Compatibility or Conflict?

Christian faith in the marketplace

 

by Alistair Mackenzie

Speaking to a meeting of workplace chaplains about a Christian perspective on marketplace ethics, I found myself wrestling with a dilemma. The two Bible readings we were looking at described two quite different, even contradictory, visions of how the people of God should operate in the world.

The Old Testament reading from Jeremiah 29: 4-7 said "Seek the peace and prosperity of the city and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare". The New Testament reading was based on the words of Jesus from Matthew 6: 24-34, "No one can serve two masters . . . . You cannot serve God and wealth . . . . Don't worry about life, about food, or drink, or your body, or clothing . . . . Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness".

The first reading tells us to get involved, go with the flow and not be so self-conscious. But the second says make sure you retain your distinctiveness, be very self-conscious and don't get sucked in.

The Jeremiah reading relates to a time when Israel had been overrun by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar and many of the people dragged off to live as exiles in Babylon. They couldn't understand why God had allowed this to happen, nor how they should live in this new and pagan environment. Israel was God's own country. They understood what it meant to live as the people of God there, but Babylon was enemy territory.

Hopelessly outnumbered in Babylon, they were forced to play according to someone else's rules. It was so hard to see where God was in these new circumstances with all the familiar landmarks gone. It was distressing: "By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and we wept when we remembered Zion".1

 

It seems that many people in New Zealand feel that way about the land we find ourselves living in today. That somehow in the last few decades everything has changed.

Once we lived in a land that we thought was God's own country, with business and government both free from corruption. And many of us thought that it was free from racism too. We were proud of our welfare system - designed to support those who struggled and to make sure everyone got a fair go. And even God seemed to be acknowledged, at least in theory. Life seemed to be comfortably predictable and shaped by values which reflected at least a 'sort of' Christian consensus.

It feels so different now as some of these assumptions have proved to be popular myths and changes have turned 'Godzone' into a much more alien environment. For many this has been a disorienting and alarming experience. I suspect that nowhere is this more true than in our experience of life in the marketplace, particularly the new ethical environment that pervades the modern marketplace.

A combination of factors feeds the dis-ease that many people feel. I have been involved in systematically questioning people about their life in the marketplace. Among the factors they most frequently identify as disturbing are:

· the development of a much more aggressively competitive marketplace through recent economic rationalism

· the application of strict business models and methods to the public sector

· the undermining of a common ethical core in a postmodern and largely post-Christian setting

· the stress, nervousness and alarm that people live with as they try to understand what is going on during a period of such rapid change and so much uncertainty.

It was to fearful and disoriented people in a similar fix, that Jeremiah communicated his message. Their faith hadn't prepared them for the alien circumstances they were facing. They wanted out. They thought that God wanted them out too. So they prayed for God's deliverance and wondered why God was taking so long.

But Jeremiah saw that God's purposes were quite different. The message for these people was: "Don't be so alarmed. God is at work in Babylon too, so make your homes here and get on with the job. Seek the welfare of the city for if it prospers, so you will prosper."

So here is a word for those of us who approach the modern marketplace with discomfort: "Even in Babylon, God is still at work. Don't give up! Get on with the job!"

We must not let circumstances paralyse us just because they're different and difficult. They've been difficult before. But God was in them then, and we need to get on with the job believing that we can still catch a glimpse of God at work now.

However, we need our critical faculties intact, because we also have this other word from Jesus which emphasises that whatever our circumstances, we must also live in the light of another vision: the glimpse of a redeemed marketplace, where truth and justice and care for people are valued as much as profit making. And where commercial realities are considered in the context of building community for the good of all.

Jesus says, "Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness". So is it immersion in Babylon, or a vision of the community of God that should shape our ethics? The Bible seems to leave us torn between the two. I can't help wondering if that's not the way it's meant to be - a tension that can stimulate the birth of new creative possibilities.

 

Recently I read a book called Believers in Business based on interviews with about 85 Christian CEOs and executives in some major corporations in America. It explores how these executives deal with ethical dilemmas in their business lives.

The author, Laura Nash, summarises their experiences as a series of sustained tensions between personal faith and seven basic elements of capitalism. She identifies these tensions as:

· Love for God/the pursuit of profit (the need to serve two masters)

· Concern for people/the competitive drive

· Care for employees/profit obligations

· Humility/the self-importance of success

· Family/work

· Charity/wealth

· Being God's agents in the secular city

Nash has observed three different responses to these tensions:

The generalist - who never gets down to specific examples, so denies there's any real tension here.

The justifier - who generally assumes that the business side of the equation is supported by the faith side anyway, so there is no real ethical conflict.

The seeker - who is acutely aware that there are points where the concerns of faith and business conflict, so expects to struggle with difficult choices in order to do what is right.

Nash (whose own religious background is not the same as those she interviewed) was surprised to find how many people in her study fitted the 'seeker' category. She was impressed with the way they worked through ethical dilemmas.

The 'seeker', she says, recognises the tensions between Christian belief, human failing and economic realities, and so wrestles with Christian conscience on the one hand and business responsibilities on the other, in order to seek the most compatible response possible. She hastens to add that these people were also realists rather than idealists, in the sense that they certainly didn't subscribe to the concept of trying to be 'perfect' Christians doing the perfect Christian deed.

Nash also notes that in many cases 'seeking' activity leads to alternative courses of action which not only express Christian ethical concerns, but often strokes of economic brilliance as well. So, she suggests, if Christian people can learn to live more consciously on the intersection of the worlds of faith and business, some very creative solutions to ethical dilemmas are possible.

But, Nash warns, if we want to give expression to a profound connection between faith and economic activity, we are in a delicate position. Trying to maintain a traditional biblical worldview while participating in the modern culture of the corporation - neither constructing an invisible wall between these two, nor suggesting that they are wholly complementary (as the generalist and justifier tend to do) - is not easy.

The seeker, then, must attempt to reconcile these two worlds and make them relevant to each other by using the tension between business and faith to create a combination of economic and spiritual activity. The trick, Nash concludes, is to maintain some distance - but not too much distance - between the opposing forces of faith and business.

If faith and economic thinking are too close then they will collapse on each other and a secular, wholly rationalised mindset will result. If they are too distant - as in a completely privatised faith - faith concerns will no longer impact on the economic world. We may profess to be Christian, but we will no longer venture into the world as Christians. Faith will become just what we do with our leisure time.

 

Of course the work of Laura Nash focuses on the concerns of business executives. These issues often look different from the point of view of employees.

At a recent training day, workplace chaplains in Dunedin identified the biggest issue concerning the people they worked with as coping with change - and the experiences of loss, grief and conflict that inevitably go with change.

The next biggest issue was people wanting to feel valued, particularly where they were living with a lot of insecurity about their jobs. In such circumstances it is hard to feel that others see you (or your feelings) as significant.

Then there were the feelings associated with powerlessness - the anger, fear, hopelessness and frustration that result when there are so few real options. And the question of loyalty - especially when it's hard to know how much the company really cares about you.

Behind most of these struggles is the wider debate about the economic theories currently prevailing in the marketplace - which may hot up with the new government's proposed changes to employment contracts legislation and other policy changes. It is essential that Christians be well informed about how a Christian world view impacts our perception of marketplace issues and the resolution of these.

 

One of the most important tasks we face as Christians is helping people engage in the sort of critical reflection that will enable us to understand the nature of the struggle between faith and business concerns, between economic values and other important human and spiritual values. But these are seldom addressed in traditional ethics courses, nor in church. Church takes faith very seriously, but not business. In fact many business people think that church leaders assume an anti-business stance - perhaps one reason for this is that many church leaders think that business people take business very seriously, but not faith!

How can we possibly engage in a serious discussion of ethics for the marketplace if church leaders and business people aren't seriously dialoguing with each other? Especially when the marketplace many older church leaders were once familiar with is no more.

It is essential that church leaders understand what it feels like to be a participant in the 'new' marketplace, or we will never be able to support our people in it. It is also important that business people lift the Bible out of the realm of mere ancient history and personal devotional inspiration and discover ways of reading and interpreting it that connect with their marketplace issues.

So what is required to promote a more useful discussion of ethics for the marketplace? When it comes to exposing the downside of current approaches, it is important that those responsible for making decisions are exposed to the human consequences of those decisions. When suffering and hardship occur the stories must be told - on a wider scale church social service agencies have been quite effective in doing this. Church leaders and church people also need to understand these stories.

But when it comes to challenging business leaders about social responsibility the pronouncements of church leaders will not be nearly as convincing as voices raised from within the business community itself. I am hopeful that a wider movement of critical thinking among business leaders is emerging.

The Business Roundtable has been very active in promoting public debate, albeit with the clear aim of promoting their particular point of view. There are also hints of debate emerging from other points of view. This is evident in the movement associated with Dick Hubbard - with its calls for businesses to engage in social responsibility audits and to adjust their philosophy and actions accordingly - and in the establishment of the Jesson Foundation associated with Hugh Fletcher.

My hope is that Christians will invest time and energy in exploring the issues and contribute their perspectives to these discussions. It seems most likely that business people who are capable of reflection and admired for their integrity, will be most influential among other business people.

We must also be concerned to promote a much more vigorous discussion of marketplace ethics among young people, especially those who haven't been exposed to Christian models in their formative years. Young people would benefit enormously from deliberate personal mentoring by those who are living as effective 'seekers' in the marketplace. But very few Christian mentoring programmes for young people appear to take seriously the importance of preparing them for life in the marketplace. Nor does this seem to be recognised as an important need in the life of the church as a whole.

 

Four years ago I interviewed over 100 Christians about faith and work issues. Most of them couldn't remember ever hearing a sermon about work; any church song that talked about faith and work; any marketplace person who was held up as a model of integrity for them to follow; or any serious ethical issue from work discussed in a church home group. The activity that takes up almost 40% of our waking lives seldom ever gets a mention in church.

I don't say this to damn the church. If the Business Roundtable is any judge of influence, and I think they probably have done some homework on this, then the succession of Christian speakers they have sponsored through the country - such as Michael Novak, Sister Connie, Paul Johnson and Father Sirico - suggests that they know where the most serious challenge to their assumptions is coming from. That it is in churches and the homes of church people that strong ethical influences are being shaped. I hope that this will long continue to be the case, but I also think that we could approach this challenge a lot more intentionally and carefully.

My dream is that we will grow a generation of Christian 'seekers' who will have that combination of biblical insight and business acumen, of lively idealism and earthy realism, that will provide marketplace leadership with integrity and creativity for a new generation. People who have earned the right to speak persuasively both from the church and to the church. People who have heard and understood both challenges: "seek the peace and prosperity of the city" and "seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness".

 

Notes

1 Psalm 137:1

 

Alistair enjoys playing guitar and blues harp with a couple of bands, though his two children think his rock 'n roll, Bob Dylan and Van Morrison are rather "old fashioned"! He wants to see Christians helping each other to bridge the Sunday/Monday gap and relate their faith to everyday concerns. He is one of the pastors of Ilam Baptist Church and helped to pioneer the Faith At Work project with the Christchurch Branch of the Bible College of New Zealand.


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