The business of breaking bread. Have we lost our corporate soul?

Once upon a time, a company was not held together by a legal structure. It was not limited and protected by firewalls of intricately woven words and laws crafted to protect its beneficiaries from having to… well… care. This isn’t to say that every company is evil or doesn’t do good; but one only needs to mention Enron, Lehman Brothers or Bernie Madoff to find examples of corporations and directors acting in the most inhumane way towards employees, communities and the environment. And not all of this is spin or bad press. Stick around on planet earth long enough and you’ll find yourself subject to the kind of corporate neglect that has you looking for justice but finding no golden arse to kick. One may argue that ‘corporate accountability’ are not synonymous terms.

Dr. Michael Black’s fascinating thesis on the historical roots of corporate structures [1] reveals that the early construct of a ‘company’ originated with the Franciscan communities in the middle ages. The vow of poverty made by the Franciscan order made it difficult to actually own anything. Yet, as a large community, they needed structures and goods. To get around this poverty vow and the Roman rules of the day they established an entity as a legal institution which could own things but could not be owned. Meaning, a community of people could collectively possess land, buildings etc – but it was for the benefit of the community and under the responsibility of the community. This entity was appropriately called a ‘company’.

The word ‘company’ literally comes from the word companion which in Latin means ‘bread fellow’ (someone you ate with). Specifically, ‘com’ (together) and ‘panis’ (bread). In Latin, ‘corporation’ means a body of people. Notice how these terms are relational, humane and dependent upon unity. Interestingly, both words have deep conceptual and relational roots Judeo-Christian virtues of covenant (Judeo) and in Trinitarian (Christian) theology – which unlike today, by virtue of the words used, informed much corporate and business governance for centuries. But things have changed.

Black, who happens to be the former Director of the American Stock Exchange [2], argues that the corporate tragedies of the last century ‘could not have occurred but for the freedom given to corporate managers to determine (and promote) the criteria of success in a less than Levitical (priestly) manner.’ ([1], p. 156, italics mine). Meaning that an organisation’s definition of success may be reduced to profits and progress. Black goes on to suggest that when true corporateness (unity) is lost, we are left with commerciality. And this is a modern day tragedy.

Where does this leave us?

Well, in our modern West, I think it means that it is time to reimagine the frontier of business, again. Personally, as a mid-life business school honours student aiming for his PhD placement, I see glimmers of hope shining across the vast sea of management, financial and sustainability theories. As a life-student of spirituality and theology, I must acknowledge that corporate tragedies across the world are partially due to the shortage of conversation, action and education around what it really means to lead and participate in a company. I believe many of the corporate tragedies of today occur because of the lack of spiritual capital in the West [3].

As a global citizen I believe the business world must be continually be considering on what it means to be a human; including the inherent value of every sentient being.

As a follower of Christ I believe the business world must reconsider and recall what it means to be loved and redeemed peoples – created to image the mutually beneficial relationship of a non-violent, non-retributive, self-giving triune God. A God who invites us to break bread and participate in the divine company of God’s very being.

In closing, I offer you this poem:

come,
break bread with me.
let us imagine
you, nor I own anything,
but together
are responsible
for everything.

‘compani’
David Tensen
2020

 

References:

[1] Black, MT 2009, The Theology of the Corporation: Sources and History of the Corporate Relation in Christian Tradition, Retrieved from https://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:552b2250-f462-490c-8156-29cf430431af/download_file?file_format=pdf&safe_filename=602730181.pdf&type_of_work=Thesis.

[2] The sins of the financiars.  Dr. Michael Black. website: https://sevenpillarsinstitute.org/the-sins-of-financiers/

[3] Black, MT 2009, The Theology of the Corporation: Sources and History of the Corporate Relation in Christian Tradition, Retrieved from https://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:552b2250-f462-490c-8156-29cf430431af/download_file?file_format=pdf&safe_filename=602730181.pdf&type_of_work=Thesis.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *