Temple of Robbers and Thieves: Massachusetts Episcopals Call on Bank of America to Repent

Under a gray churning sky, as those with roofs over their heads in Boston threw together preparations for Sandy’s landfall, a group of Episcopalians made their stand against Bank of America.

Two tempests were fuming a short time ago: one has subsided, leaving a trail of destruction here and to the south. But the other, a perfect storm of powerless regulation, corporate greed, and sinful disinformation, rages on across the country.

That perfect storm operates hundreds of locations open here in Massachusetts, and is actively shuttering windows as you read this. It should not be forgotten that Bank of America has evicted more people from their homes than Hurricane Sandy, and Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation (EpGR) made it their mission to keep that memory alive on October 27. They marched from St. Paul Cathedral to Government Center, collected and destroyed BofA credit and debit cards, and placed the shreds in offertory plates as they celebrated communion.

It was a moment of holy destruction. Those versed in the New Testament will recall Jesus turning the moneychangers’ tables in the Temple; EpGR’s work follows this tradition of disassociating money from religion, Mammon from God. If their action lacks subtlety, it does not want for the beauty of prophetic action. And such action is sorely needed.

“There are four consumer banks that have been implicated in the economic crisis far more than others: Wells Fargo, Citibank, JPMorgan Chase, and Bank of America,” writes Marisa Egerstrom, the Campaigns Director for EpGR. “Those banks are considered ‘too big to fail.’ What that really means is that they’re too big to be held accountable.”

The quest for accountability is a quest of the soul for EpGR. Founded in 2006, EpGR has committed itself to the Millennium Development Goals laid down by the United Nations in 2000. Among the goals the UN elaborated are reducing child mortality, promoting gender equality, and eradicating extreme poverty by the year 2015.

At times the hopeful tenor of the UN—and especially its bold timeline—seems quaint. The world is beset by problems of such breadth and depth as to sap the hope of anyone who cares to examine them. But for the people of EpGR and other faith-based organizations, the energy to keep working toward these goals is a holy imperative. More importantly, the hope from which they derive their ability to live boldly in a world of latent ambiguity and active evil is a hope in the divine.

Egerstrom writes: “Episcopalians take our Baptismal Covenant very seriously. In it, we promise to respect the dignity of every human being. That dignity comes from God. That means it’s unacceptable to consider some people expendable or an exploitable resource because they are not wealthy.”

The banks do not share the Episcopalian orientation toward sacred dignity. The day before EpGR’s march, the Justice Department brought a $1 billion suit against BofA for fraudulent lending from 2008-2009 in a program known as the “High Speed Swim Lane,” a reference to the speed at which automatic loan processing could allegedly issue bad loans and foreclose upon troubled households without grace periods or conversation. The term evokes the “sink-or-swim” mentality so crucial to contemporary consumer banking.

And the problem is industry-wide. Commenting on this latest suit on CNN Money, US Attorney Preet Bharara notes, “For the sixth time in less than 18 months, [the US attorney’s office] has been compelled to sue a major US bank for reckless mortgage practices in the lead-up to the financial crisis.”

Misinformation, more than outright coercion, is at the heart of the problem. Banks distinguish subprime loans—intended for those with bad credit or other extenuating circumstances—from traditional loans, for people who are well positioned for home ownership. The banks assess higher fees and rates on their subprime borrowers in return for their assumption of higher risk. But the banks acted disingenuously with respect to subprime lending in the fifteen years leading up to the market crash in 2008. Among other acts of fraud, the banks would issue subprime loans to borrowers who actually qualified for traditional loans, thus reaping the higher rates and fees without sowing the benefits of home ownership to working-class families.

BofA and other banks disproportionately defrauded women and persons of color. Avis Jones-DeWeever, director of the Research, Public Policy, and Information Center for African American Women, reports that in 2005 approximately one third of the mortgages issued to women were subprime, compared to one quarter for men, in spite of the fact that women average a higher credit score. Upper middle class women are 46 percent more likely than male earners at the same earning level to be issued subprime loans. And African-American women “are 256 percent more likely than white men to receive subprime loans,” as she wrote in her article, “Losing Ground: Women and the Foreclosure Crisis.”

When fraudulent subprime loans collapse, as they overwhelmingly have done, women suffer the most. This is true in part because bank procedures in foreclosure mirror the sexism present at other levels of financial activity. But it is true also because social and cultural norms leave women with the most burdensome travails of foreclosure: caring for children on their own, providing draining emotional support for affected persons, and, increasingly, bearing the breadwinning load.

Fraudulent banking of the kind that the Justice Department alleges, and that the EpGR protests, is indicative less of a particular malice that executives harbor and more of a general social sin against which persons of conscience must fight. That sin is the sin of aggregation, in which the value and worth of every person is condensed into an actuarial sheet and spoken of as a calculus of cost and benefit. As EpGR and other faith groups have prophesied, this is an untenable situation in a society that purports to respect the rights of every citizen.

Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts Thomas Shaw, preaching at the October 27 rally, spoke directly on this issue. He said: “What we’re saying to those people who make the decisions for Bank of America, and make the decisions for all the other major banks of the world, is that somehow what we want to do by this little demonstration today, is to invite you into your humanity. To invite you into who you are as made in the image and likeness of God, and to remind you that you’re just like all of us, and just a part of creation. We want your restoration as human beings.”

May it be so.

—Samuel Needham

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