"Madoff" with £30 Billion!

A headline writer’s dream?

Just the latest scandal to rock the financial world. It amazes me that nuisance small time offenders preoccupy the police’s time and fill our courts and prisons whilst those who systematically plunder and wreck our financial system remain immune.

The story of Alice in Wonderland fits for these times, we live in a world of unreal finances that turn out to be worthless, our financial sector is peopled by overblown egos who have no accountability. When Alice returns from the bizarre fantasy world she announces to those who have filled her mind with confusion and nonsense, “who cares for you? You’re nothing but a pack of cards”. Alice returns to her full height whilst the cards topple to nothing.

I don’t know if Lewis Carroll meant anything by his story for children, but the events of the last few weeks reveal an unreality, a kind of fantasy in the realm of finance. Of course, money enables us to do tangible things. But when the value of something like a bank can go from an unimaginable figure to almost nothing in the space of a few days on the basis that people lose confidence and trust, you begin to see that money, or at least the value we attach to it, is a kind of illusion.

It is very dangerous to give money its own value. Rather, we should only attach a value to it that fits with our own needs and expectations other wise money becomes your master. What do we really rely on? Of course money is important, but, rather like the playing card figures in Alice in Wonderland, a pack of cards can be built into an impressive tower, but when it falls there is little left behind.

There is always the danger of money becoming overblown into a kind of mythology in which we ascribe to the market, “almost magical powers”. So much of the wealth that seems to be around is either a fantasy or a fiction – smoke and mirrors. The only real beneficiaries are those who have personally benefitted from huge salaries and bonuses. 

Writing in the Spectator recently, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury challenged his readers to reflect on the degree to which our faith in something that can disappear before our eyes is a kind of folly, if not a form of false religion. He wrote, ”ascribing independent reality to what you have in fact made yourself is a perfect definition of what the Jewish and Christian scriptures call idolatry”.

The last weeks have disclosed both the almost unparalleled failure of confidence and trust in the markets and the revelations of the quite staggering rewards that have been taken out of these organisations by some. The CEO of the failed bank, Lehman’s, Richard Fuld provided us with one of the most ‘cringeworthy’ moments of television we have witnessed in along time. He was accused by a Senate investigation committee of having earned $500million dollars from his time in charge at the bank. He insisted that “I took out more like $250 million”. So, that’s alright then?

Laurence Demarco, the Scottish social entrepreneur reflected, “we are right to feel angry that they have allowed reckless greed to trash the whole system. Lenin said that the rich can buy themselves out of anything – so long as they can get the rest of us to pay for it – is this not what’s happening now?”

The words of Jesus come to me, “behold I am making all things new”. We need a renewal, of that fact few are in doubt. People have come to see that the present global financial system does not produce the much longed for “trickle down” of wealth that lifts people out of poverty. Instead, we have witnessed a “flood up” of ever increasing wealth coming to those who have, and the poor becoming poorer, not just in terms of wealth but also socially, culturally and environmentally. This is the “age of plunder” gone mad and just maybe it could be the threshold of a new age, an age of healing, for the planet and for the poor.

There are things that are real and more stable than money and we need to reconnect that tangible material reality with the fantasy of money which is after all, only a notional instrument, a sign of trust.

Productive work, the creation of beauty, the building of community that is trusting, safe, cheerful and genuinely inclusive, the valuing of traditional wisdom, craftsmanship and culture, all these might help us reconnect and renew. Of course, money is not in itself wicked. Nor is it bad to reward hard work, innovation, creativity and risk taking. A good worker deserves to be paid well and enjoy the fruit of his labours

When we reflect on the current crisis in the light of Jesus’ words about renewal, we realise that things don’t have to be like this, the world can change. Change starts from tiny seeds and the Gospel’s message about what really lasts, what is fundamentally important and what is ultimately real can trickle down like a little mountain stream and become one day a great river, reminding us not to make a religion out of a fantasy.

In the meantime, I’d like to see a few of the titan’s of the financial world, whose overblown egos and selfishness have caused this crisis, getting a bit of justice and being called to account. After all, that’s what we do to anti-social youths who disrupt the peace of the city.

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