Audio version read by George Atherton – Right-click to download
I’ve never thought of putting money in a bank as a spiritual activity. It seemed the prototypical business transaction with few ethical sides to consider. But I recently read an article by Kevin Arsenault who challenged this view of banking. He said that when we accommodate ourselves to corporate rule and capitulate to a system we know to be morally repugnant, we sacrifice our self-esteem and authentic spirituality. He talked about the constant pressure that wears down our resistance, a pressure to accept and conform to the practice and values of dominant systems, and about how these social compromises can corrode our spirits.
At the time when the article was written (1996), it was probably more difficult to convince someone that the big banks were a morally repugnant entity and that giving them access to your money might be a moral issue, but these days, after the economic collapse in the United States, the view of big banks as practitioners of evil doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
In Matt Taibbi’s 2009 article “The Great American Bubble Machine,” he describes Goldman Sachs, the world’s most powerful investment bank, as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” A world overrun and squeezed by these insidious tentacles is our reality. We now live in what Taibbi calls a “gangster state, running on gangster economics” where the rules of the game are rigged by the big banks. Over the last two years American banks have foreclosed on the homes of over half a million families, and this year RealtyTrac estimates that one million more American families will lose their homes to the banks. Obviously the kind of organization that profits by forcing millions of desperate families out of their homes is not something many of us would like to support, but the strange thing is, we do. Many of us willingly put our money into these repugnant entities who profit by rigging the stock markets, manipulating our governments and turning families out into the streets.
I think it's high time we seriously consider the kinds of systems we support with our money, for the good of our societies and for the health of our spirits. Perhaps, instead of placing our money in their trusts, we ought to stand up to these Goliaths and reclaim our moral centers.
There is probably no simple answer, no smooth stone that a brave soul can fling toward its exposed forehead, but there is a simple and obvious first strike: Move your money. Take power away from your corporate bank and put it in a local credit union. Take it out of the stock market and let it mature slowly but surely in long-term savings. Will you make as much money by putting it in a term savings account as you would by letting your portfolio manager gamble with it on the stock market? The bankers certainly won’t advise it, but the millions of people who have lost everything by following the “low risk” advice of bankers and used their home equity to gamble in the great casino of capitalism – the stock market – those people might be wary of the bankers’ promises of low risk returns. And for good reason. But the question of profitability as the ultimate decider of how we invest our money may be the wrong question to begin with. Perhaps our emphasis on this question signifies our adoption of the banker’s ethics and goals. Maybe, instead of thinking first about profitability, we ought to start our investment process by asking questions about the characters of the beasts we are dealing with. Instead of giving power to beasts we don’t like (corporate banks), we ought to start investing in organizations that we would like to see succeed, like our local credit unions, and not invest in megacorporate entities that corrode our spirits and wage war on our societies.
Before America’s Civil War, the system of slavery placed many people who listened to their conscience in a similarly precarious moral position: They found themselves living in a land where injustice was established by the law, where those who did the most evil made the greatest profits and where many of their neighbors were not troubled by any of it. A former slave who became an inspirational speaker on black liberty and the injustice of slavery, Frederick Douglass, challenged the American people in 1857 to struggle:
Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; and it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.