Advent 2009, Week One, Day One

 

Advent 2009 – A World In Waiting

Week One – A New Jerusalem

Day One – A Vision

 

‘A great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity’. That was the epithet hurled at Goldman Sachs, the world’s largest investment bank, by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone magazine in July this year. Pretty strong language. But it certainly expresses the sense of anger and injustice felt by the fact that so far the biggest beneficiaries of all the public money spent to get a nation out of its financial crisis are the very firms that got us into it. Later that month Goldman Sachs declared that it had made more than $100 million on revenues on each of a record 46 days in the second quarter of 2009, beating the old record of 34 such $100 million days in the previous quarter. But Goldman Sachs was hardly alone. In the first half of 2009, the top 11 investment banks all did very nicely. Nor are retail banks doing much for their reputation as they respond to the crisis by imposing tougher terms for extending credit and by increasing fees for overdrafts. By the end of the year, US banks will have collected a record $38½ billion in fees for overdrafts, according to an estimate by Moebs Services.

 

 

No wonder the cries of anger and injustice are so loud and bitter.

Even if sometimes not entirely fair, such protests at least prevent us from being lulled into thinking that the economic crisis we are in is simply the result of ignorance, or faulty economic models. It is a matter of justice. And cries out to be heard. Justice must be at the heart of economic life. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate published in July this year: ‘… the canons of justice must be respected from the outset, as the economic process unfolds, and not just afterward or incidentally.’

 

 

 

But, to paraphrase Pontius Pilate: what is justice? ‘Justice’ in economic affairs is a complex and contested matter. As the Nobel prize-winning economist-philosopher Amartya Sen, lucidly spelled out in The Idea of Justice, published earlier this year, one major obstacle to addressing the questions may be the very assumption that there is a perfect and definitive answer which we need to discover. On the contrary, argues Sen, what we need is openness to the different perspectives on justice which come from different traditions and philosophies. But underlying that openness, says Sen, must be a shared commitment to take practical measures to reduce present injustices.

 

Where to begin? A useful first step might be to distinguish two distinct aspects of justice: the substantive aspect (i.e. the content or outcome) – and the procedural aspect (i.e. the method or process). Both are essential. When considering the substantive aspect of justice we should resist being constrained by too narrow a notion of justice. Justice cannot be limited to contractual arrangements, be they explicit or implicit, between individuals. Justice has a social dimension which can often be even more important. This could hardly be more obvious in the case of the current economic crisis. Even if those responsible for the crisis were not the beneficiaries of the rescue packages, they still bear a heavy obligation towards those, throughout the world, who have been profoundly damaged by their actions. The spread of suffering has rightly been compared to the fall-out from Chernobyl or the ecological damage from an Exxon oil spill. Our current economic crisis has brought to the surface some of the most profound questions of social and indeed global justice.

 

Is such a broad notion of social justice too big to be translated into specific demands? Not unless we allow it to be. Already specific suggestions have been floated, for instance, imposing on institutions which pollute the financial environment a risk-tax, similar to a carbon emission tax on firms which pollute the physical environment. Another suggestion is to require all banks – even those which have not been bailed out – to pay a ‘social dividend’ on the grounds that all are part of a system which has benefited from tax-funded rescue plans. If private shareholders have profited from the public money that has been used to rescue the entire financial system, why should not the public who have supplied the money for the rescue? Alongside such questions relating to the substantive demands of social and global justice there is also the procedural dimension: who decides what is just? The point was nicely made in May this year by Philip Augar, himself a former investment banker. He was reacting to comments by Win Bischoff, co-author of the top level report UK International Financial Services – The Future: A report from UK based financial services leaders to the Government. Bischoff urged: ‘The government and the [financial] industry should lead an informed public debate on the role of financial services in the economy.’ Augar put his finger on it when he said: ‘It is the right idea, in the wrong hands….alternative ideas are being marginalized.’ The task, he continued, is: ‘to understand the new relationship between finance and society.’ For this reason, he argued, insiders cannot provide answers on finance; the debate should be independent, led by a person from outside the financial services industry. It should, he suggested, include trade unionists, academics and corporate consumers, and be supported by officials from the Cabinet not the Treasury.

 

What about us? Where do we fit into the debate? We have immense resources to contribute from a Christian point of view. Some are offered in these reflections for the weeks of Advent – with the suggestion that the notion of justice be grounded in the reality of a covenant, and with the argument that economic justice will only lead to happiness and prosperity if it is linked to a morality which gives pride of place to the notion of a good life and the common good. Fortunately, there are voices, theological and philosophical, which have precisely been opening up the question of social justice in ways which are wonderfully geared to stimulate insights rather than to lay down definitive answers. The opening suggested by Amartya from a philosophical perspective is nicely complemented, theologically, by Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey, in his Christian Tradition and the Practice of Justice, published last year. Sagovsky argues that instead of seeing ‘justice’ on the basis of one single logical line of reasoning, it would be far more fruitful – and realistic – to approach justice as an interaction between the notions of fairness, freedom, the rule of law and the meeting of need. It is approaches such as these which may help us re-establish justice in our cities and in the City. In the words of Jeremiah: ‘In those days…Jerusalem shall live undisturbed and this shall be her name: “The Lord Is Our Justice” (Jeremiah 33:16). It is only when we return to justice that God will no longer hide his face.

 

Corrections for Sunday’s message:

Augustine’s work on the two Kingdoms. The City of God, was properly acknowledged, though with regret that he was never able to free himself from his early gnostic dualism – a fact that has had a negative effect on the Church’s self understanding.   I did acknowledge Charles Dickens as the author of A Tale of Two Cities and Wm. Blake for his poetic contribution.  More important to use and the discussion were the words of Jeremiah and James Naylor.

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