Building my Retirement on the Backs of Darfurian Refugees

I’m feeling a bit conflicted these days about the ways in which I save for retirement. It’s not that I believe saving for a time when I won’t be able to work is faithless or unbiblical; it’s that I carry a natural skepticism about the means by which investment companies multiply our money. Leveraging tragedy in order to multiply wealth can become a dehumanizing game. One tasteless ad (see p. 9) for an investment company reads like a news headline, “Instability in West African States increases despite UN intervention. Do you: a) open a bottle of wine and switch over to Eastenders (a popular UK TV show), b) Buy Brent crude oil.” Instead of calling for concern and action on behalf of children abducted into prostitution or war due to tragic instability, this investment company will help you make money off of the fact that they are tracking with which faction controls the oil revenues, so that you can relax.

Don’t get me wrong. Investment is important for human flourishing; maybe even more helpful than charity. UN Chief Ban Ki-moon says, "Africa does not need charity, Africa needs investment …” It’s generally true that investment is a better tool than hand-outs for moving people long term out of poverty and into dignity. One African leader put it this way, “For every dollar in charity that a picture of a hungry African child with a distended bowel raises, many dollars in investment is chased away.”

So how do we engage in investment without catering to greed, opportunism and exploitation? The only answer is “with great care.”

The Christian ministry I work for gives control to their employees to invest our retirement benefit. At present, like many companies, a portion of those retirement funds are serviced by Vanguard. The bad part of this equation is that Vanguard is considered by some to be one of the worst offending investment companies in terms of the genocide in Darfur. The line between Vanguard and genocide is convoluted at best, but here is one (albeit simplistic) interpretation of how it works:

I invest my retirement dollars in Vanguard’s Energy Fund and Emerging Markets Fund. The people managing those two funds invest a portion of my money in a company called PetroChina. PetroChina gives some of Vanguard’s money to the government of Sudan for rights to drill in Darfur. The Sudanese government uses some of that money to pay the Janjaweed militia to clear out the Darfurians who happen to be sitting on top of the oil. The Janjaweed make money. The Sudanese government makes money. PetroChina makes money. Vanguard makes money. I make money. Everybody wins. Everybody, of course, but the Darfurians, they get raped, killed or displaced, and very few will see a penny of Vanguard’s millions invested in the oil they’re sitting on.

I find myself in a constant tug-of-war between being “in the world” and being “of the world.” Being in but not of is so much harder than it sounds. How can I stand squarely in the beautiful world God made, contributing to his plan to prosper and bless creation, supporting and investing in healthy structures without caving in to the gravitational pull of evil, greed and exploitation inadvertently supporting and investing in harmful structures? I find the idea of withdrawing from the world and establishing separatist society just as unsatisfying as throwing up my hands and continuing to embrace the worldly values of greed and self-absorption. So here’s my best shot at how to be “in” but not “of” in the area of retirement.

Repent: This is almost always the right answer when you find you have been doing something wrong. Repentance is more than saying sorry. It’s turning away from the behavior. In regard to retirement money, I moved my investments out of the offending funds. My wife and I are also attempting to live out community in ways where we share the responsibility of caring for those whose income is limited knowing we’ll be in that camp one day.

Empower: In cases where power is abused and people have been exploited we need to shift the balance of power. Retirement money which I had freedom to move out of Vanguard was shifted to Calvert, an investment company that focuses on socially and environmentally responsible investing. As chair of our missions team at church I am also helping our church shift its focus to growing interdependent relationships in Africa where there is true mutuality – receiving as well as giving, learning as well as teaching, celebrating and being celebrated. And in places where I exercise some modicum of influence I promote hearing from the voiceless and working together with the poor rather than doing ministry to them.

Implore: Some of the most financially exploitative people of Jesus’ day were tax collectors. He did not ostracize them. In fact he was scandalized by befriending them. I want to recognize that the managers of these funds (Jeffrey D. Miller for Vanguard’s Energy Fund, and Duane F. Kelly and Michael Perry for the Emerging Markets Fund) have families they love just like the refugees of Darfur. Like me they are on a faith journey and like me they want to contribute to this world in some significant way. So I implore them to consider the impact of funding ChinaPetro, and invite them into dialogue by emailing them this appeal inviting their comment (privately, or in the comments section below), all the while opening myself up to hear their perspective without holding a preconceived, demonized opinion about them. I also implore Vanguard as a whole to reconsider their posture on genocide (see their response below) and I will work with my organization to craft a plan on how to approach our relationship with Vanguard.

Being in but not of the world is a messy imperfect process. As we look at how our money is invested in this world let us also make certain that not only our persons, but our resources are “in” this world, not “of” it.

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