11.21.09

If Wall Street Repents, Can Main Street Forgive?

After a minister, a seminary president, and a former Goldman Sachs partner suggested in The Daily Beast that Goldman create a fund to invest in small businesses, the firm did just that. But now they say the Wall Street behemoth's path to redemption has just begun.

Last week in a post titled “Can Goldman Find God?” we called on CEO Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs to use his power, and that of his firm, to help Main Street by creating jobs. A few days later, Goldman announced the 10,000 Small Businesses Initiative, a pledge of half a billion dollars to provide access for small businesses to financial capital, mentors, networks, and business education. Though not called the “Virtue Fund” as we had suggested, it was a bold step in the right direction and targeted what America needs most: JOBS! Mr. Blankfein also issued an apology, acknowledging that Goldman had been participating in practices that were “clearly wrong,” which he regretted.

Even with all that’s gone wrong, we think Wall Street and Main Street need each other.

We were pleased that it was not one of those fake apologies we’re use to hearing, mostly from politicians—I’m sorry if I offended anyone—but an actual acknowledgment that Goldman had acted in ways that were “ clearly wrong.” Though many are asking for details of what was meant by “clearly wrong,” the fact that CEO Blankfein admitted wrongdoing was admirable. Mr. Blankfein, you’re on the right track.

In light of these actions, is Main Street ready to forgive Wall Street?

No. It’s clear that Main Street is not accepting the apology, and it is certainly in no mood to talk about forgiveness. If you read our post from last Sunday, you'll come across some pretty vivid and imaginative suggestions from people regarding what they’d really like to see you do. Your recent announcement, for all its fanfare, does not seem to have changed that conversation much. Why? Well, regret is good, but it’s not good enough. There has been overwhelming damage caused by the collective irresponsibility of Wall Street, and Goldman’s current success stands in stark contrast to the pain American families are facing. As William Grieder points out in his article “ Charitable Capitalism,” what has happened goes beyond a public-relations problem. It's a “political problem because public anger is gathering force and focus and scaring the bejeesus out of Washington polls.” (First God, now Jesus—we like where this conversation is going!)

Charlie Gasparino: The Best Job No One WantsThe truth is, this is a lot more than a political problem. It is nothing less than a fundamental break in the relationship between Wall Street and Main Street. Main Street feels abused and betrayed by Wall Street, and it doesn’t believe Goldman Sachs and others really intend to change. But we think this relationship is worth saving. Even with all that’s gone wrong, we think Wall Street and Main Street need each other. Significant changes are required, however.

What’s it going to take from Wall Street? How about repentance? Repentance is a theological concept that isn’t normally associated with business practice, but that’s what Main Street needs from Wall Street. Repentance is the first step in healing a broken relationship. Yes, it starts with admitting wrongdoing and expressing sincere regret for it, but it goes far deeper than that. It demonstrates sincerity through definitive and dramatic action in a new direction, signifying a strong commitment to the relationship.

We think that the 10,000 Small Businesses Initiative is a great first step for Goldman Sachs to take in leading Wall Street in a profoundly new direction. Unlike those who see this move as “ charitable capitalism,” we see it as an example of social change philanthropy. Whereas charity tends to see the recipient as a victim in need of help, social change philanthropy involves partnership. By focusing on business education, mentoring, networking, and access to capital, Goldman is bringing all its resources to bear.

It's a good first step, Goldman Sachs, so don’t stop now. Though this is the largest corporate charitable initiative ever announced, it is still not enough. We are calling on you to form a collective of other corporate players who have also come through this crisis with their pockets full to do something even bigger.

Speaking of which, about those bonuses! They're a sticking point for the public because they symbolize brazen disregard for the experience of those who have lost everything. As we suggested last week: Co-create “The Virtue Fund” with a generous portion of those bonuses, which could be used for other types of small business and job-creation initiatives. We have some “shovel-ready” initiatives, ones that could show an immediate and sustainable impact, and many others do, too. There is no shortage of ideas, just the resources and the will to enable them.

Now we’re talking about a new direction for Wall Street. Now we’re talking about a new commitment to its relationship with the public. And now we’re talking about an even bigger theological challenge: If Wall Street truly repents, can Main Street forgive? Or even more difficult, can Main Street begin to acknowledge that it helped to enable Wall Street’s excesses, and in some ways benefited from its profits until the downward spiral began? To say there is mutual responsibility is not to say there is equal responsibility, but Main Street has its own habits of excess to reckon with before there can be wholeness and new life in America again.

One blogger commented that Goldman’s offer of $500 million to small businesses is not enough to even qualify as a waiter’s tip. We are prepared to take it more seriously. We see it as an appetizer that could precede a glorious banquet. In fact, we want to invite both Wall Street and Main Street to accept an invitation to a different kind of meal, “a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines” (Isaiah 25:6). It is the possibility of sharing the bounty that our land, our people, and our markets can produce. It is the possibility of reconciliation and new life together that repentance and forgiveness can provide, in which all are fed and satisfied. But first you’re going to have to sit down together.

Wall Street and Main Street, your table is waiting.

Jacki Zehner is president of the Jacquelyn and Gregory Zehner Family Foundation and a founding partner of Circle Financial Group. She blogs at www.pursepundit.blogspot.com.

The Rev. Dr. Katharine Rhodes Henderson is president of the Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City, an institute for religious leadership. She blogs at newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith.

The Rev. J.C. Austin is director of the Center for Church Life at Auburn Theological Seminary. He speaks and teaches regularly on the intersection of faith and money.