Christianity and Wealth, or An Unoccupied Conscience Begets an Occupied Street

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Whoever oppresses a poor man insults [lit. blasphemes, taunts, defies] his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors Him. – Proverbs 14:31 (ESV with my own clarification added)

What is extremely interesting about the above passage is that in the King James Bible, the order of the last part is reversed: “…but he that honoureth Him [God] hath mercy upon the poor.” The same thing happens if we turn to the Septuagint translation (verse 32 instead of 31); “He who oppresses the poor provokes his Maker, but he who honors Him [God] has mercy upon a poor man.”

What are we to make of the discrepancy between the ESV and the KJV? Do we prefer the idea that God is honored when we aid the poor, or that if we honor God we will naturally aid in the poor? The truth is, both translations are not only correct, but in harmony with each other. Later in the Bible we read that we are to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength” as the greatest commandment. But then Jesus says, “And the second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-38, emphasis added). In other words, if we honor and love God then we will honor and love our neighbors, and in honoring and loving our neighbors we will inevitably be honoring and loving God. We cannot act in isolation on the two commandments; to perform one is to perform the other.

Thus, if we truly love and honor God then we will aid the poor and in aiding the poor we will be loving God and honoring God. One could say that the KJV translation points to a disposition that we should have towards God, one that loves Him and honors Him as a condition of our soul (the greatest commandment). The ESV then would take this disposition and put it into action (the second greatest commandment). From this perspective if we are to help the poor we must love God, but in helping the poor our love for God will also grow.

Among Christians, then, we are without an excuse when it comes to corporate greed. If we follow Christ and make millions, while we are not called to give up everything, we are called to aid the poor and not to oppress them. This transcends the “Occupy Wall Street” protests, which are seemingly more and more occupied by disenchanted students who want bigger TVs and don’t care one bit about true social justice. For Christian business owners, they must make sure they are engaging in ethical business practices, from how they treat their own employees to how they are supplied.

Consider you’re a Christian and the owner (or a powerful executive) of a chocolate company. Would you make up excuses for your company purchasing chocolate from farms that use child slaves? Or would you find an ethical source of chocolate, even if it meant cutting into your own income to do so? Or would you take it a step further to shed light on the fact that numerous farms around the world that allow us to cheaply satisfy a sweet tooth comes at an ethical cost of using slave labor? Would you cut even more into your millions of dollars in bonuses to help end the plight of the poor? Or would you argue that, “This is simply how business must be conducted” and move about your day, convincing yourself that the ends (using your vast sums of wealth for your church) justify the means (child slaves in brutish conditions)?

How does a Christian CEO display his love of God if he knowingly uses slave labor (or mistreated workers) to gain his product cheaply? Greed, simply put, has no place in any business where a Christian makes high-level decisions. While salaries must sometimes be cut, workers laid off, and overhead reduced, there are ways to accomplish all of this without selling one’s soul. As a Christian, one is simply without an excuse when it comes to oppressing the poor.

But what about non-Christians? When I bring the above issues up to conservative Christians, I’m often met with, “Yes, but that’s a Christian mandate, not one to companies. We shouldn’t expect corporations to act like Christians because it’s a secular world.” Mind you, this argument often comes from those who would seek to see abortion ended, homosexual marriages forbidden, and the Ten Commandments on every single government building in existence. In short, it creates a contradictory and conflicted message. Why is it okay to speak out against abortion or homosexual marriage on religious grounds, but we must adopt a secular attitude towards aiding the poor (the opposite is true for progressive Christians). While I’m not asking for Christians to take up the hammer and sickle (because Communism, according to the late Francis Schaeffer, is simply a Christian heresy) nor am I asking for a theocracy, I am asking them to take up their cross and follow Christ, which includes helping the poor and oppressed.

This means that Christians ought to seek out legislation that helps the oppressed, such as those trapped in slavery. We should support legislation that punishes corporations that use or willfully ignore where their products come from (such as Hershey’s Chocolate or Godiva). We shouldn’t do this because we’re Democrats or Republicans, or because we’re Conservatives or Liberals, but because we’re Christians. If we wish to honor God then we will seek to end the oppression of the poor. That’s not politics, it’s Scripture.


A Possible Solution for Wall Street Protestors?

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The “Occupy Wall Street” protest is quite interesting to me. On one hand, I understand and agree that something is wrong with any nation where greed goes unchecked. At the same time, some of the solutions I’ve heard only take one tyrant (an oligarchic Wall Street) and replace it with another (an authoritarian Washington). If the movement is to achieve anything worthwhile and noteworthy of change, it should be towards creating a more stable economy while also furthering freedom, not in taking one dictator and replacing him with another dictator.

With the above in mind, rather than sitting and complaining about the greed in Wall Street (or Washington for that matter), I’d like to offer a few practical solutions for CEOs to follow as well as a few idealistic solutions. First, with the practical solutions:

  1. For employees with a minimum of 6 months employment, offer them a profit share in the company – this is best accomplished via buying or giving employees stock. While I’m not sure on the laws, giving employees stock in the company for achieving certain goals makes them part owners and spreads the wealth of the company to those working for the company. For instance, if you have a store that is performing at 40% guest satisfaction, you could promise every employee x amount of stock if they increase that to 50% guest satisfaction. This would allow employees to take ownership of the company and give them something more than an hourly wage or the promise of a raise. While this cuts into the take-home profits for CEOs (temporarily), it creates a happier workforce, which in turn could actually increase profits; after all, no one works harder than a business owner, so if you can turn your entire workforce into co-owners of your company, then why not?Let us also not forget that not every employee will be enticed by the above offer. Yet, this shows the strength of the suggestion – if an employee is still lethargic after being offered a co-ownership of the company, then he’s probably not fit to work at your company. Thus, the above program offers a way to weed out employees who could potentially bring down your business. You end up receiving a workforce who wants to be there, who is motivated to be there, who is qualified to be there, and who shares in the successes of the company.
  2. Celebrate a “jubilee-type” income (give away your income every 7 years). Many executives make upwards to a million dollars after benefits; many others make far more than that. Thus, it isn’t too much to ask them to show some frugality in saving up their income for 6 years and on the 7th year donate every penny of income that year to charity, to employees who need help, or back to the company. For those who make quite a bit of income this charitable spending goes a long way towards helping those who are less fortunate. At the same time, on the practical level, it elevates one to near sainthood in the media and among the masses; who can complain about corporate greed if you’re giving away your income every 7 years, especially if you’re giving that back to your employees as a bonus?
  3. Always give away more than 50% of your income after tax (this is for those bringing home a substantial income). While you could give away your income every 7 years, another thing to help dispel the belief in corporate greed is to give away 50% or more of your net income. Again, not all CEOs of all corporations will be able to do this (some corporations are small, thus some CEOs really do not make that much). But for those who are bringing home well above half a million dollars, living off half the net income isn’t asking that much; it’s still much more than what the average American has to deal with. Again, by giving away your personal income, who can protest you or call you greedy?
  4. Give back to the company, especially to help the most underprivileged of your employees. When giving back your personal income, one thing to look at is possibly setting up a charitable program within your own company to help your employees. One company – Darden – has set up a program called “Darden Dimes” where employees can donate as little as 10 cents of each paycheck towards the program. If an employee within the Darden company needs help, they can receive a prepaid gift card to help them through a troubled time. If all companies did this, with CEOs pumping hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars into it every year, this would increase employee satisfaction and faith in the company. This, in turn, would increase guest satisfaction (because guests would walk into a happier environment), which in turn would increase overall profit.
  5. Give back to the community, especially in education ventures. Imagine if the richest of Americans offered to help people with medical bills, or finding jobs, or building up lower income housing to help those in the area. We complain about welfare, government spending, and the like, but what if the richest of Americans took their money and invested it into private ventures that addressed issues related to the poor. It would render the government to a secondary role for those in extreme poverty; in other words, the government wouldn’t have to spend as much, meaning they wouldn’t have to tax people as much, meaning the whole debate about cutting spending or raising taxes could cool down a bit. While there isn’t enough money in the world to fix these problems (there will always be those in poverty), if every American who makes over half a million dollars a year donated to these private organizations in a substantial fashion, perhaps it could help alleviate and reduce the problem.If one were to choose where the money would go, I would argue that it should go into reshaping and reforming our educational system. Put money into programs that actually teach students rather than prepare them to take a government-issued test. Put the money into programs that help us reform education so we’re producing thinkers and not test-takers. Remember, all of these students aren’t just future consumers, but future employees; if they don’t know how to think now, they’ll make for bad employees in the future, which will ruin profits in the future. Thus, it makes sense to invest in them now so you can make more later.

Along with the practical solutions (ones that are driven by profit motive), there are some idealistic solutions I would offer. These, of course, are harder to obtain, but would naturally cause greed to disappear.

  1. Recognize that you will be held accountable for your actions, in this life or the next. Though a belief in God exists for the vast majority of Americans, acting as though God exists seems to be passé. However, God does exist and He will hold you accountable for how you’ve spent your money. One can look to the Scriptures and see that there are over 1,000 verses concerning poverty; half of those condemn those who do nothing to help it or make money off the impoverished. For the richest Americans, especially those who attend church on a regular to semi-regular basis, do understand that how you treat the poor will weigh heavily in the coming judgment.
  2. Recognize that the happy life is one of virtue, not one of vice. All humans pursue happiness, of this there is no doubt. What we define as “happy,” however, differs amongst humans. In our modern world, we tend to think of material things as being happy, and it’s true they can bring temporary happiness, but they do not resemble true happiness. Think of it this way – when you were younger you wanted that cassette player so you could be happy. If you got that same cassette player now, would you be just as happy? Of course not, because it’s out of date. Thus, happiness based on material items is constantly in flux, never satisfied, and always seeking; one is never truly happy because one is always seeking after the next change. Rather, true happiness is found in the pursuit of virtue and the obtaining of virtue. True happiness is found in the things that do not change, not in material wealth, which is always in flux.
  3. Recognize that material wealth will bring you nothing. The world has lost many millionaires to death; in fact, to date, every single millionaire or billionaire that has lived has also died. We can think of the recent tragic death of Steve Jobs, who in spite of his millions, still passed away (as a side note, Jobs serves as an example of a CEO who had a giver’s heart). Your wealth will not follow you, nor will it follow your children, nor will it follow your children’s children. At some point, your wealth will run out; and no matter what, it cannot save you. It may prolonge your life, but it will never prevent its inevitable end. So why pursue that which is temporary? Why not use that which is temporary for eternal gains? Why not build a legacy of giving, or helping people, of helping a community, of helping a society, and in so doing establish an eternal legacy that will never end?
  4. Recognize that living a good life is far more important than living a material life. The best things in life are so expensive that they can’t be bought. Having a big screen TV or the best car is nice and makes life easier, but it’s not nearly as good as having a family to come home to. Living in a multi-million dollar mansion is wonderful, but it’s minuscule compared to helping out someone who is desperate for help. The good life is the one lived in pursuit of true happiness, of a happiness that is good in and of itself; the good life is the one lived in service to others.

It is my hope that someday we’ll live in a society where these principles are put into practice. It is my hope that the problem will fix itself. But from what I’ve studied in history, it seems rather sad that in order to fix the problem of our current oligarch, will turn to a different type of tyranny and suffer all the more for it.