bigness’ in the banks as they orient themselves to the interest of big business at the expense of the individual consumer, and gamble with the collective money of the small investor. One hundred years later, Brandeis’ essays are like a textbook on what went wrong with the banking industry in our recent crisis. We are still cursed by bigness, and as politicians consider financial regulations in the near future they would do well to look at Brandeis’ writings.
The curse of bigness in banks should be a major concern of religious people and their churches, synagogues, mosques and any other religious institution. When banks and corporations get too big they grow indifferent and lose the sense of responsibility to and for the people they are meant to be serving. Just remind yourself of the scene in The Smartest Guys in the Room when the Enron guys in Dallas are messing with the energy in California without a thought for the people whose lives they are destroying.
Bigness has created alienation and disconnectedness in our banking institutions and the result is that they are able to give themselves bonuses to buy a second or third home while refusing to help those in desperate need of financial help to keep one roof. The projection is that one million American households may face foreclosure this year. This turning away from the stranger and the neighbor in their time of need in order to gratify oneself is sinful and should be understood in those terms.
Walter Rauschenbusch, another of my great grandfathers, wrote a remarkable treatise on love and the economy entitled “Dare We Be Christians” in which he warns that, “The severest test and the most urgent task of love today is in the field of business life. Unless love can dominate the making of wealth, the wealth of our nation will be the ferment of its decay.”
We might scoff at the idea of love dominating the field of business. But by love, Rauschenbusch meant ethics and justice. As Dr. Cornel West says: Justice is what love looks like in public.
The big banks were greedy, which was the ‘ferment of their decay.’ They played with our money, and we bailed them out, and now they won’t lend it back to us. It may not be the big banks’ fault. They may just be too big to be able to focus on the kind of community support that we need our economy to provide. So, maybe we should make them a little smaller.
It may be time for us as individuals and as churches, synagogues and mosques to move our money to smaller banks that are connected and responsible to our local communities.
I encourage you in your congregation to consider the following question regarding where you keep your money:
How does my religious tradition view money? What purpose does money serve in the ideal society envisioned by my tradition? Does it matter how our money is made? What is the best way to make my money serve the ethical mandates of my tradition? Does my bank reflect the values that I hold regarding money?
Each of us has many ways to live out our religious convictions. One of those ways is to be conscious and have a conscience about how we make, spend and where we save our money. If you are interested in learning more go to moveyourmoney.info.
Rev. Paul Raushenbush is the Religion Editor for the Huffington Post. He is the Associate Dean of Religious Life and the Chapel at Princeton University. An ordained American Baptist minister, Rev. Raushenbush speaks and preaches at colleges, churches and institutes around the country including the College of Preachers at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C., The Chautauqua Institute in upstate New York, the Center for American Progress, and the New America Foundation. He has appeared on ABC World News Tonight and is a repeated guest on CNN and NPR. He has been quoted in The New York Times and The Washington Post and is a contributing editor for Beliefnet.com. His first book, Teen Spirit: One World, Many Faiths (HCI) was released in the Fall of 2004. He is the editor of the 100th Anniversary edition of Walter Rauschenbusch’s book, Christianity and the Social Crisis – In the 21st Century (HarperOne). His work at Princeton includes strengthening the interfaith community on campus. He is the Co-Director of the Program on Religion, Diplomacy and International Relations at The Liechtenstein Institute on Self Determination at Princeton University.