Reflections from Seminary Students

Book Review: Just Business

May 18th, 2011 § 0 Comments

Just Business: Christian Ethics for the Marketplace, 2nd ed., by Alexander Hill (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008. 276 pp)

Since 2001, Alexander Hill has been the president and chief executive officer of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Under his leadership, InterVarsity successfully operates a publishing company and the world-renowned Urbana Student Missions Conference. In his previous position, Hill served as the Dean of the School of Business and Economics at Seattle Pacific University. Hill earned both his B.A. and his M.A. from Seattle Pacific University before attending the University of Washington School of Law, where he earned a J.D. In addition to his 2008 book, Just Business, Hill has published numerous articles. Hill and his wife, Mary, have two daughters and live in Madison, Wisconsin.

It’s Because We Can Ask, “Why?”

The exploration of meaning in the lives of individuals provides a fascinating difference between human beings and other living organisms. Instead of engaging in simple reactions to stimuli, human beings possess the capacity to ponder these actions at a deeper level.

While a bird eats for sustenance, humans can not only ask why the consumption of food is vital but also reason to an answer. In the case of living in a community, humanity enjoys the ability to question the way we interact and to create structures that help society function on a level playing field.

Although, arguably, questions of ethical action remain unanswerable in a conclusive form, many find ethical structures helpful in governing difficult quandaries.

In Just Business, Alexander Hill spends the first portion of the book outlining a Scripturally based ethical structure of holiness, justice, and love for business practices. During the second section, Hill relates his Christian ethic to the dominant forms of ethical practice in the business world. And, finally, Hill utilizes the third section of Just Business as an extended analysis of case studies in light of his proposed Christian ethic.

Holiness

Hill begins his pursuit of an ethical framework by proposing the concept of holiness as a critical component of an ethical lifestyle. He argues that the definition of holiness comprises four parts: zeal for God, purity, accountability, and humility. Hill writes,

The crucial point is that holiness is fundamentally about priorities. So long as a business is a means of honoring God rather than an end in itself, the concept of holiness is not violated. (25)

In other words, business means more than a competition around the highest profits. When a business person prioritizes holiness, that business is reoriented around its usefulness for others, not merely around its money-making potential.

However, the principle of holiness can be misapplied. When holiness becomes a set of rules, it becomes a harsh form of legalism; if holiness is used as a means to point out the flaws of others, it is merely judgmentalism; and, finally, when holiness becomes an excuse for roping off oneself from society, it functions as a false asceticism.

Justice

For the second foundational principle, Hill suggests the biblical notion of justice. In the business world, sadly, any action within the opaque legal framework is morally permissible no matter the injurious outcome on other people.

Justice provides order to human relationships by laying out reciprocal sets of duties and rights for those living in the context of community – business partners, employees, neighbors and family members. (37)

In other words, justice functions as a communal code that allows a society to function.

Similarly to holiness, the excessive application of justice leads to possible mishandling. More specifically, when justice is applied as the letter of the law, it can be exceedingly harsh and condemning. Hill asserts,

Justice tends to be cold and dispassionate, lacking the emotional heat and relational passion of holy love. (48)

Love

Thus, it is important to buttress holiness and justice with the spiritual virtue of love. Acting as the glue between holiness and justice, love anchors these virtues in relationship. Hill argues that the definition of love includes empathy, mercy, and sacrifice.

As with holiness and justice, the biblical virtue of love carries potential difficulties. Hill notes that clergyman Joseph Foster proposed love as the only Christian ethic. Taken to extremes, love alone allows people to act in immoral ways for the sake of loving relationships.

Additionally, such positions offer ambiguity. When love is the only moral beacon, what should an individual do when a difficult choice means loving one person and “unloving” another?

Lastly, when others in society understand your single-minded loving ethic, they find opportunities to take advantage of your loving-kindness.

Therefore, it is important for holiness, justice, and love to act in unity because each virtue acts as a check and balance against the potential abuses of the other virtues.

The Space Between Duty-bound Ethics and Virtue Ethics

While the rest of the book discusses both the comparison between holiness, justice, and love and the application of these in specific case studies, the root of Hill’s argument resides in these Christian virtues. As Hill compares and applies this framework, his ethic meanders between a deontological, or duty-bound, ethic and a virtue ethic position.

On one hand, Hill argues that the holiness-justice-love ethic provides absolute answers in particular scenarios. On the other hand, Hill wants his position to maintain the fluidity of virtue ethics as difficult scenarios require nuanced decisions.

Where’s Grace?

Additionally, Hill spends one paragraph at the end of the book discussing the role of the fallen world in the holiness-justice-love rubric. Although the themes of holiness, justice, and love ought to inform our decision making, do they apply equally to decisions after a mistake has been made?

In his one paragraph on the matter, Hill argues that no one is able to fully apply the holiness-justice-love ethic; we thus must all accept God’s gift of grace.

I question, however, the way the notion of grace is applied practically. In the business world, is grace a possibility when the Fall influences someone to make a decision with drastic consequences for the company? Is grace unconditional within a company? Lastly, how do holiness, justice, love, and grace apply to theories of termination? Does the Christian ethic argue against terminating jobs? It seems to me that Just Business remains silent on these issues.

The Verdict

By nature, any attempt at the deeper meanings behind human interaction will always fall short. As such, the holiness-justice-love rubric is useful but incomplete. Nevertheless, humanity is capable of pursuing these deeper questions, and significant meaning can result from such inquiries.

Hill’s Just Business is an admirable effort at applying biblical principles to business practices. High readability makes this book an excellent read for Christians in the fast paced business world. Hill carefully and accessibly categorizes his argument. Additionally, he inserts case studies and business stories to keep the reader’s attention throughout the discourse.

While I have my reservations about the conclusivity of his arguments, this book is a must read for anyone considering a Christian ethic for the marketplace.

Book Review: Why Business Matters to God

March 2nd, 2011 § 0 Comments

Why Business Matters to God (And What Still Needs to Be Fixed)

By Jeff Van Duzer (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010. 206 pp)

Jeff Van Duzer is the dean of Seattle Pacific University’s School of Business and Economics. Previously, he practiced law for more than 20 years with a large international law firm concentrating in commercial transactions and environmental law. Van Duzer received his J.D. from Yale Law School. He writes and speaks frequently in both church and professional settings.

Separate Spheres, Like the Sun and Moon

In most home, work, and church settings, a clear disconnect exists between Christianity and business. In general, the average Christian relegates his or her faith to the personal sphere. Beliefs and practices resulting from Christian tradition are channeled primarily within the family with the purpose of creating moral individuals and healthy relationships.

When an application of faith to business is pursued, one of two extreme postures is typically taken: Christians understand the business world to be in conflict with the life of faith, thereby pursuing their work lives independent of their spiritual lives. Or, they see little or no moral tension between economic and spiritual pursuits, resulting in “business as usual” with no resulting changes in actions or outlook.

The pulpit, similarly, avoids mingling these two topics. Apart from rhetoric encouraging parishioners to live Monday through Friday in an identical manner to Sunday, pastors rarely mention the theological merit of work. For this reason and certainly many more, numerous Christians value business for its instrumental contributions to “morally elevated” occupations such as church, missionary, and nonprofit work.

Business as Service

Van Duzer questions these assumptions in Why Business Matters to God. While value certainly exists in the contributions business makes to the nonprofit sector, Van Duzer contends that business in and of itself contains intrinsic value.

Leaning theologically on the Reformed rubric of God’s activity in the world — creation, fall, redemption, and New Creation — as well as theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s classic work in Christ and Culture, Van Duzer suggests a new framework in which to imagine business. He recommends supplanting the generally accepted business practice of maximizing shareholder value with a “business-as-service model,” which he contends is more closely aligned with God’s purposes for economic enterprise.

What is the “business-as-service model?” Van Duzer defines it simply when he writes, “The purpose of business is still to serve in two key aspects: (1) to serve the community by providing goods and services that will enable the community to flourish, and (2) to serve employees by providing them with opportunities to express at least a portion of their God-given identity through meaningful and creative work” (114).

In a certain sense, Van Duzer’s business-as-service model resides within the realm of ideas reacting against the dominant view of maximizing shareholder value such as stakeholder theory, social entrepreneurship, conscious capitalism, and creative capitalism; and on top of new ownership structures, like the B Corporation, that facilitate a legal framework from which to pursue multiple bottom lines. More importantly, though, Van Duzer’s position re-imagines business through a practical theological lens.

The Messy Middle

Whether business models itself in service or shareholder value, it operates in what Van Duzer calls the “messy middle,” a state on the theological timeline between the resurrected Jesus and the promises of glorified perfection yet to come. The Jewish and Christian scriptures promise a perfect, future city that exhibits all that God originally intended for humanity. Yet brokenness keeps us from fulfilling these promises in our current time and context. For Christians, a perfect application of the “business-as-service model,” therefore, is impossible until the full Shalom in Jesus’ return is made manifest.

Although work is currently tainted by the fall, it presents Christians in the business world with the opportunity to exercise both creative and redemptive work. God first illustrated the calling of humanity to engage in creative work through the naming of the animals by Adam. Similarly, business people in modern times engage in creative work when they develop new software, begin an entrepreneurial venture, or engage in other additive ventures.

Intermingled and as equally important, business also focuses on fixing and restoring that which is fractured, a necessary measure because of the full import of the fall. While the “messy middle” hinders the full realization of a perfected business-as-service model, redemptive and creative work offers Christian business people a navigable compass in our less-than-perfect world.

God’s Economy: The Household

Theologically speaking, Van Duzer’s business model emphasizes the community over the individual. Typically, when managing decisions, the modern business person applies a self-interested ethic often under the umbrella of consequentialism. Authors such as Milton Friedman continue to cite — perhaps incorrectly — Adam Smith’s invisible hand as the root of all actions in the free market.

Business as service, on the other hand, stresses the importance of other people. In this way, business serves the economy, or better translated: the household. Just as the triune God exists not as an individual but as three persons in relational community, so too business exists in relational community with the rest of the economy and with other important, mediating institutions of culture.

Theologian, M. Douglas Meeks writes in God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and the Political Economy,

“All the persons of the triune community have their own characteristics and their own tasks. Yet they are constituted as persons precisely by their relationships with other persons of the community. The same should be said for human economic community. There is in reality no such thing as a radically individual and isolated human being. We are what we are as a result of being constituted by our relationships with other members of the communities in which we live. All social goods are given to us communally.”

A theologically minded Christian in the marketplace must remember that his or her actions affect the local community and the global community. Where self-interested or narrowly focused decisions directed toward increasing shareholder wealth often neglect other stakeholders, the business-as-service framework offers an important and theologically grounded foundation to serve the broader community.

Why Business Matters to God

God created work and declared that it was good. Why Business Matters to God contends with the schismatic notion that business and Christian practices reside in divergent spheres.

Where the popular ideologies suggest that the positive nature of business subsists in its instrumental value — its capability in funding work that actually matters — Jeff Van Duzer asserts that business, when understood as service to the global community, maintains intrinsic value — significance by its created purpose to both create and restore a hurting world.

Whether your occupation involves managing a large company or you just recently entered the job world, this book is a must-read for those interested in the relationship between Scripture, work, and business.

Originally published at http://www.spu.edu/depts/sbe/cib/.

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