Along the way, a number of folks have asked the question as to why I think Social Enterprise in the church would be a good idea. While many have agreed that they can see some "tent making" reasons for supporting social enterprise, a number of others have wondered if there are any theological reasons for engaging the idea of Christian Social Enterprise. I think there are. I believe the church has several unique attributes that it can offer the world of social enterprise/social entrepreneurship. In the next few posts, I am going to try and lay out what I think the Christian story offers the social enterprise conversation.
The first virtue that the church brings to social enterprise is that Christianity does not generally take a benign view of human nature. We are a damned mess and we know it.
A friend of mine who is significantly on the left side of the political aisle was down in Portland a couple of weeks ago at a post election rally. Having experienced overt racism over the years they wanted to try and take some kind of action to express their frustration over the outcome of the presidential race. They told me that while they enjoyed the rally and its speakers they felt nervous as a practicing Christian at several points. There were a number of parts of the rally that felt like gospel to them, but what they kept hearing under the surface of all the speeches and pleas was this overt faith in human beings and in our positive potential to do good. The single biggest article of faith that they kept hearing at this secular rally was that human beings were regarded as inherently good, or at the very least benign. Their opinion was that this was folly. They felt that it was this sort of blind idealism that had led, at least in part, to the election's outcome to begin with. I think my friend was on to something.
Christianity has always taken a low view of human beings. It is true that sometimes we have erred much too far in that lowly direction in terms of how we talk about ourselves or others, but a healthy skepticism about our better angels is a virtue of the Christian life. We do not all approach the world from good places. Social Enterprise needs this healthy skepticism.
One of the weaknesses of the secular humanism that under-girds much of our secular (and ecclesial!) world is that because it is so optimistic about humanity it can often be too easily fatigued and deflated when human beings fail. I have long argued every time a church scandal pops up that the last people that should be shocked are followers of Christ! Shouldn't Jesus people be the ones in the crowd nodding and saying, "Welp, we saw this coming a mile away."? Humanism can become quickly fatigued when it confronts human recipients that don't really receive our social initiatives the way we expect. "Don't they know we are trying to help!? Why are they biting the hand that feeds them?!" Likewise, humanism can become quickly fatigued when those proffering solutions create initiatives that can seem remarkably self serving. Secular humanism has an optimism about it that puts all the power and control in human hands (more on that in another post) So, when it is discovered that those hands may often simply be a set of greasy palms and fingers rubbing together, it is hard pressed to know what to do. "We are better than this!" Are we really?
This truth has been ever present in third world initiatives. Many people have gone into the thirld world assuming the best (often paternalistically) about their neighbors. The classic example of this behavior in action has been the mass distribution of mosquito nets to fight malaria across Africa. Half a billion nets have been distributed across Africa to cover beds at night. While the nets are having an effect, there have been so many distributed that they have become their own economy. They have been grabbed up by enterprising folks to make fishing nets, soccer goals, chicken pens, rope, balls, and dozens of other things. Most of those uses, though unintended, are relatively benign and may point to third world folks asserting their own autonomy. Other problems have popped up to. For instance, the nets have contributed to over fishing. Also, because they are treated with repellents, the chemicals they are coated with enter the food chain. There is some evidence to suggest that theses chemicals are producing their own human health problems. Much of our good work is like a petri dish for the law of unintended consequences.
Meanwhile on the giving end we have seen the selfishness of social enterprise at work too. While micro-loan investment has been seen as a good way to combat poverty, a number of its practitioners are simply in it to make a buck. Microloans have been used benevolently, but they have also been used abusively. We all have seen the example of celebrity aid projects that have turned out to be more about the SWAG bags at the concert than the actual cause. And of course there are many of us who have engaged processes of "help" to assuage guilt or to convince ourselves that we are benevolent. These are very destructive tendencies.
The point is that the church begins social enterprise with two critical assumptions that add longevity and health to any initiative seeking to do good. First, as a giver I should not assume that I have the best in mind for my neighbor. I must assume, or at least ask, whether the good that I seek to do is really about me. Second, I must assume that any solution that I build is going to be used in unhelpful and even nefarious ways. Unintended consequences cannot always be avoided, but they ought to be rigorously anticipated.
One of the virtues that the church brings to the table is that because we sense the brokeness of our nature and story, we sense that brokeness that will accompany all the good that we do. Our beliefs, though they might be regarded as dour or outmoded, represent a sober assessment that guides us into social enterprise and keeps us going when humanity dissapoints. Imagine if Christian Social Entrepreneurs could develop a critical thinking and action process of what I will call "skeptical inquiry". Skeptical Inquiry would be a process that would speculate the unexpected responses of recipients of good and it would also provide hard hitting assessments about where the giver is perhaps caught up in self serving patterns of thought and action. This could allow much improved cost-benefit assessments of potential social enterprise projects.
I believe that the church is needed in the social enterprise experiment that is taking place at many of our university B schools. Our healthy skepticism is a good corrective. We will certainly need to use it within our own social initiatives first, but we are needed in the larger business conversation about social enterprise. I am not convinced we will do the work any better than our secular counterparts, but we do have something to offer the conversation. If that makes me a skeptic or a pessimist, I am okay with that. It's just a part of the story that I follow every day.