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Wall Street, Repent!

The principles of clarity, transparency, accountability, and protecting the common good against private greed are not just economic policy matters. On a more transcendent level, they provide the metrics of real repentance.
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We are all familiar with the famous pop culture image of a street evangelist holding up a sign reading, "Repent, for the end is near!" But repentance is actually a fundamental religious theme, and one that's often misunderstood. This week, one could imagine a group of pastors, priests, rabbis, and imams holding up a sign on Wall Street for the titans of the financial industry to see, reading, "Repent, or the end could be near again."

The biblical meaning of repentance is to turn around and start a new path. In a religious framework, it means realizing you have made a moral mistake and deciding to change your behavior. It's not enough to feel guilty or sorry for something; genuine repentance requires a change in decisions and actions, by moving in a different direction. Merely admitting you were wrong is not enough. You have to change.

In the past few months, I've had serious conversations with financial leaders about ethics, morality, and even faith. Some come like Nicodemus -- a religious leader who came to talk to Jesus in private -- at night. Many have felt remorseful about what happened on Wall Street and how it has hurt so many people. They describe the behavior in their profession with words such as "greedy," "risky," or "reckless." These business and banking leaders do feel sorry, but repentance means that remorse must be coupled with a change in the behaviors that led to the problems.

Those who led us down the path to financial ruin -- causing millions of people to lose their homes, jobs, and savings -- now have some serious repenting to do. Yet, this week's testimony by Goldman Sachs executives before a Senate committee investigating the bankers' role in the economic collapse made it clear that repentance and accountability were far from their minds.

When you preach, one of the most important parts of preparing is selecting a text relevant to the issue of the day. And the clear and obvious biblical text for this crisis is 1 Timothy 6:9-10. "But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil [...]." Or, as Jesus succinctly put it, "You cannot serve God and wealth" (Matthew 6:24).

The critics of Wall Street call it putting self-interest above the public interest. But the Bible would just call it a sin. We could call it the sin of putting profit and personal gain above the common good, the good of your customers and consumers, and even your investors. And there are times when outside pressure is needed to change destructive behaviors -- times like now.

Americans have always had a love-hate relationship with government and business. The climate shifts like a pendulum between eras of an "anything goes" mentality and periods of more careful public oversight and government regulation. The excesses of the 1920s, leading to the Great Depression, were followed by the reforms of Franklin Roosevelt, including the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and new rules of the road for banks and investment companies intended to protect citizens from excessive risk and abuse. But over the last 40 years, many of these regulations were relaxed (by both Republicans and Democrats dependent on the political contributions of Wall Street), while new financial realities developed for which there were no regulations.

Because of the Great Recesssion, a new financial regulation debate is now raging in the Senate. And while religious leaders should not get into the details or partisan wranglings, there are some principles that, from a moral and even religious viewpoint, should guide those deliberations.

First, provide transparency and accountability. Given the human condition and the many temptations of money, we need transparency and accountability in financial markets and instruments, including high-risk and questionable ones such as the now infamous "derivatives." To protect the common good, we need to enact greater regulation and oversight of all elements of the banking industry.

Second, provide consumer protection. Any pastor can now tell you stories of how parishioners were mistreated, cheated, and damaged by current banking practices. Many clergy strongly favor protecting consumers from predatory financial practices. They want a strong independent Consumer Finance Protection Agency, with jurisdiction and enforcement power over all companies in the financial sector, in order to protect people from fraudulent, misleading, and abusive practices.

Third, limit size and risk, so banks are no longer too big to fail and are bailed out at public expense. This means setting limits on the size of financial institutions and the risks they can take. Ban bank ownership of private investment funds, and establish an orderly process to dissolve a failing bank, in order to avoid future taxpayer bailouts. Give a stronger voice to shareholders and investors in institutional practices and policies, including determining the executive compensation of companies, and the now-infamous bank executive bonuses.

These principles -- clarity, transparency, accountability, and protecting the common good against private greed -- are not just economic policy matters. On a more transcendent level, they provide the metrics of real repentance for those who have behaved badly and now must change. So let's have some sermons on the repentance of Wall Street, some pastoral care for the financial giants who sit in our pews, and maybe even some prayer vigils outside of the nation's biggest banks. If the banks fail to repent, another financial meltdown could be very near.

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