Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Acting in Faith: Finances
distributed 3/21/14 - ©2014

This Lent, Eco-Justice Notes is exploring a variety of ways that we can act in our community and the world -- individually, as congregations, or in other settings.

"It is not enough to be compassionate -- you must act." -- Dalai Lama

The first two weeks of this Lenten series have examined some of the more public forms of action for a just and sustainable world. We've looked at the classic kinds of issue activism, and at public witness that challenges systems and worldviews. Those are essential parts of the activist toolbox, but there are many other options that are appropriate, depending on the kinds of issues and the style of those taking action.

Marching on the street or writing to your senator are not the only ways to act. As we'll see today, "action" can happen pushing a cart in the grocery store, sitting in the office of an investment advisor, or by writing a check.

The way you use money or other assets is always a form of action. When we're not mindful of it, it is likely to be negative and damaging action. When done intentionally, it is a form of engagement that is both strategically effective and spiritually nurturing.

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About a decade ago, I saw a detailed report on a charitable foundation that came to a startling realization. This foundation had long used its extensive resources to provide funding for a wide range of environmental and social justice causes. They were very proud of the good work being done through their grants to non-profit agencies and community groups. The founding donor's commitment to a better world was being realized through the hundreds of projects that were funded by the foundation.

All of those grants were made possible by the income generated by the foundation's massive investment portfolio. One year, the board of the foundation instructed their investment advisors to do an extensive and far-reaching analysis of where their money was invested. When the report came back, it revealed that all of the foundation's good work in grantmaking was being canceled out by the negative implications of their investments. Their stocks were supporting businesses that were among the worst for pollution and environmental destruction, for violating worker's rights, and for taking power out of the hands of local communities. The report concluded that, on balance, the foundation was making the world a worse place, because their investments were causing more harm than their philanthropy did good.

The board was horrified by this news, and completely restructured the way the foundation handled its financial holdings. They became a leader in socially responsible investing, making sure that their wealth was supporting the foundation's values at all times.

Jesus said, "when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing" (Matthew 6:3), but the foundation discovered that their two "hands" -- the one that produced income and the one that made grants -- needed to be working together.

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Most of us don't sit on the board of powerful foundations, overseeing a portfolio of hundreds of millions of dollars. All of us do make decisions, though, every day and every year, about our money. How we spend, invest and give -- as individuals, and as congregations -- is both morally and practically significant. What we do with our money can be, must be, one of the ways that we act on our values and beliefs.

On the personal level, the daily choices we make about purchases do make a difference. (I'm always hesitant to speak of being a "green consumer" because the emphasis there is on being a consumer, only slightly modified by "green." So the most important choices may be to not buy at all.) When we do need to take part in the economic marketplace, we can act to express our values and to change systems.

Families buying organic food, more humane eggs, and locally grown crops have created an appreciable new segment of the agricultural sector. Supermarkets carry products -- and have created brands of products -- that were never seen just a few years ago. Those collective decisions about food are shaping significant parts of the agribusiness system. Buying organic is social action, as well as personal choice.

Making a choice to be consistent in supporting small businesses -- instead of "big box" retailers and restaurant chains -- enhances local communities, affirms diversity and creativity, and strikes a blow against the power of multinational corporations.

Households, churches and businesses that pay a bit extra to get renewable energy -- generated by wind and solar -- are using their money to restructure the way utilities function. They've enabled the development of new technologies and the spread of sustainable alternatives.

Many church pension funds -- yes, clergy, we're talking about your retirement account! -- have been intentional about using their economic power for doing social good. For over four decades, the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility has been "a faithful voice for justice" through shareholder activism, bringing together billions of dollars in investments from denominations and universities.

In recent years, one of the most visible (and hotly debated) discussions about financial activism has been about divesting from investments in fossil fuels. Bill McKibben provides a pithy summary of the matter: "If it's wrong to destroy the planet, then it is wrong to profit from that destruction." While the divestment question has been targeted most directly at college and university endowment funds, it is also an important question for denominations and individuals. An Eco-Justice Notes last May explored "What Would Jesus Divest?" Our good colleagues at GreenFaith have an excellent collection of faith-based resources on "Divest and Reinvest Now!" and a related Facebook page with a lively flow of news and information.

And looping back to that foundation that I described earlier, giving money to good causes is an important and effective form of action, too. For example, this Valentine's Day, rather than giving my beloved spouse a bouquet of flowers, I made a donation in her name to the David Suzuki Foundation in Canada, which they are using to plant milkweed in the migratory corridor for monarch butterflies -- providing essential food for a highly endangered species. Giving money to a worthwhile organization (such as Eco-Justice Ministries!) is good financial activism.

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This week, consider whether the way you use your money is improving the world, or is making it worse. Make one choice this week about your ongoing spending, your investment, or your giving that you can claim as positive financial activism.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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