Religious succour from the Book of Mammon

2011-04-09 00:00

FINANCIAL institutions have only one god, Mammon, whom they worship with a single-mindedness that puts most religious orders to shame. So when the banks start adding religious homilies to correspondence, the end of the world is clearly nigh.

An Absa e-mail was my first exposure to a bank wearing its faith on its electronic sleeve. At the end was the injunction: "When there is nothing left but God, that is when you will find out that God is all you need."

Unnerving stuff, especially when appended to a letter demanding payment of an enormous sum. Sinister words, I fretted. Did it mean that Absa was intent on reducing me to penury so that I would embrace a deity?

Would the next e-mail ramp up the pressure? There's Proverbs 22:7 — "The rich ruleth over the poor and the borrower is servant to the lender." Or Proverbs 22:26-27 — "Do not be one who strikes hands in pledge. If thou has nothing to pay, thy bed shall be taken from under thee."

The new Consumer Protection Act probably means my bed is safe, I mused, but preaching to clients must be commercially unwise in a society that is so religiously diverse. Certainly it is inappropriate in a constitutionally secular state.

Fortunately, Absa soon acknowledged that it was mistaken about the debt, so I never discovered whether its versification would extend to Judges 15:15, threatening to smite me with the jawbone of an ass.

Weeks later, this apparently isolated incident took on new significance upon meeting a businessperson fuming about Standard Bank. His strenuous objections to bank e-mails adorned with Islamic exhortations — "From Allah we come and to him we return" — had gone unanswered all along the management food chain, from branch to top executives.

That's when it dawned that this must all be a banking public-relations exercise. At last, they were doing something to exorcise the incendiary Biblical example of Jesus upending the tables of the moneylenders, and those injunctions against usury in the Koran that are so damaging to the bottom line.

The mind boggled at the organisational and ethical implications.

There would have to be banking committees of wise people from all faiths, bickering over how much space to give to Islam versus Christianity, Scientology versus Jehovah's Witnesses, the Old Testament versus the New, and the King James Version against the Living Bible.

Then there are the Jews. Although not a proselytising religion, they might very well demand equal time with Islam. Conversely, there would be the issue of whether Islamic scripture could be transmitted on the same computer servers as Jewish scripture.

And what a nightmare to reconcile legal requirements for equity with the warring passions of true believers. For example, would messages from atheists denying the existence of a deity have to be balanced with messages from fundamentalist militants calling for the death of non-believers?

Should the apocalyptics warning of the imminent end of the world — most recently scheduled for December 21, 2012, — be subject to a three-strikes-and-you're-out provision? After all, how many chances does one give a crowd that has over the past couple of centuries hazarded some 220 incorrect dates for the Rapture?

Sadly, the theory came tumbling.

Standard Bank responded smartly to my query, saying that "no quotes of a religious political or philosophical nature are permitted" on e-mails.

Absa replied that it "embraces and promotes diversity" and that deviation from its corporate identity with "customised" images or quotations is "a serious breach" of policy. Both, if necessary, would take disciplinary action. The question now is whether such disciplinary action encompasses execution of the offender's first-born or a mere lashing, stoning and mutilation of the miscreant?

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