THE CLASSIC FILM It's a Wonderful Life is making a comeback--not as a nostalgic feel-good story but as the centerpiece of a campaign to change the way we bank. It's George Bailey versus Mr. Potter played out at the local ATM.
The Move Your Money project began as a New Year's resolution at the Huffington Post website. The project enlisted filmmaker Eugene Jarecki to create a mashup YouTube video (which has attracted over 518,000 views) that combines clips from It's a Wonderful Life with C-Span footage and commentary to urge people to move their money from scandal-ridden megabanks to local institutions. In response to the housing crisis, predatory lending, subprime loans and rampant gambling on derivatives, individuals can change the banking industry by moving their money from the six largest banks--Citi, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley--to community banks or credit unions.
This sentiment was echoed in a recent announcement from the Appleseed Fund, a socially responsible mutual fund, which declared that it would no longer invest in what it counts as the five "too big to fail" banks (unlike Move Your Money, Appleseed does not include Wells Fargo in the list because that bank's derivative holdings are less than $10 trillion). Appleseed is the first socially conscious investing firm to exclude banks from its investments--in effect adding banking practices to other issues of moral concern, such as alcohol, tobacco, pornography, working conditions, environmental impact and weapons production.
Both Appleseed and Move Your Money assume that banks can be a tool for creating good and not just for creating profit. The temptation might be to write these efforts off as naive and overly idealistic. We too easily fall prey to a cynicism that assumes that all of our options are bad--that "banking for the common good" is a contradiction, that all lending is exploitative, that all business is corrupted by greed.
This is surely not true. Cynicism is a form of sloth by which we refuse the hard work necessary to make moral judgments. We live in an economy that no doubt is compromised and disordered but within which, nevertheless, better or worse choices can be made.
The new focus on banking practices forces us to consider banking as a moral issue. For many of us, choosing a bank is a matter of finding convenient branch locations, low fees and high interest rates on savings, CDs and mutual funds. In other words, the decision is a simple financial calculation: where would I get the best deal?
I suspect this is how most churches choose their banks as well. We look for the best deal and then pat ourselves on the back for our good stewardship, as if stewardship had to do simply with saving money rather than putting our money to good use.
The challenge is that banking has a high level of invisibility. We deposit money and we withdraw money, but what the money does once it disappears into the bank is, or has been, largely invisible (and uninteresting) to us. While at least some churches have sought to be socially responsible in investing their endowment, many congregations, dioceses and national bodies remain rather unreflective about where they keep their money for regular banking. The current crisis has, if nothing else, lifted the curtain on what happens to both our investments and our loans once they disappear behind the teller's counter.
So can churches become more discerning about where they keep their money? Might this be a moral issue that has slipped under our radar, just as sweatshops did for so long? And if so, what criteria would help us make better banking choices?
The history of the Christian debate about usury gives us some hints. Despite his reputation for giving a Christian blessing to capitalism, John Calvin was quite candid about his assessment of lending at interest: "Usury almost always travels with two inseparable companions: tyrannical cruelty and the art of deception. …