“This is what the Lord says: ‘For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath. They sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed’” (Amos 2:6-7a).
To speak of ‘godly business’ is not simply to refer to ‘business ethics’, the moral principles on the basis of which businesses must conduct their various activities and affairs. Although such deliberations are extremely important, especially in light of the wheeling and dealing that goes on in the world of business, ‘godly business’ presses us to reflect on something more fundamental and basic. It urges us to ask questions about the purposes and ends of any and all business. Does God have a purpose for business? Or does he only have a purpose for people involved in businesses? If there is a divine purpose for business, is it intrinsic to the business activity or enterprise? Or do businesses serve God’s purposes only instrumentally by, for instance, providing the financial resources for Christian mission?
To answer such questions we need to begin very much at the beginning, with the creation narrative in the first chapters of Genesis, which tells of how God brought into being the world – his household (oikos) – out of nothing. The creation story presents God as the Creator-householder, the Economist, who, having brought the cosmos into being, declared that it was ‘very good’. Theologians have long noticed that the creation was said to be ‘very good’ but not yet perfect. God not only continues to work on the created order, he also fashioned certain creatures in his own image and likeness and mandated them to serve as his co-workers, stewards and vice-regents (Genesis 1:27-28). The implications of all this is quite staggering. As one theologian puts it: ‘Corresponding to the creator Economist is the “image of God”, who can also be called an economist’. The human being is homo economicus precisely because it is first and foremost imago dei.
This means that being human, that is, being that creature that has been made as the bearer of the image of its Creator, is to be the recipient of the economic Commission to promote God’s righteousness and peace in the created order. To be a human being, therefore, is to be God’s economist for the creation, to live and work in such a way that the Creator’s will for the world can be accomplished. This brings us to the heart of the matter. From the Christian standpoint, the purpose of business is fundamentally to serve God in this way. Jeff van Duzer, professor of business law and ethics at Seattle Pacific University puts this more concretely when he asserts that the purpose of business is to ‘serve the community by providing goods and services that will enable the community to flourish. And it is to serve its employees by providing them with opportunities to express at least a portion of their God-given identity through meaningful and creative work’. A business that conscientiously seeks to fulfil these two fundamental objectives will not slide into idolatry but will, by God’s grace, be faithful to the cultural mandate of which it is a part.
Businesses fulfil their divine purpose and serve the community in God’s economy in two distinctive ways. The first is by being creative, that is, by imagining and actualising new and surprising ways of enabling and allowing the community and its members to flourish and thrive, through the introduction of new products, innovative services and even creating new markets. The second way may be described as restorative or even redemptive. This is when businesses become the source, inspiration and catalyst that oppose exploitation and discrimination, address injustices and mend social fractures. There are situations where businesses can do this more effectively than other enterprises, including NGOs and political institutions. Businesses that answer this call to fulfil their God-given purposes can be change-agents and bring about unanticipated but welcomed social benefits to the wider community.
The great Catholic moral theologian of the last century, Bernard Häring, reminds us that the economy ‘is more than business’. The economy, viewed either philosophically or theologically, should be understood as a certain way of ordering our lives and sharing our resources that would contribute to the health and well-being of every member of the human community or household (Greek: oikos). This means, Häring elaborates, that the ‘economy is for the family, and not the family for the economy’. And this further implies that whatever else economics and economic activity may be, it is fundamentally and irreducibly always also an ethical task. Insofar as business is part of the economy, the way in which it is conducted will determine the shape and substance of economics. Businesses that are organised to genuinely meet human needs – instead of simply to make profit and maximise returns – will enable the human community to flourish.
One of the most important documents produced by the Western Church in the twentieth century is Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope), promulgated at the Second Vatican Council. It contains this remarkable statement that articulates with such eloquence and wisdom the essential meaning of what we’ve been calling godly business and the chief purpose of all human economic activity: ‘The fundamental finality of this production is not the mere increase of products nor profit or control but rather the service of man, and indeed of the whole man with regard for the full range of his material needs and the demands of his intellectual, moral, spiritual, and religious life; this applies to every man whatsoever and to every group of men, of every race and of every part of the world. Consequently, economic activity is to be carried according to its own methods and laws within the limits of the moral order, so that God’s plan for mankind may be realised’.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was published in Word@Work (June 2014).