Christian Silence on Banking Due to Concerns of Anti-Semitism?

One asks only because one hears almost no religious voices weighing in on the bank nationalization question. When the managing editor of this esteemed journal asked me why this might be the case, my off-the-top-of-my-very-bald-head answer was that American religious leaders are confounded by the reckless and/or sloppy language surrounding the nationalization debate.

“Nationalization”: how state-socialistic (and hence un-American) is that, anyway?

The whole concept of banking treads upon so many religious questions and categories that it is almost hard to know where to begin. I generally begin with Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, which explains (to me at least) why giving people what they need before they even ask wafts one instantly into the divine economy. It’s not banking, it’s the gift outright, that brings the human being closer to divine being or (better) that expresses the divine being that is already present in the human being.

We know this, historically: in every major faith tradition, banking as we now understand it has been a rather suspect operation. Why? Because hoarded wealth has been deeply understood to be associated with thanatos, the death instinct (Freud and Norman O. Brown had this part right), whereas money that is freely circulated is, if not positively erotic, at least not ghoulish. And because accumulated wealth is understood, well before Marx, to represent someone else’s expropriated labor. And, finally, because lending money at interest is understood to be taking undue advantage of another’s need.

Usury is what the Christians called it until the popes really needed ready money and, hamstrung by their own anti-usury doctrines, turned to the Jews for assistance. The Jews of Europe were, in effect, licensed by the Christians to be the designated usurers until the Christians decided they should be in the business themselves. At this point, all of the bad associations connected with usury were laid upon the perfidious Jews, and we got a good banker/bad banker dichotomy that persists to this day. Read James Carroll on the history.

I mention this only because I believe the hesitation of many Christian progressives to say anything really critical of contemporary bankers and hedge fund managers springs in part from a valid fear of appearing to be anti-Semitic. Not quite polite to be talking about the turpitude and tergiversations of an AIG (Maurice Greenberg) or a CitiGroup (Sandy Weill) or a Lehman Brothers (Richard Fuld) or a Bear Stearns (Alan Schwartz) or the Blackstone Group (Stephen Schwartzman). Speaking candidly, it would be a lot easier for many progressive Christians to be emphatically anti-banker if the names of the major culprits were the old High Wasp names. But, alas, there are two few John Thains and John Macks and Ken Lewises in this picture to take behind the barn.

All of the guilty historical burdening notwithstanding, it does seem that Christians and other people of faith should be able to able to come to some kind of clarity about what needs to be done now in relation to the clueless banks and bankers.

These are private corporations whose behavior will have a lot to do with either easing or exacerbating the sufferings of many in the body politic. They are, at the same time, the beneficiaries of enormous public largesse. Does this not give us, the public, at least some say in their behavior? And if the only way to have that say is by voting our public shares, making new rules, and installing new management, what exactly is the problem?

One interesting sidelight that needs more attention: at this very moment, when big banks are having their balance sheets saved by huge infusions of taxpayer money, they are still unilaterally changing the terms of millions of credit card accounts: changing credit limits, wildly increasing the effective rates of interest, slapping on new fees and penalties. Um, is this the kind of civic behavior that the public shareholders (i.e., all U.S. taxpayers) should have to grin and bear?

Anyway, I remain confused about why temporary bank nationalization seems to be a no-no, even among religious citizens whose faith traditions teach them to be very wary of the “banking community.”

I am eager to hear what others have to say about this phenomenon. Let’s do our very own wiki-thingie on this important subject.

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