Compromising in Order to Maximize Profits

Book / Produced by Individual TOW Project member
Pexels photo 189476

Loving God inevitably leads us to take into account the welfare of the other people affected by our decision-making – both locally and globally. It also involves considering wider issues – like the environment and the stewardship of resources. If we maximize profits at the expense of these wider concerns, we compromise our capacity to love God.

How do we love God?

The writer of 1 John makes it clear that the most obvious way we can love God is by loving other people. He cites Jesus as our ultimate example: “Anyone who claims to be intimate with God ought to live the same kind of life Jesus lived.” ( 1 John 2:6 The Message). This means learning to care for and invest in the things Jesus cared about – loving our “neighbour”, caring for the poor and for justice, stewarding well the resources entrusted to us.

Sadly, we can too easily say we’re following Jesus but in reality be living counter to his example. 1 John is blunt in its assessment of such behaviour. It’s a lie, a sham.

The tragic case of Enron is a testimony to this. It’s really a tale of two stories – one of corporate greed, the other of pietistic faith.

The Enron Story – one side

White-Collar Crime's New Milestone

By Brooke A. Masters and Carrie Johnson, Washington Post, Friday, May 26, 2006

If there was one case the government had to make to define this as the era of corporate accountability, it was Enron.

But the Enron Corp. tale was complicated, with labyrinthine partnerships and intricate accounting entries, and no documents directly tying the guys at the top to the decisions carried out by others.

When the jury returned its verdicts – guilty on 25 of a combined 34 counts – it was a clear win. Jurors refused to let slide the two former chief executives who had become synonymous with corporate corruption, and who tried to blame underlings, advisers, institutional investors and the media for the Houston energy company's spectacular 2001 collapse.

"The jury says, you're the boss," said white-collar defense attorney Charles A. Stillman.

The convictions of Enron founder Kenneth L. Lay and former chief executive Jeffrey K. Skilling cap the Justice Department's five-year battle to hold top executives responsible for a flood of accounting fraud and corporate failures that undermined investor confidence, put tens of thousands of people out of work and hit the savings of millions of ordinary people.

Enron's 2001 bankruptcy exposed failures across the system of corporate governance, from audit companies that lacked true independence and board members who failed to ask skeptical questions to lawyers and bankers who blessed questionable deals in exchange for whopping fees. It also resulted in major changes to the regulatory system, including a federal law that requires top corporate executives to attest to the accuracy of financial statements.

Although the Enron convictions serve as a high-water mark for the government's efforts to crack down on high-level corporate lawbreaking, legal analysts cautioned that the case does not mark the end of white-collar crime. "Where there's money, there's going to be crime," said former U.S. Attorney David N. Kelley. "You never know what's going to surface."

As in many of the recent top corporate trials, prosecutors had few documents linking Skilling and Lay to the accounting maneuvers that hid billions of dollars in losses from investors. The case therefore came down to weighing the two men's credibility against that of the other Enron executives, who swore Lay and Skilling were involved.

That made the two men's performances on the stand that much more critical, and both of them fell short. Lay in particular came across as an irritable control freak, while Skilling strained credulity with his complicated explanations and convenient memory lapses, jurors said.

More than any other case, Enron symbolized the collapse of the 1990s stock market bubble and the revelation that many of the nation's highest-flying companies were far less substantial than they seemed. "This was the stock market's 9/11. How could the seventh-largest company collapse?" said Samuel W. Buell, a former federal prosecutor who worked on the early stages of the Enron case. "The fact that significant and highly credible companies engaged in misconduct of the rankest sort, pulling the wool over the eyes not just of investors but of analysts, journalists and regulators, is a very sorry chapter in our history, and one that deserves the right type of burial," said Harvey L. Pitt, a former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The Enron Story – the other side

Ken Lay was both the CEO and Chairman of the Board for Enron. He was the son of a Baptist minister, and during most of his involvement with Enron was a Methodist, very active in the life of his church, enjoying good standing among his fellow believers. In 2001, Ken Lay claimed, “Looking back on my years in business I am convinced that God has been guiding me all the way. I’ve been able to make a bigger and more positive impact on more lives, more communities and more causes than I could have done any other way.”

And he was very generous in his giving to other causes, from literacy projects to church-planting efforts. He also proclaimed his innocence and denied any responsibility for wrongdoing.

Yet a certain Professor Hanson who had a number of students working at Enron says, “I think culture is critically important, the ethical environment in which one operates, and unfortunately Enron appears to have been a problematic ethical culture, which didn't encourage the kind of honesty and responsibility-taking that is central to any ethical organization.”

At the same time another professor observed, “When you look at this management – who for the last few years were taking great responsibility for what was happening at the company, the great success they enjoyed, being on the cover of every magazine, in the newspapers, being interviewed on television – now appearing before Congress and saying, ‘We didn't know, we didn't see, we weren't part of it, we didn't understand.’ I mean, that's a lack of responsibility. That is total irresponsibility”.

The story of Bernie Ebbers is remarkably similar. The founder of Worldcom and its former chief executive, Ebbers was known as a very generous man, a church deacon and civic leader. He taught a Sunday School class for young married couples, and his pastor said, “He is a man with a good heart.” When he proclaimed his innocence in church he received a standing ovation.

The trouble is, the congressional committee that investigated Worldcom said in its findings, “This was a case of pure theft, of insiders stealing from their own investors.”

What’s the real story?

These really are scary crimes for those of us who profess to follow Jesus. If the stories of Enron and Worldcom were simply of corporate and personal greed and dishonesty by executives who professed no faith in God, it would easily fit our preconceived views of who is most likely to act unethically.

The problem is, however, that not only were some of the key players professing Christians, they exhibited exemplary “Christian” behaviour in many aspects of their lives. This raises some very serious questions for us to ponder, questions such as:

  • How can Christians think and act like this?

  • Is it possible to think we’re serving one master, when we’re actually serving a different one?

  • How can Christians sincerely believe they are acting ethically when all the evidence points to deep deception and greed?

  • Are we ourselves in danger of this kind of hypocrisy?

  • If so, what can we do to avoid falling into the same trap?