In the 19th century, American settlers attempted to guard against grass fires—or snuff out an uncontrolled blaze—by deliberately setting small controllable fires. It was called “fighting fire with fire.” Some say one of today’s uncontrolled blazes is crony capitalism. If so, the Sisters of St. Francis are well suited to fight fire with fire.
Lawrence Summers coined “crony capitalism” in the midst of the Asian meltdown of 1997. As deputy Treasury secretary, he gave a speech in August 1998 noting, “the problems related to ‘crony capitalism’ are at the heart of this crisis.” Today, crony capitalism covers a wide array of corrupt institutional practices, including financiers sleeping in government-backed featherbeds as well as excessive executive pay. This is where the Sisters of St. Francis enter the picture.
Mother Francis Bachmann founded the Sisters of St. Francis as a Franciscan order in 1855. Nora Nash, who grew up in Limerick County, Ireland and dreamed of becoming a missionary in Africa, showed up in 1959. Two years later Sister Nora took her vows. In 1980, Sister Nora and the Sisters of St. Francis “formed a corporate responsibility committee,” writes Kevin Roose in a recent New York Times article.1 The Nun’s committee was formed “to combat what they saw as troubling developments at the businesses in which they invested their retirement fund. They boycotted Big Oil, took aim at Nestlé over labor policies, and urged Big Tobacco to change its ways.”
Since 1980, the nuns have gone toe-to-toe with Kroger over farm worker rights; with McDonald’s, over childhood obesity; with Wells Fargo, over lending practices; as well as with many Fortune 500 companies, including Goldman Sachs. “We’re not here to put corporations down,” Sister Nora notes. “We’re here to improve their sense of responsibility.” “People who have done well have a right to their earnings,” added Sister Marijane Hresko, when the topic of executive compensation comes up. “What we’re talking about here is excess, and how much money is enough for any human being.”
What these nuns are actually doing is fighting fire with fire. Crony capitalism involves corrupt institutions and institutional practices. Therefore, honest institutions are the best fire-line. The Sisters are part of an institution, the Roman Catholic Church. Institutions take other institutions seriously. They also see the value of overlapping networks of institutions. That’s why the Sisters’ order operates under an umbrella group—The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility—that includes Jews, Quakers, Presbyterians, and nearly 300 faith-based investing groups. These institutions give Sister Nora gravitas, the moral weight to be taken seriously.
In November I attended the “Gospel and Culture” conference hosted by The Center for Faith and Work, a ministry of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Lolita Jackson, Director of Special Projects for the NYC Mayor’s Office, was one of the speakers. Jackson is a believer who worked for Morgan Stanley for 12 years in the Investment Management division before serving as Mayor Bloomberg’s chief liaison for all Manhattan related community issues. She spoke of a meeting where the Mayor invited city leaders to a high level luncheon. Jackson noticed Jewish and Catholic leaders at the head table but wondered why Tim Keller wasn’t included. Could it be that the Mayor imagines Keller as only an individual pastor of an individual church? The other leaders represent institutions. They think institutionally. By and large, Protestant faith traditions don’t think institutionally.
Too much of Protestantism is marked by anti-institutional, individualistic orientation. It has roots in Martin Luther’s defense of his writings before an assembly (a “Diet”) in the Imperial Free City of Worms in 1521. He said he would not renounce them “unless I am convicted by Scripture or by right reason (for I trust neither in popes nor in councils).” Popes and councils represented institutions. Luther was expressing a distrust of institutions. In the 1800s this bias was coupled with Charles Finney’s emphasis on individual decisions. The result is an individualistic faith that doesn’t think institutionally.
The good news is that this might be changing. Andy Crouch is an editor for Christianity Today and author of Culture Making, an important book on the subject of culture. Crouch however admits that he did not spend enough time in his book addressing the role of institutions. In a review of James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World, Crouch writes, “If I had read Hugh Heclo’s boringly-titled but brilliantly-written short book On Thinking Institutionally before writing Culture Making (both were published in the summer of 2008), my book would have been better.” Hunter “does an excellent job of correcting my (and others’) lack of institutional vision,” he admits, “something that seems to be a besetting problem for my age cohort, so-called Generation X.”
The kingdom would benefit from more Christians like Andy Crouch. It would also benefit from more churches like Redeemer Presbyterian. It thinks institutionally. For instance, Lolita Jackson closed her talk by noting how she got Tim Keller a place at the next Mayor’s table. This is an important step in the right direction. Changing the world requires overlapping networks of institutions. If crony capitalism is an uncontrolled blaze involving many corrupt institutional practices, fighting fire with fire requires a wide array of healthy institutions. It would be beneficial for these networks if more Protestant institutions joined the fire-line.
1 Kevin Roose, “Nuns Who Won’t Stop Nudging,” The New York Times, November 12, 2011.