People over profits

The other day I was talking to a colleague who, like me, admires the 20th-century Christian radical Dorothy Day and life in intentional community, but isn’t starry-eyed about either.

Re-examining how we spend, save and invest our money is one way to live out our values.

The conversation found its way to the discipline of voluntary poverty, which can be practiced in a number of ways but often involves earning and owning less than might be possible for a person. It pushes back at our get-everything-you-can-whatever-the-cost culture. But my colleague pointed out it begins with the idea of choice. It’s different from just being poor.

She contrasted voluntary poverty with simplicity.

Simplicity is countercultural in the same way yet does not require forgoing as much of what is not strictly a need—owning one’s own car or home, for example. I likewise feel good about it as an expression of Christian discipleship, one that can be worked out in varying levels of community living, not just in communal housing. But it also comes with its own moral quandaries—such as having to pay taxes to a government that uses much of that money to wage war and operate an unjust prison system.

There are additional ethical questions with middle-income wages. If your employer pays not only a reasonable salary but offers options for retirement savings, which funds and industries do you invest in? When socially responsible options are available, do they benefit from the financial success of companies that exploit their workers or harm the environment?

But there are also opportunities. In addition to socially responsible investing, faith-based groups engage in shareholder advocacy. In that approach, a group uses the collective value of their investment in a company to encourage changing policies.

Such leverage is also possible for individuals and households. In recent years there has been a movement to divest from fossil fuels. A striking instance of that strategy gained momentum among those who opposed the Dakota Access Pipeline. That project desecrated graves and sacred land of the Standing Rock Sioux people. It threatened their water supply, and is a pollution risk to people along the 1,172-mile route from North Dakota to Illinois. The company that built the pipeline and operates it, Energy Transfer Partners, received direct loans or lines of credit from banks such as Wells Fargo, SunTrust and Citibank.

Defund DAPL tracked more than $81 million that people withdrew when closing accounts from those banks and others financing the pipeline. Recently, U.S. Bank announced it had changed its Environmental Responsibility Policy and would no longer offer financing to build pipelines carrying oil or natural gas.

“Relationships with clients in the oil and gas pipeline industries are subject to the bank’s enhanced due diligence processes,” the company wrote. It remains to be seen how that will change the bank’s relationships with companies such as Energy Transfer Partners. But it’s hopeful for those who pressured the bank because of their concern for protecting people and creation.

Re-examining how we spend, save and invest our money is one way to live out our values. It’s not possible for any of us to be fully separate from the financial system, though it often goes against the core beliefs of those of us who live simply—putting people over profits, for one.

Yet it’s one more place in which we can be intentional in recognizing how our choices affect our neighbors: poor, rich and everywhere in-between.