Chapter 12: Faithful Witness in the Secular City
A number of years ago Alistair conducted an extensive survey of Christians related to their daily work. One of the questions he asked was, “What is it that you struggle with most as a Christian in your work?”
The results were startling, even shocking. Many responded by noting not the challenging work environment or culture, nor that they were asked to do things that compromised their faith, but rather that they were deeply embarrassed and often annoyed by the behaviour of other Christians in their place of employment.
The source of such difficulty was varied. For some it was the “super-spiritual” and often insensitive utterances and behaviour of excessively zealous believers, who often seemed to take very seriously their faith, but not their work.
For others it was the “sub-Christian” behaviour of some who publicly identified themselves as believers. Still others noted the poor ethics of certain “Christian” firms who had a sour reputation within their industry for not paying bills on time, for treating their employees poorly, and for indulging in dubious competitive practices.
Alistair was also surprised by the number of employers who said they were wary of hiring staff who were Christians! Many felt that Christians often expected to get preferential treatment and special exemptions from Christian bosses. This gave rise to tensions with other staff. And for others the wariness arose from past experiences. They had had some “Christian” employees who were poor workers – who did not seem to take seriously their responsibility to work hard and well for their bosses.
Some of these concerns are sadly echoed by Wayne’s experience in the car industry.
In the early nineties a couple of Christians set up a car yard in a New Zealand city. They seemed determined not only to make money but also to spread the gospel through their business. They even chose a trading name that was a not-so-subtle play on words, indicating to customers what they could do for them.
It was a very lively yard and in the boom days of Japanese importing did a roaring trade. True to their trading name, they took seriously their intention to evangelize, reputedly even tuning car radios to the Christian station and placing tracts underneath windscreen wipers!
However, below the surface all was not well.
Wayne was friendly with the car dealers who owned the neighbouring yard, having sold the occasional car to them. They weren’t Christians but were sympathetic to the faith. One of them also happened to be on the local dealers’ board. He told Wayne of the number of complaints they were receiving from disgruntled customers of the company in question. Not only that, but every time Wayne visited they would give him updates on the dramas occurring over the fence. They had a ringside seat and couldn’t help but see some stuff going on that set their teeth on edge.
Sadly, this “Christian yard” became the laughing stock of the car-dealing fraternity in their area. The gap between what they said they stood for, and how they operated, was unbelievably wide. The fact that they were Christians only added to the “joke”.
This distinct lack of integrity was confirmed to Wayne when a relation of his took them to task. At issue was some strong-arm, bully-boy tactics that a couple of their salesmen had used on a friend of his. Wayne’s relation was appalled by their whole attitude and their less-than-honest way of operating.
Not long afterwards it became public that this same company was being investigated for the winding back of odometers on imported cars. The resulting bad publicity eroded what remained of their business, and they eventually closed down their operation. Thank God for that!
Alistair’s survey and Wayne’s experience raise some interesting and important questions. Such as:
What does integrity look like in the workplace?
What does it mean to be a “witness” in the workplace?
Is there a place for “sharing our faith” in the workplace? If so, in what ways?
Are there specific issues we need to take a stand on because of their potential to compromise our faithfulness to God?
The movie The Big Kahuna touches on all of these questions, raising issues about both the implicit witness of Christians in the workplace (character, behaviour, relationships, work habits, etc.) and the more explicit forms of witness (conversations about God, sharing of our stories, interacting over issues of spirituality, etc.).
Based on a play called The Hospitality Suite, written by Roger Rueff, The Big Kahuna is the story of three industrial lubricant salesmen as they try to land a big sale at a business convention. Two of the men are veterans – the nearly divorced and rather disheartened Phil (played by Danny De Vito) and the hyperactive, fast talking and smooth Larry (Kevin Spacey). The third salesman is a fresh-faced young man named Bob (Peter Facinelli), who has been teamed up with the old pros so that he can learn the trade.
The entire movie is set in a hotel hospitality suite, which the men have hired in order to entertain potential customers. But there is only one sale they are really after – the account of Mr Fuller who is the company President of the largest user of lubricants in the country – the man referred to by Larry as “the big kahuna”. If they can snare his interest, and sign him up, then not only will their weekend efforts be worth it, but they’ll be lauded by their bosses for landing “the big one”. If not, they fear their jobs are on the line.
Two problems exist, however. One is whether or not he will attend. The second is – they have no idea what he looks like!
Industrial lubricant is clearly not a sexy product to sell. The vets know this and explain to Bob that really it’s not lubricant they’re selling – they’re selling themselves.
Larry is crass. He’s also a cynic, and he constantly talks down to Bob. To his credit, Bob responds without becoming offended. However, as the conversation continues and Larry discovers Bob is “religious”, he begins to bait him mercilessly. Bob struggles to relate to Larry and resorts to quoting Bible verses and making statements such as, “Maybe I just have different standards!”
Eventually, the party begins and the suite is alive with the sound of reps chatting over wine and nibbles.
Soon the function is over and the three salesmen are reflecting on the events of the night. Larry and Phil presume that the “big kahuna” did not turn up, but as Bob reflects on a lengthy conversation he had with one guest he realizes that this man was, in fact, the very Mr Fuller that Larry and Phil were looking for. Mr Fuller even left his business card with Bob.
Larry is excited. He quizzes Bob over what they talked about. Bob initially replies that the guest gave him a life history on the various dogs he had owned. But when Larry probes him further, Bob innocently mentions that all the talk about dogs gave him a “lead-in” to the subject of his faith. When Larry accuses Bob of manipulating the conversation for his own ends, Bob defends his actions. “I just think it’s important to tell people what you believe.”
“Yeah,” mutters Larry, “but is it the interests of the company or our faith that’s important here?”
Interrogating Bob further, the others discover that Mr Fuller has invited him to a private party. Bob must go, say Phil and Larry, so he can reconnect with Fuller. And also so that he can pass on Larry and Phil’s business cards – and ask Fuller to call and make an appointment. Bob agrees to all this, and heads off to the party.
Back at the hotel, Phil is in his own, introspective world – struggling with the aftermath of a marriage breakup, a late mid-life depression, and even thoughts of suicide. His past choices haunt him and he is filled with regret. Over dinner he attempts to engage his best mate Larry in some of the questions of life he has been thinking about. Larry is hardly the kind of friend to confide such feelings and thoughts to. His shallow cynicism conceals a man who’s afraid to think too much about life, fearful of what he might find.
Phil wants to talk, but Larry refuses to look beneath the surface. Phil even confides, “I’ve been thinking about God.” He asks his mate, “What do you believe in, Larry?”
“I believe what I believe.”
“Which is what?”
“How the hell should I know!”
Finally Phil confesses, “I always had this haunting feeling that I had some kind of mission on earth.” However, when Larry inquires, “What kind of mission?” Phil can only admit, “I have no idea.” He really is a searching but lost soul.
In due course Bob returns from his reconnoitre with Mr Fuller. It has been several hours, and Larry is eager to find out what has happened. When he asks how the conversation went, Bob replies, “Oh, we just talked.”
“What did you talk about?”
“We talked about Christ – about Jesus”
Larry snorts, “Did you ask about what kind of industrial lubricants Jesus would have endorsed? What did you say to him, Bob?”
“We just discussed things.”
“So the subject of lubricants didn’t come up?”
“Well, the nature of the conversation steered itself away from that.”
At this point Larry loses his cool and challenges Bob, “Who raised the subject of Jesus?”
“Because it’s very important to me that people hear about Jesus.”
“Understanding that it was very important to us being here to talk with Mr Fuller about industrial lubricants, why did you choose to talk about Jesus instead?”
“Because I think it’s more important.” Bob stops and thinks through what he has just said. He tries to justify himself. “I didn’t mention lubricants because I didn’t want him to think that I was using the subject of religion to cosy up to him. I didn’t want him to think I was insincere.”
“But you were insincere!”
Bob tries to explain what he believes. “I don’t see how we can have a conversation without talking about God.”
Larry counters, “At issue here is not your belief in God or your desire to spread that belief, but what we’re here to do.”
“Which is what?”
“Industrial lubricants, Bob! We’re not here to save souls!”
The increasingly heated conversation quickly dissolves into a shouting match with Larry yelling at Bob, and Bob responding angrily with Bible verses and the Apostle Paul! Suddenly the verbal aggression turns into a physical fight. Phil has to try and pull the two protagonists apart.
Awkwardly Bob apologizes and Larry says goodnight.
Phil and Bob are left standing in the suite. As Bob prepares to leave, Phil tells him he has a few things he wants to say. Top of the list is defending his friend Larry. Larry is an honest man. Someone Phil can trust. “You too are an honest man, Bob. Deep down you want to be honest. But the question you have to ask is, ‘Has it (honesty) touched the whole of your life?’”
Bob responds, “What do you mean?”
“I mean that you preaching Jesus is no different than Larry or anybody else selling lubricants. It doesn’t matter whether you’re selling Jesus or Buddha or civil rights or real estate. That doesn’t make you a human being. It makes you a marketing rep. If you want to talk to someone honestly as a human being, find out what his dreams are. Ask him about his kids. Just to find out. Because as soon as you lay your hands on a conversation to steer it, it’s no longer a conversation. It’s a pitch. And you’re not a human being. You’re a marketing rep.”
Larry and Phil are clearly individuals struggling with their own tragedies. But in many ways, from a Christian perspective, Bob is also a tragic character. Though his young, innocent life bears none of the deep disappointments, relationship meltdowns and depressing self-analysis that Larry and Phil have gone through, nevertheless Bob’s narrow view and experience of life (and of faith) doesn’t connect with his older colleagues. He tries genuinely to relate, but often ends up quoting a scripture which just “bounces off the wall”, and causes him to be viewed as a naïve and odd young man. Which he is.
His actions and words signal many questions – about integrity, about what it means to bear witness, and about the tensions inherent in serving both God and an employer.
Perhaps most of all, his well-intentioned attempts to convert Mr Fuller reveal that he too, like the others, views himself as a salesman. He is trying to “sell” Jesus. That’s a problem for him professionally – it raises the question of how he can do his job with integrity. But it’s also a problem in his relationships. His narrow understanding of what being a witness is all about means he misses real opportunities to express genuine compassion and care for his colleagues.
We have previously (in the introduction to Part 2) mentioned the survey conducted by Laura Nash. One of her interviewees told her, “I’m nervous about people who wear their faith on their sleeves. In general, my experience with these people has been so bad.” Christians have very different ideas about how overtly we should advertise our Christian beliefs in the marketplace. Elmer Johnson, former executive vice president of General Motors puts it this way: “If you flaunt your religion, it has lost its power in your life. On the other hand, you don’t really hide it, because it is too integral. It’s the foundation of everything.”
One coping device for Christians who want to avoid conflict is to relegate their faith to the “private” parts of their life, to what they do outside of work hours. An opposite approach is to charge into every encounter with the zeal of a crusader, determined to publicize your beliefs and to say your bit no matter what the consequences. Yet another approach is to minimize conflict by limiting your business associations – as much as possible working only with those who share your values.
Personally, we are not attracted to any of these strategies. For Jesus followers trying to take seriously his example of engaging with others in the world, there must be a better way.
Robert Webber has explored the life of Jesus by identifying three different themes: identification, separation and transformation. According to Webber, all three are present in the incarnational approach that Jesus adopted.
Jesus entered our world mixing with a great deal of freedom among all sorts of people. He befriended some leading Pharisees and honourable business and political families (such as those of the women who supported him – see Luke 8:3). He also went out of his way to spend time with lepers, prostitutes, drunkards, Roman soldiers, Samaritans and Gentiles. (He even befriended some unscrupulous business people! We know specifically about tax gatherers Matthew and Zacchaeus.)
It’s well known that Jesus was roundly criticized by religious people of his time for mixing so indiscriminately. From their point of view Jesus compromised his holiness. But Jesus was redefining what holiness is about. It does not just mean separation from ordinary people and from ethically dubious circumstances. Jesus was loud in his denunciation of what he saw as the ethical hypocrisy of the Pharisees in the marketplace. They put on a pretence of holiness in terms of personal morality, but they failed to act justly or to love mercy. They cut themselves off from others for the wrong reasons.
Unquestionably there is a time for separation. It was not just the Pharisees that Jesus condemned. He also separated himself from many of the beliefs and practices of the Sadducees, criticizing their theology. He mounted an alarmingly violent attack on the money changers who exploited worshippers in the temple precincts, overturning their tables and literally cracking a whip. This is no Jesus meek and mild, the gentle friend of everyone.
So Jesus did separate himself from others when he felt it necessary. But at the same time, he was not willing to just maintain the status quo. He pursued the dream of creating a different world. Constantly he talked about the Kingdom of God and how it is the values of the Kingdom that we are now called to live by. He encouraged his disciples to pray to our Father in heaven, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The world that Jesus is a citizen of is a world transformed by Kingdom values. And he invites us also to live as signs and transforming agents of that Kingdom.
So the ministry of Jesus can’t be reduced to a single approach. Sometimes he willingly fits in with the circumstances and people around him, including the good, the bad, the sick and the succeeding. Sometimes he challenges the people or circumstances, refusing to accept what they stand for or to be identified with them. And sometimes he acts assertively to see people and circumstances transformed.
The actions of Jesus can't be reduced to a simple formula or rule. The closest we get is in John 5:19 where he says, “I do what I see my Father doing.” Jesus chooses to act in accord with his knowledge of God. He chooses to cooperate with what he sees God doing in each person he meets, and in each situation he encounters. As a result we find that all these dimensions – identification, separation and transformation – are present in the incarnational approach that Jesus adopted and modelled.
Consequently, it is Christian discernment that we must pray for – to know what is the most appropriate response at any particular time in the ethically complex marketplace in which we operate. We need to know when to identify with freedom, when to courageously separate, and when to push persistently and determinedly for transformation and change.
It was in the inhospitable and very strange land of Babylon that four young Jewish men sought to live out this tension. Their story is found in the first six chapters of the book of Daniel – and it’s quite a story. Trained in the ways of the host country’s culture, each of these men were given leadership positions within its government.
Daniel is the prominent member of the foursome, and all but one of the events in these chapters involves him. On two occasions he displays astonishingly courageous integrity. In the first, Daniel is required to interpret a terrifying dream of the king’s. When Daniel becomes aware of the dream’s meaning, he too is terrified. But he braces himself and explains the distressing message, and then even goes as far as to say:
“So, king, take my advice: Make a clean break with your sins and start living for others. Quit your wicked life and look after the needs of the down-and-out. Then you will continue to have a good life.” (Daniel 4:27 The Message)
In spite of his very responsible position, we must remember how risky it would have been for Daniel to voice these sentiments to an oriental despot – ruler of the most powerful empire of the time. No wonder Daniel was terrified. But he holds back no punches … and survives.
Some time later, Nebuchadnezzar has a gigantic golden image erected. At the dedication ceremony, an event that all the important leaders were required to attend, everyone is ordered to bow down and worship the statue. The alternative is to be thrown into a roaring furnace. No ifs or buts!
It’s at this point that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego have a problem. They determine that the limits of their acceptance of the state’s authority don’t extend to offering worship to the king’s monument. Even when given a second chance to comply, they refuse. The furious ruler has them thrown into a white-hot furnace – and we all know how this part of the story turns out!
Daniel too, faces imminent death in the incident that has become synonymous with his name – the lions’ den. It comes about because of the scheming jealousy of the other high-level government officials. They determine to find a way of bringing him down. However, Daniel’s behaviour has been impeccable. As the story states:
The vice-regents and governors got together to find some old scandal or skeleton in Daniel’s life that they could use against him, but they couldn’t dig up anything. He was totally exemplary and trustworthy. They could find no evidence of negligence or misconduct. (Daniel 6:4 The Message)
In desperation they convince the new king, Darius, to issue a decree insisting that everyone pray only to him. Disobeying this law is made punishable by death in the lions’ den.
Remarkably, Daniel continues to pray openly to Yahweh daily and is duly arrested.
Daniel’s faithful witness has clearly had a huge impact on Darius. He is mortified at what his decree has produced. Unable by law to retract the decree, he reluctantly has Daniel thrown into the den, but not before saying to him, “Your God, to whom you are so loyal, is going to get you out of this.”
Daniel is indeed saved, much to the huge relief of the king. Angry at how he has been manipulated by his officials, Darius has them thrown to the lions. The story of Daniel finishes with a final proclamation by the king:
“I decree that Daniel’s God shall be worshipped and feared in all parts of my kingdom. He is the living God, world without end. His kingdom never falls. His rule continues eternally. He is a saviour and rescuer. He performs astonishing miracles in heaven and on earth. He saved Daniel from the power of the lions.” (Daniel 6:26-27 The Message)
Remarkable stuff indeed! For Daniel and his friends, maintaining integrity meant bravely putting their lives on the line as they lived true to their beliefs.
However, an earlier incident – related to us by the writer of Daniel in the first chapter of the book, also offers us some insights into how these exiled Jewish men grappled with the tension of being faithful to Yahweh, while also seeking the peace and prosperity of their host empire:
Daniel made up his mind to eat and drink only what God had approved for his people to eat. And he asked the king’s chief official for permission not to eat the food and wine served in the royal palace. God had made the official friendly and kind to Daniel. But the man still told him, “The king has decided what you must eat and drink. And I am afraid he will kill me, if you eat something else and end up looking worse than the other young men.” The king’s official had put a guard in charge of Daniel and his three friends. So Daniel said to the guard, “For the next ten days, let us have only vegetables and water at mealtime. When the ten days are up, compare how we look with the other young men, and decide what to do with us.” The guard agreed to do what Daniel had asked. Ten days later, Daniel and his friends looked healthier and better than the young men who had been served food from the royal palace. After this, the guard let them eat vegetables instead of the rich food and wine. (Daniel 1:8-16 CEV)
To us, the food that Daniel and his friends ate might not seem like much of an issue. But it did to them. This was because the Jewish Law laid down some clear rules about food. (Which is why we find Jewish and Gentile Christians so fiercely debating food issues in Acts 15.)
So how should we act when we face some issue of conscience where we determine we should take a stand?
Daniel and his friends provide a valuable example. They were careful. They didn’t want to antagonize the Babylonians unnecessarily, but neither did they want to feel seriously compromised themselves. They had to decide how far they would go and where they would draw the line.
We need to pray for courage to act. But we also need wisdom to know when to act and when not to act. For as Christians we often seem preoccupied with just a few issues – and they’re not always the most important ones. Sadly, often we are only known for what we denounce and stand against, rather than what we stand for. Generally we’re on the back foot – responding negatively to moves that others have made, rather than proactively making a positive difference ourselves.
Daniel and his friends provide us with a much more positive model of people who want to serve God with integrity. They are very clear about the real issues, but they are also concerned to work them through in a way that even unbelievers will understand and admire. They are not defensive about living as the people of God in this pluralistic environment. In fact they seem to view Babylon as a place full of opportunities for exercising faith – rather than as a place of restrictive barriers. They don’t get uptight about every problem. (For example if they protest about the fact that they are renamed after Babylonian gods, we are not told about this. Apparently it is not a big enough issue.)
They think carefully about the problem and seek to explain their point of view in ways that others can understand. They ask for the opportunity to prove that their faith can produce results. And they trust that God will turn up and make a difference where they work.
When faced with something they find offensive, Daniel and his friends have learned the fine art of pausing to stop and think before they overreact. This allows them to respond creatively, working towards a positive solution rather than magnifying the problem. So often we Christians get caught on the hop. When we react, our burst of righteous anger means that the truth can’t be heard. Even if the message is right, the aggressiveness of our method has already undermined it.
The final – and maybe even the most important – lesson we learn from Daniel and his friends is that God doesn’t want us left to face these ethical challenges on our own. Daniel shared his life and his questions with his friends; that way they were able to support each other. Sometimes we are forced to face challenges alone – like Joseph in Egypt. But God’s intention is that the church should be a supportive fellowship of fellow travellers. We are meant to draw encouragement and inspiration from one another. We can only do that if we have the support of committed companions.
This is not so that we can live off the faith of the group we belong to. Nor so that others can tell us what to do. Rather, a helpful Christian group will be one that encourages us to work out a faith we can own for ourselves. It is a group that has robust foundations, sufficient to sustain us for life. If that is the case, then perhaps we’ll be less afraid to put our faith to the test. Along with others, we’ll be bold enough to attempt what we would never do alone.
That’s how Daniel and his friends acted. They took a bold stand … together. They did it with sensitivity, trying not to offend unnecessarily, helping those above them to understand why they felt compelled to do it.
But they also did it in a way that meant God had to deliver. It must have seemed pretty scary at the time – though not nearly as scary as the searing furnace or the den of lions that they would later have to face! Of course that was a few more lessons down the road. And that’s important to remember. For only God knows where each of us are up to right now. He’s not expecting us to jump straight into red-hot crises or a den of man-eating critics. We’re simply asked to respond to the challenge that’s in front of us.
So what was “faith” for Daniel and his friends might seem beyond us right now. But they too got there, just one step at a time.
1. What positive and/or negative examples of Christian witness are there in your workplace or wider industry? In what ways do they affect the view your non-believer colleagues have of faith and life issues?
2. Early in the chapter we noted some key questions about being faithful witnesses in the secular city. In the light of what we have raised in this chapter, and your own experience, discuss:
What does integrity look like in the workplace?
What does it mean to be a “witness” in the workplace?
Is there a place for “sharing our faith” in the workplace? If so, in what ways?
How can we determine what issues we need to make a stand on?
3. Share your own struggles and joys regarding being a witness in your workplace. (Remember to think about the challenges of both implicit and explicit witness.)
4. Robert Webber identifies three aspects of Jesus’ incarnation as a human – identification, separation and transformation. Regarding this we wrote: “We need to know when to identify with freedom, when to courageously separate, and when to push persistently and determinedly for transformation.”
Use your own workplace experience to think about how these choices might best be made. How difficult do you find it to make these choices? Can you describe particular examples that you have been faced with?
5. What appeals to you most about the story of Daniel and his friends? What do you find most daunting?