[Wednesday in the First Week of Lent] The Common Good: To Whom Are We Responsible?

Read: Deuteronomy 22:1-3

You shall not watch your neighbor’s ox or sheep straying away and ignore them; you shall take them back to their owner. If the owner does not reside near you or you do not know who the owner is, you shall bring it to your own house, and it shall remain with you until the owner claims it; then you shall return it. You shall do the same with a neighbor’s donkey; you shall do the same with a neighbor’s garment; and you shall do the same with anything else that your neighbor loses and you find. You may not withhold your help.

Watch

Reflect

Most of us have heard the word “shareholder.” It is a person who owns shares of stock in a corporation. But there is a similar word that is broader in meaning: stakeholder. It is a person who has an interest in what a company is doing. It might include a company’s employees, the neighbors who live nearby, and the company’s customers. They all have an interest in what goes on in the company and its role in civic life.

A long-standing ethical discussion has focused on whether the corporation has a duty only to its shareholders or also to its stakeholders. Should corporate executives look out for the welfare of employees and customers as well as work toward a reasonable profit for their shareholders? At one time, corporate managers were taught that they had a responsibility to the larger community because the larger community supported the existence of the company. In recent years the emphasis has changed.

Now we hear that, in the name of economic efficiency, the only responsibility that a corporation has is to its shareholders. Milton Friedman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, argued that the fundamental obligation of managers is to return profits to shareholders—not
to invest corporate funds in endeavors that they find socially beneficial but that reduce shareholders’ returns. Shareholders themselves sometimes demand that companies cut the costs of things such as employee benefits so that more money is available for dividends or acquisitions of other companies.

The Israelites had a duty to watch out for and take care of the property of their neighbors. Is this duty the sort of obligation that a manufacturer has toward the people who live near its plant? Does looking out for shareholders only, at the expense of stakeholders, exhibit selfishness that is condemned in the parable of the rich fool? Christians have lived as faithful witnesses in every economic era. How do we live as faithful witnesses in this one?

Pray

Heavenly Father, in your Word you have given us a vision of that holy City to which the nations of the world bring their glory: Behold and visit, we pray, the cities of the earth. Renew the ties of mutual regard which form our civic life. Send us honest and able leaders. Enable us to eliminate poverty, prejudice, and oppression, that peace may prevail with righteousness, and justice with order, and that men and women from different cultures and with differing talents may find with one another the fulfillment of their humanity; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(The Book of Common Prayer, p. 825)

Author

Larry Benfield is the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas.