Thursday, April 20, 2006

Living dangerously

"Don't look now, but that wall with the handwriting on it is starting to crumble." - Brother Billy.

Once upon a time, I traveled around the Midwest speaking and debating about corporations -- and about what the Bible might be saying about life in a society, or world, in which the business corporation is the dominant economic institution, with all the political power that that implies.

I remember a speech to a Rotary Club in a small, very Republican town in rural East-Central Illinois that was so well-received that I got invited back to talk with a Methodist Bible Study group. Very conservative folk - sober, middle-aged Middle American adults.

Pared down, what I said, with Bible in hand, was that (1) since corporations are potentially immortal they will ultimately beat out mere mortals in the competition for wealth and power; and that (2), unlike a person who owns a business, a corporation has only one goal, which is to maximize profits. (The Bible calls that Greed, or Avarice.) By contrast, a real human business person usually has lots of goals related to things like family, religion, community, and many other interests, values, and ideals. Seeking to "make a living", even a good living, is not the same as "maximizing profits" and letting everything else go hang.

Then I went on to say that (3) corporations with publicly-traded stock actually institutionalize irresponsibility.

Just ask yourself, I said, how many nuclear power plants, for example, would have been built if stockholders could be held personally liable for damages from pollution or disasters. Clearly, the answer is 'none'. In fact, in order to get any nuclear plants built at all, Congress had to put a cap on liability exposure for the corporations themselves.

How many people would invest in stocks if they could be sued for the debts or damages caused by "their" company? At best, the stock market would be a lot smaller and prices would be a lot lower than they are now.

Then I asked the group if they could think of a Biblical word that summed up these three things - immortality, avarice, and irresponsibility. They thought a bit, but said nothing. I asked them "how about 'sin'?" Every single head nodded yes, yes, yes.

I've never forgotten that.

Now those good Methodists and Rotarians didn't rush out and join a radical political party, or even the Democrats, nor did they start to boycott Big Business. But I was told by the guy who arranged for the Rotary gig that the topic of conversation at the local diner for a few days was "what would it look like if we didn't have the GEs and the GMs?" The Republican Town Supervisor was much taken with the idea of something more human and humane.

A seed was planted - but never cultivated. The soil seemed fertile in the mid-70s, however. Perhaps it's not as fertile today. Institutional allegiances have hardened; polarization seems much more extreme. But a lot of people say they're Bible believers. I persist in thinking that's a good thing -- at least potentially. It all depends on how much of the Bible folks take in. A partial Bible is a dangerous weapon. A "complete" Bible is even more dangerous. (I put quotes around "complete" in recognition that there'll always be contention about what the full story might be.)

This blog is my attempt to contribute to the process of discernment about how to live dangerously with the Bible and is meant for the benefit of the religious, the non-religious, the irreligious, and the anti-religious.

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