Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Christians and the Corporation

“We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster.”
Grapes of Wrath, 45

In Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck paints a grim picture of the American economic landscape. His portrayal of the simple farmer who is closely tied to the land is contrasted against the leviathan-like qualities of a bank. The land managers roll up in their automobiles and roll down there windows, never making contact with the earth, to tell the tenants squatting in the dirt that they must leave because it is no longer cost effective to have tenants. Why deal with the messiness of tenant farmers when a machine can do just as much work in a fraction of the time? When the tenants protest, the manager simply defers to the “machine”. “It’s not us,” they say,

It’s the bank. A bank isn’t like a man. Or an owner with fifty thousand acres, he isn’t like a man either. That’s the monster….It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it. (ibid)

The irony of the situation is hard to miss. If the men built the machine, who else but the men who built and comprise it would be responsible?
Steinbeck’s question is a deeply troubling one, particularly for the western Christian. Our own society has created something that historically has few direct parallels; whole businesses–– private enterprises–– that, to a very large degree, influence and even control the direction of the country and the world. Before capitalism, this sort of power resided almost entirely in the hands of the state (for better or worse). The Church was often better equipped to speak on issues of oppression and tyranny by the government because it has scripture that speaks directly to Christian’s relationship to the state (cf. Romans 13). Furthermore, it has an identity that is firmly established apart from the state (consider for instance, John 18:36), even if the men within the Church were prone to acquiescence. But how ought we as believers respond to institutions that are not the state and apparently reside outside of our scripture and our history? Specifically, how ought we regard those corporations that we know are causes of oppression? If an organization is responsible for indirectly killing a person, who is responsible?

It should be said first that if we affirm the authority of Scripture, then it must also be affirmed that the Bible and the Spirit have not failed to speak to this particular situation, so it is an artificial problem if we concede that somehow a scenario has arisen that Christ failed to prepare us for.

Where do we begin then? Should the corporation be regarded as the state, since it contains many of the same features as the state, minus the authority? Perhaps that is just it, since it possesses no real authority, should it be regarded at all? Should the Church support it or condemn it for its propensity keep one from loving his neighbor due to globalization (in which case our neighbor is not visible, but still there)?


P.D. said...

now, perhaps not the most scholar of references, but the documentary THE CORPORATION is a good mediation on some of these things. Interesting things like, a corporation can fall and not a single person can actually take the fall. I do think that is an interesting question you raise in terms of a Christians relationship to these "extra-biblical" structures. God clearly mandates and ordains the church, the state and the family. But corporations... what are those? Privatized military raises all sorts of questions that is subset of these discussions...

david gentino said...

Great insights Jon. Where do you stand on these things?

James, Luke, and Jeremiah speak in no uncertain terms about those who join forces with wealth over and against humanity, but teasing out their implications for today does require true wisdom.

Too often I find myself asking, Who is my neighbor?, abstractly wondering how I'm connected to West African crop markets and southeast Asian sweat shops. All the while I have clearer direction to consider, Who is the neighbor? How am I actively neighboring?

Jon Furst said...

where do you find out about all of these documentaries? I'll check it out.

they're just concerns at this point. I am afraid that the logical outcome of where such a question might lead is to conclude that the whole structure is wrong. That the church had to define a just war says something about wrong standing, and that it might be harming our neighbor to be get a paycheck from, say, GAP, might imply the same thing. I'm not afraid of these conclusions, I just want to be sure that the argument is air-tight and from the Lord.