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Faith and Business: Mixing Oil and Water for the Sake of the Poor

mixing oil and water

Business has become one of the most significant and influential institutions of society. There are three key reasons for this. First, business is how most people experience scientific and technological innovation, which has intensified in recent decades and has dramatically affected the way people live. Second, business is becoming a global form of culture in which millions of people across the world daily interact with each other. There has never been a time when so many people across the world have belonged to the same community of work. Third, global business enterprise demonstrates an ability to help lift people out of poverty by virtue of their own honest endeavour. These three factors alone are sufficient to indicate that, despite all manner of failings, business is vested with unprecedented opportunities to be an agent of positive social, material and spiritual transformation in the contemporary world. No account of contemporary culture, theological or otherwise, is adequate, therefore, if it fails to understand the purpose, potential and constraints of the commercial sphere.

An important reason why theology needs to engage with business is because, from a biblical perspective, poverty is not part of the divine plan for human beings. Made in the image of God, humans are destined for shalom, a form of well-being that is as much physical as spiritual. Because poverty scars that image, it must be overcome. God has, therefore, a “bias to the poor,” which is embodied in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, whose message to the poor is one of good news. For this reason, material poverty is a theological as well as a socio-economic scandal.

Business is the primary means by which, in God’s redemptive purposes, this scandal is addressed. This is because material wealth is the only solution to material poverty, and the only sphere that generates such wealth is business. This ought to mean that being pro-poor (as all Christians must surely be) is tantamount to being pro-business – that to be concerned about poverty is to be enthusiastic about wealth. Yet this is far from the way things are, at least in rich societies. Contrary to popular perception, it is people in poverty in low-income countries (LICs) who are generally most alive to the benefits of, and opportunities for, creating wealth.

The vocation of business to tackle poverty is often overlooked because the focus of the development community is on definitions and causes of poverty. It is questionable how useful this knowledge is compared to answers to the question, “What causes wealth?” While attention is often drawn to the fact that around eight percent of the world’s population lives on less than US$2.15 per day, the question of what happened to the other 92 percent is rarely asked. But to address poverty effectively, a solutions-oriented approach is necessary. Within this approach, wealth creation needs to be central because business is indispensable to the very goals that it is often assumed are achievable only through public and charitable initiatives. An approach to development is needed, therefore, that recognizes the vast numbers of poor people who are dignified, resilient and creative entrepreneurs and value-conscious consumers who are more interested in a hand-up, rather than a hand-out. Aid should therefore be targeted at catalysing enterprise development in low-income countries; small and medium-sized companies (SMEs) are the world’s foremost creators not only of jobs and material wealth but also of recycling and low-carbon technologies.

The critical question is not whether contemporary global business is good or bad, but “what kind of global business is good?”

Business alone is not enough, of course, to overcome poverty. This requires two particularly important factors that are frequently overlooked: first, the social institutions that characterise all free societies, such as property rights, the rule of law, an independent judiciary and a free press; and secondly, the cultivation and exercise of virtue beyond the requirements of the law. These elements have strong biblical foundations, and provide the context in which business can flourish. But basic conditions such as these aside, why is it so often ignored or denied (not only in development circles but also in the media, academia and civil society) that it is impossible to banish poverty without the vigorous growth of enterprise?

One reason is the way faith and business are so often regarded as oil and water in the churches, which have played a key role in highlighting the plight of the world’s poor. Inasmuch as Western culture has been radically influenced by Christianity over the past 2,000 years, this negative attitude can also be found in wider culture, although the traffic in attitudes flows in both directions – there is good evidence that the church’s attitude grew out of its wider cultural context during the early centuries of its history.

But insofar as the contemporary blind spot towards the potential of business is attributable to Christian teaching, the church urgently needs to develop a theology and practical engagement with business that is based on the paradigm of transformation. For, the critical question is not whether contemporary global business is good or bad, but “what kind of global business is good?” Whether global business is good or bad depends, at least to some extent, on how radically and creatively people with business skills follow Christ in the marketplace, seeking to pervade commercial activity with the transformative power of his truth, liberty and justice.

For the call to seek first the kingdom of God (Matt 6:33) is not just for ministers and professional missionaries, leaving business people merely to support them financially. Rather, in the twenty-first century, business holds a vital key to unlock societies to the freedoms and joys of the kingdom of God. Countries that have closed the door to traditional missionaries are competing to attract professional entrepreneurs who can help grow their economies. Taking the opportunities for Christian witness that are naturally available in commerce is a vital and strategic means of cooperating in God’s mission to the world.

This mission involves bringing salvation, healing and shalom to every sphere of society. The impact of the fall is waiting to be undone. Because of the cross and resurrection, exploitation and the scourge of poverty can be addressed and overturned. History is replete with examples of how Christians inspired by this vision have used their business skills to challenge oppressive socio-economic structures, such as those associated with slavery and colonialism.

borneo boysChristian business people working in today’s global economy are similarly well placed to bring transformation to the circumstances of the world’s poor and oppressed. As they do so, they are helping to ensure that the global economy works as a blessing, rather than as a curse. They are increasing its potential to bring social upliftment, serve the common good and protect the environment. Without a rigorous and theologically balanced engagement with the transformative role of business in today’s world, it is not obvious that the church will have a sufficiently compelling vision to allow it to “make a difference” in contemporary culture. For a reconstruction of its theology will require a major shift in orientation and tone. But such a reconstruction is an important first step in making poverty history.

Dr Peter S. Heslam is the Director of Faith in Business in Cambridge, a Research Associate of the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide, a Fellow of the Kirby Laing Centre and of the Mockler Center, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.