A Theology of Profit

Gordon Gecko in the popular film Wall Street coins the catchphrase, “Greed is good.” When we consider the perils of big business, we often question this sentiment. Was unrestrained greed good for the housing market right before the Great Recession? Is profit good if it only benefits a few rather than the many?

Most business schools require business ethics courses, where the free-market philosophies of Milton Friedman gain focus. Friedman suggests the only ethical stance a businessperson can take is to maximize shareholder value. In other words, the only ethical thing a businessperson can do is to make money, to profit.

Complexity of Profit

Given the competing narratives around profit as well as the consistent narrative it plays in our lives, a working theology of profit is important.

Some Christians find unrestricted capitalism the answer. They would agree with Friedman’s position about the ethical principles behind making profit.

Other Christians believe profit to be part of the fall, that making above and beyond the necessities of sustenance is morally reprehensible.

Let’s suggest a middle path, a theological view on profit.

In his book, Why Business Matters to God, Jeff Van Duzer uses blood as a metaphor for the importance of profit.

Since that might sound macabre, let’s unpack it. Blood is the necessary element for a functioning human body. The heart needs to pump it around the body to deliver nutrients throughout the body to keep it alive and functioning well.

It’s important for your blood to pump efficiently and effectively, but when you woke up this morning, did you take your blood pressure? Likely, you got ready for another day and then went about your tasks purposefully. Outside of scheduled physicals, most human beings don’t spend every waking moment of every day ensuring the optimal flow of their blood. Instead, they live their life.

Profit is the blood flow of a business. It keeps the lights on, pays employee salaries, and can be invested into new goods and services that can help society. And yet, our business schools often teach our business leaders the multiple tools needed to measure profit day-to-day. With such a small focus, businesses don’t often take the time to look up and see what’s happening, trying to answer how the purpose of a business might meet the needs of others in its community.

Just like people have blood pumping through their veins so they might be able to live, a business needs profit so it may continue to benefit its community.

Is greed good? That’s not really the right question to ask. Profit is necessary because it becomes the engine by which businesses can make a difference. So when we think theologically about profit, we shouldn’t focus on the absolutes of the conversation — all good or all bad.

Let’s instead focus on what profit can allow a business to do when it looks up from its numbers and sees the needs of the community of which it is a part.

Photo Credit: Didier Weemaels

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