Introduction: Ongoing Dilemmas
One of the important assumptions throughout this book is that following Jesus needs to inform, impact,, and transform every area of our lives – including our work in the marketplace. How we conduct our business should be markedly different because of our faith.
But are there some matters where engaging in business and our faith is simply incompatible? Or are there at least issues where, in order to be faithful to Jesus and be successful at work, we have to compromise? Perhaps we are just fooling ourselves. Can we really follow Jesus and at the same time be involved in the world of commerce?
These are some of the inherent questions in a study conducted by Laura Nash, a business ethicist and a former professor at Harvard Business School, who set out to examine how faith impacts on doing business. Nash interviewed a substantial sample of business executives who claimed to be evangelical Christians. Her aim was to uncover how exactly their beliefs affected their decision-making process – particularly in regard to ethical choices. Did their faith make any difference at all? If so, in what way?
Nash’s findings were fascinating. Essentially she encountered three broad responses. There was one group of business people who largely refused to believe there was any real conflict between their faith and the requirements of business. Nash labelled these “Generalists”, because they avoided identifying any specific way in which their faith might affect their work. They minimalized and trivialized any apparent differences. In short, the approach of these Generalists was thoroughly dualistic. That is, they lived their lives in two worlds, their faith in one and their daily work in the other. The only real connection was through a small band of sexual and personal morality issues. Generalists gave little thought to the possibility that their faith might have economic, social and environmental implications.
A second group (whom she called “Justifiers”) acknowledged that there are goals in business that are different to some issues of faith – like pursuing profit and loving God. However, Justifiers resisted seeing them in any way conflicting. Their approach was largely: “If you do the right thing in business you will do well economically; if you do the wrong thing, you will be punished by the marketplace.” This is remarkably similar to the “enlightened self-interest” of Adam Smith that we noted in chapter three. Such confidence in an “invisible hand” that ensures the free market will automatically reward ethical choices and punish unethical behaviour, smacks of a wholesale belief that capitalism is “God’s ideal system”.
The third broad group identified by Nash were those acutely aware of some inherent tensions or conflict between their faith and the business world. It was this group of Christian business people (labelled “Seekers”) whom Nash found most intriguing. They did not deny or ignore the points of conflict between their faith and business. They simply recognized that the struggle is active and ongoing, as they wrestled with what was the best response to a given situation. As Nash observes:
Rather than seeing business and Christianity as automatically compatible, the seekers find that faith does two things simultaneously: it demands an awareness of conflicting values, while it also becomes the mediating factor in the ongoing tensions between the musts of religion and the musts of business.
In her conversations with this group of evangelical business people, Nash identified seven broad tensions that Seekers regularly faced. These issues, she determined, are not completely reconcilable. There are no easy solutions to them, just a series of “creative tensions”. Nash called them “creative” because she observed that when Seekers grappled with these problems they often produced original and alternative courses of action which not only took into account their ethical concerns, but also made good economic sense.
Laura Nash’s research highlights an important challenge for us. On the one hand, it’s easy to fall into the trap of allowing our faith and our business to become so closely intertwined that there is no distinction between them. Our faith ends up failing to provide any critique of our business – as though no real tensions exist. For example, we can naively believe that the economic system we are part of – capitalism – is totally consistent with Christianity.
On the other hand, there’s a temptation to simply avoid allowing our faith to impact on our economic activities at all. This is also a well-worn track which essentially results in a retreat into a wholly privatized faith. Disappointingly, many Christians live in this type of dualistic world – where their spiritual beliefs and values are kept separate from the way they operate in their work. The consequences of living this way can be observed in the story of Enron that we consider in chapter six.
To avoid these twin dangers, we need to walk what amounts to a tightrope – ensuring that our faith is sufficiently distant from our business activity, so that it is able to inform and shape our involvement in the marketplace, while in no way just validating it uncritically.
This, it seems to us, is what Laura Nash’s “creative tensions” help us to do. And so in the following chapters we will be utilizing her categories as a starting point to explore some of these ongoing dilemmas for Christians in business. They are:
Her findings are summarized in her book, Believers in Business: Resolving the tensions between Christian faith, business ethics, competition and our definitions of success (Nashville: Nelson, 1994).
Sadly, Nash’s sample is restricted to “successful CEO’s and executives” – high-end managers and leaders in large corporations. Most of us don’t find ourselves in those sorts of roles, so the kind of struggles and ethical challenges these people experience may be somewhat different to ours. Nevertheless, we think her findings have widespread relevance – to employees, to the self-employed, and across industries.
We admit freely to only really taking the core issue of each tension – and then exploring it in ways that Laura Nash might not have intended. We hope such liberty is ethical!
Of course, there are other creative tensions that exist; the ones Nash mentions are not exhaustive. For example, we considered writing a chapter about the tension between the biblical injunction to steward creation (caring for the environment; what we might call “earthkeeping”), and the business goals of progress, productivity and the development of industry. While we’ve chosen not to develop this topic in full, there are elements of this tension in some of the other topics, and in one or two of our case studies.