By Philip S. Powell, 21 April 2016
Justin Welby, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, during his ordination training in 1992, published a Grove booklet titled Can Companies Sin? He observes, “Companies clearly have most of the features of social existence. The creation of a thing that can agree, commit torts or crimes, is identifiable, affects the nature of its employees and, above all, has a character in its dealings through its agents, yet which does not have moral agency in any sense, is more bizarre than the difficulties of assigning moral agency to it in the first place.”
So his answer to the question is an emphatic yes, but the answer can be both confusing and controversial. As Christians we are used to hearing sermons against personal sin but do we also hear preaching about structural sin? Yes, we must take personal responsibility for our choices, but what about the context, conditions and social structures that influence, even determine, our decisions? The Apostle Paul wrote about Powers and Principalities (Ephesians 6:12) at work in history. Can big global corporations like Google and Apple be understood as Powers and Principalities?
Theologian Walter Wink, who has written extensively on the subject of Powers and Principalities, offers us some useful insights for understanding the place, power and purpose of big corporate entities like banks and multinational companies.
Wink writes in Engaging the Powers “The Powers are good. The Powers are fallen. The Powers must be redeemed. These three statement must be held together, for each, by itself, is not only untrue but downright mischievous. We cannot affirm governments or universities or businesses to be good unless at the same time we recognize that they are fallen. We cannot face their malignant intractability and oppressiveness unless we remember that they are simultaneously a part of God’s good creation. And reflection on their creation and fall will appear only to legitimate these Powers and blast hope for change unless we assert at the same time that these Powers can and must be redeemed” (pg. 10).
The key insight from Wink is that companies can sin but they also have moral agency to do good. Too often we have only focused on the negatives of what big corporations do (oil spills, tax evasion, etc.) and failed to affirm the social good many of these companies do around the world. Let me share one story from one company.
Coca-Cola is one of world’s most well-known brands and coke is the second most understood word in the world after ‘ok’. The company has been in operation since 1886, and during the first year Coca-Cola sold on average nine drinks a day. Today Coca-Cola is consumed at the rate of more than 1.8 billion drinks per day. Phenomenal success!
In 2013, Coca-Cola launched an initiative called “Small World Machines”. It was an effort to break down barriers and connect the peoples of India and Pakistan using their vending machines in shopping malls (see link below). It was a simple way of connecting people across a divided and dangerous political border. The key was activities that people on both sides did together in real-time, like touching hands on the screen, drawing the peace-sign and dancing. There was a palpable sense of excitement as Indians and Pakistanis started to connect with each other.
The Small World Machines was a new kind of diplomacy, led by the private sector, using technology. Coke became the symbolic bridge across the division. One news commentator quipped “Coke brought nations together in 3 minutes. The politicians of both countries couldn’t do this in 66 years.” The long-term relationship between India and Pakistan cannot be put right without politicians and government officials engaging with the difficult issues that hinder normalisation of relations, but there is no doubt that companies like Coca-Cola can play a very positive role in moving things forward in the right direction. This campaign was more than just some PR stunt to promote sales. It was Coca-Cola using its vast resources to do something that could not have been achieved otherwise.
This story illustrates the enormous power companies have for doing social good around the world. This is noteworthy of public affirmation.
Thank you Coca-Cola!
Youtube video ‘Bringing India & Pakistan Together’ link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ts_4vOUDImE