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Making the most of our talents

30 January 2008

Is the Church brave enough to offer a different economic model, asks Jonathan Bartley

THE TURMOIL in global financial markets caused by the widespread failure of sub-prime loans in the United States leaves one wondering: what would happen if just a small proportion of the £1.25 trillion in consumer debt that we in the UK owe on credit cards, mortgages, and loans were suddenly called in?

And while most Christians maintain that charging too much interest is unacceptable, the Church Commissioners, like most of us, are at their happiest when the returns on their loans — in the form of investments — are being maximised.

How you feel about debt depends a great deal on whether you identify with the lender or with the recipient. Many a sermon has been preached using the parable of the talents as a justification for getting a premium. But some poorer churches have a different reading: the lender is a ruthless absentee landlord, only interested in financial gain, who puts to death both the servant and his family for failing to deliver a return on his money. It is unlikely, therefore, that he represents Jesus. The story is a warning against lending for profit.

The Gospels are all about freely giving, having freely received. At Pentecost, the great driver of growth was co-operation, not competition. So, in the current climate, the Church could have something special to offer — if it is brave enough to do so.

Often found at the margins, and in less affluent parts of Christianity, is a rich tradition of alternative economic models on which to draw. Co-operative housing, credit unions, investment, pension, and insurance schemes from monasticism to early Methodism suggest that there are alternatives where money can be lent not for profit, but for the good of the recipient. Risk could therefore be carried by communities rather than individuals, and vulnerability would be limited.

Sadly, however, the idea that success means a decent return for a cash loan often remains unquestioned, even in our churches. Indeed, it has steadily replaced other methods of economic organisation — and not always to good effect.

State pensions, for example, were set up so that the working population paid directly for the retirement costs of others. But low birth rates, a declining workforce, and increasing longevity led many instead to the stock market and private pensions.

In the United States, although more than 1.2 million families live in property occupied through co-operative associations, in the drive for home ownership sub-prime mortgages were offered to those who found it hard to obtain credit. Because those who took them out were, by definition, in a vulnerable (sub-prime) financial position, higher rates of interest were charged to reward the lenders for their entrepreneurial daring.

But, now that the FTSE is more than 1000 points lower than eight years ago, and apparently about to become a bear market, private pensions do not look as if they will deliver for the last years of many people’s lives. And, in addition to those who already have, or who will, lose their homes, we are all now suffering the effects of the sub-prime gamble that has sent the global economy on a downward trajectory.

Perhaps now is the time for all of us to reassess whether wise stewardship is really about the pursuit of profit or more about the protection of the financially vulnerable.

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