On Greed

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We're paying considerable attention these days to greedy people. Not all of this attention is good. For those of us who believe that leadership in the world of corporate business can be an important Christian calling, there is a danger that the present focus on scandalous business behavior will promote a cynicism about corporate life, thus making it even more difficult to think clearly about the ways in which this area of human activity can be a positive way of serving the Lord. It is crucial, then, that we keep some of the basics clearly in mind.

The Bible makes it clear that greed is sinful. Greed violates the commandment against covetousness. It is, as the biblical proverb puts it, a life-destroying pattern of behavior (Prov. 1:19). Having acknowledged the evil character of greed, though, we still need to be clear about what kind of evil it is. Some things are intrinsically evil. But others are distortions of something that is good. Greed falls under the latter category.

I am a firm believer in what is sometimes labeled "the Protestant work ethic"—which is a way of referring to a list of virtues that includes such things as thrift, honesty, charity, and a concern for the common good. It also includes industry, a commitment to working hard. Industrious people are motivated. They want to produce; they crave success; they are eager to turn a profit. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of this. Without ambition we would be sluggards.

Here is a way of focusing on an interesting issue. Imagine that Adam and Eve are playing chess together in the Garden of Eden. The Fall has not yet occurred, so there is no sin in their hearts. And yet, they still are competing with one another. Each wants to win. But because there is no evil motive at work in their lives, they do not wish each other ill. As healthy competitors, they are matching their wits against each other, testing and developing certain skills. This kind of exercise can be an appropriate way to cultivate their created talents.

The world of business is obviously much more complicated than this simple picture. But I am convinced that there, too, competitiveness—ambition, the desire to succeed in productive activity—can function in a healthy manner. But as sinners, we must be careful to "tame" these impulses. Industry must be intimately linked to the other virtues—honesty, charity, thrift, a concern for the common good, and the like. When those links are not maintained, we run the risk of becoming greedy people.

This is what has happened today. The desire to succeed has become disconnected from the cultivation of the other virtues. The task of the Christian community, then, is to call for, and model, lives that are morally and spiritually integrated. Cynicism about corporate leadership as such is not the proper response. What is needed is a renewed emphasis on seeing our daily work as a way of showing love both to God and to our neighbors.

Originally published November 21, 2002.