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Entrepreneurial Evangelicals for Economic Justice: Carving Out Spaces for the Common Good or Reconfiguring Capitalist Relations?

This paper was presented at the 2012 Telos Conference, “Space: Virtuality, Territoriality, Relationality,” held on January 14–15, in New York City.

I was very glad to see the investigatory trinity of this year’s Telos conference, which focused not only on our much-discussed virtual spaces but also on old-fashioned territory and relationality. One aspect of the modern era—meaning everything in the West after, say, 1600—is our fascination with our own modernity and latest gizmos. We ascribe to them enormous power to both spiffy up and ruin our lives. A century ago, the telephone was thought to bring progress, expand information, and to destroy the morals of women who could now received telephone calls from men to whom their fathers had not introduced them. People worried, committees were formed, The Times of London was appalled: “We shall soon be nothing but transparent heaps of jelly to each other.”[1]

But lest we get carried away, we might remember that, as the Judaic sage Woody Allen has said: half of life is showing up. This paper describes people whose landscape is local and global, who use the latest technologies but base their work on personal relationship, and who employ both the capitalist market and common-good practices to bring about economic justice through relationship and community. When you change the economics of an area—who has access to what opportunities—you change its landscape.

These are the “new evangelicals,” those who have left the right toward an anti-militarist, anti-consumerist focus on environmental protection, economic justice, immigration reform, and racial/religious reconciliation. The religious right has had a loud microphone for over 35 years and remains active today, but where there had seemingly been a monovocal evangelicalism there is now robust polyphony. Consider the evangelical self-critique Unchristian, by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, whose chapter titles include: Hypocritical, Sheltered, Too Political, Judgmental and Antihomosexual—a voice quite different from those on the right. As overviews of the “new evangelicals” have appeared on this site and in the Winter 2011 issue of Telos, I’ll only briefly recap here before turning to their landscape of economic justice.

First, numbers: Christians not in the religious right come to roughly 24% of the U.S. population, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.[2] Subtract the Catholic left and you’ve got 19% or so distributed among the ’60s evangelical “left”; progressive, younger, emergent churches; and red letter Christians, those who focus on Jesus’ words in Scripture, printed in red, and lean toward progressive activism. Finally are those who quietly, unspectacularly have broadened their activism beyond that associated with the religious right.

No dispersed, grassroots movement involving millions will have one policy position, but “new evangelical” concerns collect in a few areas. One is embrace of church-state separation. “Let it be known unequivocally,” declared the 2008 Evangelical Manifesto, signed by over 70 evangelical leaders, “we are firmly opposed to the imposition of theocracy on our pluralistic society.” Another is participation in civil society through public education, lobbying, and coalition building. “New evangelicals” are often more than others involved in America’s economic, social, and charitable life through the programs they develop, run largely by volunteers, who raise much of the funds as well. A third concern is critique of government when it is unjust. Since all governments are human and thus corruptible, “new evangelicals” understand the vigilance needed to keep politics honest. This is the church’s “prophetic role”—not to be government but to “speak truth to power.” In October 2011, for instance, the National Association of Evangelicals called on its members—45,000 churches—to protest Republican cuts in programs for the needy, saying, “this is the wrong place to cut.”[3]

To look at landscapes, I’d like to explore the second “new evangelical” focus, economic-justice efforts. These are not only alms-giving but the restructuring of opportunity—of education, health care, and job training—through a mix of market and common-good practices. That is, the goal is not only profit but also business that benefits the needy, the community, and the environment. It works this way: capitalist markets rely on capital/credit, material resources, skills, information, and their transfer or distribution. “New evangelicals” assess markets not for profits only but according to common-good standards. Where markets violate these standards, “new evangelicals” work to reorganize any and all of these—capital/credit, resources, skills, information, and their transfer—for the sake of those whom the market has failed.

They do this in two ways: first, by taking funds they have from their American businesses and using it to develop educational, environmental, health care, and business projects in less developed regions; and second, and much preferred, is altering their own business practices along common-good lines, which then includes developing the sorts of projects just mentioned. In this second scenario, business is no mean thing one does in order to have the funds for higher work but rather, when business is done covenantially, for the common good, it is a “calling” in itself.[4]

And so, a word about the subtitle for this talk: “Carving Out Spaces for the Common Good or Reconfiguring Capitalist Relations?” “New evangelical” efforts do not reconfigure market relations—supply and demand, or the uses of credit, risk, etc. But they change relations in the market as earning profits is just one of several motives. The others include developing wealth for other people, developing community within the workplace and between the workplace and society.

“New evangelicals” come to both their belief in market and in the common good through doctrine. The focus on individualist market principles comes from the Calvinist idea of individual calling (where each person is called to develop her talents to serve God and the commonwealth), and from the emphasis on individual striving for moral betterment. Gradually, this became an emphasis on striving over all—the belief that self-responsible, do-it-yourself-ism in secular and as well as religious spheres makes for the most morally able person and the most moral society. This self-reliance was reinforced by the persecution that evangelicals faced in Europe and by the rough conditions of American settlement, where one had to do much oneself because there were few authorities or institutions to do it for you.

Common-good practices, also emerging from doctrine, begin with the Hebrew Bible provisions for the poor, from the Jubilee (debt cancellation, slave manumission, return of land to its original owners) and from the Judaic idea of covenantial relations between man and God and man and man. They come from Jesus’ service to the needy, from the concursus or duality of serving God and serving one’s fellow man as Jesus served, and from the convenantial relationship inherent in the trinity. As the pastor of an Idaho church explains, “The point is, if healing the brokenhearted, setting the captives free and ministering to the poor was his [Jesus’] job description [in Isaiah 61] then we believe it is ours as well.”[5]

My first case study looks at the Pasco, Washington, fruit farmer who chastened her Christian friends for thinking of economic justice as a hobby rather as the way to run their own farms. Cheryl said, “You don’t want the poor mingling with you. You don’t want anyone to mess with our social clubs. . . . Is this international partnership work really your lifestyle or is it just something you do on the side.” Cheryl’s farm is a $60 million/year business. That is, she sells on the market and re-invests some of her profits but she also puts 50–75% of them into the family’s foundation for development projects in the United States and abroad. For her employees she built a residential community and set up ESL, GED, and computer courses, parenting training, youth programs, counseling services, a pre-school, an elementary school, and a college scholarship program for employees’ children. This changes the landscape in two ways, first, the physical provision of the housing and programs and second, her business helps her employees—1,100 migrant workers—to work together to get out of migrant work.

The second case study looks at the Farmer to Farmer program in Nicaragua, set up by Partners Worldwide, a Christian organization specializing in getting businesspeople in the developing world on their feet. The program’s aim is to buy land from absentee landlords and offer it to landless farmers on lease-to-buy provisions where the Nicaraguans pay for the plot over 7–10 years. U.S. farmers provide the capital and help their Nicaraguan partners solve agricultural problems, develop markets and business plans, etc., so that they can move from subsistence farming to agricultural enterprises. Repaid loans go into a business development fund that purchases new plots for more of the landless. Don Esteban and his son are partnered by Iowa farmers Bonnie and Don Vos. The Estebans are current in their loan payments, have 500 coffee-producing plants, are developing 800 more seedlings, and have planted 100 hardwood trees, which go for $500 if harvested whole and nearly $5,000 if cut into lumber. The initial capital investment was $1,500. The elder Esteban says, “The farmers from Iowa have mentored, encouraged, and prayed for me. Because of them, I am now ready to help other landless farmers. . . . And then we can make this whole community God’s community.”

Here, the landscape has been altered from neglected, unproductive plots to independently owned farms cultivated by soil-enriching methods and producing coffee that is sold domestically and internationally so that profits can be reinvested both in these farms and in new ones where farmers—a second change in the landscape—work not as individual tenant farmers but in community with each other and with their American partners.

My last case study is from Uganda, where, in the civil war that followed Idi Amin’s overthrow, much of Timothy Jokkene’s family was killed and he, imprisoned. On release in 1989, he saw an opportunity in an abandoned gas station, which a local banker, recalling Timothy’s skill at handling a gas station before his imprisonment, snuck him a loan to buy. Twenty years later, Timothy owned eight gas stations, employing scores of people, plus a soda distribution company, which began with sales of 500 cases/month and in 2008 was up to 20,000. He developed his own micro-credit program for emerging local businesses and cares for 40 or so AIDS orphans, whose vocational training he also covers. When Aloysius, for instance, finished training as a tailor, Timothy gave him a sewing machine and six month’s workroom rent. At 25, Aloysius has eight machines, ten employees, and is sending his siblings to school. So we see a generational snowball effect.

But now things get interesting. In 2004, Timothy attended a Partners Worldwide seminar, where he saw that “a businessman could actually minister in his own business by using it as a calling to minister to God.” He learned how to re-structure his micro-credit program from a charity to one that charges a small amount of interest to expand the funds available for future loans—a case of using business principles to expand the reach of common-good practices. Timothy’s program also holds the savings that loan-recipients accrue, and, through Partners Worldwide, each dollar saved is tripled. Loan repayments go into a fund that provides more loans; at the end of each year, excess is distributed to members as dividends. Four years after starting up, Timothy’s micro-finance programs had helped 1,000 micro-businesses, with loans averaging $150, and 200 small businesses with loans averaging $1,000.

Problems do arise, including: loan programs where recipients are not encouraged to save; local violence that destroys emerging businesses; lack of entrepreneurial experience which hobbles the transition from aid recipient to independence in business; recipient distrust of well-off Americans; and failure to build in accountability and support structures so that funds are not misused.

In conclusion, there is no suggestion here that these Christian approaches are the only productive paths to changing landscapes in the direction of economic justice or that one approach would work in all contexts. The “new evangelicals” discussed here are keenly aware that redistributing opportunity relies on relationship and attention to the particulars of place, culture, and people. I do want to suggest, however, that “new evangelicals” are developing one model that employs market relations within a framework of common-good values which in turn alter relations in the market—and thus alter the landscape of the market itself.

Notes

1. Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century (New York: Oxford UP, 1988), p. 68

2. “Assessing a More Prominent ‘Religious Left,'” The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

3. “Aid to the World’s Poorest People,” National Association of Evangelicals.

4. R. Paul Stevens, Doing God’s Business: Meaning and Motivation for the Marketplace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2006), pp. 19–38. See also Richard Higginson, Called to Account: Adding Value in God’s World—Integrating Christianity and Business Effectively (Guildford, Surrey: Eagle, 1993), pp. 139–41.

5. Interview with the author, May 1, 2009, and Sept. 25, 2010.

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