(This is a cross post with a post done earlier today at Jesus Creed.)
Today we continue with John Knapp’s How the Church Fails Businesspeople (and what can be done about it). We turn now to Chapter 6, “A Moral Theology of Work.”
The business environment can often present significant ethical challenges. Where might we begin as we think about ethical behavior? Knapp suggests a good place to start is with Micah 6:8:
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”
Is it possible to be competitive in business while loving justice and kindness, and walking humbly with God, while grounded in love and responsibility?
What would it take to create the five-fold moral community Knapp describes?
Is Micah and the Jesus Creed the place to ground our ethical reflection or would you frame things differently?
Grounded in Love
Knapp says this definition of what is good is grounded in the Jesus Creed: Love God, love neighbor. What would it mean to respond to others out of this ethic in business? Knapp writes:
“An ethic of love goes beyond both duty (keeping promises, telling the truth, doing a job well) and compliance (with civil law, contractual requirements, or employment policies), both of which are necessary in the workplace. Love recognizes that every person is unique and must be cared for individually, whether or not a rule mandates it. This requires us to take the time and effort to discover what actually meets the other’s need.” (101)
To Do Justice
Business people are to be advocates for justice within their sphere of influence. It goes beyond just upholding the law. It is about pursing more just structures and behaviors. Sadly, Knapp writes:
“Paul Camenisch, a theologian with expertise in business ethics, believes that the church has failed to convey to believers their personal responsibilities for doing justice at work. In a critique of Protestant policy statements on economic justice, he writes, “Seldom if ever are Christians addressed as influential actors responsible in their vocations for seeing that, within their power, justice is done. They are not seriously challenged to ask questions about the human impact of their actions as workers, managers, consumers, and owners on their fellows …” As we have discussed, church pronouncements on economics tend to critique the macroeconomic system with little or no thought to the difficulties faced by individuals or organizations within the system.” (103)
To Love Kindness
We are not just to do kind things but to love kindness. We might easily see the natural application of this to our coworkers or customers. How about to our personal rivals or the competition?
To Walk Humbly
“It is easy fall prey to an illusion of becoming self-sufficient through the accumulation of material wealth.” (106) And with this sense of self-sufficiency can come a sense of entitlement. That entitlement can be evidenced in the form of smug condescension or even as envy of others for what should “rightfully” be one’s own. For Christians there is a danger of self-righteous as we strive to be more “Christ-like” than others. I’m inclined to think that walking humbly may be the slipperiest of all. Knapp sees it as the precondition for the first two.
Central to living out this ethic is an embrace of responsibility. Knapp writes:
“This [human] potential includes the capacity for genuine responsiveness in all relationships, for authentic discipleship is a process of learning to enact Christian love in every circumstance. H. Richard Niebuhr … proposes that responsibility is defined chiefly by how we respond to others including God. This concept of responsibility as response-ability may be a better way to think about ethics than adherence to abstract more principles, compliance with rules, or even achievement of good outcomes. The responsible Christian must be fully attentive to the “decisive present” and the possibilities of God’s activity through the lives of others.” (109)
With the response-ability we have, we are to make “fitting responses” based on God’s justice.
Referring back to the survey results mentioned in the first post in this series (where people from all walks of life considered an ethical dilemma they had once faced), Knapp writes:
“Few of the dilemmas reported by our research subjects could be reduced to neat choices of right over wrong, good over bad. Nor were they problems where rules could determine the best course of action. The inherent difficulty in most of the cases involved conflicting values and priorities.” (111)
In short, ethical decisions are frequently messy. Two legitimate ethical concerns may be in competition with each other. On top of this, we are frequently distracted by competing demands and time pressures. All this requires conscious effort to be truly present in the decisions we are making.
Questions to guide us
Knapp offers a list of questions we might ask ourselves when we face difficult questions with justice, kindness, and humility grounded in love and responsibility (His questions with my summary sentence):
- What’s really going on here? – Apply careful thought and investigation.
- What makes this decision difficult? – What is the crux of the ethical challenge?
- Who has a legitimate stake in how this matter is resolved? – Especially keep in mind those with less power or influence.
- Am I acting in humility, or are my own interests crowding out the interests of others? – Look at things from the position of others.
- To whom and to what am I responsible? – Be clear about our responsibilities and particularly our primary vocation of serving God.
- What options are available, and what outcomes may result from each? – Be sure to consider long-term and broader consequences.
- Have I sought God’s will? – Prayer, Scripture, and the discernment of other believers are important means of seeking God’s will.
The Necessary Role of the Church
Knapp closes the chapter with an important section called “The Necessary Role of the Church.” He lists five facets of faith community that should be present to equip and support people in the workplace. (The short summaries of each listing are mine, not Knapp’s.)
A Community of Moral Discernment – Rarely are any of us capable of answering the above questions on our own. Including people who know us, love us, share our commitment to God, and/or may have special insight into how to process some of these questions, are essential to sound discipleship.
A Community of Moral Discourse – People within a faith community often don’t agree with each other on particular problems but it is often the civil debate about a problem that helps us individually to come to better conclusions. The church needs to be a place for honest questions.
A Community of Moral Influence – Individuals often find they are powerless alone to address injustices that emerge in the work world. Congregations and denominational bodies are needed to work in support of efforts to reduce injustice and be supportive of businesspeople needing to take difficult stands.
A Community of Moral Encouragement – The business world is frequently messy. Rather than casting businesspeople as tainted Christians, we need to pray for them and support them as they work to integrate their work and faith (even as we help build the expectation that they should do so. )
A Community of Moral Example – The church needs to engage in just employment and financial practices if it expects the broader world to give any heed.
This concludes the summary of Chapter 6. I’m not sure I’ve done it justice. I hope folks will read the book. But this chapter raised two issues for me that I want to briefly mention … one economic and the other theological.
I love the use of the Micah passage grounded in love and responsibility as a starting point for ethical reflection. And Knapp is exactly right that love is not about having warm fuzzy sentiments but rather about knowing individuals and seeking their good. Knapp is calling us to look at the neglected realm of everyday micro-economic business decisions and giving us tools to live out our calling in that context. But as we move to the meso and macro levels of economics, to decisions that deal with large firms and interactions beyond the firm, I think it becomes impossible to meaningfully apply the “love” principle.
A signature feature of advanced market economies is the ability of firms to gather and coordinate large numbers of people. Markets create vast webs of interconnection among people (who will likely never meet each other), allowing us to benefit from specialization and exchange with countless strangers. It is not possible for a businessperson to “love” hundreds/thousands of others in a businessperson’s own firm, much less those outside the firm, in the sense we have described above. Theologian Economist Paul Heyne wrote in an essay (“Morality of Labor Unions.” Chapter 24 in Are Economists Basically Immoral?, 429.):
“What does justice mean in this world of completely impersonal transactions? If we take the most general definition of justice – giving to each their due – how do we decide what each is due? In such a world the Golden Rule is simply irrelevant. Social transactions in a market-coordinated economy cannot be governed by the principle “Do for others what you would like them to do for you.” The appropriate rule is what someone has called the Silver Rule: “Do not do to others anything that you would consider unfair if they did it to you.” (429)
I do not want to minimize the important framing that Knapp has offered here. Rather, I want to emphasize that as we move much outside the sphere of face-to-face community, we encounter inescapable sociological realties that may require a different kind of ethical analysis. We can’t simply deal with larger institutions as a family (or face-to-face community) writ large. All the more reason why we need communities of disciples to help us work our way through ethical thickets.
The theological thought I had goes directly to Scot’s King Jesus Gospel. Scot rejects the Evangelical tendency to collapse “gospel” into “salvation.” The King Jesus Gospel is about Jesus’s completion of the story of Israel and that story is rooted in the creation story, including the first great commission of exercising dominion over creation and the redemption of that mission. But I don’t think it is just the Evangelical world in Protestantism that needs rethinking.
In my Mainline PCUSA world, gospel is typically about rectifying wrong, either via compassion or justice advocacy. If Evangelicals have a “salvation gospel ,” as Scot says, then my tribe has a bias toward a “justice gospel.” Just as the King Jesus Gospel includes salvation, it also includes justice, but “gospel” cannot be collapsed into salvation, justice, or their combination. The King Jesus Gospel includes (among many other things) redemption of the first great commission. Neither the salvation gospel nor the justice gospel will do. Without the King Jesus Gospel there is no reason to give focused attention to the issues Knapp is raising. Work is peripheral to the “real” issues of either salvation or justice. I think the real starting place for a moral theology of work likely must begin with our understanding of gospel.