Thursday, January 26, 2012

Maybe it's time for "Servant Capitalism"

Christ washing the feet of the Apostles, by Gi...
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The concept of "servant leadership" has made something of a buzz for a while now. If you've read leadership material, or even attended customer-service seminars, you've likely heard at least a brief run-down on the concept:  You lead by serving. The idea is that you put the needs of those you lead above your own; you count yourself as servant to both those above and those below you on the organizational scale. John Maxwell is pretty big on it, and so are some other well-known "leadership leaders.

It's a good idea, though the servant aspect sometimes gets watered down to "help yourself by helping others"--hardly a servant's idea. The Christian leadership authors (like Maxwell) point to the Gospel of John, to Christ Jesus washing the feet of his disciples and telling them:   "And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other's feet" (John 13:14, New Living Translation). There's nothing here that points to gaining an advantage through serving:  True service is always about the other, with no thought of myself. Serving isn't "me"; it's not even "us." It's "you." What we used to get in stores:  "How can I help you?"

So my thought is that maybe we need to transfer the idea from leadership to capitalism. Maybe it's time for servant capitalism. Not businesses that simply do good to do well, or that try to have a social conscience. Those concepts are not bad but not sufficient. They do not transform a business into something that is wholly other-centered. What I mean is creating a business that is, top-to-bottom, centered on the customer. Not a non-profit business but a for-profit. Not one that justifies unethical behavior by saying:  "We have an obligation to our stockholders as well as to our customers." Such a business would make a fair and reasonable profit (my high-school Economics textbooks put that at 3-5% in the 70s).

At heart, the idea is that money--all money--is first and foremost a means of serving. This cuts against the way we see money:  It is, in our culture, for security against the future and for pleasure now. Capitalism is a way for me to gain security and pleasure by selling security and pleasure to others. In the end, most Christians and non-Christians think of money in the same way; and we think of business in the same way. We have "God-honoring principles" as rules of how we do business. The business itself, though, comes under the barest of scrutiny. We may ask:  Is it immoral? We do not ask:  Does it serve God and humanity?

What else would a servant capitalism look like? How would it be different from what we have? Could it work on a large scale? Anyone willing to take a crack at it, feel free to step up to the plate.

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