Tom’s Turn - Can Big Business Get Religion?
Wearing our faith on our sleeve is a treacherous tightrope for individuals, perhaps even more so for businesses. Superficiality is easily communicated. But faith that has depth and real life is most usually exhibited in deeds alone.
I did something in last Sunday's sermon that I don't often do. I thought about not doing it, but I went ahead with it, and now I'm wondering if maybe I shouldn't have done it at all. For those who weren't present, the focus of the sermon was that, as the title said, “God Sent a Son, Not a Sign.” Basically, I said there's nothing particularly wrong with advertising our faith with placards, tattoos, billboards, and the like, but a lot more is needed. Being Christian is more about the way we live and what we do than it is about whether or not we carry a “John 3:16” sign at a football game.
But, in the process, I did something I almost never do. I mentioned four different corporations each of which make some public profession of their owner's faith in Christ. The first company I simply described as a dealer in women's fashions. But the other three companies I named, and that's the thing I almost never do. Each company has chosen to testify to the owner's faith in a different way: a burger place writes Bible citations on their cups and sandwich wrappers; a chicken place closes on Sundays; and an outdoor clothing company asks customers to write the boss if anything the company does lacks the sort of integrity they would expect from a follower of Jesus.
What I now think I should have done is to have used some inexact identifiers, like “a burger place” and “a chicken place” and “an outdoor clothing retailer. ”Instead I named them. And there are two huge problems with naming them. The first is that you might take my comments as encouragement (or discouragement) to buy their products. Actually I don't really believe this is a huge problem. I don't think there's anyone who's going to go buy a chicken sandwich just because I said something favorable about the chicken place, or refrain from buying a cheeseburger just because I said something less favorable about the hamburger place.
But the second problem with naming a company for some one thing that is positive or negative you might think I had given, thereby, some divine stamp of approval or disapproval of everything that company does. A business is a highly complex set of transactions, people, policies and behaviors. For each company, one of its multitude of behaviors fit well the particular point I was trying to make – and that's why I used it. But that same company does many, many other things.
For example, the chicken place that closes on Sunday so employees can rest also touts some very unfriendly policies toward gay people. The burger place that “merely” prints “Rev. 3.20” on its drink cups also does some very good things in the larger community. While writing, I almost named a company that's the major employer in the town where I grew up. They have financed a major academic study of “Religion in the Workplace” at a major university. That's a good thing and would've fit one of the points I was trying to make. But I also know many stories from “back home” about extremely low wages, poor working conditions and the use and abuse of undocumented workers.
If corporations are individuals (and, I'm sorry Supreme Court, but I don't believe they are—but that's a matter for another day) I fear they are much like the wealthy individuals Jesus referred to when he talked about it being easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God's Reign. Likewise, when they try to make public professions of a particular faith they tend to be like the fellow Jesus told about who prayed loudly in the Temple so that everyone would know of his piety, as opposed to the bum praying quietly in the corner. Even when they make large public charitable gifts I hear Jesus pointing out the holiness of the poor widow's two pennies over the great offerings of the wealthy.
The plain truth is that faith externalized for public consumption (acclaim, advertising, votes, etc.) is more often than not superficial, that is, no faith at all. But faith externalized for service to the lost, the least, the dirty, the detested, andthe outcast tends to bear the ring of truth. By such faith as this the world will know we are Christ's disciples.
I'll see you and your guests next Sunday. Remember to share a ride when possible, to wash your hands often, and to share God's Good News daily, even if it's only with a smile. To prepare for Sunday, please read John 12.20-33.