I have listened to a number of talks recently around the themes of ‘God at Work’, ‘Faith in the marketplace’ and ‘Christ and your Vocation’. In honesty I have found them all to be pretty disappointing.
The basic ‘faith in the workplace’ teaching seems to be all about :
1. Personal fulfilment
2. Personal morality
3. Personal stewardship
4. Personal evangelism
5. Personal performance
You might have noticed a theme!
The story seems to be that I get a job that fits my character and skills and will give me a chance to be happy and stimulated and earn the money I need. That having found such a job my first responsibility is to not lie or steal or have sex with people I’m not married to. The stewardship element kicks in when I decide how to spend the money I have earned and the right answer is that I give away a small percentage. The evangelism box is ticked when I find other Christians, join a workplace bible study or prayer triplet and share my faith by inviting colleagues to an Alpha course or similar. Finally the ultimate witness is that I am diligent and hardworking in my role. That I ‘shine within my sphere’ by being the best banker (or plumber or teacher or whatever) that I can be. These five themes will bring glory to Christ, witness to the lost and bring me personal fulfilment.
And all of this is good. In fact it is very good and wise and godly advice. The problem is that it is all about me when the world is not all about me and Christianity in particular is not all about me (though if wishing made it so…)
All the standard teaching is necessary but not sufficient to lead a godly life in the workplace.
Which brings us to the bankers.
Christians have always thought that some jobs were incompatible with their faith. When I was growing up it was the obvious ones of tobacco and alcohol production. Politics was deemed too compromised and the safest bet was the ‘proper’ professions healthcare, law, education, accountancy. When I got more involved with Anabaptist circles the proscribed list grew to include the military and police. The point being that whatever the particular hate list of jobs Christians have always thought that there was a problem in trying to be a good person in a bad system. Some systems were so bad that they snuffed out individual goodness.
And maybe that is what we are facing with the banking industry. There is the obvious problem that a group of bankers went to the casino and left the taxpayers to pay off their gambling debts. There is the added problem that as an industry they don’t seem very contrite, let alone repentant. I am tired of hearing very rich bankers complaining that it is time to stop bashing bankers! Or that the bail out was fine because the banks had ‘paid in’ so much tax over the years that they could justify the public subsidy. For people who are meant to be good with money they need to realise that paying tax is not the membership fee for a savings club but a contribution to pay for public goods- like roads, police, hospitals, schools and public transport. Things that enable the banks to have educated, healthy and safe employees who can get to work on time. Anyway…
But beyond the recent banking crash there is another, maybe more serious problem. There seems to be an endemic dishonesty in banking. With depressing regularity we hear of yet another miss-selling, rate fixing or ‘mis-communication’ scandal. It seems that the banks have been so focussed on maximizing profit that they have forgotten notions of partnership and basic honesty. The attitude of the banking industry to their customers is not far from the relationship between a highwayman and a coach party. The system seems to be deeply flawed, broken, dishonest. And the question is whether in such a system it is possible for a good person to flourish. Sadly, all too often the defenders of the bankers are also those who have at best personally financially benefitted from the system and at worst actively colluded with the system.
You see, there is a problem with ‘shining in your sphere’ as a measure of godly diligence. The man who ran the gas chamber in Auschwitz might have been very good at his job but we would be disgusted at the thought of him feeling proud when he went home in the evening.
The system matters. And all systems are broken, flawed and sinful. I have worked mainly in the church and NGO world and I could write plenty of blogs about the flaws, compromises and colluding that happens in those spheres. But often it takes an outsider to notice. It takes a fresh pair of eyes to say ‘Really….?’ And yet too often we all shy away from such scrutiny and insights preferring the comforting voices of other insiders. Einstein said that we cannot solve our problems by using the same thinking that created them. We need to change.
So, to be godly in the workplace- any workplace- we need to fight back. And it seems to me that the beginning of the fightback is to notice the system that we are in. If the Devils greatest lie is to persuade the world that he doesn’t exist then his second best is to persuade us that we are living in a morally neutral if not good world. The truth is that we are all like the frog in the pan of slowly boiling water. Swimming around not realising that it is getting hot until it is too late. We need to look closely at the systems in which we operate and try to discern where the exhibit the fruit of the spirit and where they are conforming to the Kingdom of `God. We can often notice the immediate atmosphere around us- gossip, aggression etc but the biggest lies are the hardest to spot. Which is why we need fellowship with other godly revolutionaries.
Having seen we need to act. Daniel is instructive here. He maintained a personal integrity while engaging in revolutionary subversion of the system. He picked his battles and stood his ground. And in small but significant ways the world changed because he wouldn’t.
So, alongside he questions of personal fulfilment, morality, stewardship, evangelism and performance there is another discipleship question: ‘How am I subverting and transforming a fallen system so that Christ is glorified?’
So, what is the right job for a Christian- tinker, tailor, soldier…banker?