God and Enron

  • Source: Church of England Newspaper
  • Date: 9 October, 2003
  • Author: Le Roux Schoeman

If you had your doubts about the vaulting ambition of those driving the dotcom boom a few years ago, says Antonia Swinson, you were seen as lacking entrepreneurial spirit ? being low ticket. But she stuck to her doubts and the dotcoms popped. Right now, some might regard her as being slightly low ticket again. Far from being confined to Wall Street and the City, her current concern is for the Church's preparation for the credit crunch to come.

She could be seen as being a little I-told-you-so, but she is not. Toiling away on her 60x30 feet allotment near her house in Scotland, Antonia Swinson calls a spade a spade when looking at the "oppressed" British population suffering "stress, debt, fractured family and community life, long-neglected public services and an infrastructure falling apart."

She insists the allotment is just an old-fashioned hobby that she enjoys with her children. But there is undoubtedly an element of Old Testament frugality to sitting, as those in King Solomon's kingdom did, undisturbed beneath one's own grape vines and fig trees (IKings 4:25).

Rather than harbouring a sense of'schadenfreude at the nation's lot, however, the scarlet-headed freelance journalist and author sees the state of the nation as "an enormous opportunity for the Church to be relevant, visible and integrated in society."

Swinson is concerned about the church being ethically adrift in modern economics. "Whenever there is a gap between our own spiritual values and the way we feel we have to deal with our money, other people get rich at our expense," she says.

She argues against the popular personal debt frenzy gripping the UK ? and also for alternative taxation.

For the latter, she suggests Land Value Taxation (taxing the rental value of land rather than actual buildings), something one could really discuss in depth, as indeed she does in her new book, Root of All Evil, How To Make Spiritual Values Count.

The working title had been God and Money, but Deities in titles frighten, said Saint Andrew Press, realising that they had a book that does not preach exclusively to Christians.

With reference to the relaxed 'style of writing, she quips, you can take the girl out of the tabloid, but not the tabloid out of the girl. Addressing a small crowd of press people and others in the Ottakars Bookshop in Putney at the launch of the book last month, Swinson said her biggest contribution has been explaining financial matters simply. And, added to schemes for the replacement of property-based with income taxes and warnings on the dangers of debt, there is a lot to explain.

Like last month's property puzzle; As surveys stirred the murky prices pool, home buyers were told by the house price index that valuations has, risen ? and by rival research that it had fallen.

Or why Britain's borrowing shows no respite. Debts on credit cards and overdrafts went up an extra ?1.6bn in August, according to reports last week.

The upside of the credit card spree and the reign of mortgages is more people get "in on" the economy, own properties, see places. The flipside is debt greed.

"Church leaders .end up wringing their hands while loan sharks roam the land asset-stripping churchgoers," Swinson said when we spoke a week after the book launch.

She had returned to Scodand and inflicted a brief Root of Evil comprehension test over the telephone before we started the interview. Then she proceeded to chat about her past and how she came to faith (mainly her father's influence and time). Today she is a lay preacher, an expert on why it is difficult to serve God and Enron.

After studying Italian and English at university she moved to London and became a journalist. Her family owned a small training film company, so she grew up exposed to theatre and business. And did a stint as an actress.

When asked about the way the early followers of Jesus dealt with (or rather dispensed with) money, she pauses. "That is where I find proof that Jesus really was the Son of God ? people pooling money like that ... Because money behaviour is very hard to change," she says.

And it's not just 2,000 years that separate the first followers of Christ sharing everything they had and Enron fat cats losing a lot of what they had. Jesus' followers sold their property and possessions; according to Acts, and gave the money to whoever needed it as a pure, perhaps extreme, manifestation of mankind's reaction to Jesus. Through the 1990s, however, another influential manifestation of contemporary culture ? "obsessions with bonuses, the stock price and exotic accounting" in the words of financial journalist Tom Fowler ? was growing in the holy land of Wall Street.

In the same way that money is only symbolic of exchange of commodities, Enron has become symbolic of a very pervasive corporate greed ? or, for fear of costly libel actions, boundless ambition. And so, even with the Church of England being quick to point out that money is not the problem, rather our attitudes towards it (as in the Report of the Doctrine Commission: Being Human, A Christian understanding of personhood), that distinction is simply not always meaningful.

Swinson's view of money is less wordy than church doctrine if not completely romantic in her book: "It seems that the more we earn, and the higher our standard of living, so the further God may be removed from us." She calls on Christians to reflect on the gap between God and their money. In a chapter called God made the Land for the People, Swinson writes, "In an age of transparency, democracy and empowerment, the fact remains that ... 99.9 per cent of the UK population is currently Squeezed and Squashed on to 7.5 per cent of the land mass."

She continues: "Assertive middle-classes can fight plans for airports or centres for asylum seekers in their backyard, but when their children have to move away, bring up their families in smaller, highly mortgaged accommodation, they never question the justice of the landownership in their own local area."

But rather than being a fulltime revolutionary fanning post-feudal rage among house buyers, Swinson proposes that the Church takes notice of how often personal debt lies behind sadend stories across the social spectrum. And by "following the money" through the social despair in the country, disentangle its sacred roots.

Wednesday, 18 October, 2017
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