Greed, Economics and Ethics in Conflict

Review & Commentary

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  1. Review

    Individual freedom is a cherished value. It can be so highly cherished that it becomes the ultimate value for some people. Whenever it does, the result is individualism, which manifests itself in excessive self-concern and self-aggrandizement and which, in the economic sphere, expresses itself in greed, the inordinate desire for goods and wealth, closely related to covetousness.

    It is the author’s thesis that "The witness of the Christian Ethic is seldom more relevant than when it addresses greed. " He writes that greed "has a profoundly deleterious effect on everything from the quality of personal relationships to the just distribution of goods and the future of our environment. The Christian ethic of love with its commitment to sharing and generosity, reflecting God’s love and generosity, points away from the selfishness of greed toward the building of caring communities." James M. Childs, Jr. is Professor of Theology and Ethics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio.

    Human greed, being a manifestation of sin is not, of course, a modem phenomenon. Throughout history, it has taken various forms but consistently has been evident in the economic culture of the times. In our time, the corporate ethos of capitalism, driven by individualism and a belief in the limitless potential for economic growth, encourages greed. Childs devotes three chapters to exploring the manifestations of greed in the context of business, health care and the global economic order as seen through "the lens of hunger." Each chapter includes a critique of each context from the perspective of Christian faith and tradition.

    Childs then turns our attention toward the vision of a "sharing society" derived from the Christian ethic of love, which contrasts with the spirit of individualism which underlies greed. He cautions that sharing can be a means by which we as individuals retain power and control. It is vital, therefore, that sharing be seen both as "constitutive of community" and as an expression of community in "giving everyone a fair chance." So understood, sharing involves facing the limits of economic resources and growth as well as seeing the economy as a "servant of community" in the "larger context of values," integral to the human community, "including cultural, spiritual, institutional, historical, biological, and land."

    He then devotes a chapter to a case study in sharing, entitled "Stakeholder Capitalism." If sharing is "constitutive of community," on both pragmatic and moral grounds "businesses can and ought to consider the interests of all individuals and groups who have a stake in the activities of the company." This would include not only shareholders, directors, management and employees but financiers, suppliers, customers and communities who are "seen as partners in a mutually beneficial venture." In summary, he writes, "Cooperation, coalition, solidarity, sufficiency, sustainability, stakeholder theory , community – all these terms point in some way to the fact that individuals, institutions, and even nations are involved in a web of relationships with others who also have concerns, interests and needs. It is an involvement that makes sharing imperative."

    In a chapter entitled Teach Your Children Well, Childs explores the values that are conducive to building community and that can help counteract the greed of "consumerism." He reminds us that the Christian life is formed and informed by the love Jesus portrayed in his life and teachings. Being formed by Christ’s love is the way in which Christian character is shaped and is the way in which love of the neighbor provides direction to making ethical decisions. In the economic culture of today, neighbor love can be expressed in generosity and a readiness to share, reflective of Jesus’ own self -giving love for us.

    Childs emphasizes that, for Christians, dealing with our own greed in a culture of greed is a calling. He offers a number of guidelines that can shape our vocation as Christian people to combat greed. He is clear that at the heart of our calling is proclaiming the good news, which involves the promise that the God, whom Jesus revealed in his life and work, is concerned about justice, peace, and the common good. It follows that the church’s mission is to be a witness for a sharing society. This witness can be undertaken in preaching, theological education, stewardship education and practice in the church, the support of social ministry organizations, engaging in social justice, advocacy, ecumenical sharing, and cooperation. And in a religiously pluralistic world, Christian witness , includes encouraging dialogue among other "faiths" as we seek to find common foundations and shared values in the pursuit of a society of justice, peace and the common good.

    This book, Biblically and theologically grounded, is provocative and challenging. It would be an excellent resource ( each chapter includes Questions for Discussion) for an adult education class.

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