“What does it look like if a company is not only incorporated in England and Wales, but incorporated into God’s Kingdom?” – by Phil Jump
This was a question posed by the recently appointed Bishop of Manchester, Rt Revd. David Walker at a half day conference arranged by Salt of the Earth, as part of our ongoing partnership with ICF. The gathering attracted a number of business leaders, clergy and others interested in issues of faith and work, for what was a fascinating, insightful and highly informative morning together.
The Bishop, who himself has had a significant background in Industrial chaplaincy, investment and the not-for-profit business sector, outlined a vision founded on the idea that God’s Kingdom is something far bigger than the Church. Wherever God’s authority is recognised and his rule breaks through into the everyday world, his Kingdom is being found. Sometimes that might be realised through the transcendent and miraculous, but more often, it is about the way things are when ordinary men and women live their lives as faithful subjects. Although this theological reasoning is well developed in relation to how individuals and church groups order and live their lives, the key question for the morning was how it might be similarly applied to business structures.
Much of the prevailing economic policy within capitalism claims its foundation on the writing and thinking of Adam Smith. It is his depiction of the “hidden hand of the market” that largely justifies the exclusion of all considerations apart from profit, when defining business success and purpose. Yet we were reminded that Smith wrote explicitly as a Christian, a man with a profound sense of God’s ordering of creation, who would most likely be appalled by much of what has been done in his name since. It is perhaps a symptom of many writers of his day, that they so took a Christian understanding of the world for granted, that this was not sufficiently articulated to prevent it becoming the missing (but vital) element, in what claims to be its application today.
Our speaker highlighted this as the “narrow view”, often used to justify “greed is good” type reasoning, and yet one that has repeatedly been found wanting in key areas such as valuing the wider environment or making provision for future generations. It is a way of thinking that then puts the onus onto governments to use regulation as the means of curtailing its most destructive elements. Often with perverse consequences.
We were reminded that each of us has two hands. Is there perhaps a second hidden hand at work in economics? A hand whose impact is demonic, because it constructs out of the totality of many individual decisions, consequences that damage us all. Social history has shown other approaches to have existed and thrived, not least the Quaker chocolate manufacturers of the Nineteenth century.
It was not lost on some in the audience that the event fell on a day when the Co-operative was attracting significant publicity for all the wrong reasons. Leading executives were asking whether the principles of mutuality, by which it had historically sought to be defined, could prevail in the contemporary economic climate. It was interesting too, to recognise how a media frenzy seems to fall on any business that manages to make a significant profit, the most recent example being the large energy suppliers. Bishop David was keen to recognise that profit is not something to be condemned outright, admitting that he was one of many whose pension interests relied on successful returns on investment. It was this that led to a profound overview of key business principles and challenges. In the face of simplistic condemnation of all things profitable, Christians have the opportunity to take a lead in asking how those profits have been achieved, rather than simply being concerned with the rights or wrongs of their scale.
Drawing on his background as a preacher, Bishop David offered seven biblical principles, shaped by the acronym KINGDOM, that he suggested as a business framework that is true to Smith’s thesis, but were also firmly rooted in the Kingdom of God.
Knowing real value – drawing on the Gospel parable of the pearl of great price, (Matt 13: 45-46) he noted a commitment to the commodity itself and not just its trading value, and an approach to risk taking that involved personal exposure, not merely imposing it on others
Investing in People – (Deuteronomy 24:6) The Old Testament law forbade taking a millstone as a pledge – in other words “do not take away a person’s ability to work”. Financial return should not be achieved at the expense of denying people the opportunity to participate in the world of work.
Nurturing God’s Image – To be human is to be made in God’s image; creativity and fulfilment through work is an expression of that. “Toil” is a consequence of the fall – to live in God’s Kingdom is to seek to limit toil, and make work fulfilling
Giving what is due – Expanding the Levitical law that neighbours should not be defrauded or a labourer’s wages withheld, (Lev 19:13) participants were invited to affirm but also think beyond the principle of a Living Wage, to consider whether pay differentials should be limited, what it means to be a responsible consumer and tax-payer. How can the rewards of work be shared fairly?
Doing the good – Paul challenges any idea that “the end justifies the means” (Romans 3:8). The competitive climate of business can bring pressures to assume that “if we don’t – someone else will” or create cultures that “normalise” what in other contexts would be evident as wrong. Principles like “Ethical Investment” are signs that different possibilities exist; a key question for Christians in the workplace is “what would you say no to?”
Overseeing God’s property – Participants were reminded that the creation narratives describe humanity as the stewards of creation. How does this designation affect our attitude to environmental issues, acknowledging the carbon footprint of our business and consumer choices etc.
Moving towards eternity – Applying Paul’s words that “creation will be set free from bondage of decay” (Rom 8:21) to our working lives raises questions about how we invest in the future and the long term. Business can often be about short term financial return, whereas God’s Kingdom is about nudging the world in the direction of God’s purposes.
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