The Panama Papers and the Ritual of Confession

By Devin Singh.

 

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The Panama Papers caught some of the most powerful people on the globe in the act of self-dealing. Now the public wants the guilty to come clean, step into the light, and confess their financial misdeeds.

While such confession might be an important public ritual, there are reasons to believe that confession won’t make the sins disappear and they’ll likely happen again.

In the early 20th century, the German social theorist Walter Benjamin described capitalism as a religion and bankers as a kind of priesthood. Capitalism motivates us to strive for this-worldly salvation through wealth accumulation, engaging in repetitive labor rituals, and managing our guilty debt in the hopes of accessing sacred credit. Bankers control the grace of the system, which is called capital.

Just as priests mediate access to the grace of God, so bankers serve as gatekeepers, opening and closing access to capital, the means of this-worldly redemption.

We can expand the priest label to include politicians, since, as Benjamin would acknowledge, state leaders work to ensure the success of capitalism. The politician-banker class serves as intermediary to the flow and accumulation of capital.

And just as priests, like the rest of us, are sinners too and stand in need of forgiveness before God, so politicians owe debts to the system, as we do, and need access to the grace of capital.

Taxation is one such form of debt, one owed to the government. Avoiding taxation is an attempt to get out of that debt. Legal documents declaring that you actually don’t owe this debt to the government—such as the tax havens Mossack Fonseca created—are a way to have this debt absolved, a form of debt forgiveness.

This is a political-financial equivalent of declaring the priestly “te absolvo.”

And so who absolves the priests? After all, they need grace and forgiveness too. Members of the priesthood can confess to each other, assure each other of forgiveness, and keep each other’s secrets. They don’t need the laity for this.

That’s why it was irrelevant to this cadre of politicians and bankers, the architects and gatekeepers—the priests—of the global financial system, to divulge their dark deeds to the public. We should never forget that only one person had to face criminal prosecution for the mortgage disaster in 2008 that helped spark a global recession.

The public outcry against the Papers’ revelations quite possibly results from the hurt we feel in realizing that ordinary people like us are mostly irrelevant. It’s not even that these elites worked hard to shield their deeds from our eyes. They simply did their dealings with each other, in the vestry or boardroom. We were barely part of the equation.

Just as a thoughtful and pastorally-minded priest might engage in transparency for the sake of shepherding his flock, so savvy politicians may come clean in order to manage their leadership of the citizenry. But neither needs to do this to protect their wealth, whether the spiritual capital of divine grace or the financial capital of the banking industry. For this the priest turns to other priests and to God, while the politicians and bankers turn to each other.

There is no incentive to confess to the public in this area. There can be censure and penalty, more oversight and regulation, but these are external pressures to tinker with rather than change the system.

Only by radically rethinking the flow of the grace of capital, such that the people actually become necessary, can the kind of transparency yearned for be achieved. Just as ideas of priesthood can be altered to become more inclusive, so can structures granting access to capital. Then the grace that the system now withholds might be available to all.

Devin Singh is an assistant professor of religion at Dartmouth College and a 2016 Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.

Photo dennizn / Shutterstock.com.

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