‘Mutually respectful’ commerce connects, serves all people

The Institute for Faith, Work & Economics sponsored a special report on Faith and Work, which was prepared by The Washington Times Advocacy Department and published May 12, 2016. The report is entitled, "Faith at Work: Individual Purpose, Flourishing Communities" and it includes thirty authors from a broad spectrum of backgrounds, including business, political, cultural, and theological sectors. The entire report can be found hereI was honored to be one of the 30; my essay, adapted from my book “Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life” (Free Press, 1996), was originally published is here


‘Mutually respectful’ commerce connects, serves all people

A large proportion of the people in this world today work out their destinies — economic, social and religious — in the daily activities of business.

I do not mean only the entrepreneurs — the small farmers, the shop owners, the multiplying numbers of consultants working at their computers in independent businesses, the barbers and hairdressers, the managers of large firms, the executives of smaller ones — but all those others who work with them and whose daily bread depends on the success of business activities.

“Doing business” is what most citizens in free nations do most of the time.

At the heart of the business vocation are invention and enterprise; in short, creativity. Across Latin America, Asia and Africa, large swaths of people are entering the international networks of economic supply and demand. These numbers will keep increasing as more and more nations turn to invention and enterprise as the main economic focus of civil society. Hopefully, that network will steadily become more and more lawlike and peaceful. Commercium et Pax, commerce and peace, was the proud motto of Amsterdam, one of the first great market societies of the modern world, whose busy port was crowded with the dipping and swaying masts of sailing vessels coming from nearly every harbor of the globe. Commerce is what people do when they are at peace.

Commerce is better than war. Commerce among all peoples is better than the isolation and poverty of some.

Commerce, as several of the Eastern fathers of the Catholic Church wrote, notably St. John Chrysostom and St. Ephrem of Syria, is the material bond among peoples that exhibits, as if symbolically, the unity of the whole human race — or, as he dared to put it in mystical language, shows forth in a material sign the “mystical Body of Christ.”

The human race is one. The international commerce that shows forth the interdependence of all parts of the human body knits the peoples of the world together by the silken threads of a seamless garment.

Commerce is dignified by this mysterious and often not fully conscious activity — this knitting together of the nations, to which we too seldom explicitly lift our gaze. In our local activities, which are often so difficult and challenging that we scarcely have time to contemplate their larger meaning, we are engaged in weaving a small but crucial part of the universal tapestry. We are part of something much larger than ourselves. We are bringing together the entire human race, activating our local part of the universal work of the noble, wounded race to which it is our glory to belong.

We are trying to wrest from the ashes of war and division the hard-burnished alloys of peace: an elemental prosperity for all, the rule of law and daily practices of freely given consent. War is a destroyer; commerce is a builder. Division, separation and isolation unravel the substance of human unity; lawlike and mutually respectful commerce knits human societies into one.

In addition, commerce works in a humble but privileged way. It ties together people who have never met. The very impersonality that Marx excoriated as the “cash nexus” is the humble glory of commerce. Commerce does not require that we have physical or emotional contact with all with whom we do business.

Consider the pipe in my cabinet that I wish I were smoking (my doctor has required that I no longer use it). I know not where the exotic wood of its bowl comes from, nor who with such art designed it or turned it out; nor whence the rubber of the stem was drawn or by whom processed; nor where the metal ting that separates the two was produced; nor from which pits of ore the substances from which it was alloyed derive; nor who invented the filter designed to allow hot smoke to exit halfway to the mouthpiece; nor who arranged for the multiple transactions that brought all these elements together for the manufacturer who sold it (directly from the factory) to me. Without having met them, I have often felt gratitude to them.

What languages all the workers in this far-flung set of enterprises speak I know not, nor how they address their God, nor their thoughts or feelings. From all over the world, we have been brought together — those who make and those who enjoy the fruits of their labors and inventions. By many invisible paths, with no one knowing or intending all the human relations by which it passed into my hands, and perhaps without any one person in the world having all the knowledge, arts and skills required in all the steps of its journey to my cabinet, we have nonetheless been brought together in the pleasures my pipe has afforded me. To all these unknown people, I give thanks. In my hands, I have held tangible evidence of the world community to which we belong.

This same evidence teaches me that I have obligations to them, though I do not know who they are. In this way, commerce is the most solid, material sign of unmistakable human solidarity. Yet it takes away from none of us our cultural differences, not to mention our individuality. I think of my pipe as a “peace pipe,” not only for the pacifying effect its use once brought me, but also for the sense of universal community it evokes, together with the latter’s obligations.

Perhaps because I am Catholic, my mind works naturally in such sacramental ways. Everything around us is a sign of the beyond. We have merely to allow our natural wonderment free reign. “Everything we look upon is blest” (Yeats). “Everything is grace” (Bernanos). But one does not have to be Catholic to grasp this method. I think it must be natural to humans.

• Michael Novak, sometimes called the philosopher and theologian of liberty, was awarded the Templeton Prize in 1994. This article is adapted from “Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life” (Free Press, 1996), one of the more than 45 books he has written on culture, philosophy and theology.