The Purpose of Business Part III: Perversion and Plunder

In Part I: Shalom Solutions and Part II: Shalom Provision, we learned that business makes money by creating value for others — primarily by creating products that solve the big and little material challenges of human existence. Customers purchase these products believing their lives will be better off as a result, despite the economic value they part with in the process. This makes such purchase transactions the ideal win-win outcome, i.e., a voluntary exchange in which both parties benefit. At least in this world, it’s a huge way that “Love your neighbor as yourself” — the bedrock principle of God’s kingdom — is fulfilled.

The Two Business Models

Ah, if only it were that simple. Yes, businesses can make money as a byproduct of creating value for customers (and others). But they can also make money by extracting value. They can choose to prioritize their success at the expense of various stakeholders (neighbors). These are win-lose business models in which the (immediate) success of the business comes as a result of harm done to others. Such businesses create blight rather than blessings.

Unfortunately, there are many such business models. A company might, for example, start to skimp on the quality of its product, giving customers something less than they had expected. Or it might fire employees so they can hire cheaper contractors (often the just-fired employees). Or, to be more specific, an oil company might consistently underspend on safety, eventually resulting in a blowout that costs 11 lives and pollutes more than 16,000 miles of U.S. coastline. Or an auto company might promote the wonders of their “clean diesel” cars while rigging the vehicles to cheat on emissions tests. Or a bank might open millions of fraudulent accounts without their customers’ consent.

The business landscape is replete with both the business models that create value and blessing and those that do the opposite—those that profit by making the world better and those that profit from making the world worse.

Your Investment Decisions Matter

As a result, (many) investors are doing something far different than they imagine. They may think they are merely putting their money to work in “the market.” And that their investments have no moral consequence. And that investing is no big deal. 

But in reality, investing is a huge deal. Investors who foster companies with win-win/“Love your neighbor” business models are partnering with Jesus in his abundant life mission. They are furthering shalom and advancing God’s kingdom. In the same respect, investors fostering win-lose/extract-value business models are advancing, even if unintentionally, the enemy’s agenda and kingdom. 

Scripture repeatedly warns us about the importance of choosing wisely between these kingdoms. Proverbs 1:10-19 is a particularly important example. Proverbs is referred to as The Book of Wisdom because it provides a great deal of counsel for how to live wisely and well. In other words, it tells us how to live in harmony with, rather than run afoul of, the moral universe in which God has placed us. 

Thou Shall Not Plunder

Now let’s remind ourselves that God never does anything haphazardly. So what do you imagine God would choose as the very first lesson he wanted his wisdom book to convey? What, arguably, would be the most important counsel by which he could direct people toward righteousness and away from danger?

The first several verses of Proverbs 1 serve as an introduction regarding the importance of wisdom. Then in Proverbs 1:10-19, we have God’s very first instruction in this wisdom book. And it is an emphatic warning to avoid plunder. Really? Of all the topics God might have chosen, the one foremost on his mind was plunder?

Nevertheless, his warning couldn’t be more explicit. He tells us here that plunder is “ill-gotten gain; it takes away the lives of those who get it” (Proverbs 1:19, NIV). And his admonition is not merely for those who plot plunder. Rather, he says that those who are merely complicit, who choose to “throw in your lot with us” (Proverbs 1:14, CSB), are utterly foolish as well. All of them together “lie in wait for their own blood; they waylay only themselves!” (Proverbs 1:18, NIV (1984)) Hm, God seems deadly serious. Why, exactly?

Plunder is taking something of value that rightly belongs to someone else. Regardless of whether it takes the form of a mugging at knifepoint, a sophisticated scheme to defraud, or a win-lose business model, it’s all the same. It’s simply stealing, robbery, and theft. And that means it embodies the central dynamic of the enemy’s kingdom, and it’s why Jesus calls his enemy, first and foremost, “the thief.”

This warning is particularly pertinent for modern-day investors. It used to be that Christians paid careful attention to whether the companies in which they invested had business models of which they could be proud: ones that were clearly creating blessing in the world. In turn, they studiously avoided companies whose profits came from predatory, value-extraction practices like tobacco or payday loans. 

This is important for two different reasons. First, investors are critical to which version of business has ascendant momentum. If they choose to fund win-win/value-creation businesses, the market will respond — business models will move decidedly in that direction. And the world will take a step closer to shalom.

But if investors fund win-lose/value-extraction business models, if they fund companies that prioritize their own success at the expense of stakeholders, then the enemy’s kingdom gets stronger. Then “steal and kill and destroy” business behaviors become increasingly pervasive.

The other reason is much more personal and much more serious. While many companies continue to profit from plunder, most investors today are oblivious to the business models that fund their profits. They are mainly unaware even of the companies in which they’ve invested. Too many imagine investing is a morally trivial activity. They fail to recognize the watershed difference between value-creation and value-extraction business models (and their respective kingdoms). Too often they fail even to care from what sorts of business models their returns are generated.

But God never lets his people outsource moral responsibility. Rather, he continues to say to today’s investors (and everyone else), avoid plunder at all costs — because it “takes away the lives of those who get it.”

 

The Choice Is Yours

OneAscent believes in the urgency of our mission and the obligation we have to steward well what God has given us. Our approach rejects the world’s narrow definition of a good investment. Profit matters. But equally as important is the way in which that profit is created — either through blessing humanity or plundering it. 

To find out if your investments align with your values, use our Analyze My Investments Tool or visit our website to learn more about values-based investing.

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