Fighting Fire with Fire

Michael Metzger

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.


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  1. Just a minor point the article did not explain that Tim Keller is the Pastor at Redemmer Presbyterian – for those outside US this context is useful.

    Great article

  2. Isn’t what the Sisters of St. Francis are doing a response to our prayer “thy kingdom come; thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?” Reforming present institutions to make them more compassionate is our work to bring the kingdom into being, or do we just wait for the second coming?

  3. [Luther] 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).”

    Should he/would he be convinced of the explanations you and others have offered citing Genesis 1 and Jeremiah 29?

    What would you say to those who make hold the same quote as Luther above? How have they missed the institutional mandate in scripture?

  4. Jeff:

    Good question. Luther was not wrong regarding scripture and reason. My point is that they are necessary but insufficient. I am not entirely clear as to your reference to Genesis 1 and Jeremiah 29 – Jeremiah 17 however comes to mind: the heart (i.e., conscience) is deceitful and desperately wicked. A corrective is a community and a community is most rigorous when it is institutionalized, not periodic or episodic. Luther’s stance, understood as necessary and completely sufficient for discerning truth, tends to undercut the importance of institutions.

  5. Mike,

    Thanks for your response – agreed about heart target through enculturated means.

    My question is more about what appears to be Luther’s and others’, objection to institutional engagement and building. Are the examples of cultural mandate from Genesis 1 and flourishing community from Jeremiah 29 clear and significant enough to convince? Would he want more evidence? Is there more?

  6. James Hunter’s “To Change the World” is resplendent with examples of the faith community assisting, creating, or enhancing institutions far and wide for centuries.

  7. Is it possible that Martin’s response is taken out of context by those who infer that he was against institutions? The pope and the councils of his immediate circumstance were both corrupt and not trust-worthy.

    Are there other writings of Luther’s that establish a general disdain for institutions at all times and not limited to corrupt instituions of his present circumstance?

  8. Gerard makes a good point, the pope and council also represent certain ethics, political and religious ideologies, social and culture norms; the question that Luther seems to have implied is can theses institutions and their ideas be worthy of determining reality?
    I don’t disagree that institutional thinking is necessary for promoting and expressing a worldview /ideology but your article seems to indicate more so that if the individual with sound ideas can utilize institutional structures, that would have larger sufficient cultural changes. Do you think that all institutions start from individual effort?

  9. Mark: Of course they do. Mitt Romney was right – corporations are people. Institutions start with individuals. When Luther decreed that he relied solely on scripture and reason, he left out institutions. The point is not whether institutions are inherently trustworthy – they aren’t anymore than people – but that institutions are like aircraft carriers. They are less easily buffeted by wind and rain and carry a great deal more weight. Granted, they are more expensive to build and slower to turn around, but this was the genius of the founding fathers. In creating the institution of Congress, they included a more deliberative arm called the Senate (“the saucer to cool passions”). Independent churches are, by nature, more vulnerable to individual passions than are institutions. Furthermore, as I try to point out in the story of the Roman Catholic nuns, institutions generally have more gravitas than individuals.

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