The Call to Commerce: 6 Ways to Love Your Neighbor Through Business
“And who is my neighbor?”
This question is just as pressing to us in 21st century America as it was 2,000 years ago. A legal expert, “who wanted to justify himself,” posed this question to Jesus. In response, Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Like that expert, we look around the world today and see pressing needs at every turn: self-centered leadership, ignorance, poverty, political instability, disease, and spiritual darkness. Overwhelmed at the needs pouring into our digital devices, we ask “What can I really do?” Our temptation, like that of the Levite and the priest in the parable, is to walk past the needs of others and go about our day.
Yet two surprising twists in Jesus’ parable can give us hope. First, the hero of the story is a Samaritan, a member of a mixed ethnic group despised by the Jews. Though the religious insiders – a Levite and a priest – pass by, it’s the heretic, the outsider, who stops to help. The Samaritan didn’t find a solution to a global crisis. Instead, his single act of mercy for a stranger is the model here. This we can do.
Second, which is perhaps the biggest shock for us today, the hero of this story isn’t a pastor, religious leader, or a nonprofit volunteer. He’s a business person.
There’s a bit of guesswork here, but the Samaritan had the time and excess wealth to serve a need. And in so doing, he fulfilled Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor.” As Margaret Thatcher once said, “No-one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well.” Might engaging in business be a primary way God intends for us to love our neighbors?
“Business is God’s intended partner in his great work as Provider for all of humankind,” says Tim Weinhold, an entrepreneur I quoted in a recent article for Christianity Today1. His point is that business is a way God has chosen to both provide the goods and services we all depend on each day and create the wealth we need to be able to afford those goods and services. As a CFO friend of mine says2, “Business is the only institution that creates wealth. Every other institution distributes it.”3 The purpose of business, like the purpose of the church in the world, is to serve (Mark 10:45, John 20:21). Business people are called to use their talents to bless others.
But what about corporate greed? What about scandals like the price fixing scandal at Archer Daniels Midland4, famously portrayed by Matt Damon in the movie The Informant5? Or the levels of corruption and collusion in the housing market collapse of the mid 2000s (again, portrayed dramatically by Hollywood in “The Big Short?”6) This looks more like plundering your neighbor rather than loving your neighbor.
Business can either plunder our neighbors through low wages, oppressive practices (like the payday loan industry), environmental degradation, and hoarding wealth – or it can be the single greatest instrument for the alleviation of poverty the world has ever seen. (Films such as Poverty, Inc.7 and the article “Towards the End of Poverty”8 in The Economist make compelling cases for the later.) Our work can either destroy or design, plunder or provide, sack or serve.
Yet what would it actually look like to love your neighbor through your own business or work life?
I agree with Robin John, CEO of Eventide Funds9, who recently suggested we need to start with the question of the legal expert: who is my neighbor? Business, he believes, has six neighbors: customers, employees, supply chains, communities, the environment, and society. The best performing businesses over the long haul, he believes, create products and services that serve society and authentic human flourishing, focus on stakeholder value creation, build human-centered operations strategies and create a rich organizational culture. That is, they look carefully at all the “neighbors” a business has and ask how to serve those neighbors well.
Using that framework, here are 6 Ways to Love Your Neighbor Through Business:
1. Love Your Customers
Dan Dye is the CEO of Ardent Mills, America’s largest flour producer 10. Each day, 100 million people eat an Ardent Mills product. It’s likely that the bread products you ate for breakfast this morning came from the flour produced at one of their 42 mills. Dan describes his work as “nourishing the world,” which his company does on a global scale. They continuously innovate the best processes of turning wheat into flour, which is eventually sold to companies like Bimbo bread that are found in America’s grocery stores. And at the end of their global operations and billion dollar balance sheets is a simple commitment to serve the needs of their customers.
When companies prioritize the needs of the customer and create genuine value for them, businesses flourish. For example, Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, leaves a chair empty at corporate meetings to remind them they’re there serve their customers. Creating value for others, in Charles Koch’s language 11, or endeavoring to love your customers as yourselves, is the first pillar of loving your neighbor through business.
Dealing with cranky, irrational, or flippant customers is no fun. But C.S. Lewis reminds us that loving your neighbor has little to do with your feelings.
“The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him… There is, indeed, one exception. If you do him a good turn, not to please God and obey the law of charity, but to show him what a fine forgiving chap you are, and to put him in your debt, and then sit down to wait for his ‘gratitude’, you will probably be disappointed.”
Even if customers don’t show appreciation, business is still filled with opportunities to “love one another as I [Jesus] have loved you.”12 The way we love our neighbors, says Lewis, is by working for their good. Like providing sewage systems, software, lighting, legislation, lesson plans, and, of course, loaves of bread.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is not just good advice … it’s good business strategy.
Verse to post on your desk: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” -1 John 4:16-18
2. Love Your Employees
Men and women are created to work, and are meant to express the dignity of being God’s image bearers through their creative activity.
This fact is not lost on Wes Gardner, CEO of Prime Trailer Leasing 13. Years ago, Wes had an “aha moment,” where he saw that his business was not just a way to fund ministry, but to do ministry, specifically by caring for his employees. He began hiring women from Hope House, a nonprofit that works with teenage mothers, and providing them a good salary and opportunities for growth – opportunities that would likely not come their way unless Wes was committed to loving his neighbors through his business.
He’s part of a larger movement in Denver to provide good jobs to people with barriers to employment 14. New efforts are afoot to create good jobs for at-risk communities. (A “good job” is loosely defined as a job that provides increasing wages, some flexibility of schedule, benefits, a healthy workplace culture, opportunities for advancement and education, and a sense of pride in the work.)
Yet people from every socioeconomic class long to know their work has deeper value than a paycheck. Dave Kiersznowski, founder of DEMDACO, a business that makes gifts that “lift the spirit,” wants his employees – of all faith backgrounds, races, and ethnicities – to broaden their vision of how their work is contributing to the common good 15. For example, in their headquarters he named meeting spaces after “heroes of the common good,” such as Martin Luther King Jr., William Wilberforce, and Mother Theresa. This reminds employees that their labor matters not just to the company, but to human history. Good thinkers, like Barry Schwartz, professor at Swarthmore College, see that emphasizing the ways our work makes other people’s lives better is key to loving your employees. 16
Caring for your employees begins the virtuous cycle of profitable long term business. “We take great care of our people, they take great care of our customers, and our customers take great care of our shareholders” says Cofounder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines, Herb Kelleher. By providing good jobs, laced with dignity, fair wages, and intrinsic meaning, some are even calling the “good jobs strategy” a game-changer among business leadership in the US. 17
A question to ask to your employees or co-workers: do you have a job or a craft? A job, says Hugh Heclo, is merely a “ miscellaneous piece of work undertaken on order at a stated rate.” 18 However, mechanic and author Michael Crawford defines craftsmanship as “the desire to do something well, for its own sake.” 19 How can business leaders provide not just jobs, but a craft, to their employees? Are there ways all jobs can provide the opportunity for men and women to experience mastery, autonomy and purpose, as Daniel Pink suggests? 20
Work, says playwright and theologian Dorothy Sayers, “should be the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental, and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God.” What will it look like to create more jobs like this?
Verse to post on your desk: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them…The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” –Genesis 1:27, 2:15
This is an excerpt from the e-book, “The Call to Commerce: 6 Ways to Love Your Neighbor Through Business.” Want more today? Download your copy of the full e-book. Or subscribe to this blog.