Corporate Sinners

For years I have wondered why religious sermons in places of worship focus so exclusively on excoriating individual sin while avoiding corporate sin in the business world. Well, those days of avoidance are being replaced with increasing attention to the gigantic, multi-directional Enron crimes and abuses against so many innocent people.

“The behavior of Enron executives is a direct violation of biblical ethics,” writes the Rev. Jim Wallis, an anti-poverty leader and editor of Sojourners magazine. “Read your Bibles. The strongest media critics of Enron call it putting self-interest about the public interest; biblical ethics would just call it a sin,” he asserts.

Wallis, whose books relate religious principles to justice for humanity in the most eloquent language, brings the Bible’s message on Mammon and God to today’s business crimes: “It’s the second most prominent theme in the Hebrew Bible,” and in the New Testament “one of every 16 verses” addresses “riches and God’s concern for the poor.” Decrying the imbalanced concentration of sermons on personal frailties Wallis says “I think people want to hear that faith has to do with money as well as sex.”

Speaking to a Washington Post reporter, the Rev. John P. Burns, pastor of a Baptist Church in Maryland said “The people in the pews areappalled by it [Enron]…..There is a general feeling among most people that they don’t know what to do about this, other than to shake their heads and moan.” Burns delivered a sermon recently on Hubris and Enron. “Hubris, he declared, “makes the rich buy 10 homes — that is what Kenneth Lay of Enron had — while others sleep on grates. Right now it may only be the pensioners and the low-level employees who suffer. . . But. . .hubris always brings the retribution of God.”

The Rev. William J. Byron, pastor of the Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., raises this ethical principle of corporate executives “having such disproportionate income relative to others in the same organization.” He told the Post: “The principle I would use is that it’s always wrong to take an unfair gain at the expense of someone.”

Over at the Presbyterian Church in Northwest Washington, D.C., the Rev. Roger Gench told the paper that the Enron case “speaks to me about what’s gone awry with global capitalism. It’s an example of a corporation that is so totally focused on making markets work and gaining wealth for a few people that it lost sight of how. . . to create wealth for the community in which it exists.”

That community for Enron, a major tax escapee, was its pensionholders, its investor, its gouged consumers and eventually its thousands of employees who lost their jobs.

The Rev. John Mack, of the nearby First Congregational Church, summed it up: “The salient thing about the Enron case is the selfishness and greed of executives.”

In the centuries before the creation of corporations, most marketplace wrongdoing emanated directly from individuals. The moneylenders driven from the Temples were individual businessmen. Now the complex corporatized economy, with its capacity to obscure or diffuse responsibility, has shielded the institutions as well as their executives from the judgments of sensitive clergy. Until Enron and its executives spilled their greed and the media attached the necessary anthropomorphic attributes for widespread public revulsion.

When public sermons start treating corporate crime with biblical judgments, can Congress be far behind with secular reforms and remedies?

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