Reconciling Christianity with Personal Wealth
Speech by Dr Reuel J. Khoza, Bushbuckridge I 29 April 2017
[Greetings and salutations]
It is a lifetime since I grew up in Bushbuckridge. I was a herd boy and a gardener from a deeply Christian family; and from my grandfather and parents I absorbed a strong work ethic and an education in African culture that has stood me in good stead.
From Bushbuckridge the horizons seem limitless. The settlement is perched between the towering Drakensberg escarpment and the low-lying Kruger National Park. But, as we all know, the environment is under stress from human numbers, drought and overgrazing, while poverty in its many guises stalks the community. One may be a trader living off the sale of marula beer; or a herdsman selling cattle and goats for weddings and funerals; or an informal trader sitting on the pavement at the taxi rank; or simply a beggar without a livelihood, or an orphan child whose parents have died of Aids. In every corner hardship is a fact of life and many struggle to survive, especially now as South Africa teeters on recession.
Where does one, as a wealthy and successful corporate businessman, stand in relation to such a place? To such people? To such challenges?
Possessing wealth is not something to feel guilty about provided it is honestly gained, charitably used, applied to socially responsible ends, and enjoyed in moderation. Only the most absolutist religious (and secular) movements condemn personal wealth out of hand. All others accept that a purpose-driven and compassionate attitude to getting and spending is justification enough for the accumulation of private wealth.
Today I will talk about what I call the God Principle in business and in our working lives – the principle that leads us to strive for better things through personal effort and a commitment to wholesome, spiritual values. But, because we are human beings with the knowledge of good and evil, we as often provoke the bad in ourselves as we evoke the good. There is no ascription – or given label – that can determine for us how to be good or bad. Life is full of unpredictable twists and turns that challenge us to make moral decisions; and we frequently fall down at these hurdles.
Using wealth well is one such moral hurdle. I know I am perceived as a wealthy man and I have moral responsibilities towards those who have not had the opportunities that have come my way. Recently I did an audit of our family businesses, and found that we employ some 351 people in farming cattle and packing avocados on properties in Limpopo, amongst other things. We pay them well above government scales with the intention that they should enjoy a reasonable quality of life, with education and opportunities for their families. This is not charity, or religious observance, it is business sense.
There are three standards, I think, that drive us to burst forth from our horizons, always seeking a destiny beyond the present and not necessarily doing the right thing:
- The gold standard – the pursuit of wealth
- The glory standard – the passion for fame
- The God standard – the search for spiritual fulfilment
The phrase God, Glory and Gold was used by the social philosopher Ali Mazrui in his book about cultural forces in world politics1, where he argued that cultures fuel our behaviour and are the basis of power in international relations. Conflicts in the world over wealth, territory and possessions, are seen through cultural lenses, while our behaviour is shaped by cultural norms.
When Mazrui wrote this book at the end of the Cold War, as the cultures of East and West sought rapprochement, countries of the Third World were “wondering whether it is not equally true that when two elephants make love it is also the grass that suffers”2 – An African proverb that reminds us of our global situation with regard to wealth, power and poverty. We need to keep this perspective in mind while discussing the religious principles of charity, duty and humanitarianism that should shape how wealth is used in the world today. I will return to this point at the end of my presentation.
Meanwhile let us remain aware of how what Mazrui calls “the power of culture and the culture of power” shape our destinies – often taking us further from God while we fight over material things. The three standards of gold, glory and god indicate how conflicted we are. Gold, or wealth, sought on its own, can be an all-consuming evil. Glory, according to the poet John Milton is “the last infirmity of the noble mind”. Yet, we seek higher things too, and ultimately the God Principle should steer us towards the meaningful expression of our true human nature – which is to live, love, learn and leave a legacy.
Given the complex nature of our being, what guidelines can we follow to reconcile gold, glory and god? One clear guideline is the stewardship of God’s possessions – the Earth and all that’s in it.
I am reminded of the story of John Wesley, the Anglican theologian who founded Methodism. He had known poverty as a child but rose to study and teach at Oxford University where his financial status changed for the better. His attitude to money was shaped by a singular experience. Wesley had been self-indulgently spending on cards, smoking, and drinking when, one day, a cold winter’s day, he noticed that a chambermaid wore only a thin linen gown. He dipped into his pocket to give her something but found he had little money left. From that moment he resolved to live frugally, keeping his expenses below 30 pounds a year. As his annual income increased from around 30 pounds to 120 and finally over 1400 pounds he found he could give away most of it.3
I don’t think pure giving is the solution to problems of poverty, but the lesson Wesley drew was not one of pure charity; rather it was about Christian stewardship. Although giving freely is a heart-warming experience, the point is that sharing is a spiritual discipline and benevolence is considered an expression of God’s love.
For Wesley the incident of the chambermaid was something of a Damascus moment when the bright light of God’s purpose shone on him. Stewardship became a central principle of Methodism, based on the belief that God owns the world and everything in it, and therefore we as humans, living on his largesse, must serve the master as a good steward would serve his Lord.
For me, then, the challenge of poverty is that one should serve God through creating and sustaining the wealth of the community. Being a steward in the modern industrial economy means that one has to reconcile one’s personal need to make a living with society’s need to share the fruits of the economy equitably. There are many injunctions in the Holy Bible and in other religions to avoid greed – that is, pure personal enrichment just for the sake of it – and not to pursue corrupt and criminal ways of making money. In Ecclesiastes we are told that we came naked from our mother’s womb and shall go again naked as we came – “so what gain is there for him who toils for the wind?” (Ecclesiastes 5:8-20.)
Toiling for the wind is an empty and vain pursuit! What I have asked myself over many years is how to translate Christian ethics into production, progress and poverty alleviation.
I do not have the answers but my talk today is an exploration of this topic.
I have treated stewardship as one of the guidelines that reconciles gold, glory and god. Another important guideline is what I call significant leadership. Significance in this instance implies transcending what the leadership role means for the leader in question to the impact such leadership has on the followers and others. In other words, leaders are not just people at the top; a leader is at the top because people create the leaders they need. Misleadership is where selfish goals predominate; while leadership is what coalesces around the role of a person who expresses the strivings of the followership. Leaders are at the service of their followers.
The greatest exponent of such at-your-service leadership in our age has been Nelson Mandela. I have written extensively on how Mandela embodied the values of Ubuntu, or humanness, in African culture while at the same time standing as a global colossus of spirit reconciliation among former enemies. Mandela was a Christian Methodist and very inclusive in his acceptance of other religions. He led by example, forging links with the Dutch Reformed churches that had supported apartheid.
What I call attuned leadership – the title of my 2011 book4 – is that which resonates with followers by having a sense of shared destiny. The leader is driven by the conviction that he or she is here for a purpose, with dogged determination, clarity of vision, and commitment to communal goals. Nelson Mandela’s compelling vision, magnanimity in suffering and in triumph, unconditional forgiveness, reconciliation and unification of a nation are unmistakable. This was his significance as a leader.
In 1994 I could not resist to implore Tata Mandela to help me crystallise my sense of purpose. He generously obliged and penned me the following epistle:
Through the ages and in all countries men and women come and go.
Some leave nothing behind, not even their name.
It is as if they never lived.
Others do leave something behind: the haunting memory of the evil deeds they committed against their followers.
Every time their names are mentioned, feelings of revulsion well up in our hearts.
While others do leave something behind, the good works they do to improve the lives of all people.
A third component of right living by the God Principle is personal moral responsibility – which can and does imply standing up for your values even at a price. My career, that has taken me to this time and place today, had a kick-start from the Rev Leon Sullivan, the American corporate change agent whom I met several times when he visited South Africa in the 1980s. At that time, having worked for Unilever and gained a scholarship to complete my Masters in the United Kingdom, I was back in South Africa working as a management consultant. Simultaneously, I owned two Chicken Licken franchises in Soweto and Johannesburg, learning the hard way how to manage a small business profitably.
Sullivan taught us that business responsibility could and should extend to civil disobedience against the State. As the author of the Sullivan Principles – devised in 1977 to apply economic pressure on South Africa business under apartheid – this African-American preacher provided principled leadership in the business sector where there was none. Recalling his crusade he later wrote:
“Starting with the work place, I tightened the screws step by step and raised the bar step by step. Eventually I got to the point where I said that companies must practice corporate civil disobedience against the laws and I threatened South Africa and said in two years Mandela must be freed, apartheid must end, and blacks must vote or else I'll bring every American company I can out of South Africa.”5
There have been occasions in my life when I was forced to speak out and have suffered the consequences. When, as a senior businessman, you “embarrass” the organisation that you head by taking issue with politicians and the direction of public policy, you may be shown the door – or, your colleagues and stakeholders may stand behind you to reinforce the message. At such moments your faith in God’s purpose for you is sorely tested. The price of defiance is the risk you take, with your courage in your chest and your eyes fixed on a higher purpose.
A fourth aspect of the God principle – one that goes directly to the God standard, is personal worth. By this I do not mean how much money you have in the bank. One of the most famous quotes from Muhammed makes a point that all religions share: “A man’s true wealth is the good he does in this world”.
On a practical, down-to-earth basis, the American preacher Sterling W Sill says we have God’s fortune to share – if only we can know how to do it:
…the thing that we spend more time doing than about anything else in our lives is laying up for ourselves treasures upon the earth. And that is also a great idea, providing we know how to handle it.6
Sill was a Mormon missionary in Utah whose became an insurance salesman and made a great financial success of it. He was proud to use his own success as an example of how opportunities abound for those who will only take them by believing in themselves. He went on to become a General Authority – one of the highest positions in the Church of the Latter Day Saints, writing many books and giving radio broadcasts on the theme of converting the gospel of Christ into constructive, rewarding outcomes.
Quoting Solomon the wise from Ecclesiastes he said:
“My heart has great experience” (Ecclesiastes 1:16) adding that certainly the most successful lives are those that have the most worthwhile experiences.7 Sill taught that being wealthy was a blessing giving one the opportunity to share the wisdom of hard work and acquisition in order to "lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven".
Money is preserved labor, it is industry made negotiable, it is stored up accomplishment. It is the medium of exchange that we can trade for things that we can take with us and a great many of them we can actually send on ahead. We can take our families with us. We can take our education with us. We can take our great character qualities with us. And money is the medium that we can use to share the treasures of the earth with others who need our help.8
I have quoted Sill at some length because his personal example demonstrates something that runs counter to stereotyping. In popular parlance money is “filthy lucre”, usually associated with dishonesty and equated with the exploitation of others. But Sill turned this around, cheerfully acknowledging his own prosperity and urging others to emulate him. He saw nothing wrong in getting rich, although he took account of the admonition given by Jesus:
“Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12: 15.)
Beyond personal worth, there is organisational integrity, built upon good governance and a sense of corporate citizenship. Profits should be earned not just through efficiency but through efficacy – the quality of organisational leadership that seeks results beyond money, in the realm of human flourishing.
Unfortunately not everyone in the top echelons of business has this vision.
In my view, sharing the treasures of the earth – God’s treasures – with others who need our help implies a standard of leadership that does not necessarily come naturally to persons in charge of great fortunes. Wealth creation is easily treated as being for private gain only. The captains of industry need to be prompted to exercise responsibility in business, beyond profitability only, to include community relations and environmental care.
Responsibility creates sustainability. If you cherish something like a business enterprise you will meet your fiduciary responsibilities in order to stay in business and continue with the development of what you have built. You will worry about your people and their security; you will insist that the business behaves ethically and with due regard to its impacts on the planet.
The so-called Triple Bottom Line (3BL) of modern business is an accounting framework covering financial probity, social responsibility and ecological management – profits, people and the planet – to achieve comprehensive investment results. In South Africa, the King Codes of Corporate Governance9, drawn up on behalf of the Institute of Directors, have embraced 3BL reporting as a means of evaluating performance. This has been particularly important in overcoming the long term effects of apartheid-style rampant capitalism.
I will not mince my words here. The big business models that grew under apartheid, from mining to agribusiness and manufacturing, exploited the black majority as tools of enrichment to be discarded and sent packing when they had served their purpose. It took the Sullivan principles, together with Mandela’s visionary leadership after 1994, and a new breed of businessmen rooted in their communities, to bring about a sea change in the attitudes of organisations to their employees and other stakeholders.
We still have a long way to go with many unresolved problems that could yet shake our economy to its foundations. I persuade myself of the truth of these words from one of my favourite hymns:
When you look at others with their lands and gold
Think that Christ has promised you His Wealth untold.
Count your many blessings; money cannot buy your reward in heaven nor your home on high. (Verse 3 of Hymn 771 of Sing to the Lord.)
We do need to count our blessings in both material and spiritual terms, living in the country that we do with its supreme examples of leadership, personal sacrifice and constitutional commitment to African humanism – the philosophy of Ubuntu. My life’s work has been to embody this philosophy in business practices.
I started with Bushbuckridge and here I will end. As promised, something needs to be said about the use and misuse of wealth in the world at large and how this relates to people on the ground. Alas, the gold standard and the glory standard – fame and fortune – would appear to rule the world. Greed and vanity, allied to warfare and imperialist arrogance, run riot while the quiet, sensible, loving voices of the human spirit are quelled.
Yet we should not despair. Many religions populate the world we live in; most share the same God Principle that there is a supreme spirit imbued in us that we must strive to express. Christian ethics regarding wealth, interpreted very broadly, have a lot in common with the yardsticks of other faiths. To the Buddhists, for example, private wealth is not intrinsically evil but can create a source of attachment that leads to ceaseless craving10. This is the very thing that thing Ecclesiastes warns about: “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity”.11
Buddhists believe that the rich can practice the virtue of generosity, while economic success in the present is due to acts of charity in past lives. Whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or any of a number of religions, we can be sure that greed and ill-gotten gains are frowned upon, while giving back to the community is encouraged.
But when we look at a community like Bushbuckridge it is not very evident that the wider world is giving much to the people who live here. True, tourism brings in well-heeled visitors; farming and the logging industry have export markets. What we do observe is that Bushbuckridge is emerging from its apartheid-era backwardness as a thriving retail centre. One study found that over the 16-year period from 1996 to 2012, the number of people in poverty in Bushbuckridge decreased by 144 141 or some 39.8 per cent. This was the largest decrease in poverty among 18 local municipalities in Mpumalanga.12
This is mostly due to local injections of capital and government grants which stimulate consumerism and create space for new traders. There are very small-scale cottage industries making furniture and repairing vehicles; but beyond that, little actual business growth. News reports have it that Bushbuckridge’s unemployment rate is alarmingly high: less than 15% of its residents are employed. This is despite the fact that the area is the focus of a Presidential project and that it borders on the lucrative Kruger National Park.13
What is to be done? The world won’t help you if you won’t help yourself. Clearly in terms of everything I have said above, real business investment must begin with social investment in the upgrading of citizen’s skills. Entrepreneurship must be developed and markets found for locally produced items. Is government, and are business, doing enough? Clearly no – but this is a picture repeated throughout the country.
Even if I personally gave away all of my private wealth, it would never be enough to fill the giant holes in our economy, or in Bushbuckridge alone. The self-development of people must proceed hand-in-hand with sensibly planned development programmes. Corruption, criminality and lack of service delivery must give way to efficient administration, the rule of law, and leadership through efficacy – the determination to get results. Sadly, gold and glory for the few is topping the God standard, while the many suffer.
As I contemplate crossing over to join my ancestors, I do hope to leave a living legacy. We all face the reality of the transience of life and the impermanence of anything we may have accumulated – you can’t take it with you. What you can leave behind is not just money but the principles and practices of stewardship. People are suffering now, but over time they will benefit. As the Psalm says:
You let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and water, but you brought us to a place of abundance.(Psalm 66: 12).
I thank you.
1 Mazrui, Ali A – Cultural Forces in World Politics. 1990. Portsmouth: Heinemann.
3 White, Charles Edward – “What Wesley Practised and Preached About Money”. http://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/1987/winter/87l1027.html Accessed 23 April 2017.
4 Khoza, Reuel J. – Attuned Leadership: African Humanism as Compass. 2011. London and Johannesburg: Penguin.
5 Sullivan, Leon - The Sullivan Principles. Quoted in Wikipedia from the Sullivan Website which is no longer online. Wikipedia accessed the website on 5 June 2007. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sullivan_principles#cite_note-Sullivan1977-1 Accessed 22 April 2017.
6 Sill, Sterling W – “A Fortune to Share”. https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1973/10/a-fortune-to-share?lang=eng Accessed 21 April 2017.
7 Sill, Sterling W – “Great Experiences”. https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1971/04/great-experiences?lang=eng Accessed 25 April 2017.
9 King Report on Corporate Governance in SA. http://www.iodsa.co.za/?kingIII Accessed 12 June 2016.
10 Berkley Centre for Religion, Peace and World Affairs – “Buddhism on Wealth and Poverty”. https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/essays/buddhism-on-wealth-and-poverty Accessed 22 April 2017.04.25.
11 Op. Cit.
12 An analysis of poverty in Mpumalanga, 1992-2012. 2013. Department of Finance, Mpumalanga Provincial Government. http://finance.mpu.gov.za/document/ea_Economic_research_report_on_%20poverty_in_MP_Nov_2013.pdf Accessed 22 April 2017.
13 “Bushbuckridge Municipality Unemployment Rate a Cause for Alarm” - http://buzzsouthafrica.com/bushbuckridge-municipality-enemployment-rate/ Accessed 25 April 2017