Lenten Thoughts: The Kingdom and the Bottom Line
As we continue to move through Lent, many of us have taken the time for deep reflection. Some of us have “given up” something for Lent. Hopefully, what we gave up was something that had fed into a false sense of self or a false sense of what brings us life in this world. And hopefully, the empty space that is left stirs a deeper thirst for God and His Kingdom. This seems to be an essential practice for those who believe in the Kingdom of God- the “right-side-up” Kingdom that is so radically different from the corrupt world order.
Lately I have felt discouraged that there seems to be few who have a vision for what the Kingdom might truly look like and what it might cost to bring it forth. Most of what I have heard offers only a few variations on the world order that already exists. Much of what is preached seems to be: clean up a few moral issues, write a check to support a missionary, be nice, figure out a way to prosper “God’s way” and keep our kids away from drugs and premarital sex. That’s Kingdom life for now. The American dream has also been connected to the Kingdom somehow. “All this, and heaven too!”
Last night I had the single most encouraging conversation that I have had in a long time. It was with a friend who has worked at senior levels in big business and government, teaching on issues of systemic change. For folks like me who are not a part of either of those worlds, much of the vocabulary and concepts were new. I felt like I needed a dictionary to listen to her, but she was a fount of fresh water for the dry, discouraged places in my heart.
She talked about justice and business, and something that is called the “triple bottom line” (3BL). That is, instead of profit, profit and more profit as the bottom line in business, the 3BL company will place just as much importance on human capital (people) and natural capital (the planet) as they do on profit. Of course profit is necessary to sustain a business and to provide jobs but with a triple bottom line, profit is not obtained at the expense of the first two principles. She described her experience of working with a Christian non-profit that was setting up a community water filtration system for a village in South America, whose water had been contaminated by an American company upstream. That company had built a plant there to take advantage of cheap labor and the less stringent environmental laws so that its profit would increase. She said the “lights went on” for her when she realized that for many years she would be helping big corporations increase their bottom line (profit) by day and then would be helping non-profits clean up after them, by night. She feels that by embracing a triple bottom line, there no longer has to be that dichotomy which says that businesses make money and non-profits do good. And of the 100 largest economies in the world, 51 are businesses; the other 49 are countries. This is why Triple Bottom Line concepts are so important – it’s not just about commerce, it’s about civilization.
It all seems counter-intuitive to those of us raised in an economy that has supported profit at any cost. At the very least, we’ve grown accustomed to not paying attention to how our lifestyles of insulated prosperity impact the rest of the world. And the 3BL idea seems impossible because companies that follow environmental laws (even when they go to a foreign country where they could avoid them) and pay attention to the lives and needs of their workers will have a far lower profit and possibly be overrun by competition. Still, my friend says, one of the initial arguments against ending slavery years ago was that the economy would collapse without slave labor. To justify immoral and selfish practices in order to make money is un-Christian. At the end of the day, or at the end of a life lived, what is the bottom line that will reflect how we have lived our lives?
There is a crucial transformation of hearts that is needed in order for this to work. As we continue to lean into Lent, we need to sit with some hard questions before God (whether we are business owners or consumers). And , non-coincidentally, the questions are very appropriate for these tough economic times in which we live. So, are we willing to have less? To have fewer choices, fewer things, smaller things, less junk? Is a company willing to make fewer things, sell less, and have a lower profit in order to sustain human flourishing? Will we support 3BL companies? Will they support each other? Will we give up entitlement for Lent and beyond?
The implications for how a church can do missions are also exciting. Already, some are involved in offering micro-loans and other means to give people a sustainable livelihood so that they and their villages may flourish. My friend believes that ultimately, it will be business of this sort and not merely aid that will finally make a real difference in eradicating extreme poverty. This is an issue that has been close to the heart of God since the very beginning.
So, for this to really take root, we must have transformed hearts that have eyes to see the much larger Story that is going on and that are willing to embrace a life of sacrifice for the greater common good. Then the gospel message that we preach will be more powerful because not only is the forgiveness of sins and relationship with God through Jesus made known, but His Kingdom is explicitly expressed by people who each take less for oneself and one’s own interests so that all may be blessed. This Kingdom value can topple the corrupt world order that makes a few extremely rich and powerful at the expense of millions of people as well as creation. It proclaims that in all of what we do we are true to our primary vocation. That vocation, given to us by Jesus, is to love God, and love others.