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The Values of Money: Towards a Christian Response

by The Revd Andrew Studdert-Kennedy

Posted: 30 Sep 2011

<< Part Eight: No Longer a Noun

My starting point for these explorations into the financial world is that the church as an institution as well as individual Christians need to recognise that we are part of the financial world ourselves and dependent upon it. In the past Christians have tended to be sceptical about wealth, holding strong views about how wealth should be distributed but having rather less to say about its creation.

So I saw myself as a friend rather than foe of the market; capitalism may be an inefficient, wasteful and unfair system, but so far at least, it has proved less inefficient, wasteful and unfair than the other systems that have been tried from time to time

Furthermore, it seems wise to have an appropriate degree of reticence about any comments we might make. There is unlikely to be a specifically Christian solution to the problems arising from the crash. Perspective, yes, conversation certainly, but technical solutions? No. Perhaps Cardinal Pell of Sydney spoke wisely when he said:

'The only thing we can say is to repeat the central teachings of Christ. When men and women over-reach themselves...trouble often follows...the financial crisis is enormously complicated and I would hope we don't attempt to say too much'

With this caveat in mind, I offer the following thoughts.

Traditionally, we have tended to see money as something neutral and considered that it is our attitudes towards it that are most important. Hence the attention given to St. Paul's comment that it is the love of money that is at the root of all evil rather than money itself. Whilst it remains the case that attitudes towards money do matter, this doesn't do justice to the way money now works, for what started as a means of exchange has become an end in itself. The net result is that money functions more like a verb than a noun, with a force and life of its own. It is not as neutral as we might think.

Reflecting on this, it is not St. Paul's comments about the love of money that I have been drawn to but an altogether different passage.

When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting-place, but not finding any, it says, "I will return to my house from which I came."When it comes, it finds it swept and put in order.Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first.' Luke 11.24-26

This striking passage, deeply rooted in popular belief, reads like an extract from a text book on demonology. They may seem unlikely verses to cast light on a Christian exploration of finance, but throughout my sabbatical weeks they have stuck in my mind. In colourful language, Jesus is warning of the danger of spiritual vacuums - the removal of evil and malpractice is not sufficient in itself. There needs to be something positive in place.

 
The financial crisis of 2007/8 has led to a lot of reflection and the acknowledged need for considerable reform of the banking system. The reforms themselves will ensure greater transparency and the more efficient working of the system and in that sense the financial house will be 'swept and put in order'. But nobody claims that such reforms will be able to prevent future crises; indeed, a number of those whom I spoke with over the past months have suggested that a future crisis may well be worse than the past one. The financial house may be swept and put in order, but the last state may yet be worse than the first.

There is a paralysis in the financial world; reforms are needed but unless they are agreed to universally no one is going to set a unilateral example. Nowhere is this more visible than in the matter of remuneration. Whilst what bankers get paid is a symptom not a cause of a malfunctioning market, few doubt that remunerations are disproportionate and damaging, but (fear of) the power of the market stops action being taken. (If London cuts pay, the best bankers will all leave and work elsewhere, the market argues)

It seems to me that markets and money are prone to this paralysis because they lack external references, by which I mean they set their own standards and values. They should act as servants but have become masters, but masters who are also somehow prisoners too!

However, there is something wilful as well. It is an iron rule that bankers will seek to avoid regulation, says financial journalist Andreas Whittam Smith, whilst Paul Volcker, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, probably spoke for many during his Mais lecture in July 2011:

I know there are earnest efforts in some firms to re-examine and restrict practices that too often have led to conflicts of interest and to self-dealing - Goldman Sachs to its credit, has made its own effort public in a detailed special report. But I am still struck by the extent that, in the midst of the continuing damage of the financial crisis to economic activity, the attitude is expressed that it's time to get back to "normal": to resist new regulatory discipline for fear of impairing the markets, to devote time, attention, and great expense to lobbying and lawyering in the effort to devise or invent loopholes in laws and regulations.

Yet these comments of Volcker's betray a weakness, too. Banking was the most over-regulated industry in the world before the crisis, but the regulations failed not because there weren't enough of them but because they left a flawed system intact.

 
It is one thing to make such critical observations but what else can be contributed to the debate?

Part Ten: The Just Economy >>

This piece is part of a series by Revd Andrew Studdert-Kennedy exploring the role of the financial sector and how we might come to understand it better.

About this author

Revd. Andrew Studdert-Kennedy is Rural Dean and Team Rector of Marlborough.


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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.