“If anyone wants to be the first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” Mark 9:35
Lent has been traditionally the season in the Christian calendar for believers to prepare their hearts for the miraculous work of Easter. It is a time to be reminded that the way of the cross is a way of suffering and service, a way embodied by Jesus Christ. Thoughtful and holy men and women throughout the history of the Church have recognized this fact of faith, and dedicated their lives to such radical service. We ought to be inspired by their examples, and recognize that those who serve are indeed the greatest among us.
But there is one type of servant which has been ignored by most church leaders–the entrepreneur. One sees evidence of the prejudice against him everywhere. Books, television, films, and even sermons all convey the same message: What he does is rapacious, greedy, and socially destructive. Business may be a necessary evil, says reigning opinion, but the entrepreneur should never be given a moral sanction. That is the conventional wisdom as proclaimed by the chattering class.
This sentiment is not unfounded. We all know the business person whose practices are illegal and immoral, who through force and fraud reaches into our checkbooks uninvited in order to line his own pockets. But let us not be confused. We are all susceptible to sin, clergy and entrepreneurs alike. Many critics of the entrepreneur are beset by this confusion. We must remember that the market will exhibit all the failings of a fallen humankind. Sin is a part of business not because the market is involved, but because people are involved.
Markets–and the entrepreneurs who give life to the market–require a moral context in which to exist and function. Firms cannot long exist without a reputation for honesty, quality workmanship, and in most cases, civility. Given the fact that a free market depends on voluntary exchange to operate, if these qualities are lacking, consumers know best when to end the relationship.
We must remember that God has created entrepreneurs with a rare combination of gifts and abilities. St. Bernardino, our focus for this issue’s “In The Liberal Tradition” feature, recognized four such gifts: efficiency, responsibility, hard work, and risk-taking. The entrepreneur then takes these gifts and combines them with a special and often subtle insight about something people need, and works very hard to fill this need in a creative and productive manner. In the process, he employs the labor of others, giving them a meaningful means to support their families. And in the end he has created wealth and prosperity that had not existed before. All this comes to be through his faithful service. If the entrepreneur profits thought the application of his gifts and the assumption of great risks, they are profits well-deserved.
As a priest, I often find entrepreneurs who are disenfranchised and alienated from their churches. They hear that the path to personal redemption is to give up all their money. But religious leaders display very little understanding of the vocation called entrepreneurship, and of what it contributes to society. It is a mistake to associate business with greed. When people accept the entrepreneurial vocation, they must focus on the needs of others; business people in a market economy cannot be self-centered and be successful. Religious leaders must learn something about economics. Then they will come to understand that the entrepreneurs often are the greatest men and women of faith among us.