Memories of an Ethical Missionary

I originally wrote this reflection in April 2011, shortly after I’d shared my most successful April Fool’s Day gag ever: a claim to have been summoned as an “ethical missionary” at a major American corporation. I’ve slightly changed the essay to reflect the fact that since then, I’ve moved from my work with the Connecticut Conference UCC to Church of the Holy Cross UCC in Hilo, Hawai’i. I’ve also inserted a video of the song I wrote about the event, performed in April 2012.

Bear with me a moment, for I must begin this blog post with an apology.

To my friends on Facebook: I sincerely apologize for distressing you with my April Fool’s Day prank last week. I’d never actually intended it to deceive, only to amuse: but it was harder than I thought to create a gag that was both plausible and transparently impossible. Or in other words, I failed to create a fiction that was stranger than truth, and so I deceived, and so I distressed. I’m very sorry.

So what did I do?

I posted a note that I’d be moving to a new job — I hasten once more to say this is NOT TRUE — as the UCC’s first “Ethical Missionary” to a major American corporation. The note included more spurious details, many intended to reveal the joke for what it was, but that’s the summary. A number of my friends responded, and a startling (to me) number took it seriously. I learned a great deal.

I learned again that I have wonderful friends. I’d posited a move across the country, and without exception people expressed two heart-warming things: that they were very happy for my exciting new challenge, and very sad that I’d be so far away. Holding that sense of joy for another with that feeling of loss is, I think, a very deep mark of friendship.

And let us not ignore as well the fact that (so far) all have forgiven me for deceiving them!

I learned again that reality is much stranger than the human imagination — or at least my human imagination. I honestly believed I’d weighted the note with too many impossibilities to be credible. I hadn’t. Let’s face it, on a planet in which both the duck-billed platypus and the giraffe exist, I hadn’t much chance of doing so.

More striking, however, than these two reminders was the revelation of a sudden hunger. My friends sincerely wanted to believe in an ethical missionary, and in a major corporation willing to accept such a person. A friend who is ordained in another denomination praised the forward thinking of the UCC. Another called it “the coolest job EVER.”

It makes me think: maybe it’s a crazy idea, but maybe it’s not such a bad idea.

An ethical missionary to a big corporation faces an enormous challenge, because corporations already have an ethical code which has the advantage of being both clear and compelling. It’s about “the bottom line.”

The bottom line refers to the last line of a particular financial report in a corporation, the line which describes the return to shareholders, the company’s owners. The company’s managers, who may not be among the owners, see it as their duty to keep that number healthy (growing, increasing, certainly above zero). There are plenty of other ethical touchstones as well, about transparency and such, but many of those function to serve the primary goal of returning value to the stockholders.

Jesus, of course, told a story about precisely this situation. We call it the ‘parable of the talents:’ a master going on a journey assigns three servants to steward portions of his fortune while he is away. The two who successfully increase his wealth receive commendation; the one who fails (though without suffering loss) receives condemnation. Ethical managers of a corporation emulate those two faithful stewards.

I think, however, that that model is no longer sufficient (and possibly never was). The group of shareholders, however large, is not an adequate community to consider in making ethical choices. The owners’ interest is served by keeping finances transparent within the management team, but they are also served by making them opaque to customers, employees, and the general public. We have laws to prevent fraud in those interactions, but the laws that exist actively conflict with the primary ethic which guides business decisions day-to-day.

The great theologian and ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr noted this problem nearly eighty years ago in Moral Man, Immoral Society. His brother H. Richard Niebuhr considered the problem of inadequate circles of concern in The Responsible Self, published posthumously in 1962. People in groups act strongly in their own interest; they fail over and over to consider their impact on those around them: the customer, the neighbor, the public.

The financial crisis that erupted in 2008 illustrates this truth over and over and over again. It rose from a game of “pass-the-risk,” one marked by layer after layer of deception, justified by the interests of the shareholders (and not unmarked by the interests of the managers, too). As one might notice from the lack of public prosecutions, it seems to have been legal.

But ethical? Is it ethical to place the global economic system at risk in order to bring maximum return to your shareholders?

I will not, anytime soon, become an ethical missionary to the world of corporate America (or corporate multi-national). If such a job exists, I haven’t heard about it, and though I’ve shifted my ministry from the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ to Church of the Holy Cross UCC in Hilo, Hawai’i, I’m fully committed to ministry in the church setting. It’s a crazy idea.

It wasn’t such a bad idea, though, was it?