Jesus Was a Small Businessman

on March 13, 2014

How many Christians speak of creating new businesses as social justice?

Early this year Catholic thinker and IRD co-founder Michael Novak spoke at Catholic University here in D.C. on “For Catholics, The Vocation Of Business Is The Main Hope For The World’s Poor.” He quoted Pope Francis: “Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all.”

Novak said: “The business vocation is the main hope of the 1 billion human beings around the world still locked in poverty.” Private business is the main support of countless charitable endeavors, he emphasized, including “private universities, cancer clinics, soup kitchens, symphonies, hospitals for the poor, sports activities both in neighborhoods and in major cities, service organizations such as Lions Clubs, the Rotary, Kiwanis, the Elks, the support of religious activities without number.”

Importantly, Novak said: “Without business corporations, there would be no great power standing between associations of citizens and the Leviathan of the administrative state.” And provocatively, Novak points out that Jesus Himself was a small businessman, having inherited his earthly father’s carpentry operation:

What was the vocation that from all eternity the Lord God Creator chose for his only son, born of humankind? The Lord God Creator called the Christ, the Redeemer, to shoulder the vocation of small business: a creative vocation, a vocation of humble service to nearly every human household. As a carpenter, Jesus found freedom to be creative and to serve others, Novak noted. “Creativity, exactitude, quality, beauty, service to others, independence – this was the substance of his daily life,” he said. “In preparation for all that was to come.” Indeed. And like Jesus, each of us must “earn our way by the sweat of our brow” amid disappointment and sorrow.

Novak recalled that poverty is the norm for humanity across millennia but in recent decades has been dramatically reduced, at least for extreme poverty, to only one out of 7 people, or 1 billion. Alleviating their plight will require creating 200 million new small businesses, he calculated. And financial incentives are always crucial. Business cannot function as charity: “It is no wrong thing for people everywhere to work for the financial betterment of their own households, neighborhoods, and countries.”

Poverty programs in the U.S. have been extremely inefficient and sometimes destructive, Novak said. America needs 16 million new jobs to accommodate the current unemployed and under employed, jobs that only business can provide. Creating new businesses should be a matter of “social justice,” Novak suggested. And a “free society desperately needs large business corporations as a bulwark against the state,” lest citizens “stand naked and alone against that vast power and propaganda monopoly.” Only civil society, including businesses, can “prevent the state from becoming omnivorous in its appetites and narrowly secular in its point of view.”

Novak concluded: “Without an enterprising, risk-taking, imaginative, creative community of businesses large and small – but especially small – it is impossible to look forward to new job creation. Impossible to imagine the survival of a free society. It is even harder to imagine a society that has dramatically broken the chains of poverty for every woman and man in its midst.”

Creating new businesses is a Christian moral imperative, recalling the Savior was Himself a small businessman, and knowing that only business can meaningfully alleviate poverty, fund charity, and sustain liberty. Why aren’t more Christians speaking of business and economic expansion as central to true social justice???

  1. Comment by cken on March 13, 2014 at 7:48 pm

    Overall point well taken. The Jesus analogy would have been apt had He been a carpenter as an adult. Alas what he did in the missing 18 years is pure speculation.

  2. Comment by mary on March 13, 2014 at 10:16 pm

    Thanks for that insightful enlightening and timely article. Absolutely hits the mark.
    The Lord showed us the way. Why are catholics not doing exactly what is mentioned in the article for all the reasons mentioned? Is it fear, is it not wanting to go out into the deep, or leave ‘my comfort zone’ for others?
    Seems to me we need some courageous catholic business men and women to get this ball rolling now.

    Thank you

  3. Comment by Andrew Shaughnessy on March 22, 2014 at 4:21 am

    Nicely put, particularly the points about Business as a noble vocation of eternal significance. It reminds me of when N.T. Wright, in his book Surprised by Hope, writes: “Redemption doesn’t mean scrapping what’s there and starting again from a clean slate but rather liberating what has come to be enslaved….. What you do in the present – by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself – will last into God’s future…They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.”

    And Christians are pursuing Christ-driven justice in this manner worldwide – starting bakeries and factories in the slums of India to employ women trapped in the sex trade, exporting goods and training disenfranchised women with solid business skills in East Africa. These are sustainable and holistically transformative solutions.

    I do think though, regarding the author’s comment about business as a bulwark against the leviathan of the state, that, while this can certainly be true, it must also be acknowledged that the private citizen and the state must also regulate the leviathan of business. Free enterprise, rightly construed and executed in the manner spoken of by the author, has enormous potential to break chains and lift individuals and community out of poverty, but the pursuit of wealth also has the potential to trample the weak and to be abused. Given the burden of history (particularly when we’re talking about Western economic interests in the developing world), perhaps Christians ought to be talking about redeeming businesses rather than just increasing them.

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