Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Father's Financial Times

I've been wondering a lot over the last year or two about what "investing" should be for a Christian. I don't have such a large portfolio of investments that Warren Buffet is in danger of losing his spot as the world's wealthiest man... but when you add up all the small investors like me we DO have a huge impact on the global economy. So, how should I, as a follower of Jesus Christ, be investing?

I don't have a complete answer to that yet, but here are some thoughts that are certainly part of the answer:

1/ The current world economic system, regardless of the politics surrounding it, is based on one thing mainly. That is - to reap the resources provided by the earth (trees; plants; minerals; metals; food; etc.) and then turn them into "products," to create what we call wealth. This wealth is originally the raw materials themselves (primary industry); but then more importantly all the economic activity generated by the product-izing (secondary industry). This all sounds familiar from way back in my 7th grade social studies schooling. And I believe there's a third level of economic activity in this model as well? But the key point is that ultimately it all spools back to the basics provided for us by the earth itself.

Within reason there is nothing wrong with this concept - but the fact is, reason usually has little to do with it. The way we have historically implemented this concept is to rape the earth, giving next-to-nothing back - least of all a sense of gratitude to the Great Giver, and paying no respect to anyone whose current livelihood gets in the way (i.e. indigenous peoples or animal populations.)

Then "we" set about moving that wealth into the hands of the fewest number of most wealthy and powerful people. The more humane economic systems do allow for it to trickle up a little more slowly through the fingers of the unwashed masses along the way.

So, my primary point of reference for Christian investing has to be to recognize that this current paradigm is not God's. That immediately poses a conundrum, for even so-called ethical investing only seeks to avoid some of the worst excesses of capitalism, but doesn't really go far enough towards developing a Kingdom of God ethic. From my observations in the Bible, I'd say that a Godly economy is all about gently using the earth's resources to bring about a world where every person is nurtured towards a fulfilled life as a child of God. And of course monetary concerns are only one small slice of that concept.

2/ A second point - Jesus' challenge to the "rich young ruler" in that biblical encounter, was: "If you would become perfect, sell everything and give it to the poor, then come follow me." No wonder the fellow went away sad! What a huge challenge. As a citizen of one of the wealthiest nations in the history of the world, how do I (and all western Christians) relate to this story? Is this also what Jesus demands of us? Is it safe or wise to generalize that statement to all wealthy Christians of today (i.e. most of us in Canada, the US, western Europe, Australia and New Zealand, etc..)?

Whatever conclusion we come to, this certainly has to be part of the thought process. As do Jesus' following statements: "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven." and thankfully, "With God, all things are possible!"

At the very least I think it's safe to say that, we Christians must hold on to our wealth very loosely, being generous to a fault in order to build up the world around us towards God's vision. Any close look at how Christians and our Churches are currently using this wealth should make us very uneasy.

3/ As I look at ways to invest, I find that most of the investment opportunities are simply contributing to the way things have been historically. And much of what is passed off as growth in these investments isn't really (as so sharply illustrated by the current crash). And furthermore, most of this system is fuelled by greed.

I'm currently analyzing my RSP account to find out what my financial counsellor has us invested in. It's educational and will require some thought as to how to change some of this. Also, this morning I discovered that it is possible, for example to invest in educational institutions of one sort and another. And I'm sure there must be health-related endeavors that could be good investments too? Much more research is needed along these lines.

4/ Also, I know that there are groups who are helping undeveloped parts of the world develop an economy locally that will be self-sustaining, and will lift the local people out of a life of bare subsistence. Many of these initiatives are being done in the name of Jesus - as a new form of practical evangelism and world development (World Vision; PACTEC; Canadian Food Grains Bank; etc.). These endeavors need to be supported and encouraged. But how to do this in a sustainable way?

One way might be to set my capital needs at some reasonable target value in my personal investments, then any growth generated above and beyond that, I can use to fund these kinds of endeavours that don't have any financial growth per-se?

I think there's even a biblical parable that would support this concept. Luke 16:1-9 has always been somewhat enigmatic, but I think this principle of re-directing worldly resources towards God's economy is the under-lying principle that Jesus is getting at.

So, instead of making my investment goal to amass as much wealth as possible, it would become: To build up enough wealth to provide a sensible (restrained) lifestyle in retirement for myself and my immediate dependents - then above and beyond that to divert income into "kingdom work," where there are no specific economic returns to be had, but much more significant spiritual ROI (returns on investment).

And along the way, I can also look at how generosity would apply. My contributions as a Christian, shouldn't be limited to just my local church, but should extend to a much larger concept of God's work around the world, and should not be locked in to the old covenant's ten percent tithing. If anything, tithing (giving the first ten percent to God) is just the starting point.

To conclude - I don't have hard and fast answers yet to this concept of Christ-honoring investing, but I'm working on it and I think I can develop this into a viable way to wisely manage the wealth God as allowed me to handle. I hope so. I'll keep you posted.

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