The Taser's Edge

OWS, Bank Transfer Day, and Christian Discipleship

Today, as you may already be aware, is Bank Transfer Day, a day to organize people to move their money from the mega-banks to local banks and especially to credit unions, with the hope that it spurs financial reforms in those big banks. The actual “day” parallels the Occupy Wall Street movement, but there are plenty of people fed up with American banking-as-usual who have no sympathy for OWS protesters.

For me, having moved from Bank of America to Central Illinois Credit Union here in Champaigna couple months ago, I am glad it’s happening. I indeed hope that there is enough momentum away from the big five banks to force some self-regulation, as the government continues to show little interest in enforcing existing regulations or in crafting smarter regulations. At the same time, statistically speaking (in terms of both numbers of accounts and especially in terms of the amount of capital shifting) there is no reason that an unbelievably popular Bank Transfer Day will have any effect, unless it makes the big banks feel “guilty,” and by “guilty” I mean “scrutinized” or at least “in the spotlight.”

Bank Transfer Day was designed to be a populist event where even people who would never march with a sign might finally follow through on doing something about their annoyance with talking to telephone-answering-robots about little-published fees on their bank statements. However, it will have no long-term impact on the economic systems which caused the current global recession.

That is, it will have no impact in itself. It must be part of a larger reformation, and, as yet, there is no evidence that there is a reformation to come.

For Christians, there is a larger context for understanding Bank Transfer Day and larger economic reforms: the life of God in Christ and the coming of the Kingdom which Christ proclaimed. The Christian God has Justice as a quality of character. Justice, therefore, is not and cannot be an abstraction for Christians to talk about in philosophy classes or election seasons or populist movements or angry Facebook back-and-forths alone. This is because the question, “What is justice?” is one way of asking, “Who is God?”

For organizational clarity, I understand economic justice and the need for economic reform in three ways:

A.) The call to economic justice is the call to stop causing others to suffer.

B.) The call to economic justice is the call to build positive structures which lead to fuller human flourishing for all.

C.) The call to economic justice is the call to discipleship.

The call to economic justice is the call to stop causing others to suffer. Another way of saying this is, “Do no harm.” Part of the Christian belief in “original sin” is that because all of Creation is ailing and wounded, we do harm to others even if we don’t consciously intend it. We are bent and broken individuals who are forever interconnected with other bent and broken individuals in bent and broken ways. (Did you get that? Three-way brokenness—us, them, and the tie that binds us together.)

Worse, (1) sin is a blindness through which we are unable to take full account of the negative effects of our actions on ourselves and on others; and (2) sin is our apathy, so that we don’t care that we don’t know how we hurt others. Blindness and apathy are part of human nature.

The call to alleviate suffering is central to the Christian life. It’s what Jesus did, what the early church did, and why your local hospital is named after some Christian saint. And Jesus was only continuing the call for justice of the Hebrew Prophets, who were themselves echoing the call to justice of the Pentateuch. For Scriptural Christians, whatever they mean by “Scriptural,” the call to justice is inescapable, and the call to economic justice is a giant piece of the Bible’s emphasis.

The good news is that although we cannot attain full self-knowledge of our inner labyrinth of intentions and desires and wills, we can shine a light and get a better look. We can get a better self-inventory than we currently have. Growth in self-knowledge coupled with growth of knowledge of who God is leads to repentance (the opposite of apathy) which leads to transformation which leads to life.*

What does this mean for economic justice in particular? Certainly very few of us can understand all the ins and outs of our global economy, but we can all understand that big banks are driven by the desire for ever more profits and that this drive has hurt people.

I’ll link to someone else’s very helpful thoughts on things bigger than today’s question of Bank v. Credit Union later (see *** at the bottom), but for this post I will say that it makes a difference that it’s possible to have personal, face-to-face relationships with people at a local credit union (thus acting against the dehumanization of clients which resulted in so many people being mistreated by banks), and that credit unions’ non-profit status clips (although certainly doesn’t obliterate) the dangerous drive that is greed.

The call to economic justice is the call to build positive structures which lead to fuller human flourishing for all. I saw a supposed C.S. Lewis quote on Facebook this week, and I’d love to know where it’s from because, at least removed from its context, it’s wrong, and wrong in a way that I can’t believe Lewis would have been: “You don’t have a Soul. You are a Soul. You have a body.”*

Instead, we are souls and we are bodies. This is what the Mystery of the Incarnation is all about. It’s “the Word became flesh” not “the Word had a body for a bit.” Then there’s the Mystery of the Resurrection which re-emphasizes the goodness of Creation: God the Son is forever a human being and a human body—tortured, crucified, died, buried, risen, ascended, reigning, and returning. “You have a body” in the “Lewis” quote is a denial of over half the Apostles’ Creed. In words that are fake but sound more like the real Lewis than the quote above, “It’s rubbish.”

Despite that ranting tone, it’s actually important to this post. This present life is not forever, but we are not definitely not “just passing through.” We are making our lives here, and Christians have always believed (even when we’ve more than screwed it up) that we are called to make the world a better place. Why else would Jesus have taught his disciples to pray that God’s will would be done on Earth?

What this has to do with economics is that reform is necessary. There are ways of relating to one another that are concerned more with justice, human worth, and the earth more than profits. And again, Bank Transfer Day, is not the end. It is a spurring of our imagination toward our transformation.

The call to economic justice is the call to discipleship. This is what’s at the heart of it for me. As an evangelical Christian, I could certainly be faulted for now focusing in on the individual side of things and saying it’s the most important. But as a Christian touched in the head by St. Thomas Aquinas, I also believe that transformation of the world (through the alleviation of suffering and the building of a more just and peaceful future) will not happen when people do just things, but when people themselves become just.

It’s either ironic or fortuitous that all thisOccupy Wall Streetand Bank Transfer Day talk is happening at exactly the time when churches like to start talking about “stewardship.” For those who have read this far, I’m assuming you have some knowledge of churches, but when we say “stewardship” we are talking about asking church members for money. “Stewardship” is sometimes well-suited theological language for talking about how we are called to relate to our possessions, but often it’s instead just church-ese for “The church parking lot lines need re-painted, the roof is starting to leak, and we’ll probably be wanting to give the pastor a 3% raise this year.”

To lay my own exegetical cards on the table, I do not believe that New Testament ethics—of Jesus in the Gospels, of Paul, or of anyone else—call for the 10% tithes of the Old Testament, which commandments are themselves not really clearly stated (by which I mean, without multiple not-quite-the-same explanations) if you really take a look at how they are taught in the Pentateuch.

The commandment of New Testament ethics is “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” or “Be like Christ.” And for money, the commandment is “Be generous” or even “Be sacrificially generous.” And like every New Testament commandment, it is “Be obediently generous” and it is “Love God with everything” and it is “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

So we come around to how the thing I like about the tithe, which is this: most people are not going to be transformed into generous people, open-handed, and obedient with their possessions, if they do not give away at least 10%.

And this is the thing I like about Bank Transfer Day. Christians are not good at rendering to God what is God’s, even in the very literal context of that command: Jesus talking of money and taxes. It’s tempting to blame this on “the West” or on “American Christians”, but Jesus, by talking often about money and its power to become our lord and god in the Gospels, seems to say that this not a problem for the West, but a problem for the human race.

It’s so easy to write a blog post saying that churches need to talk about something more than they do. But it’s true: do we notice that we are just as antsy about talking about Christian love and obedience to God in money as we are about talking about Christian love and obedience to God in sex or politics?

What do those three in particular have in common? Sex, Love, and Politics—we have long been told—are all to be left up to the individual and the individual conscience. For the church, however, the individual conscience and communal formation are not at odds with each other by even an inch. You will not find a human being in history more concerned with the value of the individual conscience than Pope John Paul II. And you will not find a human being in history more convinced than him that that individual conscience must be formed in community with other believers and the presence of God. One way that Christians must move forward is in seeing the individual and the community, the public and the private, as interconnected, not at odds.

In the end, on this day, the question is not, “Should all Christians leave their banks for credit unions today (or Monday by the time you finish reading this post)?” but “What do my beliefs or apathetic stances in regards to my money and how I use or don’t use my money say about my heart and about the Father’s ongoing transformation of my life into the image of the Son by the power of the Spirit? Do I allow the call to Christian obedience in all things to extend here?”

It starts with repentance.


* I emphasize “coupled with growth of knowledge of who God is” because without that piece—growing in the knowledge that the God of Justice is the God who is Love—shame, self-condemnation, anger, cynicism, and a return to apathy are all you end up with.

**I like Lewis, but I’m no Lewis scholar. A simple Google Web search of the phrase has multiple people claiming it’s from Mere Christianity. A Google Books search of Mere Christianity, the 2001 HarperCollins edition found at every Christian bookstore, didn’t find the quote. A Google Books search for the quote, “You do not have a Soul. You are a Soul,” among all Google Books titles, comes up with a wide range of very non-Lewis-y folks from the self-help, self-empowerment, New Age, Tarot, and Yoga worlds. I don’t exactly rest my case, but…show me the page in Lewis, and I’ll believe it’s Lewis.

***A resource for stirring (or blenderizing) your imagination and asking hard questions in order to join with God’s imagination for the world is Ched Myers’ “Experimenting with a Household Sabbath Economics Covenant,” available here.

2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

I think you may have something here. I can’t justify Bank Transfer Day on a numerical basis no matter how many articles I read about the evils of big banks (and how they both sustain and destroy the global economy). The time it would take me to change all my accounts to a local credit union would be worth more to me than all my money is worth to either bank or my local economy.

However, I like how you’re saying that the context I need to look at the issue in includes Christ, His Church, Justice, and Mercy. That’s the most compelling argument I’ve heard so far in favor of Bank Transfer Day (and really the entire Occupy Movement as a whole).

Comment by Benjamin

Thanks for the comment, Ben (not to mention, spurring the thoughts that led to this post)!

You’re right that my point is more to contextualize whatever decisions we make than it is about one particular decision being the single Christ-like decision for every individual. As such, it’s about much more than Occupy Wall Street. It’s about the Christian life.

But on Christian social justice in particular, a helpful and engaging (and cheap) book to check out is Tim Keller’s Generous Justice. I did a basic review here and then a critique that matches some of what I’ve written in the Bank Transfer Day post here. I just bought a physical copy, actually, because I think that it’s a perfect Intro to Thinking About Social Justice for Evangelicals book, and I think that teaching’s part of what I’m called to do in the church.

Keller’s got a C.S. Lewis-like teaching ability, and his Biblical exegesis is comfortingly (especially to those to whom such teaching is new) conservative.

Comment by tasersedge

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