Monday, April 28, 2014

“Right Use” of a Business in Church: Incorporating Corporate Social Responsibility

The ends–justifying-the-means rationale is a tricky business, justifying historically a myriad of offensive practices including torture. On the other hand, “good use” has been deemed a legitimate rationale for acquiring wealth under Christian auspices—the obstacle of the proverbial camel squeezing through the eye of the needle being assuaged by good intentions. Generally speaking, the “right use” rationale gained currency through the centuries of Christianity, leading to the Prosperity Gospel , which maintains that right belief rather than right use is all a believer needs to justify  acquiring and amassing wealth without being thereby excluded from the Kingdom of God. That Gospel, by the way, comes out of the Hebrew Bible, or “Old Testament.”  In this essay, I analyze the “good use” rationale in the context of incorporating businesses inside a church—a trend well-underway in the evangelical  Christian mega-churches as of 2014. Can the rationale survive the baleful implications of the proverbial camel Biblical passage? Further, what of Jesus’s over-turning of the sellers’s tables in the Temple?

Particularly vulnerable to the business v. Jesus dichotomy, many mega-churches own and manage (or franchise) coffee shops, pouring the profits into the general operating budget. Although increasing fellowship is often cited as the end served by the means here, the “right use” is so broad (including the use of the profits) that the ends-justifying-the-means rationale may be tenuous. That is to say, the actual motive in setting up and maintaining the business could very easily become gain itself, which has consistently counted as greed in the history of Christian thought.

Would it be ethical in either business or religious terms for a church coffee shop to expand its hours and use its cost advantage to undercut Starbucks? Would it make a difference how the profits are being used? (Image Source:

Less vulnerable is the strategy of opening a business that is dedicated to a particular religious purpose, such as missions. Less vulnerable still, some churches have tied a non-religious social responsible use to a particular religious use. An “input/output” distinction is useful here. Organizations such as Zoe Internatioal, FashionABLE, Sak Saum, and Fight For Them Jewelry provide businesses with products made by people vulnerable to or rehabilitating from the human sex trade. At least one, Sak Saum, fuses its social responsibility mission with ministry by following a model of “self-sustaining ministry.” As for the mega-churches that create businesses that sell the wares from these networks, the corporate social responsibility aim goes back to the suppliers, who get a cut of the revenue. The distinctly religious use lies with the use of the profits. For example, a church might use its profits from the business to fund missions work. In this way, corporate social responsibility and Christianity can both be in the mix without necessarily sacrificing the integrity of either vantage point.

In conclusion, I have laid out a spectrum of religio-business models to suggest that the “right use” justification is not monolithic, and can thus have more or less sway in assuaging any theological discomfort from having businesses literally within a church—even just steps away from a sanctuary. To be sure, the justification can easily become a slippery slope, particularly as the “right use” gets increasingly generalized or vague. Also, if the end being served is itself a sort of gain, even if in terms of souls or membership, greed may run through the means-end continuum itself, thereby compromising the entire “good use” rationale. It is perhaps human, all too human, to get caught up in our enterprises and miss the whisper passing by the mountain. Even the fellowship in a coffee shop carries with it the opportunity cost in terms of missed worship in the sanctuary across the hall. In short, the “good use” justification is treacherous, given the human proclivity to love gain and that which it brings, whether spiritual or material.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Discipleship of Women: Jesus's Wife

A small fragment of papyrus with Coptic (Egyptian) writing referring to Jesus Christ and his wife, Mary, dates authentically back to at least the sixth to ninth centuries, and perhaps as early as the fourth, Harvard University announced after two years of study and scientific testing. Although by no means evidence or proof that Jesus was married and recognized his wife as one of his disciples, the text can give us moderns a glimpse of the diversity of Christian thought even in the early Middle Age (i.e., between Augustine and Aquinas). The sheer variety discovered by now of the various "schools" of historical Christian thought (e.g., The Gospel of Thomas, The Book of Q, etc.) may seem odd to the extent that a "one size fits all" status quo has been set as the default for "Christian." Accordingly, the more we discover of an antiquated perspective in the history of Christianity, the more we discover about the religion in our own day, and even our world itself.

(Image Source: The Huffington Post)

As it survives, the fragment is a bit of a puzzle. In quotes in the first line is the statement, “My mother gave to me li[fe.”  The next line, “the disciples said to Jesus, “ presumably includes the next line’s content, “Mary is worthy of it.“ Worthy of what? Lest we automatically assume the Mary here is Jesus’s mother, the reference could also be to Mary Magdalene.

Firstly, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene contains the line,  “Jesus kissed her on her . . .”). Second, accidentally discovered in Jerusalem in 1980, a tomb contained ossuaries (small coffins for bones) having inscriptions including “Jesus, son of Joseph,” two Marys, James, Joseph, James, Matthew, and “Judah, son of Jesus.”[1] In spite of James Cameron’s documentary detailing the scientific studies of the scant surviving DNA matter, the world seemed not to notice. Third, the next two lines in the fragment have Jesus saying “to them” (i.e., the disciples), “My wife” and “she will be able to be my disciple.”[2] Presumably Jesus is saying his wife is able to be one of his disciples, and his mother was worthy of it too.
As with many of the theological shifts through the ages of Christian thought, the fragment here may reflect the Church in the context (i.e., time and place) in which the text was written. The place of women in the Coptic Church centuries after Christ may have needed some support out of the mouth of Jesus himself—vicariously, that is.

Similarly, our reading of the cryptic Coptic words cannot but be colored by our context in which women have been clawing their way back into clerical positions. The force of the Vatican’s initial reaction to the fragment—that it is a forgery—is itself an indication our times, and specifically how differently the fragment plays today than in the context of the author.

In short, the shifting sands of historical Christian thought, including its various uses of Jesus as a mouthpiece, should not be confused with historical evidence concerning those uses. Faith seeking understanding morphs into something else entirely once it seeks to capture empirical history for its own.

[1] Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino, “The Jesus Family Tomb: The Evidence Behind the Discovery No One Wanted to Find” (New York: Harper Collins, 2007).
[2] Jaweed Kaleem, “’Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ Papyrus Is Ancient, Not Fake, Scientists and Scholars Say,” The Huffington Post, April 10, 2014.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Pro-Second-Vatican-Council Clergy Distrust Traditionalist Vatican Administrations: Translating Ecclesiastical Partisanship

A survey of Roman Catholic priests in 2013 conducted at Saint John’s University School of Theology Seminary suggests that priests did not like the new English translation of the Missal by a two to one margin (59% to 39%). Eighty percent of the priests who responded thought the language is “awkward and distracting.” Yet still more damning to the Vatican hierarchy are the findings that 55 percent of the priests were not confident that their views on the translation would be taken seriously. Nearly half of the priests indicated disapproval of the Holy See’s role in bringing about the new translation. Put another way, less than two in five priests approved of the Vatican’s leadership on the new Missal under Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  As dire as this news of distrust and liturgical disagreement may seem, the survey comes with a significant drawback that exaggerates the opposition. The devil is in the details.

The online survey attracted responses from 1,536 priests. This total represents a response rate of 42.5 percent. Although such a rate is typical of the “empirical research” studies conducted at business schools, the results from such a low rate cannot be generalized to apply to all of the Church’s priests. We cannot say that nearly 60% of Roman Catholic priests opposed the new translation, and that about half of all of the priests did not like the Vatican’s role in the process and did not trust their clerical superiors to take the priests’ concerns seriously. We cannot assume that the 42.5 percent who were motivated to respond online are just like the 56.5 percent who chose not to submit a reply. In other words, their respective reasons may differ.

Generally speaking, people who are unhappy with something may be more motivated to say something about it. Within the Catholic Church, priests critical of the new translation may tend to favor the Second Vatican Council, which allowed for less ecclesiastical distance between the clergy and the laity; traditionalist priests would be less inclined ideologically to voice even anonymous criticism of their superiors. Such priests would tend to favor the new translation’s more “literal” capturing of the original Latin, and the greater clergy-laity distance behind some of the changes in wording. For example, “with your spirit” is from the interpretation that only the priest, rather than the congregation, shares in Christ’s sacrifice in the Mass. The priest says, “Peace be with you.” Instead of the previous “And also with you,” the laity reply, “And with your spirit” because the priest’s spirit participates in Christ’s sacrifice in the liturgy. In short, the priest is no longer a “you” alongside you and you and you, but is qualitatively different—back up there where he was prior to the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s.

What is the highest point in the Catholic Mass? Who is central in it? To what extent does the language support and maintain the pivotal moment and person? (Image Source: AP)

Therefore, we would be on firmer ground interpreting the survey results as pertaining primarily to the loyal opposition to the restorative traditionalist movements of John Paul II and Benedict XVI rather than to the traditionalist priests. I suppose the most notable finding is that the loyal opposition may not be so loyal after all, considering the mistrust underlying the relatively superficial linguistic differences. Put another way, we can conclude that at least some of the more moderate priests do not trust the Holy See to be impartial at least when it comes to taking into account their opinions. If the new translation is really a Trojan Horse carrying traditionalism back into the Mass,  of course distrust would result among the pro-Vatican II contingent of the clergy.

It is in the nature of ideology to willow down to a purity of “true believers.” It is also in the nature of ideology to make use of subterfuges, or lies, in doing so. Hence distrust breeds particularly well in such a climate.

In conclusion, the news for the Vatican is both better and worse than a simple reading of the survey results indicates. The “devil is in the details,” in that the lack of faith in the Vatican by some of its own priests suggests that ideology has been alive and well under the rubric of liturgy. What we cannot say is that an overwhelming of priests did not like the new translation in 2013 or even that over a majority of all priests do not feel respected by those clerics in the Vatican hierarchy. Particularly among kindred souls as religious are wont to be, at least ideally, distrust is a silent killer that can be expected to gradually eat away the foundation to the ecclesiastical edifice that has endured for centuries.