Flourishing in Exile

November 6th, 2017

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It’s one thing to talk about seeking the flourishing of the city. It’s quite another to be doing it. I recently witnessed an institution that’s doing it.

Seek the flourishing of the city was Jeremiah’s command to the Judeans exiled in Babylon (Jer. 29:7). They were to measure their flourishing by the flourishing of their captors. “As they flourish, so shall you.” Only a few ‘got’ this, however—the sons of Judah. Their first step was learning the language and literature of Babylon (Daniel 1:4).

This was essential because the Babylonians didn’t know Hebrew. Nor did they know scripture. The Babylonians were, however, drawn to spirituality., The sons of Judah translated scripture into street language so they could talk boardroom, not just Bible.

We’re in the same boat today. The Western church is, spiritually speaking, in exile. It’s an outsider, privately engaging but publicly irrelevant. It’s partly the result of positivism, a 19th century philosophy that split the world between facts and values. Rational thinking revealed facts, informing economics and business. Religious thinking gives us values, informing our private lives. But the two don’t mix.

In October I saw a faith tradition that ‘gets’ this, that’s seeking the flourishing of the city. I attended the Good Profit conference in Washington, DC. The conference title was drawn from Charles Koch’s 2015 book, Good Profit. By “good profit,” Koch means creating superior value for customers while consuming fewer resources and always acting lawfully and with integrity. It’s making a contribution to society.[1]

The results are impressive. Koch Industries is worth over $100 billion, employing more than 120,000 in 60 countries worldwide. It has earned more than 1,200 excellence awards since 2009. And 90 percent of earnings are reinvested into the company.

The company’s not perfect. For example, it leans toward positivism, relying on economists like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. These economists placed family and religion outside the scope of what is essential to know about economics. The upside is Koch has an excellent grasp of how an economy works. The downside is the company is often ignorant about why flourishing requires a cohesive nation, or how such bonds are established through family and religious ties. Sounds like Babylon 2,500 years ago.

Koch Industries also recognizes that free markets are getting a bad rap in most universities. So it’s noteworthy that it sees a religious institution as a valuable resource. Charles Koch recently donated $10 million to Catholic University of America to establish their new business school—this from a man who admits he’s a skeptic. But he sees CUA’s religious thinking as contributing to free markets, helping solve a problem Koch Industries recognizes. Sounds like the sons of Judah 2,500 years ago, when they helped solve one of Nebuchadnezzar’s problems, becoming a value-add in Babylon.

Catholic U’s business school sits inside a historic tradition that has for centuries tied commerce and business into a social web that included considerations of human dignity, the common good in society, the role of the state, and issues of wealth distribution. Traditional Catholic and Protestant institutions have always seen the independent national state, biblical religion, and the family as integral to this. CUA continues this tradition, partnering with Koch as well as with Harvard’s Michael Porter in an MBA-level offering for inner city entrepreneurs. Another way to seeking the flourishing of the city.

Charles Koch made an appearance at the DC conference. Andreas Widmer, Director of Entrepreneurship Programs at CUA, interviewed him. Koch spoke of the need for virtues over talent, and seeking the common good. At the end of the interview, Widmer kidded him: “Charles, you’re a closet Catholic.” Koch chuckled, “Well, maybe I am.”

As the sons of Judah helped Babylon flourish, Nebuchadnezzar came to faith. There’s no guarantee Koch will come to faith, but in his 2013 Erasmus Lecture, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said “it is possible to survive in exile with your identity intact, your appetite for life undiminished, while contributing to the wider society and praying to God on its behalf.” You can flourish in exile, and Catholic U’s new business school is an example of doing this by seeking the flourishing of all.

 

[1] Charles G. Koch, Good Profit: How Creating Value for Others Created One of the World’s Most Successful Companies (New York: Crown, 2015), p. 4.

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3 Responses to “Flourishing in Exile”

  1. Thomas Nelson says:

    Mike…Excellent post. Economics matter and virtue matters. This is much of what we are trying to encourage at MTF. Hope you are well. tom

  2. David Greusel says:

    Hope this one reaches a wide audience. Well worth reading. Do you have any insight as to how Charles Koch and Catholic University found one another, given their (mostly) different spheres?

  3. Luder Whitlock says:

    Well said. Good Profit is an excellent book as was his earlier volume. Profit without a concern for the common good misses the mark

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