Risky Business: The Pitfalls at the Corner of Church & Wall Street

Inspired by protests over the summer organized through social media in Egypt and Madrid, upwards of a thousand demonstrators gathered on September 17 to “Occupy Wall Street” in a rally loosely coordinated by the activist media organization Adbusters. Hundreds lingered through the weekend and continued the protest as the New York Stock Exchange opened low on Monday, September 19 over worries about the wider impact of the Greek debt crisis.

Demonstrators highlighted in particular the relationship between corporate wealth-making and political king-making that has advantaged an elite few while creating economic instability and uncertainty with no end in sight for the disenfranchised majority. In the words of a brief manifesto posted on an Occupy Wall Street website created by “various radicals”:

If you agree that state and corporation are merely two sides of the same oppressive power structure, if you realize how media distorts things to preserve it, how it pits the people against the people to remain in power, then you might be one of us.

Though massive crowds that might have garnered sustained mainstream media coverage for the nascent “American Autumn” of discontent never materialized, #occupywallstreet and associated hashtags hummed through Twitter this past weekend to spin out hundreds of thousands of tweets to a global audience of millions. The movement was hardly the Tahrir Square of its dreams, but, after being ignored by the mainstream media for most of the weekend, it eventually snagged global attention—if mainly of the dismissive you-crazy-kids-and-your-protests sort.

What Would Jesus Do Now?

Aside from a “sermon” from anti-consumerism performance artist and activist The Rev. Billy (Bill Talen), the protests appear to have been unmarked by any consideration of spiritual or religious perspectives on economic justice. Still, having spent a few days earlier in the month among a group of religionistas invited to attend SOCAP11, an annual gathering that connects social entrepreneurs with socially-motivated investors, I couldn’t help but wonder, What Would Jesus Do Now?, at a moment in American history when presidential calls for greater tax equity must contend with the dystopian “class warfare” fears of Tea Partiers and other Republicans?

When the number of Americans living in poverty—46.2 million, according to a recent report from the Census Bureau—is at an all-time high? When more than 300,000 Christian churches dot the American landscape, the majority with declining membership and largely unused real estate or financial capital that might well be put to work in the service of that stalwart of Christian faith: neighbor love (Luke 10:27).

Against this economic reality, the juxtaposition of the Occupy Wall Street rally and the SOCAP11 festival of “impact investing” begs the question of whether the time, energy and other resources of religious organizations and leaders should be spent challenging the system that brought us to this point in economic history. Or, would it be better, as the 60s not-quite-counter-culture-enough saying goes, to try to “change the system from within”?

It Depends What You Mean by “Capitalism”

Kevin Doyle Jones suggests something in between. Jones, a venture capitalist, founded SOCAP in 2008 with his wife, Rosa Lee Harden, a social entrepreneur and Episcopal priest, along with investor Timothy Freundlich, “to direct the power and efficiency of market systems toward social impact, leading to a more balanced set of ‘returns’” by connecting innovators in for- and non-profit social benefit sectors with investors interested in ethically and socially responsible projects. He takes a pragmatic approach to the question of how money and spiritual meaning ought to come together in today’s economy. When I asked if, for people of faith, capitalism offered ethical mechanisms for addressing the needs of the world, Jones played straight down the middle: “If by ‘capitalism’ you mean a method of using for-profit business as an efficient means of allocating resources that can move faster and more nimbly than non-profits or government, we’re all about that.” But, he insisted, “we’re something other than capitalist or anti-capitalist. We’re using capital to meet the challenges of the world.”

The idea here is that, rather than investing in perhaps questionable enterprises and offering a guilt-induced portion of profits to charity, investors can ethically front-end load investments by buying into projects that, while perhaps offering a lower rate of monetary return, pay dividends in global poverty eradication, environmental sustainability, access to education, etc. So, for instance, investors might support a number of projects through MicroPlace, an online micro-financing subsidiary of PayPal, with investments of as little as 20 dollars that help low income entrepreneurs in Texas, women merchants in Azerbaijan, the rural farmers of Cambodia, and so on, earning a return of 0.5% to 4.5% over 2-3 years. Not bad.

Really?

As a person of faith, am I supposed to be earning even nominal interest on the efforts of a women’s beading cooperative in India? Should I be engaging global economic instability through an even modestly risk-based structure? Isn’t that what sent my 401K into the crapper along with the market-invested retirement savings of millions of Americans?

What’s more, is it appropriate for churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples to participate in market capitalism as an extension of their core spiritual mission? Do such efforts reinforce the worst qualities of capitalism: privatization of common property, competition for resources, unequal distribution of resources, socially unbalanced participation in production, the hoarding of wealth by those not directly involved in production, artificially amplified consumerism? Or, do they offer a real hope of reshaping the structure and practices of capital markets themselves?

Protestant Work Ethic 2.0

Joy Anderson, founder of Criterion Ventures (and a principal, with Freundlich, in Jones’ Good Capital investment firm), believes that churches can and should be active economic agents. Anderson notes that, without doing anything at all in terms of mission-driven economic initiative, churches are “economic beings”—passive and active aggregators and redistributors of capital. Like it or not, she argues, they participate in the global economic network every time someone turns on the lights in the sanctuary.

Multiply that by 300,000, and it’s easy to see why the economic impact of churches is a substantial, if unrecognized, force in the overall well-being of the communities in which they are located and in the broader economy. Indeed, University of Pennsylvania researcher Ram Cnaan has shown that a modest-sized urban congregation contributes upwards of half a million dollars in economic value to its community in the form of direct services, real capital investments (the new roof over the sacristy), education, and less-easily quantified benefits like preventing crime, youth and domestic violence, and suicide.

Anderson insists that churches’ investment in, for example, local business incubators, community agriculture programs, charter schools, and so on is “not just about participating in the economy per se. It’s about, by participating, changing the nature of the economy, changing the nature of the marketplace.” One such change, we might assume, would be market participation not based, as in the classic models of capitalism, solely on competitive self-interest, but rather on what Kathryn D. Blanchard calls “sympathetic self-interest”—self-interest based on morally-grounded measures of extrinsic (read: “material/financial”) and intrinsic (read: “spiritual/social”) satisfaction yielded from earnings from business practices characterized by respect for workers, care for the environment, equity in compensation, conscientious reinvestment, and so on.

In this understanding, people of faith and religious institutions leverage the efficiency of capital markets, so valued by Jones, as a plug-and-play conduit for the redistribution of wealth guided by religious values. The Protestant Work Ethic is recast not as the Weberian vision of the Christian worker with nose, ever uncomplainingly, to the grindstone. Rather, the money earned from toil (hers/his or that of another in whom the worker is invested through market instruments like stocks) works ceaselessly, as they say, “while you sleep.” Money here, as Kathryn Tanner has suggested, becomes not unlike grace, swirling superabundantly around the cosmos, alighting upon those in need and inviting them more fully into the developed economy.

Except not quite. For, as Tanner has also pointed out, grace in the Christian oikonomia—the balanced dispensation of Good in the household of God—is not selective, not based on any manner of worth, or effort, or status. “This grace,” Tanner explains, “is offered freely to all; to be favored by God with it, one does not have to be learned or wealthy or socially well-connected or male or white.” She continues:

The whole Christian story, from top to bottom, can be viewed as an account of the production of value and the distribution of goods, following [a] peculiar noncompetitive shape.

This noncompetitive ethos is, of course, not unique to Christianity, and it’s hardly prevented people of faith from actively participating in the economy in innovative ways. Greystone Bakery, founded in Yonkers, New York by Zen Buddhist priest Bernie Glassman has provided jobs, career training, low-income housing, and more, while producing high-end baked goods for nearly 30 years. Los Angeles-based Homeboy Industries, founded by Jesuit priest Gregory Boyle more than 20 years ago, has actively engaged former gang members and at-risk youth in meaningful work, providing a range of social, legal, and educational services to the surrounding community, and creating a portfolio of businesses that sustain the overall enterprise.

Trading Prophets for Profit

Many of the cohort of “religious leaders” who joined me at SOCAP11 had these sorts of job-creating, community-enriching enterprises in mind. A priest from an Episcopal church in San Francisco explored ways to develop a restaurant incubator in his church’s kitchen. A group of MBA students from Point Loma Nazarene University considered how to create businesses that balance material and spiritual profit. A woman from an emergent church in Boston looked for insights that would help move her church toward more intentional economic engagement with the wider community. On that side of ledger, there was considerable abundance.

On the funding side, of course, the matter was somewhat different, as would-be social entrepreneurs schmoozed their way into conversations and potential pitches with investors, the whole of if spinning a vibe not unlike one of those speed-dating cocktail parties Patti Stanger constructs on Millionaire Matchmaker. One wonders how eager investors will be to expand their impact investing portfolio should President Obama’s proposal for $1.5 trillion in new taxes on the investment income of the superrich materialize.

Perhaps more importantly, if religious institutions more actively join the ranks of such investors, how will their prophetic role be changed? To what extent will those more actively invested in capital markets—however ethically motivated, whatever the social ends—feel limited in their ability to critique the wealth-creating underpinnings of these markets? You know, it’s hard for me to imagine myself marching on Wall Street with any integrity, despite my ideological sympathies, at a time when my meager fortunes would surely improve if the Dow makes it to 13,000 by Christmas—however that might come to pass.

Too Small to Fail

Certainly, Jones is right in asserting that capital markets have a productive efficiency that surpasses that of most non-profit and governmental enterprises. So, too, Anderson’s contention that churches and other religious organizations are “economic beings” with tremendous, untapped potential for good rings true. Indeed, the pension funds of the mainline Protestant churches are massive investment portfolios, the earnings from which have funded global relief projects, education, medical care, and other good works for generations. They have—as both Jones and Anderson themselves have done in their capital ventures—modeled the ways in which financial capital can merge with spiritual capital to generate social capital. If I had a few million to spare, that’s surely the way I’d go.

But I don’t. And neither, most likely, does St. Whatsit down the block, making both of us less able to weather market turbulence or to participate in capital markets in balanced, sustainable ways. Herein, of course, was the problem with inviting individual, middle class investors to heave their retirement savings into deregulated capital markets. While this, in aggregate, provided a tremendous new source of capital for corporations, padding the earnings of executives and high-end investment firms, it subjected your Aunt Dottie and Uncle Gerry’s nest egg to a level of risk that, ultimately, would cause it to crack.

At a time when church membership is declining, and with it collection plate revenues that fund macro-level church investment; at a time when speculative investment in new businesses is down globally and new sources of funding are thin on the ground, hard questions must be asked about the involvement of local churches in capital markets. While risk is shared equally across the investment landscape, the consequences—both gains and losses—associated with risk clearly are not.

Does this mean people of faith should turn away from more active, more educated economic engagement? Surely not. But it does, I think, mean that participation in the market economy must be radically tempered by all-in investment in a theological economy that privileges those most disadvantaged by the current global market structure, those least able to speak and act against its outrages. This means not merely anteing up a share of personal or organizational wealth to support even the most worthy causes, but risking the gem of social capital in Bourdieu’s conception of the term—status—to critique, challenge, and, in the end, redeem the global market economy so that it benefits all.

My strong hunch is that Jones and Anderson, through enterprises like SOCAP, Good Capital, and the hybrid for-profit/non-profit Criterion Ventures, with their deep connections to religious organizations, may move social entrepreneurs and impact investors in this direction. So, too, in their own way, might the student debt-addled twentysomethings camped on the outskirts of Wall Street with their strident, persistent protests against a market system that will continue to fail far too many (no matter how ethical the vetting of my investments) without dramatic structural and regulatory change. The question for religious leaders, it seems to me, is how best to stand at the socially and spiritually productive intersection of market and spiritual economies so what appear to be two powerful forces for good might themselves stand together for real, sustained economic change.

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