Contrary to popular belief, cunning and innocence do not strange bedfellows make.
In a recent issue of Fortune magazine, an article titled “Killer Companies” cites Ray Kroc, the late, legendary genius behind the McDonald’s hamburger success story. Kroc said if a competitor is drowning, you should stick a hose in his mouth. Think of that next time you order your Big Mac and soft drink!
Assertive personal qualities play a huge role in the functioning of our corporate life, in the market system, and in American society at large. And weakness, “wimpiness,” harmlessness, and innocence rarely score competitive advantage. Society cultivates and rewards shrewd, cunning, assertive—even exploitative—behavior.
In this aggressive and competitive context, Christian ethics gives priority to three virtues—harmlessness, shrewdness, and caring—all of which are identified in a seemingly obscure teaching of Jesus found in the Gospel of Matthew, an instruction that we almost never mention. We will concentrate on the first two of those virtues.
To fully grasp his teaching about these virtues, however, we need to understand the cultural impact of an influential philosopher of competition, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. Although Nietzsche argued his perspective more than 100 years ago in Germany, his writings vividly capture traits that our competitive marketplace and society often foster.
A Christian “Slave Mentality”?
According to Nietzsche, there are two types of people: slaves and masters. Slave types value serving others and cultivate the virtues of gentleness, harmlessness, protection, innocence, forgiveness, and love. They cling to being nice, self-giving, passive, useful doormats.
For some reason, Nietzsche thought Christian morality nurtured this slave mentality. Jesus gave himself for others, and he even taught that Almighty God forgives. To Nietzsche, however, an “almighty forgiver” was a contradiction in terms: No one forgives out of strength. Christians exuded weakness, he said; their faith did not inspire creative moral leadership, let alone active application of biblical values or critical thinking in the resolution of concrete personal and social problems. Nietzsche claimed that Buddhism, Marxism, utilitarianism, Kantian thought—and Christianity—all supported the same wimpy, harmless, innocent slave mentality.
Words like harmless have potent connotations, this line of thinking goes on to argue, that go beyond the literal meaning. To call someone “harmless” is also to imply—in our language as in Nietzsche’s—that he or she is wimpy, uninformed, weak, and ineffective, not just one who avoids doing harm. Similarly, the word innocent means more than “not guilty.” “George is an innocent” often means that George is ignorant, out of touch, ineffective, nonthreatening, or even stupid or retarded.
Our society, our economy, our political structures all tolerate and even take advantage of such harmless and innocent people. In our own language and culture, the “harmless” and “innocent” are not forces with which our society must contend, but consumer blocs and voting factions that can be exploited.
Masters Of The Universe
Nietzsche describes the kind of person he prefers to these “slave types”: They are shrewd, cunning, assertive, as well as exploitative and aggressive. These “masters” never serve others. Each “master’s” goal is to fulfill self-centered desires, even if this goal causes real suffering and hardship for other people—perhaps especially if that causes pain. Other people’s needs and desires are important to a “master” only as a means to an end: his or her own fulfillment and power. Power, especially power over other people, is the primary value. According to Nietzsche, the “good” person is a “man of prey,” never a person who prays. He is crafty and egocentric.
Clearly, many “master” virtues are deeply embedded in our language and practice. When I talk to business groups and explain to them Nietzsche’s two value systems for the harmless types and the shrewd types, no one questions that such values are emphasized in our business, economic, and social system. To call Sharon a “shrewd business person,” for example, implies not only that she is brilliant, but that stepping on your interests may well give her a special thrill.
Nietzsche introduced his social and ethical thought as an extension of Darwin’s biological theory. Both through Nietzsche and through many other sources—many having nothing to do with Darwin’s biology—social Darwinism has so impregnated our expectations that we rarely even question the rewards of aggressive business practice. We blame the poor for their own misery. We are not surprised or offended when brilliant business strategy results in exploitation of others. As a society we expect those who have power—whether “brain power” or economic power—to use it in selfish ways. “Play our rough-and-tumble games or be considered harmless, ignorant, and wimpy,” the attitude seems to be.
The Refreshingly Alien Jesus
Thank God, the status-quo options for thinking, talking, and acting are not the only ones. Jesus leads in another direction; his actions, thoughts, perceptions, and expectations are refreshingly alien. How does Jesus address our “social Darwinism”? He attacks the issue at the climax of the instructions he gave when he first appointed and commissioned his disciples: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16, NIV).
The Jerusalem Bible translates the last phrase as “be cunning as serpents and yet as harmless as doves.”
To Jesus, the alternatives offered by both Nietzsche and our society clearly would be inadequate. You do not have to choose between being shrewd or harmless; you need not opt for either innocence or cunning. You should choose both.
But what do his words mean? Just how are we to be “as shrewd as snakes”? The word for shrewd in the original language had sharply negative connotations for Jesus’ audience. It implied abuse of ability or authority just as the words shrewd, cunning, and crafty do in our language and culture. When used in the Scriptures, shrewd describes people who are crafty in selfish and ungodly ways. (See Luke 16:1–10; Job 5:13, and Isa. 44:25.) The word Matthew uses for shrewd is, in fact, the same word that is used to describe the crafty snake in the Greek version of Genesis 3. (Have you ever heard a sermon on that subject?)
Jesus’ instructions demand a radical reorientation of our daily language, perceptions, behavior, and expectations. A follower of Jesus can no longer live placidly by such prejudices as “harmless people are not brilliant earth shakers,” or “shrewd people are not saintly,” or even “cunning people are not fair.”
In fact, if I understand Jesus at all, he is really saying that if you want to be harmless you must also be shrewd, and if you are really innocent you must also be cunning. This is very different from the old myths that say shrewd behavior will magically produce fair results in the long run, or that passive innocence is really prudent.
In contrast, Jesus claims that we need and must give specific attention to both shrewd and harmless ways. And, while Jesus contradicts the assumptions of our culture, his teaching fits surprisingly well—miraculously, one might say—with the facts and artifacts of our lives. In spite of our cultural prejudices and personal expectations, we discover that shrewd and harmless do woo and complement each other remarkably well.
When Opposites Attract
To show how well these can work together in practical situations, here are five vivid examples of the interdependence of shrewd and harmless virtues (the dominant virtue alternates in each case):
• When Mary Nelson came to West Garfield Park in Chicago a few years ago, Bethel Lutheran Church, where her brother was pastor, was about to fold. The area is one of the three poorest neighborhoods in Chicago. The infant mortality is worse than Haiti’s, violence and unemployment rates are astronomical, and there is no bank for its 40,000 people. This brilliant woman, with two Ph.D.’s, has helped organize the poor in cooperatives and small-business corporations, has confronted and altered banking and civic policy, and has nurtured an effective Christian-school system, a sweat-equity program, new city parks, and more. Her efforts have helped produce thousands of new jobs and generate $18 million of housing rehabilitation with “creative” financing (but virtually no government help). Most important, she has brought a sense of gospel hope in a terribly depressed area. Mary Nelson is so actively and effectively harmless in large measure because she is also shrewd.
• There are no successful “saintly” corporations if we employ our “wimpy” picture of sainthood, but there are aggressive businesses that have learned the value of concern for others. When Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman did an extensive study of the largest financially successful American companies (chronicled in In Search of Excellence), they found at least two threads running through the operations of these massive organizations: sincere concern for people and commitment to quality service. These themes of Peters and Waterman are strengthened in their more recent writings. Shrewdness requires harmlessness in order to succeed.
• In an effort to manage a corporation with a Christian framework, ServiceMaster devoted itself to four objectives. The first two, “to honor God in all we do” and “to help people develop,” emphasize active harmlessness, while the other two, “to pursue excellence” and “to grow profitably,” cultivate shrewdness. Obviously, without its standard of excellence and its incredible growth, ServiceMaster’s Christian “harmlessness” would have been severely limited.
• Twenty-one years ago a small group of young people organized a garbage-collecting company that now employs 38,000 people and has a gross income of $4 billion. Waste Management has become the largest waste-handling company in the world through a voracious acquisition of a record 3,000 other companies. How has it succeeded where others have floundered? A key feature of its success is a unique pairing of accountants and managers to “institutionalize” integrity, quality, and accountability. Waste Management’s internal checks and balances foster shrewd—and “innocent”—decisions by means of a rapid flow of accurate information. And, in order to keep ahead of its market, Waste Management has become the most advanced organization for recycling many of our resources, even creating markets to provide uses for otherwise useless waste material. Surely Waste Management stays shrewd in large measure by also fostering a kind of harmlessness within its organization, and for its customers and shareholders.
• Irene Johnson found that living in a public-housing project in Chicago was “the pits.” Instead of remaining powerless, she organized the 5,000 people at Le Claire Courts to clean and fix up their living space, to bring families together, to talk young women out of prostitution, to cut back on drug use, and to start taking pride in being human and being God’s children. Her “harmless” goals found precious little support outside of the housing project, so Johnson had to resort to shrewd action. After she persuaded some Le Claire women to stop being prostitutes, pimps brought in women from other parts of Chicago to make themselves available in front of Le Claire Courts on the very busy Cicero Avenue. Repeated calls to the police were unheeded—perhaps because the authorities do not understand how much the poor hate prostitution. Not one to give up easily, Johnson and several other women began patrolling Cicero Avenue late at night with baseball bats over their shoulders. Then the police came. Johnson and her friends “innocently” explained that they were on the way to the park to play baseball (at midnight?). This shrewd display of courage persuaded the police that these women were deadly serious. Genuine harmlessness also requires shrewd action.
We are all familiar with similar examples. Too often our language and our society fail to acknowledge the interdependence of these seeming opposites: shrewd and harmless behavior. In fact, people often assume, without much argument, the “incompatability of self-interest with moral demands.” (See, for example, Alan Goldman’s Moral Foundations of Professional Ethics.)
On Not Being Naïve
People frequently try to be shrewd without being harmless—but this is often disastrous. Exxon, for example, thought it could build an oil tanker without some basic safety features and “shrewdly” save a substantial amount of corporate money. Exxon also “shrewdly” avoided the legal complications of disciplining a pilot with a proven record of driving while intoxicated. The consequences show that both decisions were, in fact, neither shrewd nor harmless to the environment, to us at the gas pumps, nor to Exxon itself.
Also, far too frequently we try to be harmless without being shrewd. The results are often disastrous. As a classic example, President Jimmy Carter hoped to stage a significant nonviolent moral protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan: He cancelled our country’s wheat contract with the USSR. Unfortunately, he failed to consult with the experts on the economics of world food production and distribution. Relieved of their contractual obligations to us, the Soviets were able to get all the wheat they wanted cheaply, and the only people who suffered were American farmers and taxpayers.
Of course, we should not be naïve. Life is not nearly so simple as my comments might imply. There is not always a harmless choice to be made, and often we must choose the least of several evils. We do not always have the information, time, intelligence, and other resources to make shrewd decisions. For too many decisions in life—especially in the areas of economics and politics—the results will not be fair to everyone, no matter what we decide. Some people suffer or benefit more than others. It would be dishonest to sugar-coat these decisions by pretending that there are no hard choices.
Instead, as sinners in a sin-ravaged world, we ask God’s forgiveness for the evil choices we make, even when we have chosen the least of several evils. Moreover, honest participation in the rough-and-tumble, hard choices of this world could well enhance our taste for the fulfillment of the kingdom of God. The more realistically and sincerely we are involved in this life’s problems and decisions, the more candidly and fervently will we pray, “Thy kingdom come.”
But for now, we cannot retreat. There are no innocent bystanders—just innocent problem resolvers and guilty bystanders. If we are not immersed in the issues and decisions of our time, we are a significant part of the problem, and likely contributors to tragedies. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, the only thing necessary for evil to succeed is for good people to do nothing.
Virtues For The Long Haul
The shrewd and harmless virtues fit closely together especially in the long-term perspective. It is not our planning for next week or the efforts to sustain a profit for the next couple of quarters that cultivate harmlessness. We are easily blinded by immediate pressures. The ethical (that is, harmless and shrewd) vision is more effective in planning that considers the kind of world we are creating around us as well as the kinds of goods and services we can provide to remain profitable. Businesses exist to make a profit through providing goods and services for a variety of stake holders; in strategic planning, appropriate goods and services that enable profit are examined, evaluated, and justified.
That Americans do comparatively little strategic planning accounts for some of the suppression of ethical issues in business. On the other hand, our general clumsiness with ethics may well contribute to the halting quality of our strategic planning: If we do not know where we should be going, how can we begin to plan the route?
The other side of the coin reveals something as well: Long-term harmlessness will reject the seemingly “innocent” bystander role in the face of manipulative advertising, unsafe products, racial prejudice, dehumanizing poverty, and the destruction of God’s creation. This “strategic harmlessness” requires shrewd analysis of facts, patterns, and trends, then adjusts priorities and values so that needs will be met. No major corporation, for example, can ignore the consequences of rampant poverty in our cities and towns. As a result, some of the most active, effective, and intelligent programs to combat poverty are being proposed and pursued by corporate America.
This cultivation of shrewd harmlessness is therefore not just taught by Jesus. It is also the most central theme in the writings of the brilliant free-market economist Adam Smith. Contrary to the interpretations of Smith given by Milton Friedman and others, Adam Smith placed the concerns of justice (his word for harmlessness) before prudence (his word for shrewdness) in economic and business decisions. As much as he treasured liberty and resisted most attempts to regulate business or the economy, he insisted that whenever legislation is enacted that favors workers or the poor, that legislation is always “just and equitable.”
Smith himself proposed and defended legislation that would channel the results of shrewd, self-interested business decisions into benefits for the poor. The goal was to tame self-interest for justice. In other words, the synergism of self-interest and justice was for Smith an ongoing responsibility—not a given. Smith’s “invisible hand” that guides self-interest to serve justice has to do with the subtle structure of social and economic behavior—a structure for which we are at least partly responsible.
Smith was also realistic, however. He observed that legislation proposed and supported by business interests is almost always motivated by selfish efforts to protect or enhance privileged market positions. Such business legislation should be resisted because it is both unjust (harmful) and inefficient (unshrewd).
The harmless and shrewd virtues are certainly not the only ethical attitudes and approaches taught by Jesus, and they are not the only virtues needed for ethical marketplace activity today. But harmlessness and shrewdness are both immensely valuable—especially in the potent blend that Jesus himself so justly and effectively exemplified.
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