Holy recklessness

Second of two columns on pension investments

January 14, 2015 | God at work in the World | Number 2
Will Braun | Senior Writer

I recall saying in my youth that “Christianity does not come equipped with standard airbags and anti-lock brakes,” features commonly advertised for cars at the time. I felt society’s fixation on safety and security should not be adopted by Christians. Faith is risky.

I was young and idealistic then. Some older folks said I’d get over it.

Well, now I am older, married, a father, and the owner of an ’06 Jetta with airbags and anti-lock brakes. Despite my imperfections and compromises, I still value risk. I have not gotten over it.

But I do face tough choices. Like when I joined the staff of this magazine and was given the Mennonite Church Canada retirement guide. (We fall under its pension plan.) The booklet cover showed a carefree silver-haired guy on a sailboat.

It felt like a punch in the spiritual gut. I thought we did things differently. In a world mesmerized by money, I want church to help take my gaze away from self-centred materialism, not invite me to conform to the pattern of this world. Actually, it wasn’t an invitation; participation in the pension plan is compulsory, although there is a grace period.  

I opted for the grace period, reluctantly foregoing the employer top-up—an amount equal to 5 percent of my salary that would have gone into my pension. I wasn’t comfortable putting money into big banks, oil companies, mega-pedlars of mainstream consumption and dozens of unknown companies.

I did not find the Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) options in the booklet compelling. The SRI rationale sounds good, but I don’t consider BlackBerry, BMO and Bombardier—which makes military training and surveillance equipment—socially responsible. Not to mention Pepsi, Suncor and Talisman Energy.

Porn is screened out, but climate change is in. Beer is bad, but unfettered banking greed is good. Gaming is taboo, but government bonds are cool, although Ottawa spends about 6 percent of its money on the military.

But there’s a deeper issue. Arnold Snyder, a former Conrad Grebel College professor, has written that 16th-century Anabaptists “uniformly rejected the charging of interest” as well as its collection. Surplus was to go to the poor.

There are numerous biblical warnings about “usury,” or interest, although little rationale is given. My  sense is that usury is the game of the accumulators, of Bay Street. It tends to serve the rich: money begetting money.

But there’s a deeper issue. Matthew 6 says we should store up treasure in heaven. The essence of life is not material. Like the lilies of the field, do not worry about tomorrow. Trust God. These are bona fide biblical themes. And challeng-ing ones. They make my gut tighten. But they also make my soul glimmer.

Matthew 6 is poetic and glorious in its offer of freedom and spiritual wealth. I want that. I will be a better person if I “invest” in community, and trust God, rather than the market, for my future. And no, it’s not as easy as doing both: “No one can serve two masters.”

But how badly do I want what God offers? For now, at least, I will continue to opt out of the MC Canada pension plan. I can duck compulsory participation under provincial rules by keeping my salary below 35 percent of the “maximum pensionable earnings.” Full-timers don’t have that option.

As for the 5 percent top-up, I essentially traded it in for more time off. Theoretically, I will invest that time in family and community.

I risk sounding self-righteous, but I am no more righteous than the few billion “least of these” who have far less financial security than I. I am no more righteous than the hundred other ethical inconsistencies in my life. That’s why I remind myself that heaven and earth overflow with grace. That grace is not an excuse for inaction, but the space in which to work out our salvation.  

I recognize the questions I raise are impossibly sensitive. They come with scary stakes. I suggest we put aside defensiveness and focus on God’s wild offer of rich liberty. I suggest we discuss what it might actually look like to store up treasure in heaven.

I don’t want to have my eye on a silver-haired, self-indulgent beach-goer. I want to keep my eye on the dusty, lovingly reckless misfit of the gospel.

I want to be drawn to risk and simplicity. Henry David Thoreau wrote: “My greatest skill has been to want but little.” I have a couple decades to hone that skill.

There are good reasons to invest for retirement. I just don’t think they outweigh the reasons not to. Maybe I’ll get over my qualms when I near retirement age. Maybe I won’t.

For more, including Steve Heinrichs’s gutsy Facebook post on MC Canada pensions, and responses to it, visit www.canadianmennonite.org/pensions2.

See Part 1, Do not store up treasures in pensions

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I rarely read CM articles but Steve Heinrichs posted this on his FB feed and having recently "retired" and turning 60 this year, I found the topic interesting. I like your emphasis on simplicity and opting out of consumerism and the financial planning industry that is designed to scare people into buying their products. However, I would be interested in more details about how you intend to support yourself in your "senior" years. Will you accept CPP, will you accept OAS and maybe even GIS. Will you keep working? Each of those options come with their ethical dilemmas as well.

Perhaps you could devote a future column to sketching out what it looks like to live simply as we age. Where does the necessary income come from. What types of housing is needed and especially what kinds of support need to be in place as our bodies and minds fail us. Ghandi is quoted as saying "it costs a lot to keep me in poverty". One might rephrase that to say it costs a lot to keep a senior in poverty.

CPP and OAS are indeed ethical dilemmas, as you point out. There are no perfect options, but for me the point is to use the complexity as an opportunity to strive for better options not as an excuse to throw up our arms (not that you are necessarily suggesting the latter). I have no idea how I will live when I'm 65 (if I make it that far) but I'm excited about a journey of learning to live with less and connecting with others who feel drawn to that same journey.

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