Greg Rickel, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia, has said on more than one occasion that Jesus hardly ever talked about sex, but talked a lot about money. Today’s Christian community struggles to address the problem of its own wealth in the context of global and local poverty. A forum at St. Mark's cathedral on Thursday called "Fixing the Future: How cooperative businesses are building a better world," will address the topic of how faith, mutual ownership, and micro lending can counter one of human kinds deepest afflictions: greed.
I've criticized the Occupy Wall Street movement because it has been short on solutions and long on angry anti-bank rhetoric. The "I'm the 99 percent" mantra doesn’t offer much of a positive economic or financial proposal to remedy the problems with our financial system. Some churches even took the step of marching downtown to Bank of America to make a big show of withdrawing their money.
The closest thing to a solution to come out of the OWS movement hasn’t been the church’s withdrawal of money, but figuring out what to do with it. Jesus confronted this topic with a parable in Luke about a farmer who fretted over where to keep all his wealth. After consulting an expert — himself — the farmer concluded the best thing to do would be to build a bigger place to store all that wealth. Satisfied with that plan he executed it, but God had other plans; the rich man died. You can't take it with you after all.
Darel Groathaus, who will moderate the forum at St. Mark’s, has lots of experience in the banking sector — but he’s also a graduate of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. He was recently special assets administrator for Cascade Bank, managing a $60 million portfolio of troubled commercial real estate loans and a similar portfolio for Union Bank.
Groathaus has also spent a lot of time trying to understand wealth and greed in a biblical context as well as in a banking context. The passage in Luke has been of particular interest in his work and he has put together workshops on the topic.
Can cooperatives, like local giants REI and Group Health, cure the consuming greed that many faith traditions identify as a perennial human problem and Jesus calls out in the parable? Groathaus thinks they are part of the solution. "Mutual ownership can help answer the question of how we can create community wealth to benefit families and build up community institutions." Groathaus and others point to local examples like Boeing Employees Credit Union and PCC as financial organizations that are directed at people not profits.
But Groathaus agrees that people will always need to borrow, and the temptation of making riskier loans, which can generate more profits, will always be with us. It's easy to forget the savings and loan debacle of the late 1980s caused, in part, by deregulation that allowed them to act more like banks, provoking them to ignore their original constituency of small depositors and borrowers.
The problem any human economy faces is risk and how to manage it while still supporting the risk taking required for innovation or to help leverage people out of poverty. How does a person with sketchy credit but a great business idea get it to market? How does a poor family get their first mortgage? How can a person with no credit or bad credit build credit up? Often the answer is getting expensive loans from banks.
The fact is, banks and financial institutions of all kinds are an important innovation to meet those needs. Blowing up banks won't help the poor or disadvantaged. On the contrary, all human economies need institutions that are secure, regulated, and can provide needed capital at prices that allow them to be at least sustainable if not profitable.
The debate spurred by the latest meltdown shouldn't be about doing away with banks, but how to do banking better. I'm not sure where Jesus would bank, or if he would bank at all, since his life was more about giving possessions away, not hanging on to them. How does one construct a framework for financing based on giving money away without paying attention to risk? Jesus often left his contemporaries — and us — with more questions than answers.
However, mutual ownership through cooperatives might help redirect some of people's anger at banks toward something more productive, like creating more local cooperative lending agencies. But any group putting their money together even for the common good will be faced with the same question in Jesus' parable: Where do we put all this wealth so we can keep it safe? Cooperatives might be better then banks, but solving the problem of greed might require something more miraculous.
If you go: Fixing the Future: How Cooperative Businesses Build a Better World; 6:30-8 p.m., Thursday, March 29; Bloedel Hall, St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral, 1245 Tenth Avenue E., Seattle.
Note: The writer, who has a Masters degree in Religious Studies from the University of California Santa Barbara, serves on the Vestry of St. Mark's Cathedral.