Stewards of Civilization, Servants of our Neighbors

by Jeff Haanen

As Christians, we are called to be mindful of our environment and greater society, especially in our day-to-day work. Learn more in this excerpt from the e-book The Call to Commerce: 6 Ways to Love Your Neighbor Through Business.” Catch the first and second posts here on the blog as well. 

5. Love Your Environment

After an illustrious career in executive leadership at public companies like Nextel and Vonage, Barry Rowan took a “purposeful pause” – a four year Sabbath to grow closer to Christ. At the end of his time, he decided that instead of working in a nonprofit or retiring, he could do the most amount of good by going back into business. And so he joined a clean energy start-up called Cool Planet Energy Systems.1

Cool Planet has innovated a carbon-negative process for turning wood chips into renewable fuels while simultaneously producing a byproduct that improves soil health for agriculture and livestock. In summary: their company produces gasoline and natural fertilizer that make the air cleaner and the soil healthier.

“In the last 50 years we have really degraded the soil,” Rowan says. “To feed the world’s population we’ll have to increase food production by 50% over the next couple of decades because of growing population and raising economic status.” Today, there’s a lot of emphasis on precision farming to raise agricultural yields. But the next wave of innovation, Rowan believes, is soil health.

Rowan also believes it’s his responsibility as a Christian to care for the earth. “I think we have a God-given responsibility to be stewards of this great gift of a planet. To be able to help the planet in this way by feeding the population with less water and less fertilizer is a great privilege.”

There’s been a lot of emphasis lately on companies that are environmentally friendly. Yet too often, conversations around the environment assume that business is inherently going to make the earth worse off. There’s not true for many companies. Take, for example Domtar, “the sustainable pulp, paper and personal care company.” Their mills are certified by three separate sustainable forestry organizations. Domtar doesn’t have a perfect record, yet they’re striving to show that profitability and environmentally sustainable practices can live together in harmony. Moreover, these 10 environmentally-friendly companies show that profitable business can coexist with a thriving ecosystem.

Christians are often in this space with a different motivation than many in the environmental movement, which sometimes see people as the problem and not the solution. Nonetheless, we can and should work with like-minded partners in this space, motivated by the call to be stewards of God’s world. Loving the environment is a priority for business because all of creation is the possession of God, the Creator and Sustainer of the world.

Verse to post on your desk: “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it; the world, and all who live in it.” Psalm 24:1

6. Love Your Society

It may be tough to say that a single business has changed all of society. But history shows that business done with a vibrant moral core – especially from a Christian worldview – can be a transformative blessing to society as a whole. Let me give an example from history.

In Niall Ferguson’s book Civilization: The West and the Rest, he asks what caused the West’s ascendency in the last 500 years2. In the year 1500, Western Europe was a largely impoverished shrinking band of feudal states, whereas the Chinese empire under the Ming dynasty was a wealthy and flourishing society. Why, then, do Western institutions – from capitalism to democracy – dominate the world today?

Ferguson argues that West had six “killer apps,” six institutions that caused its rise over the past 500 years: competition, science, property rights & the rule of law, medicine, the consumerist society, and work ethic. German professor Max Weber, who wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, believed it was Protestants who worked hard in order to prove their election that spurred on capitalism3. Though Ferguson (and others like Rodney Stark) believe his thesis unfairly overlooks foundations of capitalism in 12th century catholic Italy4, there is a strong connection between Protestants and the growth of global wealth.5

Protestants, especially of the Puritan variety, created communities of honesty, openness to strangers, and trust – all economically beneficial traits. (University of San Francisco economist Bruce Wydick has shown that social trust is indeed the factor that leads to broad economic prosperity.)6 High levels of trust was also a major factor in the development of global credit markets, which would provide unprecedented levels of capital for business ventures through banks and the stock market.

Ferguson also remarks that it was the Protestant word ethic as much as their work ethic that lead to vast global economist growth. Protestants in the West and America had a high value on saving, thrift and reading, being focused on the proliferation of the word of God.  Even in places like Africa, there’s a stark difference between where Protestant missionaries set up camp. Robert Woodberry, during his PhD studies at the University of North Carolina, found:

“Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.”7

The point: historically, Christian influence on business and thus the development of our economy and political institutions, has been a permanent blessing to global society. And of all people, we largely have the Puritans to thank!8

Business done well can have a transformative impact on society. In the words of University of Virginia professor James Davison Hunter, “In short, fidelity to the highest practices of vocation before God is consecrated and in itself transformational in its effects.”9

Obey God in your work life, and you bless not just your neighbor, but all of society.

Verse to post on your desk: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” Deuteronomy 6:4-7

Stewards of Civilization, Servants of our Neighbors

Max Stackhouse, former professor of reformed theology at Princeton Seminary, said his book On Moral Business, “Business leaders are increasingly the stewards of civilization.”

If that’s true, the first step toward such a vast responsibility is to obey Jesus’ simple command to love our neighbors in our work lives. It begins by looking at Christ, the Servant King, who said, “Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom to many” (Mark 10:45). And it leads to a humility that sees Christ in each employee, investor or customer, because Christ is present in the everyday needs of others (Matthew 25: 31-46).

“Which of these three men,” Jesus asks, pointing to the Levite, the priest and the Samaritan, “was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers (those who plunder, steal, and engage in otherwise seedy business practices)?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

And Jesus told him, and all of us, “Go and do likewise.”

 

This is the third of three excerpts that we’ve shared on our blog this month from the e-book “The Call to Commerce: 6 Ways to Love Your Neighbor Through Business.” Miss the others? Grab your copy of the full e-book here.

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Jeff Haanen

Jeff Haanen is the Founder & CEO of Denver Institute for Faith & Work. Jeff lives with his wife and four daughters in Littleton, Colorado, and attends Wellspring Church.