Before I began my education for ministry I worked in banking and related industries for 16 years. One of the things my last job involved was designing and delivering a course intended to enable finance (accounting) professionals new to the industry to begin to understand what a bank was, its role in the economy, how it made its money, the risks it ran, the way it managed them and the implications of all this for the its profit and loss and balance sheet accounts. Quite a lot to get through in three days and a really enjoyable experience every time I did it. The first run of the course took place shortly before Northern Rock went under and I carried on doing it through the unfolding of the subsequent crisis, with the content evolving to include all the various catastrophes as they occurred.
I say all this to explain that I have some professional expertise where it comes to observing and commenting on these events and, therefore, a slightly different take on the “Occupy” phenomena than people without that kind of commitment to and knowledge of the banking industry, and it may or may not be surprising that I have very limited sympathy with the demonstrations.
There is a widespread assertion that “bankers” are to blame for the mess “we” are in. Because the systemic dislocation of the last 4 years or so has had its most dramatic and observable symptoms in the banking sector it has become the common sense that something to do with banking is the cause. From this it is deduced that bankers are at fault and in particular that bankers’ greed is at the root of our problems. None of this is absolutely false but most of it, I think, is very nearly so. What is absolutely false is any suggestion that the “bail outs” of the banks were in any way optional or that they were carried out primarily in the interests of the bankers (and incidentally almost all employees of the banks – including me – lost large sums of money through the bail outs, which reduced the value of existing shares in them by something like 90%, albeit the remaining 10 % only exists because of the rescue).
States stepped in the prevent the collapse of the banking system for the same reason they would, if necessary, rescue failing power or water utilities. Not to do so would expose their citizens to disaster.
But if the banks aren’t to blame, who is? For me the answer is either no-one, or more properly, God. If we look at the Old Testament (and indeed the Gospels) there is a strong tradition of ascribing disasters, even those brought about by human action, to divine action. I’ve been looking at Jeremiah’s account of the Babylonian crisis that ended the Davidic monarchy and destroyed the First (Solomonic) Temple. Jeremiah is quite clear that God sent the Babylonians as his instrument. The Book of Job is a classic statement on another scale of the idea that human misfortune, “deserved” or “undeserved” is properly seen as God’s action.
In the current case I’m inclined to see our economic travails as very like earthquakes and volcanoes. They can be traced to the painful process of adjustment to a radically new world order, in which the integration of China into the world capitalist economy (along with that of a string of less enormous but still important countries like Vietnam or Indonesia) introduces huge stresses, like those at the boundaries of tectonic plates. In the years leading up to the explosion of 2008 all observers knew that the “imbalances” caused by structural import/export surpluses and deficits like we were seeing were unsustainable and the credit bubble that we are now trying to “unwind” was largely financed through Chinese purchase of American debt using the dollars earned in that unbalanced trade.
Processes at this level of complexity and at this scale are not manageable or controllable by any human actor. To imagine that what we’re experiencing is traceable to the (admittedly many and serious) mistakes of the likes of Sir Fred Goodwin is, I think, laughable and ridiculous. So too is the idea that the situation is remediable if only someone, somewhere, would drop their evil schemes and adopt some simple measures dictated by good will.
Too often “we”, by which now I mean the churches, behave as if we think the world’s problems were caused by people doing wrong things. When we do so we are speaking like Job’s “friends” who try to tell him that if only he’d recognise that he was to blame for what had happened to him all would be well. Job, by contrast, insists that he is innocent and that his misfortunes are God’s responsibility, demanding his day in court with the Lord.
This tradition, of holding God to account, isn’t, or doesn’t have to be, an evasion of our responsibility to strive to do what is right but it does guard us against the temptation to pass this responsibility onto “them”, whoever “they” may be. It seems to me that the best response of St Paul’s to the occupiers would have been to invite them to shift their rage from human actors to God, to make available to them the rich tradition of lament and accusation directed to God, in the hope (faith) that God would become present in that act, in the way God does to Job, and turn us all from our backward looking recriminations to a faithful (hopeful) orientation to the future in which we recognise our responsibilities to one another.
The kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.