John Richardson on Christianity, capitalism and the St Paul’s protestors
What’s wrong with the world’s financial markets is not rocket science, though the technical issues involved may look like it. In April 2007, an English financier named Henry Maxey wrote an article titled ‘Cracking the Credit Market Code’, which explained precisely why we were heading then for where we are now. To the novice, however, his account of ‘credit’ and ‘leverage’, ‘liquidity’ and ‘collateralized debt obligations’ is completely baffling. Maxey likened the global financial system to Willy Wonka’s gobstoppers: ‘You can suck ’em and suck ’em and suck ’em, and they’ll never get any smaller.’ The market in loans would keep on making profit for everyone indefinitely.
The trouble was, most people couldn’t see the fallacy. The credit bubble, Maxey wrote, ‘was the financial world’s own perpetual motion machine, yet the ridicule was reserved for those who … warned about the absurdity of the output.’ So if even the experts couldn’t see (or wouldn’t admit to) the problems, how could the crash have been avoided?
Cue the Church of England, which was briefly pushed into the limelight when the grounds of St Paul’s Cathedral were occupied recently by protestors. Unfortunately, instead of coming out with their lines, the clergy suffered a collective bout of stage-fright! As a result, a great opportunity was lost. The best thing the Church seemed to be able to come up with was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s support for a new ‘Robin Hood’ tax – in other words, another financial instrument to add to the pile.
But what might have been a better response, given
the complexity of the issues involved? The first answer in any realm of public responsibility lies in the model Jesus Christ set before his followers, as the Lord of all who nevertheless came ‘not to be served, but to serve’. I remember a lecturer many years ago who argued that this ought to be the guiding principle of Christians in the arts. The first goal of the artist, he said, should not be self-expression but service of others. The answer to the question, ‘What should I paint or sculpt or design?’ should be, ‘What could I paint or sculpt or design that would be of benefit to someone else?’
Yet this can apply to financiers as much as to artists. The guiding principle here should be not ‘How much money can we make?’ but, ‘How can I best be of service?’ In every occupation and relationship, those who claim to follow Christ should follow his example of being ‘the servant of all’. After that, there are the basic principles of honesty and integrity, which should not be confined to private life. ‘By justice a king gives a country stability,’ says the book of Proverbs, ‘but one who is greedy for bribes tears it down’ (29.4). In the end, bribery, corruption and greed destroy businesses and communities. But someone will say, ‘This is impossible – it’s a dog eat dog world.’ To this, we can only reply, do you want to live like an animal, or like a human being made in the image of God? Do you want to follow the herd, or follow the Master? If people ask what the Christian ‘take’ is on something as profound as global finance, they must not complain if the answer turns out to be simple to define but hard to apply. Maybe that’s life. ND