Whether Corporations, Too, Can Be Saved

Whether Corporations, Too, Can Be Saved March 25, 2019

“Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. (Jonah 1:2-3)

I’m going to attempt a meditation on Christian ethics and corporations, and I think perhaps it is best to start with a story. I grew up on a family farm. I can still remember the day our family farm incorporated, and eventually we replaced the sign on the barn that read “Sunny View Farms” with “Schnekloth Farms Inc.” At the time, I don’t think I understood all the implications of the change, but it had something to do with taxes and the size of the farm and the fact that “Sunny View Farms” was already an incorporated name, so we had to choose another one.

In my adult life, now away from the farm and living in the city, I always hear conversations about corporate farming and agri-business with an ear tuned differently. I’m sympathetic to multiple perspectives. I know that even though my family farm is large, and a corporation, it is still also a family farm. I see both the personal and the corporate side of the ledger.

Also as an adult, convinced as I have become by my reading of Scripture and Christian tradition, I have adopted a confessional position that understands the prophetic tradition of our faith to stand at odds with quite a lot of capitalist corporate ethics. Inasmuch as big businesses make the bottom line the telos of corporate life, and adopts a teleological ethics (the ends justify the means), I must stand against such an ethic.

Making a profit is a “good,” on one level, but it is a good that must be qualified by other ethical considerations.

I am quite aware, having lived among and listened to people working at every level of corporate life, that business professionals themselves bring an array of ethical considerations to bear on their decision-making. They move beyond the profit-motive, and take into consideration the good of their employees, care of the land, moral systems of the right (deontology), etc.

It is not true that corporate leaders think only about profit.

But it is equally true that most corporate leaders are under-estimate how primary the profit-motive is to all their decision-making, and how influenced they are by their position of power and wealth.

In fact, it’s probably impossible for them to see this at work in themselves, typically because part of their compensation is shares in the company, and so their own net worth is increased if the company does well.

Self-interest is always tricky.

So, if I spend time talking with executives at a large corporation, the way they think about themselves and their company is typically very distant from the way the average consumer, or the average worker, thinks about that company. I think the distance between perspectives is caused in large part by the wealth. Because executives make such vast sums of money and are regularly congratulated for their success, they come to believe that they are primarily good. And because many corporations get to be patrons in the community as a result of their wealth, they not only think they are good, they also get the impression about themselves that they are benevolent.

Patron-client structures are equally tricky.

On the consumer and worker side, consumers tend to notice (rightly) what is lacking in the quality of products produced by corporations, driven as they are by the profit-motive. On the worker side, they are very aware of how much the corporation is mostly just using them as a cog in the machine, and paying them wages that match their position as a “tool.”

All of this only begins to scratch the surface. Corporate ethics is incredibly complex.

So, to return to the story itself, I happen to know executives at big corporations. I also know workers on production lines. If I weigh in on corporate ethics as a preacher, it’s a rather awkward position to be in, because the workers generally feel supported and heartened to know a pastor will stand with them. They’re also surprised, because the majority of clergy in our tradition pastor middle class churches whose members work primarily at the corporate office.

In the meantime, my friends and parishioners who work at the corporate offices rightly wonder what I think of them, especially if and when I call out what I consider to be ethics violations by the corporation at which they work.

In short, the answer is, I don’t change my interactions with parishioners based on where they work anymore than I change interactions with parishioners based on what they share with me about their psychological diagnosis. If you learn anything as a pastor, it’s that we are complex creatures. You can love a whole person even after you know very intimate things about them, like their criminal record or their annual salary.

So, consider this. Martin Luther often wrote popular essays on ethical topics. One of my favorites had the catchy title, “Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved.”

Luther knew that it isn’t just individuals who are looking for a word from the Lord. Social groups and nations are addressed in Scripture also, and need such a word. You can hardly read a book of the Bible without coming to the realization that when God speaks through preachers and prophets, God primarily addresses not individuals, but groups.

This put me in mind of the Jonah text quoted at the beginning of this long post. Jonah was called by the Lord to speak out against the whole city of Nineveh. He’s not told to go and convert an individual person, or individuals. He’s called to preach to the city (and by implication the people/nation) as a whole.

Preachers throughout history have spoken to nations and groups, not just individuals. But in a hyper-individualistic society, we may have a hard time thinking about preaching to corporations. We have perhaps gathered the wrong idea, assuming that a sermon is primarily something spoken on Sunday morning that is just for the individual believer to hear.

But how do we preach to corporations? Like Luther’s question about soldiers, we might ask whether corporations, too, can be saved?

It’s not really that strange of a question.  Corporations are in our legal fiction “persons”. As persons, our political or economic theology may need to figure out how to address them. Thanks to Adam Smith and the rise of classic liberal economic theory, which moved beyond mercantilistic theory, corporations in the 18th century became untethered from government or guild affiliation and became public or private entities in their own right.

Corporations are part of the “powers and principalities” (Ephesians 6:12).  They need sermons in order to be called to repentance that they might serve the common good more fully. All Christians at some level or another recognize that part of preaching is challenge. The preacher is supposed to name sin, identify where we have fallen short, and then offer a word of forgiveness in the name of Christ so that the sinner may then, set free from sin, live in Christ.

It may be that corporations also need to hear the gospel. Although I don’t know anyone who thinks that corporations will as corporations enter the kingdom of heaven, we do believe that every power and principality, from a government to a corporation to a cultural system, can move either into greater alignment with the will of God, or further from it.

The relationship between individuals working for a corporation and the entity of a corporation itself is complex. Just like there are no people who are totally good or totally bad, the same may be said of corps. If a preacher says to a person, “Turn from your sin, and live,” the preacher is not saying that person is bad or should be buried in guilt because of their sin. The preacher is naming the sin so they can change and live differently, and then hopes they will live more fully in the gospel.

So too with corporations. Preachers need to figure out how to speak to corporations in their communities and challenge them. Would that many more preachers would preach to the corporations! Corporations are “actors” in some ways comparable to human beings, and they need moral checks and balances in place to keep them doing better. Corporations are somewhat unique compared to people in that they have much more power and influence than individuals.

Corporations, especially large corporations, can have tremendous influence in a community. Although oftentimes the main positive influence they put forward is their charity (scholarships, foundations, grants, etc.) the actual positive influence from large corporations is the quality of the product they produce, and the way they pay and care for their workers. No amount of charity in a community can make up for a company paying poverty level wages to thousands of people. No amount of scholarships to schools can make up for tax avoidance.

Corporations can create fear, they can direct everything around them. Like sinners, they can then become blind to their own systems of power and dominance. As a preacher who ends up listening to people at all levels of corporate life, I have learned that typically those at the top are tone-deaf to the impact of their power and wealth. They often can’t even see the impact of the systems they create, even while they create them in order to purposely stay immune and mostly blind.

Then, because they have great wealth, they are able to do beautiful things that are supposed to provide cover for the harm.

Let me give one example. We have this amazing museum now in Northwest Arkansas, Crystal Bridges. I love to go there. They’ve got Mark Rothko paintings, among other great works of art. The only reason they are able to have such a large collection of art is because a member of the Walton family is so wealthy (in the top five wealthiest people in the world) she was able to personally collect great American art and build the museum.

Every time I go visit the museum, I love it. I also remember that the entire museum was built from wealth accumulated by sending small communities all over the world into spirals of poverty as big box Walmart stores were built on the outskirts of towns. My opportunity to view Rothko was funded on the backs of the poor. This is a truth.

I’m not even sure what to do with that level of complexity. Should I not go visit the art? What should I do to change that reality. How should I extricate myself from those kinds of systems? Can I?

I imagine this is what it also feels like to work for a large corporation if it is called out for ethics violations. Employees may ponder, Am I complicit? What should I do? Am I a bad person for working here? What if I like working here, and like this company, but learn it is doing something I don’t believe in? What should I do?

I think the responsibility of a Christian employee in a large corporation is probably actually very close to the responsibility of any Christian consumer. Inasmuch as possible, work for the good of your neighbor. Do not profit off your neighbor unjustly. If you learn that there are ethics violations within your company, or from a company whose products you consume, raise the issue with the company, not to create guilt, but to create change. Identify the concrete steps you think they should take, and list them. Join with others.

Because the powers and principalities know how to fight, it is guaranteed there will be blowback. None of us like to be challenged. If my friends tell me I should change something, naturally I get defensive. If they challenge me on something I’m particularly blind to, or really don’t want to change because I’m quite comfortable, my pushback will be even stronger.

Now magnify this at the corporate level. Corporations have incredible defense systems in place. It’s no wonder that its hard for workers and consumers to organize. Corporations have figured out how to game the system to make it hard to organize.

Organize anyway.

Do it always with the goal in mind, positive change for the neighbor in need.

Jesus came preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In our day, now more than ever, this preaching needs to address corporations also.

Corporations need to hear sermons. They need preachers. For the love of God and neighbor.

I would add one more thing. If you listen to workers, you find out how difficult things really are. Wages in real terms for workers have diminished year after year while the super wealthy at the top of the corporations take home sickeningly large paychecks. Many at upper levels of management also take home really large salaries.

I think if you make that much money, you have also saddled a greater level of responsibility. Rather than allowing such wealth to buffer you from the impact of our economic system on those who earn less, you have even greater responsibilities, like sharing the tax burden, giving charitably, overcoming unjust structures in the systems you oversee, etc.

We should all ask, do we really want to live in a society where the vast majority of people are sliding further and further towards poverty while a few incredibly wealthy people offshore their wealth?

That certainly isn’t what the God of the prophets, the God of Jesus, called for.

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