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When Business Defines Morality

When Business Defines Morality

©istock.com/LIgorko

Each year during the holiday season my heart drifts back over the decades and I recall poems, songs and stories that have become part of my Christmas repertoire of precious memories. I do not know how many times I have seen acted on the stage and in films, or have heard or read Charles Dickens’ story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s encounter with the spirits of Christmases past, present and yet to come. As I review the story again this year, etched in my consciousness are two conversations, one between Scrooge and the ghost of Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s departed business partner, and a second between Scrooge and a fundraiser seeking help for the poor.

Scrooge, following too rich a meal, is visited by Marley, who appears wrapped in chains.

"You are fettered," said Scrooge, trembling. "Tell me why?" 

"I wear the chain I forged in life," replied the Ghost. "I made it link by link and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”

"But you were always a good man of business, Jacob," faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself. 

"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"

While Marley and Scrooge were both far wealthier than most others in London, it was at the cost of ignoring the misery around them, as evidenced by Scrooge’s refusal, in the following conversation, to make any contribution for the relief of the very poor.

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, "It is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
 
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
 
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
 
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge.

“Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still...” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigor, then?” said Scrooge.
 
"Both very busy, sir.”
 
”Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I'm very glad to hear it.”

”Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavoring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink. and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”
 
“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.
 
“You wish to be anonymous?”
 
“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned — they cost enough, and those who are badly off must go there.”
 
“Many can't go there, and many would rather die.”
 
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

When ethical sensitivity is smothered by a thirst for and the glorification of business, we must ask what ethical pattern is really being followed.

This recently came front and center when the President of this already great nation submerged all sense of what is right in the name of business. When a prominent writer for an American newspaper — or any person — is lured into a place where he was to be murdered and his body chopped up, and Trump says that both his personal and the nation’s commercial interests prohibit any sense of outrage, America’s role as a moral leader has been abdicated.

The economy represents an important aspect of who we are and is to be honored. But when our President deifies business interests and puts them above common decency, we must ask: “Mr. Trump, have you no shame?” This failure of moral consciousness is compounded because he represents all of us who now are shamed. What must happen requires the political party he represents to finally say, “Enough is enough,” and realize that the recovery of America’s soul requires it to repudiate him. If we the people are now represented by someone who judges a vicious immoral act only by how it affects business, the shame that lies on him now covers all of us. The rest of the world, except for a few dictators, knows that the American emperor has no clothes, and that means we are all morally naked.

Charles Bayer

Charles Bayer is a somewhat retired theological professor and congregational pastor. 

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