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What is Good Investment?

by Peter Heslam

This reflection was originally written for the SALT Business Network (Christian Aid).

A theological reflection

The highly complex finance sector of advanced economies is a cause and consequence of modern capitalism. It would be foolish, therefore, to expect the bible, written in ancient pre-capitalist times, to have anything relevant to say about it.

Or would it?

The research and outreach in which I’ve been involved over recent years suggests that, for many who work in contemporary markets, scripture represents a fount of practical wisdom.

It’s a view shared with some secular thinkers. At the turn of the millennium, the Jubilee 2000 movement called for radical reform of the finance sector. It was a prophetic call, given the meltdown of that sector in 2007. Aware that churches and faith-based organizations were at the forefront of this movement, the atheist chief editor of Observer, Will Hutton, wrote: ‘At the end of the twentieth century it is the words of Leviticus, rather than the teachings of Karl Marx, that have proved the inspiration for a significant change in world affairs’.

In a similar vein, the then UK Chancellor Gordon Brown proclaimed in a speech at a Jubilee 2000 rally: ‘The success of Jubilee 2000 can be attributed to the idealism and tireless strength of our churches. We are assembled here to rededicate ourselves to what we have to do together. In the words of Isaiah, ‘to undo the heavy burdens and let the oppressed go free.’ Despite his assiduously non-religious public profile, Brown clearly felt so stirred by the movement that he allowed his background as a son of the manse to peek out briefly from behind his secular persona.

From all this it might seem that what the bible can teach us about finance is prophetic only in a denunciatory sense. It is a book, after all, that includes a ban on usury and Jesus’ dire warnings about the dangers of wealth. And much of the bible’s teaching on money raises questions about the morality of debt. It is right, therefore, that religious leaders are often outspoken about this issue; over-indebtedness can have crippling effects. But the bible also highlights the importance of thrift, about which such leaders are generally silent.

The brightest highlighting occurs in the Parable of the Talents (POT) in Mt 25.14-30. This story paints a remarkably vivid picture of what happens when thrift and entrepreneurship combine and when they are absent. Once this story is told, Jesus’ well-known warning earlier in Matthew’s gospel against laying up treasure on earth (Mt 6.19–21) cannot be interpreted as an admonition against thrift. It must instead be an admonition against greed and miserliness, which undermine thrift. In fact, the fear that generally accompanies these vices is evident in the words and actions of the POT’s third servant: ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground’ (Mt 25.24,25).

This third servant is sometimes portrayed as an anti-hero, boldly standing up to an oppressive task master in defiance of the fearful and compliant first and second servants. But a more natural reading is that the third servant is fearful of a God he considers to be harsh and ruthless. This leads him to actions that are anything but bold. They are unimaginative, unproductive and risk-averse – he buries the deposit. In contrast, the fearless words and actions of the first two servants, who ‘put the money to work,’ reflect a God who inspires the kind of imagination, productivity and responsible risk-taking that characterize the thrift needed to convert the barrenness of money into the fruitfulness of capital.

Having made this conversion, which underlies all sound investment and entrepreneurship, these two servants are welcomed into God’s shalom economy: ‘I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness’ (Matthew 25.21,23).

The thrift exercised by these two servants, who prove by their thoughts and actions to be true entrepreneurs, is rewarded with greater stewardship responsibility and happiness. This highlights the grounding thrift has in prudence. But it also suggests that providence needs to be part of a theological perspective on investment. It is because of their master’s providence, displayed in his foresight, wisdom and benevolence, that these servants are given both the task and the reward of the prudent management of resources.

The association thrift has with prudence and providence is reflected in the names of two large investment companies that began as explicitly pro-thrift institutions, the Prudential and Friends Provident. The latter of these, as the name also suggests, was founded by Quakers – the Christian tradition that has more examples of thrift and entrepreneurship coming together in successful business ventures than any other Christian tradition in modern British history.

From this perspective, the POT reflects the true meaning of credit, which comes from the Latin credere—to believe, or trust—as reflected in credo or creed, ‘I believe.’ The first two servants show themselves to be true believers by honouring the trust the master puts in them. They thereby prove themselves to be, quite literally, credit-worthy.

While theological reflection such as this cannot offer a blueprint for ‘good investment’, it can perhaps suggest a few pointers. In making financial decisions that can genuinely be thought of as ‘good’, investors can be properly shrewd by asking the following questions:

  • Will this investment be based more on productive entrepreneurship than on high-risk speculative activity?
  • It is a wise (prudent) use of scarce resources to invest in this opportunity?
  • Would making this investment represent true stewardship – that all wealth entrusted to investors is God’s wealth and it is to God that they will be ultimately accountable?
  • Does it express trust in God’s providence by accepting risk with caution but also with hope?
  • Will it help uplift the poor, or will it merely make the rich richer?
  • Does it not only ‘do no harm’ but pro-actively embody the golden rule (Mt 7.12) to ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’?

In a fallen world, no investment will ever be entirely ‘pure’. The ‘global economic system’, as some people call it, reflects the fallenness of its creators – human beings. Indeed, every economy in which we might decide to invest is corrupted by human failure. But asking theologically-informed questions such as the above should help promote ‘the good’ in our current world, as we anticipate ‘the complete’ in the world to come.

Peter Heslam

Written by Peter Heslam

Peter S Heslam became Director of Faith in Business in 2018. He also directs Transforming Business, which focuses on the interface of business, faith and development. Although largely overlooked, he believes greater understanding of this interface will help deliver practical change that increases human and environmental well-being. He has a broad academic background that includes various positions at Oxford and Cambridge. In directing an international research project on Christian entrepreneurs, he has interviewed scores of business leaders around the world. He convenes the Oxford and Cambridge Symposium on Enterprise, Ethics and Development (SEED)

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