Business Ethics Rooted in the Church: A Theological Paradigm for Christians in Business.
Werner Franz writes about business ethics from the perspective of a pastoral and education leader within the Mennonite Church in Paraguay who also draws from the writings of North American Mennonites such as John Howard Yoder. Paraguay is a particularly interesting context for writing about business and the church because the German-speaking Mennonites who immigrated to Paraguay in the mid-twentieth century and formed self-governing colonies there have blurred some of the lines separating traditional categories of church, government, and commerce.
Franz's book contains both careful theological reflection based on Yoder as well as enlightening descriptions of real organizations that have attempted to live out distinctive understandings of the link between the world of the church and the world of commerce. Franz draws on Yoder's ecclesiology to prescribe "what should be" and as a rubric for evaluating "what is."
Franz explicitly assumes that "ecclesiology--the concept of the church--becomes the basis for conceptualizing business and the behavior of Christians in business." A second significant assumption is that the church should see itself "as the primary agent of God's acting in the world, especially as this relates to business" (x).
In the first chapter Franz describes the economic history of the Mennonite colonies and notes the many ways in which cooperative actions have led to economic prosperity for the colonists. The transformation of what were initially desperately poor Mennonite colonies into a significant economic force shaping the whole Paraguayan economy is indeed an incredible story that should give pause to those who argue that individualistically-oriented free enterprise is the only route to prosperity. However, while the colonies were created in isolated rural areas, the colonists were not and are not the lone inhabitants of this territory. Currently the number of indigenous inhabitants and the number of Mennonites is roughly equal but there are vast differences in the economic status of the two groups. Franz acknowledges the legitimate critiques of Mennonite economic development in Paraguay.
In the second and third chapters Franz provides an overview of Yoder's understanding of the role and function of the church in the world. From this discussion he extracts a set of church life principles and then applies these five principles to the practice of business under the following categories: "mutual accountability and clearly structured dialogue"; economic sharing that leads to the "flourishing of persons"; "promoting the personal dignity of its members and building up a corporate identity"; creating an environment in which "members of the company will be committed to being part of a team... and make an important contribution to the company"; and participatory decision-making in which "everyone works together toward shared conviction" (61-63).
The fourth chapter describes the creation and operation of CODIPSA, a company that manages a supply/manufacturing chain related to the production of starches (roughly labeled as tapioca) for human and industrial consumption. This colony-church-related business was designed with the intention of integrating indigenous and other non-German people into the total production process. Thus workers' cooperatives were created to improve the processes for planting and harvesting the tapioca since the basic producers are unskilled subsistence farmers. In addition, the German Mennonite colonists built a processing factory (eventually three factories) and actively developed alternative markets for the tapioca. The factories provided additional employment opportunities for employment of regional small farmers. Franz argues that the worker cooperatives in the production of the crop and the strong reinvestment in rural communities in areas beyond the actual production processes are both positive illustrations of the church, in this case the Mennonite colony, engaging in the development of businesses that are consistent with the vision described in the second and third chapters.
Along the way Franz also argues that Mennonite Economic Development Associates, a North American organization long active in Paraguay, focuses so much on creating and then quickly handing off the operations of businesses that it never really has had a chance to function as a church-business participant for the long term. For Franz, the ongoing involvement of church members individually and the church body organizationally is an important aspect of the proper practice of business in a church context.
The concluding chapter returns to the more general questions of the relationship of the church to the world of business: "Economic exchanges need more guidance than legal and political systems can provide.... At this point the church can take on its role as a model par excellence" (96).
A particular strength of this book is that it is grounded in the experience of the Paraguayan Mennonite colonies. This setting leads Franz to the unique conclusion that the church should lead in the development and management of businesses, and not just service organizations, as a way of making a positive contribution and witness to the broader world. Thus, Franz offers a model quite different from the typical North American "Mennonite business," which is essentially a business in which the key managers or leaders are Mennonite.
One example of a North American church with a perspective similar to Franz's is the Circle of Hope Brethren in Christ church in Philadelphia. Here church members moved into low-income neighborhoods hoping to stimulate urban development. The church quickly started a thrift shop and a Good Business Consortium that supports development of new small businesses with low-interest loans. One key staff member has dreams of creating a moving van business, with the intent of providing work opportunities for neighborhood residents. There are also a good number of businesses of the North American "Mennonite business" sort that function in a manner consistent with Franz's principles, despite not having direct church organizational involvement. For example, Stoneridge Orchards in eastern Washington developed its business in ways that are designed to provide better employment and human dignity for a modest-size community of Mexican migrant cherry pickers on a year-round basis.
This book emerged from Franz's doctoral studies, completed in 2010, and draws heavily on concepts developed by John Howard Yoder. I find it tough to sort out how to respond to the principle of group decision-making based on transparency and broad participation when the reality of Yoder's behavior and his attempts to thwart church discipline contradict so much of what he advocated . I also have significant reservations about taking assumptions for church life and transplanting them directly into business organizations. We don't get paid to go to church. We don't retire from church. We don't select church members from an applicant pool. Context matters, and I fear that ignoring the business context too extensively may not be helpful in developing strong church-related businesses.
I am less optimistic than Franz about the ability of the church to directly develop organizations in which people and communities flourish. Historically Christians have the same uncanny ability to bless an unjust status quo that we attribute to those of a more secular bent. At the same time, I am more optimistic than Franz about leaders from all walks of life discovering that effective leaders and organizations are concerned with creating systems in which people and communities flourish.
GEORGE LEHMAN Blufftoll University
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|Publication:||Mennonite Quarterly Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2017|
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