Monday, December 23, 2013
My article from this week's newspapers:
Is it acceptable for Christians to patronize a business whose owner’s behavior outside of work conflicts with their morals?
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the Western Church is in the midst of emerging from several centuries of Christendom—where the Church, the government, and the culture formed a unified front which suppressed dissent and all three enforced conformity to the same standards—but it seems those who desire to live out a Christian ethic are mystified about how to live in a world where they must interact with people who are different from them.
I remember the days not too long ago when boycotts were all the rage among Christians and there were whole organizations and publications that seemed single-mindedly devoted to announcing on a monthly or weekly basis which companies should be the targets of Christian boycotts and which had conceded to an extent that it was now acceptable to do business with them.
It seems to me that this approach has some very serious flaws. Most importantly, it fails to acknowledge that all of the people with whom we engage in transactions on a given day are sinners and every business we patronize is owned by a sinner. In order to avoid financially supporting sin, the only option left for Christians would be subsistence farming, because they wouldn’t even be able to do business with one another.
Additionally, it improperly prioritizes sins so that those which are most emotionally-charged draw more attention while those that are actually more serious go unnoticed. For example, so many calls for a boycott have to do with sexual ethics, while I have never seen a call to boycott restaurants which display Buddha statues or convenience stores with a painting of the Hindu god or goddess behind the counter.
A quick survey of the New Testament finds that there are, indeed, several instances where the believers are called to be separate or avoid certain others. However, closer examination finds that these are always in the arena of church fellowship. They are called to be separate from those who worship other gods and to avoid those who teach false doctrine. These calls never involve the Christian’s dealings in business or in the world.
Instead, on the one occasion this is addressed, Paul answers quite differently. Upon being asked whether it was acceptable for Christians to eat meat sacrificed to idols, Paul tells the Christians not even to ask where the meat came from when it is served to them, because an idol is really nothing at all. He encourages them that they should feel free to eat, with the one exception that they should refrain in the presence of a weak or uninstructed Christian who might be caused distress by their doing so.
When choosing a congregation, calling a pastor, or other spiritual matters, caution and thorough examination of these things is certainly in order. Of course Christians should avoid the book sale or benefit where the explicit purpose is to raise funds for harmful and immoral causes. And these questions might need to be asked regarding services where the spiritual beliefs of the practitioner are relevant, such as psychological counseling. But, in everyday commerce, we are called to engage the world, not to hide from it.
So, instead of investigating which political party your banker donates to, spend your time comparing rates and services. Instead of grilling the kid making your sandwich what he did or did not do on his date Friday night, ask him if it comes with mustard. Instead of concerning yourself as to your barista’s lifestyle choices, ask her about the new flavor, how college is going, or maybe even invite her to church. That is the Christian way to do business. And pay less attention to what television personalities’ positions are on the grazing rights of endangered mountain goats and ask if their show makes you laugh (or cry, or whatever it is you’re looking for) and watch accordingly, rather than demanding that they keep or lose their job based on whether they agree with you.
For a business whose owner is working to make a living by providing a respectable product or an ethical service, the Christian’s concern is not what they intend to do with the profit from the business or what causes they support after hours, but whether they provide a good product or are skilled at their trade. After all, if Christians were to hide from the world in closed enclaves, how would those still needing the truth about Jesus ever hear it?