It’s good to invest—to put time, energy or resources into something with the belief that, through our investment, its value will increase over time. We invest in our families and our communities, in our soil and our students, in peace and justice, knowing that it will be good for us and the world around us.
When it comes to financial investment—where our main goal is increased individual security—distortions creep in. First, we generally hand over our investments to another person or institution rather than do it ourselves. Second, we assume we have a right to receive more than we put in. That “more” creates a growing pressure on an increasingly fragile system. To get monetary return on that kind of investment, the system has to continually grow—more money to pay back more loans, more production, more consumers buying more stuff, more resource depletion, more carbon emissions, more strain on a finite planet. It’s only in the last several decades that we have moved to an individualized financial investment strategy, and the costs—to our personal integrity, to local economies and ecosystems, and to the health of our planet as a whole—are beginning to be revealed.
As we learn more about the stresses to the environment of a growth-based economy, about the role of our financial institutions in creating ever-greater concentrations of wealth without a corresponding increase in well-being, and about the linked evils of over-consumption and poverty, now is the time to think freshly about what we invest in—and to see it clearly as a faith issue.
Luckily, regardless of where we start, there is a wide range of options to move in the direction of having the right relationship with investment.
1. If our money is in stocks, we can invest in a way that does less harm, moving from traditional plans to plans with social screens that exclude companies involved in arms production and tobacco, for example. We can also look for ways to add more screens to our investments, such as ones related to environment concerns. The spiritual benefit of doing less harm is clear; the cost is accepting a lower rate of return.
2. If we already do low-harm socially responsible investing, we can look for investments that do active good. Though they tend to provide even more modest financial returns, there are many options, such as municipal bonds or community investment funds.
3. We can take the next step and choose to put more money in no-interest loans. Kiva is a well-known clearinghouse for connecting people who have money to loan with micro-financing projects around the world, often providing people and communities who have little access to capital with critical help in providing for their livelihoods.
4. We can diversify our portfolios even more by reframing our idea of security. This could involve divesting ourselves of excess income and redirecting it toward faith communities, groups working for increased equity and poverty reduction, local food security efforts, and sharing of the world’s resources.
5. With regard to liquid assets, we can move from big for-profit banks to community banks, or to credit unions whose mission is to serve members. The possible reduction in service convenience should be more than outweighed by the knowledge that we are supporting institutions whose values line up more closely with our own.
6. We can work as shareholders to advocate lower carbon footprints for the companies in which we invest, be called to address the investment choices of our meetings and congregations, or put our efforts behind emerging social projects like establishing state banks and Clean Energy Victory Bonds.
As we think about diversifying of our portfolios, we may want to be involved with several of these options, but change the percentages to reflect our growing understanding of the costs of traditional financial investment and the life-giving opportunities of a new way.
Most importantly, we are called to come to terms with the reality that what we do with the money that comes to us is, ultimately, an issue of integrity. To be life-giving, our choices around money need to be based in the values and the faith that sustain us.