Faith, Hope & the Global Economy
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Faith, Hope & the Global Economy

A Power For Good

Richard Higginson

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eBook - ePub

Faith, Hope & the Global Economy

A Power For Good

Richard Higginson

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About This Book

Does faith have any hope to offer a global economy beset by debt and crisis?
Richard Higginson argues that, rightly understood and applied, faith can be an enormous power for good - stimulating enterprise, reducing poverty, promoting integrity, ensuring sustainability and making disciples.
This ground-breaking book will help business men and women to think deeply about what they do and why they do it. It shows how every episode in the biblical story of salvation has something important, challenging and hopeful to say about business practice. It explores alternative business models that provide signs of hope, and also offers insight and encouragement to those working for mainstream companies.
Full of examples from business seen and researched by Richard on his travels, this book will inspire you to see the relevance of your faith to your work - and yourself as God's agent in transforming the world for the better.

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1. Faith in the economy: a power for good

The Christian faith, rightly understood, can be an enormous power for good in the global economy. It stimulates enterprise, reduces poverty, promotes integrity, encourages sustainability and fosters discipleship.
This claim strikes some as bold and bizarre. It appears to overestimate Christianity’s scope of influence. We hear much today about the decline of the Christian faith, a trend that seems relentless and irreversible. If the strength of a faith is measured in terms of churchgoing statistics, that view appears to have plenty of support. In northern Europe (the UK, France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Scandinavia) only 4–8% of the population attend church on a weekly basis.1 Secular­ization is proceeding apace.
Christian faith and the global economy also occupy very different categories in the minds of most people who are not practising Christians. They don’t seem to have anything to do with each other. Christian faith is thought to be concerned with a spiritual realm: with personal salvation, forgiveness of sins and eternal life – and so in part it is. Economics is about the world of money and material goods. When I introduce myself as a theologian whose major area of interest is business, people look surprised.
Even for practising Christians in Western Europe, being a power for good in the global economy may not be a high priority. Many work in business, and all play an indirect role in the global economy as consumers and investors. But the effect of Christian faith on the way they work and spend seems to be marginal. It is widely accepted that the world of business operates along predetermined lines. There are economic laws – the laws of supply and demand, for instance, in determining wages and prices – which decide how things are, and the feeling is that Christians can do little to change them.
But the opening statement of this book is no mere theoret­ical claim. It is not the deluded fantasy of an armchair theologian. That Christianity is a power for economic good is something that I have seen time and time again – as I have met with businesspeople in the UK, travelled the world and delved into the past. This book will give many specific examples of Christians whose business activities have brought life and hope to their communities and countries.
It is when we take a historical and geographical perspective that the claim that Christian faith can be an enormous power for the good in the global economy makes much more sense. If we take a trip to other parts of the world now in the early twenty-first century, or if we venture back to Western Europe three centuries ago, things look very different.

Christianity worldwide

Estimating the number of adherents to the different world faiths is notoriously difficult. But most agree that Christianity is still the largest world’s religion. Just over 2 billion of the world’s 7 billion consider themselves Christians, at least when answering research surveys. Even allowing for many who are not practising Christians (they do not attend church, their beliefs are vague and their behaviour is not recognisably Christian), this volume of professed allegiance should be taken seriously. Christianity is a decidedly global faith. There are lively Christian communities in virtually every country of the world, including Islamic countries where they are persecuted or conversion to Christianity is illegal. The secularized nature of Western Europe is at odds with trends in every other continent – 36% of Americans, 48% of Brazilians and 78% of sub-Saharan Africans attend a church service once a week.2 Christian faith is keenly embraced in many of the countries that received it through colonization by the European civiliz­ation that has now largely abandoned it.
Globally, then, Christianity is still a force to be reckoned with. But one cannot automatically assume that, where Christians are in the ascendant, they play a positive role economically. In some countries churches have failed, by and large, to make fruitful connections between faith and business. Hence the reason for choosing words carefully in my opening sentence. I said that the Christian faith, rightly understood, can be an enormous power for good in the global economy. Much hangs on those words ‘rightly understood’. The positive connection between faith and business does not always follow.
While the proportion of the world’s population who are officially Christian is roughly the same today as it was 100 years ago (just under a third), it has changed considerably within particular countries. It has declined in Western Europe but grown in other parts of the world, notably certain Asian countries. The church in South Korea grew from virtually nothing to over 30% of the population during the second half of the twentieth century. This coincided with rapid economic growth: an annual rate of 9% between 1960 and 1990. Several commentators make a connection between the two.3
Attitudes of enterprise, thrift, hard work and trust, all conducive to economic growth, have been encouraged by the rise of Christianity. The same process is being repeated in contemporary China, despite the Government’s ambivalent attitude to the faith. In fast-growing cities like Shanghai and Wenzhou, industrial expansion and church growth are feeding each other. There is even a new category of businessmen known as Boss Christians, so upfront are they about their allegiance and so pivotal is their faith to their way of work.4 It is when the impact of the Christian faith on a country is new and vibrant that its power for good in the economic realm tends to be most evident.

Christianity in Europe

The positive connection between faith and business was evident in many European countries in the centuries following the Protestant Reformation. The seventeenth century was the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic. Trade, industry, art and science all flourished in a society where most skilled craftsmen and rich merchants were inspired by a lively Christian – mainly Calvinist – faith. This faith led them to respond to God’s call to exercise their talents in every sphere of life. It gave the Dutch confidence and resolve in tackling their country’s endemic threat of flooding. Jan Leeghwater, a pioneer of land reclamation and expert on drainage, wrote that ‘the draining of the lakes is one of the most necessary, the most profitable and most holy works in Holland’.5 Symptomatic of the enterprising, cooperative and tough-minded spirit that marked this emergent nation was the coming together of several small spice trading companies in the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in 1602. This signalled the start of a new commercial epoch. The VOC was the first joint-stock company and the sale of its shares took place on the world’s first stock market.
In Britain, the Quakers were a Christian group that had an influence out of all proportion to their size. During the second half of the nineteenth century, when at the height of their commercial influence, they numbered less than 20,000 people. But the Quakers were prominent in banking, insurance, confectionery, drinks, engineering, railways, steel, soap, pharmaceuticals, shoes and textiles. Many of the great Quaker names of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century commerce, such as Lloyds, Barclays, Cadbury, Rowntree and Clarks, are still with us – some as brands under new management.
Historian James Walvin believes that the Quakers did well in business for a variety of reasons.6 Among the factors he highlights are the following:
  • The Quakers’ fierce commitment to honesty. They were accepted as honest even by those who disliked them. During the eighteenth century this reputation made people ready to trust Quaker banks with their money. Honesty also stood them in good stead in other areas of commerce. Their word could be trusted, their goods were what they seemed, and their prices were both fixed and reasonable.
  • The Quakers’ system of mutual accountability. They kept checks on each other, and had to answer for their commercial conduct to their local meeting. Prominent Quakers met regularly, passed on business advice and warned against dubious prospects or dodgy traders. This network stretched across the Atlantic.
  • The Quakers’ emphasis on education. This flowed from the Protestant habit of reading the Bible for yourself. They set up their own schools and developed apprenticeships for their children. Sons were often sent to another Quaker associate to learn a trade before returning to run the family business.

The Protestant work ethic

All these examples of Christianity making a positive economic contribution have been Protestant. Does this mean I am reasserting the importance of the Protestant work ethic? The answer is yes – but with significant qualifications.
The phrase ‘Protestant work ethic’ became popular after the German sociologist Max Weber wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in 1905. Weber observed that in modern Europe – Germany in particular – the owners of capital and the higher grades of skilled labour were overwhelmingly Protestant rather than Catholic. He argued that Protestantism created the psychological conditions which facilitated the development of capitalism. It produced managers and workers who were rational, sober, industrious and thrifty. This helped their business expand, because wealth was prudently invested for future growth rather than squandered on personal vainglory. Weber described this as worldly asceticism, and saw it as especially pronounced in Calvinism.
Why should this be? Weber’s explanation was that Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, in which God’s eternal decree divided humanity into the saved and the damned, created in people a state of lonely insecurity. Though Protestantism taught that salvation came through faith rather than works, faith could be counterfeit, so the individual was thrown back on a life of good works as a sign of God’s election. Weber called good works the means ‘not of purchasing salvation, but of getting rid of the fear of damnation’, adding that ‘In practice this means that God helps those who help themselves’.7 Living a godly life involved a unified series of good acts which took on the character of a business enterprise. For many reformed Christians, business was the context where this took place. As it happened, worldly asceticism was well suited to accumulating wealth. Resources were put to wise use; capital grew.
Weber’s thesis has been the subject of intense debate. I agree with historian Niall Ferguson, who writes that ‘there are reasons to think that Weber was on to something’,8 even though the latter’s judgments are questionable in detail. The psychological claims Weber made about predestination are highly speculative, and lack empirical backing; Calvinists are often notable for their confidence rather than insecurity. The significant effect of this type of Protestant Christianity was not that it generated worry about one’s eternal destiny but that it saw the whole of life as under God’s sovereignty. Business could and should be done to the glory of God. This motivated Christians to devote themselves enthusiastically to making a success of it.
Weber also exaggerated Protestants’ self-denying tendencies. The seventeenth-century Dutch spent their hard-earned money on quite luxurious possessions, like fine furniture and beautiful paintings. Their faith made them uncomfortable with their riches, even embarrassed by them, but these habits of consumption had the positive effect of stimulating the economy.9 The Quakers believed in plain dress and a simple lifestyle, and they generally did stay true to their principles. But this did not stop them supplying the needs and wants of those who sported a more affluent lifestyle.10 Chocolate is a luxury item especially associated with Quakers, and their shopkeepers sold a range of expensive clothes, frills and elaborate dress.
Certainly, Protestant countries in Europe tended to grow faster than Catholic ones. By 1700 the former had clearly overtaken the latter in per capita income, and by 1940 people in Protestant countries were on average 40% better off than people in Catholic countries.11 American Roman Catholic thinker Michael Novak, an enthusiastic advocate of capitalism, acknowledges the existence of a long-standing Catholic anti-capitalist bias: Catholic nations have been ‘long retarded in encouraging development, invention, savings, investment, entrepreneurship, and, in general, economic dynamism’.12 Catholic attitudes towards money were ‘based on pre-modern realities’ and Catholic thought ‘did not understand the creativity and productivity of wisely invested capital’.13 He and several fellow-Catholics are now seeking to reverse this trend. In The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Novak draws on papal encyclicals of the last 100 years, starting wth Rerum Novarum (1891), and argues that the debate stirred by these documents has yielded a richer, more humane view of capitalism than that found in Weber.
Conversely, it cannot be assumed any longer that Protestant churches will encourage a positive immersion in the business world. Attitudes are affected by many interrelated factors: cultural context, social situation, national history and the type of theology taught in different churches. In this book I shall draw particular attention to the importance of theology, the underlying beliefs that people have about God, humanity and the world. What we are taught and what we believe have a greater impact on what we do than many of us realize.

Five key criteria

I began by calling Christian faith a power for good in the global economy when it fulfils five criteria: stimulating enterprise, reducing poverty, promoting integrity, encouraging sustainability and fostering discipleship. More about each will emerge in later chapters, but a brief description at this stage may be helpful.

Stimulating enterprise

Enterprise is the mainspring of business. The global economy never stands still. While entrepreneurs have sometimes been branded as dangerous and unscrupulous, luring others to an unpleasant fate like the pied piper of Hamelin, it is by undertaking new ventures, trying out new products, services and processes, and refining what currently exists in search of something better, that progress is made. The church should encourage entrepreneurship as a noble vocation that requires qualities of vision, passion, risk-taking, persistence and decisiveness. In demonstrating these qualities, we emulate God’s character.

Reducing poverty

Business can bring people out of poverty. It can deliver them from dehumanizing and demoralizing living conditions that are an affront to their human dignity. While business is often portrayed as a selfish endeavour, in which my success is at others’ expense (whether they are ousted competitors or exploited employees), this is not necessarily the case. The church should encourage a view of business with social as well as financial purposes. In making business benefit the needy, release people from poverty and transform society, we are faithful to the mission of Jesus.

Promoting integrity

Moral standards apply in business as much as any other area of life. Business is toughly competitive, and doing the right thing can be costly, but it is still a place where people of integrity can flourish. We are misled by a picture of business as an area where normal rules of behaviour don’t apply, and individuals and companies live or die by the law of the jungle. The church should encourage people to do business without deception or corruption. By living integrated lives exhibiting honesty, consistency and transparency, we present ourselves as a ‘living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God’ (Romans 12:1).

Encouraging sustainability

Business must be sustainable in order to survive and flourish. But sustainability has assumed new significance in recent years because of the environmental crisis that threatens the earth. While business has taken much of the blame for overexploiting the world’s resources and contributing to global warming, it is starting to rise to the challenge of environmental sustainability. The church should encourage responsible stewardship. In affirming that the world is God’s and God has entrusted care of his creation to humanity, we recognize that we are accountable for that stewardship.

Fostering discipleship

Business is an important and strategic place for Christian witness. Businesspeople often get to know their colleagues well, and have many opportunities to share the good news of God’s love with them. Jesus commanded his disciples to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’ (Matthew 28:19). The emphasis should be not just on making converts (though that is an important first step) but also on fostering discipleship: teaching men and women to glorify God through being faithful followers of Jesus in the marketplace.
Sadly, some forms of Christian faith are more a hindrance than a help in the global economy. In the contemporary world, this menace takes three main forms: prosperity theology, anti-capitalist theology and the sacred–secular divide. Though very different, each wields considerable influence in global terms. But they are all distorted views which leave Christians seriously misled and poorly equipped to serve in God’s world. The next chapter shows how.

2. Theology in business: hindrance or help?

Solomon is an aspiring young businessman in East Africa. He is struggling to get his company up and running but the store he runs is starting to make a small profit. He attends a Pentecostal church with vibrant worship and a wonderful gospel choir. The pastor preaches fervently that ‘God will reward those who give generously’. The congregation take him at his word and, despite the extreme poverty in which most of them live, faithfully give a tithe of their meagre incomes. Solomon notices that the pastor is becoming rich, enjoying a lifestyle far more affluent than his or those of the majority of the congregation.
Laura is a successful entrepreneur in the UK. Her printing business employs a dozen people and enables her to be generous in support of local community projects. But the minister at the church she attends never seems to have a good word for business. Condemning capitalism as greed, he regularly attacks business leaders and exalts servant leadership as the truly Christian approach. Yet she herself seeks to exercise servant leadership ...

Table of contents

  1. Faith and Love in the Global Economy
  2. Contents
  3. Series Preface
  4. Acknowledgments
  5. 1. Faith in the economy: a power for good
  6. 2. Theology in business: hindrance or help?
  7. 3. Launched in hope: creation and entrepreneurship
  8. 4. From hope to despair: exploitation and greed
  9. 5. Hope for a nation: no debt, no corruption
  10. 6. Hope in a son: helping the marginalized
  11. 7. The death and resurrection of hope: integrity, sacrifice and vindication
  12. 8. A people of hope: enterprising monks and caring employers
  13. 9. Hope for the future: signs of the kingdom
  14. 10. Faith, hope and love: an alternative vision for business
  15. Bibliography
  16. Notes
Citation styles for Faith, Hope & the Global Economy

APA 6 Citation

Higginson, R. (2012). Faith, Hope & the Global Economy ([edition unavailable]). IVP. Retrieved from (Original work published 2012)

Chicago Citation

Higginson, Richard. (2012) 2012. Faith, Hope & the Global Economy. [Edition unavailable]. IVP.

Harvard Citation

Higginson, R. (2012) Faith, Hope & the Global Economy. [edition unavailable]. IVP. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Higginson, Richard. Faith, Hope & the Global Economy. [edition unavailable]. IVP, 2012. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.