GOD’S WORD FOR WALL STREET: THE VOCATION OF THE BUSINESS LEADER

by Frank Marangos, D.Min., Ed.D.

“My word will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:11)

Are Christian leadership principles compatible with Wall Street? Does a natural divide exist between the epitomes of the Christian Faith and secular business practice, or is God’s sovereignty able to pass thru the curtains of all of life’s domains?  Honest responses to the queries above are vital for an expedient resolution to one of contemporary society’s most dangerous aberrations, namely, acquiescence to the “divided life.”

According to the useful reflection, “Vocation of the Business Leader” (2012), published by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace of the Roman Catholic Church, human beings find fulfillment when each aspect of their public, familial, and vocational lives are integrated and “placed in the service of the common good.” When properly understood and practiced as a God-inspired vocation that nurtures such assimilation, the enterprise of business contributes greatly to the material and spiritual wellbeing of humanity. Severe societal impairments occur, however, when cohesive engagements are discouraged. The result is a “divided life” – an artificial curtain – whereby an individual’s spiritual life is, at best, severed from public display and counsel, and at worst, considered paltry and extraneous to a leader’s moral, societal, and entrepreneurial arrangements.

Nowhere are the catastrophic consequences of the “divided life” more poignantly illustrated than in the award winning motion picture entitled, Mutiny on the Bounty (1962).  Featured in numerous articles and books, the film chronicles the non-fictional account of the rebellion against a British Navy captain named William Bligh (1754-1817).

While advancing the logistical strategy of planting various fruit-bearing trees for future Pacific island expeditions, the Bounty’s sailors formed overly close relationships with the native women of Tahiti. As a result, a majority of the crew rejected the order to return to England, and placed Bligh and several of his loyal officers adrift in a wooden lifeboat.

Miraculously, the rigid captain was rescued at sea, and after many years, returned to capture fourteen of his crew’s insurgents.  Nine of the original mutineers, however, evaded detention by escaping with several natives to the remote island of Pitcairn where, having set fire to the Bounty, they established the first non-Polynesian settlement in the Pacific. As the location was incorrectly marked on navigational charts, the escapees felt safe that no one would ever discover their picturesque hideaway.

Tragically, the life of the little colony of exiles was far from ambrosial as it summarily deteriorated into self-absorption, drunkenness, and depravity. In time, due to violence, suicide, disease and murder, all the mutineers died . . . except for one. While no better than his seditious comrades, John Adams (Alexander Smith) found himself aimlessly alone with a small group of frightened natives.  Terrified of his plight, Adams frantically rummaged through the footlockers of the dead where he discovered a tattered Bible. Gradually, the scriptural narratives began to provide the guidance that the young sailor required. In the end, the wisdom of God’s Word led to his repentance, and the transformative impact of its leadership principles.

Twenty years later (1808), the crew of the USS Topas unexpectedly discovered the Pitcairn settlement. However, the community did not resemble its original corruptions of self-centered crime and immorality. On the contrary, the villagers had developed a decent, prosperous, and peaceful society. Unfortunately, Pitcairn’s moral renaissance was short lived.  Once recognized as a mystical destination for those seeking the dream of paradise in the South Pacific, a third of the island’s adult male population was convicted in 2004 for numerous civil and sexual offenses!

The ethical and accountable advance of business is a most noble objective for those that seek the establishment of virtuous rather than anarchic societies. The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace is, therefore, most wise in focusing its attention on the scriptural, theological, societal, and economic principles that should guide the vocational responsibilities of the contemporary business leader, as human beings are characteristically pursuers of position, pleasure, and self-promotion.

According to the “Vocation of the Business Leader,” an honorable and responsible business is a “vehicle of cultural engagement” with a “special role to play in the unfolding of creation.” Exemplified in the Pitcairn narrative, the credo of God’s Word is a most valuable influential tool in the hands of amenable leaders willing to advance their aspirations within the guidance of its timeless postulations. When enterprises nurture environments for creative work to occur, people do not just “make more,” but, in the words of the Pontifical Council’s vade-mecum, “they become more.”

Six interrelated principles are required for the successful maturation of such a constructive environment. Accordingly, business leaders are encouraged by the Council to: (a) meet the needs of the world, (b) provide merchandise/services that are truly good, (c) serve the poor and vulnerable in the service of solidarity, (d) foster a spirit of initiative, dignity and competence among employees, (e) further a spirit of subsidiarity, and (f) advance the creation of sustainable wealth and its just distribution among various stakeholders.  While each of the aforementioned principles is worthy of its own comprehensive analysis, this commentary seeks to concentrate on the three-stage Catholic logic of “See-Judge-Act.” The process provides business leaders three (3) most practical riggings for disabling the enticements that lead to an unhealthy “divide” between their personal and public vocation.

A cornerstone of Catholic social teaching, the “See-Judge-Act” approach was pioneered by the Belgian Cardinal Joseph Cardiijn (1882–1967) and later embraced by Pope John XXIII in his now-famous Encyclical Letter Mater et Magistra (1961).  The process has become a potent way of reading (see) the “signs of the time” and engaging in pastoral action for justice (judge) in a way that is transformative (act). As the “divided life” frequently mutes the social requirements of faith and thereby “conceals rather than reveals the authentic face of God,” the model is an invaluable tool for appropriately consigning social Christian principles into practice.

Step One: Analysis

The “See-Judge-Act” method recommends that leaders include faith-based criteria in their current decision-making review stratagems. Once a contextual issue has been thoroughly investigated, well-informed judgments can then be postulated that complement social Christian principles. In this fashion, business leaders can effectively discern what social principles can and should be practically implemented that assure reasonable financial margins while simultaneously serving humanity’s “greater good.”

According to the Vocation of the Business Leader, four major contextual challenges confront the contemporary business leaders and their organizations: (a) globalization, (b) new communications, (c) financialization, and (d) cultural change. While the main feature of globalization, the interdependence of world economies, must guide leaders to conclude that no entity can think of itself as entirely independent, the speed of modern communications creates an interconnected community that imposes great responsibilities on the decision-making process.

In the last quarter century, global economies have, additionally, experienced the phenomenon commonly referred to as financialization, a profound shift from production to finance, wherein revenue and profits are considered more valuable than organizational integrity and employee wellbeing. This process has contributed to such negative cultural adjustments as short-term investor profit, limited product value, and commoditization.

These, and other symptomatic challenges attributable to the “divided life” create a false opposition between professional and social activities, on the one hand, and faith-based principles on the other. Artificial distinctions can and must be overcome by authentic business leaders who are skilled in navigating the remote island hideaways of compartmentalization with the aid of the “See-Judge-Act” compass.

Step Two: Judgment

After a thorough analysis of economic, political, historical, and cultural factors has been undertaken, practitioners of the “See-Judge-Act” method are ready to explore the implications of the Judeo-Christian theological tradition to their entrepreneurial context(s). More specifically, the Vocation of the Business Leader advocates the use of two fundamental principles of Roman Catholic social practice, namely: (a) human dignity, and (b) the advance of the common good. Eventually, new insights, meanings, and appropriate judgments will be distinguished from this conversation.

According to Holy Scripture, each and every individual is created in the image and likeness of God. The dignity of personhood must, therefore, never be appraised in terms of its instrumentality and utility to an institution’s aspirations. On the contrary, business leaders must resist such pragmatic commoditization by nurturing and placing each aspect of an employee’s (co-entrepreneur’s) life in the service of society’s common good. Only in this fashion can goods and services be created that are profitable, promote the spirit of solidarity, and serve the needs of the poor and marginalized.

Step Three: Action

Insights discerned from theological reflection must be appropriately implemented. This is the third and final step in the discernment process advocated by the Vocation of the Business Leader during which the authorized and transformative action of the Word of God is courageously executed.

If, however, faith-based business leaders honestly aspire to “act” in a way that transforms themselves, their enterprise and society, they should “cultivate a devout spiritual life through frequent prayer, scriptural reflection, and regular sacramental participation.” Only when the gifts of the Holy Spirit are authentically sought in such a fashion can leaders begin to live an “integrated life” – one that views the enterprise of business as an agency of vocational stewardship – for achieving human and social ends and not merely revenue yields for investors.

According to several writers of the New Testament, the curtain of the Jerusalem Temple was “torn in two” from “top to bottom” (Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38) by the death of Jesus Christ. The curtain was 60 feet long, 30 feet wide, and several inches thick. It was made of dense gold and silver braided threads that required 300 priests to carry it. Symbolizing the slashing impact that sin comprehensively caused upon humanity, the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple could only be bypassed once a year by Judaism’s high priest on the Day of Atonement.

The implication of the curtain’s “laceration” proffers significant insights to this commentary. The historical event affirms much more than the “demolition” of dusty ecclesial expressions and the “lifting” of previously veiled mysteries. In terms of this essay, the incident signifies the reintegration of the planter and the priest – the laborer and the Liturgist. It inaugurates the “reunification” of earth and heaven, the creature with the Creator – Wall Street with the Word. Like everything else in the cosmos, the “slashing open” of the curtain indicates the re-consolidation of the temporal with the celestial and, therefore, suggests valuable discernments and possibilities for the integration and synergistic collaboration of spiritual and secular leadership capacities.

Authentic leaders have the aptitude to discern the Face of God in situations that, for one reason or another, seem to conceal creativity’s limitless possibilities. Conversely, those that feign such capabilities cower behind the heavy curtains of the past, fearful of the unknown vistas that are disclosed by honest analysis of contemporary problems. It is the ease and safety of such arrangements that lull religious as well as business leaders into relying on replications and redundancies. Tragically, the result of such “in-the-box” thinking produces curtains of complacency – institutions that compartmentalize the public from the personal, God’s Word from Wall Street.

The prophet Isaiah described Scripture as the living ambassador of God’s Life-giving Word. “My word will not return to me empty,” God insists, “but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11).  Accordingly, the Word of God should never be restricted to the gold-edged pages of an ecclesial book or imprisoned in deftly arranged theological boxes. It should and must be allowed to influence every aspect of human endeavor! The laceration of the Temple curtain was a sign that God wanted His Word to be accessible to anyone, anytime, anywhere, – from Pacific islands to Wall Street – “in spirit and in truth”(John 4:24).

One can only imagine the positive impact that our nation’s seminaries, business colleges, and other institutions of higher learning would have on society if they were to develop and provide courses that introduce their students to the innovative, faith-based entrepreneurial paradigm described in the “Vocation of the Business Leader.”  Let us hope that such integrated curricula are on the horizon!

Dr. Frank Marangos is CEO and Founder of OINOS Educational Consulting. He received a Doctors Degree in Adult Education (Ed.D.) from NOVA Southeastern University (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) and a Doctorate in Ministry and Childhood Education (D.Min.) from Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX).

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