Corporate Reform and God’s Creation
I admit, I never used to care about issues of economic inequality. For most of my life, I believed I lived in a meritocratic society where the same governing ideals rightly applied to all of its members, no matter who they were or where they came from: The system rewarded people fairly for the work they did; people received what they deserved.
The recognition that I received in my early career reinforced these beliefs. I saw no reason to doubt the integrity of the institutional forces at work around me. But when I eventually caught glimpses of the stark economic realities that many people are born into, I was confronted with a hard truth: There is something inherently unfair about the way this world currently works. I started to wonder: Why are there such huge disparities in the distribution of wealth, and what can we, as Christians, do to address it?
A Contested Idea
My quest to answer these questions led me to the contentious term “economic inequality” itself. To enter into constructive dialogue, we have to navigate various areas of disagreement around it. There are, for instance, different understandings of what economic inequality represents. To some, it is a rational measurement of the inevitable variations found in absolute wealth, a natural outcome of financial allocation and award based on differences in skill sets. To others, it is a result of social injustices that privilege some and systematically rob others of access to financial opportunity – injustices that must be historically identified and politically redressed.
There is also the incredible challenge of obtaining a clear picture of how economic inequality is trending over time, as a recent article in The Economist reveals. Any given referenced economic data is by no means comprehensive or completely accurate. In other words, the situation might be better than what the statistics tell us, or it might be worse.1
With all of these raging questions barreling into public discourse, it is easy to become overwhelmed and frustrated with the lack of progress actually being made. Economic inequality is after all not just an abstract concept. It is a very real problem that affects the lives of the people around us – friends, families, and neighborhoods trying to make ends meet. The issue takes us beyond critiques of capitalism and into the heart of a fundamental organizing principle of any society, namely that which determines who has the power to control and grant access to material prosperity. This is not to conflate the possession of power automatically with social injustice, for power can be a force for good. Rather, we need to acknowledge that economic inequality will trap its victims in persistent impoverishment unless they are empowered to accumulate self-sustaining wealth. The question is, who has the power to liberate people from economic inequality?
Pockets of Possibility
I believe if we reimagine how we run institutions – here I mean corporations and churches particularly – we will unlock enormous power for systemic change.Though tackling deeply rooted elements of inequity such as racism will be difficult, let us remember the maxim: We often overestimate what can be done in the short term and underestimate what can be done in the long term. To paraphrase Sarah Drummond, Dean of Andover Newton Seminary, what we can do today to address power imbalances is to look out for “pockets of possibilities” and cultivate our own alternative expressions of economic exchange.
Drawing inspiration from emerging business models and church innovations, I find hope on the horizon. In Cleveland, the Evergreen Cooperatives model targets the issue of control and access through its profit-sharing, worker-owned, workercontrolled business and partnerships. Elsewhere, churches are redirecting their budget priorities to help alleviate the debt burdens that have prevented people from accruing their own assets. These include the Christian Assembly Church in Los Angeles (medical debt), Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, VA, (student debt), and the Circle of Hope church in Philadelphia (credit card debt). In addition, social entrepreneurs have long been working on finding creative ways to help low-income communities build their capacities to generate wealth. If we re-examine the church model seen in Acts 2, we will find many more ideas on how to create “pockets of possibilities” as communities of faith.
What is less evident is how to bear out change in the corporate world, and this is precisely why it is important to explore what that might look like through a theological lens. What I have come to appreciate during my time at YDS is how a theological education prepares me to see the world differently. When I went to work for a tech social enterprise last summer, after my first year at YDS, I experienced a heightened awareness of the needs of the company and its employees beyond what my years of business training had taught me. Grounding my work in a community-oriented approach, I audited the company’s organizational design in order to better align its operations with the company’s mission. According to the CEO, I was able to identify what many others before me had failed to grasp: their internal cultural dynamics and effects. To me, these insights were simply a natural outworking of a theological orientation, the attempt to articulate God’s vision for creation.
As Christians, it is our responsibility to bring God’s vision to the workplace. What I mean is that we need to advocate for ethical principles and corporate frameworks that reflect a good and gracious God. This is the very same God that told us to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic. 6:8b). Though Christians have a horrific track record of justifying atrocities in the name of God, at the same time our shared past contains many important breakthroughs to celebrate. Life today would be completely different without the pioneering work of Christians in the promotion of science, healthcare, and education. It is time for us to help reinvent the corporate world.
In retrospect, what I experienced as meritocratic was really the result of the work that many before me have done on my behalf. My grandmother grew up in poverty and, against all odds, paved the way for my family to enter into the lower-middle class. My first academic mentor was an early advocate for women in computer science; her encouragement inspired me to take on challenges I never dreamed I would be capable of doing. It took years for their efforts to bear fruit, and even so, my grandmother did not live to witness any of it firsthand. They did not know what kind of impact they would have in the world, and neither will we. Yet, what they did mattered greatly.
So, looking forward, we can be certain of one thing. No matter what we choose to do, it builds on the inspiration and efforts of others, and it will in turn be significant to someone, somewhere.
Sarah Yang ’21 M.Div. is a software engineer-turned-entrepreneur who hopes to tackle economic inequality after graduation. She has an MBA from London Business School and a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science and math from the University of British Columbia.
1. “Measuring the 1%,” The Economist, Nov. 28, 2019.