Our Reformed Engagement in Ethical Business Practices
July 20, 2015
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I was pleasantly surprised and thankful when I read in the July/August issue of Christianity Today that Evangelical groups are attacking (their word) loan sharks. The article went on to say: “Opponents of payday lending have a new ally in the fight against predatory lenders: the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).” The advocacy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is part of the newly formed Faith for Just Lending coalition. Other members are the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the National Baptist Convention USA, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, and the PICO National Network. Faith leaders in Kentucky, Alabama, and South Dakota have asked state legislatures to cap the loans, which come with interest rates of more than 300 percent. What a great witness by the Southern Baptists and a great way to stand in the prophetic tradition of the Christian faith calling out those who oppress the poor.
I was also shocked by a similar ethical business practice in the pricing of prescription drugs. The latest July/August Bulletin of AARP has an article written by Peter Jaret, an award winning health and medicine writer living in California. High prices of brand drugs have always been with us because as the drug companies assert, “When a new drug is released, pharmaceutical companies can charge whatever the market will bear to recoup their R&D costs and make a profit.” Because brand-name drugs reap such huge rewards, pharmaceutical companies have begun to resort to controversial ways to protect their monopoly. One way is to change the formula to a time release version that remains under the same patent. Another is dubbed “pay for delay”. "This is when brand name drug makers pay generics not to enter the market," explains Geoffrey Joyce , an associate professor of pharmacy at the University of Southern California. These price spikes, or gouging, are becoming critical in the health of many to the point that some patients simply cannot afford to pay and therefore do not take their needed drugs and develop more critical and expensive diseases.
Christian organizations such as ERLC and the SBC are not experts in drugs and may find it difficult to engage in ethical discussion on this topic. But let us make no mistake, ethical principles are operating here and they are not necessarily Christian. Christian doctors, pharmacologists, CEO’s of drug companies and others in the know are qualified to speak. Hopefully they will. I do wish our Reformed Church assemblies (WCRC, Naparc, CCC, CCT-USA, Justice For All, etc,) or our social justice committees would speak to the ethics involved. If Baptists and other evangelical Christians can do this why cannot we Reformed? What another opportunity for (Reformed) Christians to speak truth to power in our culture all for the glory of God and the coming of his Kingdom.
Other large industries today are facing governmental investigations on fraudulent business practices, and or price collusion with their so-called competitors. One need only think of recent news reports on the airline industry.
To conclude, Christian ethics in business is a fertile field which needs far greater engagement by Christian churches, organizations, societies, individual Christians and Reformed ethicists.
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The Center for Public Justice is also part of the Faith for Just Lending coalition. See my post at http://network.crcna.org/social-justice/predatory-lending-survey for a survey they are conducting through July 31.
There is a great deal of academic work in this field, and most MBA programs have a course in Business Ethics. But knowing and doing have long been separate items. I too published a book in Christian Ethics (The Moral Disciple, Eerdmans) and one related to global poverty (Less than $2.00 a Day, Eerdmans). The problem is not a lack of reflection on the topic, but a lack of action. It could perhaps be promoted within the church in classes, sermons, and activities. The big foe, however, is economic liberalism, which holds that if a transaction is legal, it is OK, as long as it follows the rules. That certainly needs to be challenged. Let's keep working at it.
Thank you Kent. I am greatly encouraged by your comment. It also makes me aware of your books for which I am grateful. It seems that the church has a great deal of teaching to do on this topic, advocating for it in politics and other public arenas. Do we have Christian attorneys dealing with this?
Thanks for starting this conversation, Larry! I think it's a really important one. In my town (Hamilton, Ontario), an organization called Christians Against Poverty is working (indirectly) against loan sharks by providing debt counseling that helps people get out of debt. I would love to see more discussion around work like this and the Faith for Just Lending coalition, because this is an issue that affects so many of our neighbours, so the church should care. The biblical prophets speak so clearly against predatory lending practices. If any of you would like to expand this conversation by writing a post for Do Justice (a blog of the Office of Social Justice and the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue), I'd be happy to publish it. (I'm the blog's editor.)
Last Fall, the Business Department at Calvin College and the Acton Institute hosted the Symposium on Common Grace in Business, and the proceedings have just been published in the Journal of Markets and Morality: http://www.marketsandmorality.com/index.php/mandm/issue/view/37
Two of those articles may be particularly relevant:
This one is on pricing: http://www.marketsandmorality.com/index.php/mandm/article/view/1060
This one is on debt and risk: http://www.marketsandmorality.com/index.php/mandm/article/view/1058
For more reading on Christian business ethics, I would recommend the following. I use the first two in my classes at Calvin, and the first one is thoroughly Reformed. The second one delves into a number of specific business ethics problems, and the third one is a careful exegesis of the Gospel of Luke as it pertains to Jesus's teachings on the management of the household (which at the time was a center of economic production as well as consumption).
Van Duzer, J. 2010. Why business matters to God (and what still needs to be fixed). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
Hill, A. 2008. Just business: Christian ethics for the marketplace. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
Dyck, B. 2013. Management and the Gospel: Luke's radical message for the first and twenty-first centuries. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
As for the "how" of taking action on ethical challenges in business, my article in the abovementioned issue of JM&M talks about that:
I also recommend the following book, which contains another framework that I use in my class at Calvin. It's written from a secular perspective, but it provides useful guidance for acting on one's convictions in a secular organization:
Gentile, M. C. 2010. Giving voice to values: How to speak your mind when you know what's right. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Finally, for businesspeople who want to organize for change, I recommend a secular organization called Net Impact. https://netimpact.org/ For Christian businesspeople who want to connect with each other and learn how to live out their faith at work, I recommend the Center for Faith and Work at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. http://www.faithandwork.com/ Both of the above have annual conferences, and both are holding theirs this year November 5-7, in Seattle and NYC, respectively.
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