The Church as Ethical Conversation Partner?

The Church as Ethical Conversation Partner?

Michael D. Kirby, MDiv ’03

In the three months of this new call, it was without question the oddest request I’d received. A member of the congregation wanted me to speak at the monthly luncheon meeting of his professional organization. It’s a group of corporate in-house attorneys. I know why I was asked. There probably aren’t that many ex-litigator Teaching Elders in Chicagoland. When the invitation came, I was given carte blanche about what I would talk about.

The church and the structural institutions of society used to be in regular conversation-indeed a few dozen centuries ago the church was THE structural institution of most societies-but now things are different. Secular professional associations, particularly legal ones, are one of the last places I would imagine anyone would expect to find a pastor invited to speak.

Convinced that my personal journey from court house to pulpit was not something that this group would particularly care to hear, the struggle was to find a topic we might all find interesting.

I settled on the connections among ethics and morality and legality. Specifically, we talked about how morality and ethics, when they are most effective, are perceived as a floor, a set of minimum expectations about what we are expected to do: Do no harm, honor your father and mother, remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, be truthful in your work and advertising. But with increased secularization and the rise of the fictional corporate “person” who (sic) does not die a natural death and does not have a conscience, and particularly after the excesses of the last 20 years, most corporate ethical decision-making has been regulated by statues like Sarbanes-Oxley Act from 2002.

When ethical standards become laws, they tend to move from being the floor-a place to start, to being the ceiling-a limit beyond which one cannot go. Doing “the right thing” in that environment is less important than “what we can get away with without violating the law.” This is further complicated by the fact that many business folks have to maximize profits or face dismissal or legal sanctions for defrauding their stockholders of the profits they might have made. Our conversation centered around how difficult it is to argue for behavior that goes above and beyond the legal limits.

It makes me wonder, is this not a failing of our systems of corporate legal oversight, but a failure of the church as well? Have we, perhaps with laudable justifications, turned our understanding of morality and ethics into an endless series of “thou shalt nots” even while we follow a Christ who said the summary of the law could be stated without one single negation or language of limitation: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.

It’s very popular these days for many people of faith to take a confrontational stance with the “powers and principalities” of our day, those industries and companies who exploit workers or the environment, who create destructive or dangerous products, and/or who collude with destructive or exploitative regimes. Still others of a particular stripe take on companies whose non-discrimination or insurance coverage practices are seen as promoting behaviors some find immoral. These encounters seem much more of the “thou shalt not” variety. Perhaps it’s also time to take a more conversational tone and to seek conversation with business leaders about the values of ethics, whether stated in terms that are religious or humanist, as a floor, as guiding principles instead of rigid standards. And perhaps, it’s time we consider the same in our own Christian Formation.

Oh, the ultimate outcome of the conversation? The general counsels seemed to reach consensus around the idea that creating a moral/ethical culture instead of legalistic one is something that would have to start at the top. Exactly.

Michael D. Kirby is the Senior Pastor and Head of Staff at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. He currently serves on the Chicago Presbytery’s Permanent Judicial Commission, on its equivalent of a Presbytery Council and on the Verge, the team who have been charged to better redesign the Presbytery and its structures to meet the needs of the current and future church.

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