Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Economics of the Ten Commandments

The Economics of the Ten Commandments
by Allen Laudenslager & Bryan Neva, Sr.

The Ten Commandments are the central moral edicts of all the Judeo-Christian faith traditions. All these commandments can be summarized in loving God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, as well as loving our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22.37-40). St. Paul summarized the Ten Commandments in Romans 13.9-10 by saying, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” We can learn to live by God’s standards by extrapolating these commandments into lessons for business. We may not always be successful in living up to these standards, but making them our daily focus will keep us from the situational ethics that cause so many moral and ethical lapses in business today.

The 1st Commandment
I am the LORD your GOD; you shall have no other gods before me (Ex 20.2-5; Deut 5.6-9). You shall worship the LORD your GOD and him only shall you serve (Mt 4.10).

God desires that we all relate to him very personally; not superficially, or mechanically. He wants us to love him as intensely as he loves us, and he’s personally offended when people sin because it not only hurts us, but more importantly, it hurts others. So in order to gain the happiness of heaven in the next life, we must know, love, and serve God—as well as love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves—in this life.

The secular world falsely teaches that we can find happiness in wealth, pleasure, power, or fame. But Jesus said in Matthew 6.24, “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”

Keeping God first in our lives isn’t just about worship: it also means not putting money or prestige or anything else before God! By making a little god from the material trappings of success (like a house, a car, or a successful career) we bow down to those things and loose our ability to judge our actions as good or bad. When we judge our actions based on how much money we make, we are bound to forget that how we made that money is more important than making it.

Putting God first and not money, power, or prestige ensures that when it’s time to make the hard decisions we will use clear consistent guidelines and not just the path that is self-serving or expedient. The problem with self-serving or expedient decisions is that all too often they are short-term solutions that result in long-term problems. Imagine the senior management at Enron putting God (or the secular world’s principle of honesty) first. Had they done so, they never would have succumbed to the temptation to cheat their investors, customers, and employees.  Imagine all those business people involved in the unethical mortgage crisis which precipitated the 2008 recession; had they put God first we wouldn't be in the mess we're in today.  

How many business people today sacrifice their friends, family, and even their own health in serving their companies and careers? How many books have been written and movies made about the unsatisfied businessperson? These generally end with the businessperson recognizing that self-satisfaction comes from relationships with family, friends, community, and a spiritual relationship with God and not from status and material possessions.

These books and movies are popular because most people identify with the character’s dilemma in choosing between short-term personal gain and those things that return long-term happiness. Jesus said in Matthew 16.26, “For what does it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, but suffer the loss of his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”

The 2nd Commandment
Thou shall not take the name of the LORD in vain (Ex 20.7; Deut 5.11). You have heard that it was said to the men of old, “You shall not swear falsely…but I say to you, do not swear at all (Mt 5.33-34).”

Most people, even non-Christians, recognize that the words we use help identify who we are to those around us, and that many are offended by the regular use of profanity and obscenity. Speaking with thoughtfulness and respect draws people to us because they know, even if it’s at the subconscious level, that we respect ourselves, and with self-respect comes the ability to respect others.

For better or for worse, we judge the value of an idea by how well it is presented. The slicker the speaker, the smoother the presentation, then the more likely we are to accept what was said. The eye catching glossy brochure is more likely to sell us a product than a less well-prepared presentation. The words that come out of our mouths reflect the attitudes on the inside and we must guard against falling into the bad habit of sloppy speech. Most of us have misjudged another’s intelligence because that individual didn’t speak well, had a limited vocabulary, poor grammar, or a regional accent. By the same measure, we will be judged by those around us based on the words we use. In the letter from St. James (3.3-5) he describes an important corollary to this commandment:

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.

This commandment is more than just not taking the Lord’s name in vain. By not using profanity or obscenity in our daily speech, and by keeping an attitude of respect for God, yourself, and those around you, you will automatically help create a more pleasant and productive working environment. This attitude of respect will also help you to act in an honest and professional manner when making business decisions.

The 3rd Commandment
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work (Ex 20.8-10; Deut 5.12-15). The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath (Mk 2.27-28).

By setting aside one day a week to honor God we remind ourselves of values beyond our day-to-day existence. From those values we find wellsprings of honesty and restraint that keep us from putting material things above decent behavior. It also shows that we are not slaves to work; rather work (like exercise or food) is our servant and is meant to provide for our needs.

Some of us have jobs that require us to work on our faith tradition’s Sabbath day. Does that mean that we cannot live a good life without stopping our work on the Sabbath? Of course not, remember that the Rabbi, Priest, or Minister works on the Sabbath!  Nurses, Doctors, Firefighters, Policemen, the Military and many others must work on the Sabbath day too.  The key element is to remember to put God before worldly demands and us. Doing this simple sounding exercise will help us to keep the worlds demands in perspective and guide our actions with honesty and fairness. These are an outward expression of the principles in our hearts.

In most Judeo-Christian faith traditions, one day a week is set aside to rest and honor God. It’s the one day a week we all should refrain from business, work or any activities that hinder our worship of God, works of mercy, and our mental and physical relaxation. The Sabbath should also be a day we spend nurturing our relationships with our families and loved ones. Like sleep deprivation, over the long run you’ll become burned-out and less productive if you don’t set aside one day a week—the Sabbath—to recharge your physical, spiritual and emotional batteries.

Truett Cathy, founder of Chick-fil-A restaurants, wanted to ensure that every employee and operator of his restaurants had an opportunity to worship, spend time with family and friends as well as rest from the work week; so he mandated that all Chick-fil-A restaurants be closed on Sundays (the traditional Christian Sabbath day). Closing all Chick-fil-A restaurants every Sunday makes the company a rarity in this day and age of corporate greed, but it's a little habit that has served the owners, managers, and employees of Chick-fil-A well for over 50 years.

When we served in the military, we really came to appreciate our Sundays off (or half day off if we had duty).  Even the U.S. Government has realized that you can't work your people to death.  Solders, Airmen, Sailors, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen are more effective if they're given at least one day off to rest, relax, and recharge. 

In addition to honoring God on the Sabbath day, we should also try to set aside some time each day to remember God and keep him foremost in our thoughts. In that way, we will keep his precepts for living and it will help us overcome the temptation to take those shortcuts that lead to dishonesty, unethical behavior, and immorality.

The 4th Commandment
Honor your father and mother, that you may have a long life in the land which the Lord, your God, gives you (Ex 20.12; Deut 5.16).

By honoring our parents we pay respect to them and the sacrifices they made to make our lives possible. Our mothers suffered the pangs of childbirth to bring us into the world and cared for us while we grew to maturity, and our fathers endured the hardships of earning a living to provide for our physical needs and protecting us from harm and danger.

Honoring our parents is also meant to remind us that most of the things we’ll face in life our parents faced before us and by their example showed us how or how-not-to deal with those challenges. They’ve been there first and their experience can guide us to the better path or method without having to personally try all of the less successful alternates. Rather than reinventing the wheel, we can grow as human beings and accomplish even greater things than our parents did. We’ve never met a parent who did not want their children to be more successful than they were.

Honoring our parents also means caring for those who cared for us before we could care for ourselves. In biblical times that meant actually providing for our own parents and our extended families in their old age or in times of sickness or trouble. In modern times, one extension of this is the contract between employers and employees for retirement benefits. If this commandment were honored, how could a company reduce or eliminate retirement benefits for their workers after those employees had already retired?

A business application of this commandment would be to honor the more experienced workers or managers. They’re the ones who’ve broken new ground and shown us the way. Remember that this is not slavish obedience to a higher authority; it is just showing respect for the efforts and experience of the people who went before. By doing this we hope our contribution will be worthy of respect by those who come after us.

The first corollary to this commandment of honoring our parents is to honor our extended families and friends: grandparents, uncles, aunts, elders etc. The second corollary to this is to honor those in authority over us: teachers, employers, leaders, administrators, judges, governors, presidents etc. Moreover, if we keep this command God promises long life and prosperity. We constantly read and hear about proper diets, lifestyles, and medication that will prolong our lives, but how much do we consider prolonging our lives through the habit of honoring our parents, elders, and those in authority over us.

Of course, there will always be people who abuse this trust and respect. When faced with those people we are obligated not to follow an example or direction that would lead us into improper actions.

Scandal is an attitude or behavior, which leads another to do evil. Jesus said in Matthew 18.6, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” Anyone who uses the power at his disposal in such a way that leads others to do wrong becomes guilty of scandal and is responsible if he or she has directly or indirectly caused evil. For example, if business leaders make rules or create an environment that encourages fraud or provokes their employees to anger, those leaders are guilty of scandal.

Scandal was rampant during our respective tours in the military. Allen served in the Army in the 1960s during the Vietnam War, and Bryan served in the Navy in the 1980s during the Cold War and early War on Terror. Poor leadership and treatment of the enlisted men caused many enlisted men and woman to do things they probably wouldn’t normally do, and many veterans suffer sever remorse from the bad things they did while in the military.  

Businesses also create environments that force their employees to be less than honest or ethical in their business dealings. They provoke their employee’s anger and their employees retaliate by being vindictive, less productive, dishonest, unethical, or immoral.  Since the start of the Great Recession of 2008, there seems to be a trend in business to return to a 1950’s style of management by fear and intimidation where managers assume the worst about their workers and must prod them to work harder. Isn’t it amazing how old management ideas are resurrected with new labels in the name of greater productivity? In the short-term, these methods will work; in the long-term, they’re destined to fail!
Over our respective working careers, we’ve both faced hard choices between doing what was right or losing our jobs.  Thankfully, God gave us both the grace to choose what was right even though it cost us both our well-paying jobs.  Sometimes we look back and think of what we could have done differently, but in the end we both realize there's no compromising with evil.  Either you choose to do the right thing, or you choose to do the wrong thing.  It's that simple!

If you're in a leadership or position of authority, you have a moral obligation to be a good example and not provoke your followers to do the wrong thing.  If you’re a follower, you have a moral obligation to always do the right thing regardless of what your leaders do.

The 5th Commandment
You shall not kill (Ex 20.13; Deut 5.17). You have heard that it was said to men of old, “You shall not kill: and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment (Mt 5.21-22).

You shall not kill is not just a metaphor. In the societies of biblical times, killing someone else for their land or possessions was a common occurrence. God admonishes us not to kill because to God each life is his precious gift and not man’s to take away. In the days of the American west, stealing someone’s horse was a capital crime. At first glance, this seems unduly harsh until you understand that a man without a horse was certain to die either from the harsh environment or from the hostility of the people around him. Thus, the horse thief was killing the victim either directly or indirectly. In today’s job market, putting someone’s ability to earn a living at risk so that we can gain a short-term advantage isn’t much different than stealing a horse was in the American west.

Murder is conceived in anger and it is born out of hatred; therefore, Jesus commanded his followers not to even give into anger and hatred. Wishing, hoping, or facilitating ill upon another ultimately leads to greater evil. If someone else has wronged you, forgive him or her and try to forget about it. But if you really want to even the score, you should kill ‘em with kindness (Mt 5.38-48)!  Buddha once wrote, "Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die."

In business, we are constantly faced with situations that seem to be them or us. If we don’t get the sale, the promotion, or whatever else there is, then the other person will.  It's a "zero-sum game".  The temptation is to metaphorically kill our adversary, or “kill the competition.” This means doing anything short of murder to gain the upper hand.

In Russia today, business rivals literally do kill anyone who gets in the way of their business activities. The tools commonly used to squash our rivals in the west are underhanded internal politics and unethical business tactics. Remember there is no such thing as them or us; there is only you and me! This commandment teaches us that it is a poor victory gained by someone else’s loss.

In Leviticus 19.1-2, 11-18, it reads:
The LORD said to Moses, "Speak to the whole assembly of the children of Israel and tell them: Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.  You shall not steal.  You shall not lie or speak falsely to one another.  You shall not swear falsely by my name, thus profaning the name of your God.  I am the LORD."

"You shall not defraud or rob your neighbor. You shall not withhold overnight the wages of your day laborer.  You shall not curse the deaf, or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but you shall fear your God.  I am the LORD."

"You shall not act dishonestly in rendering judgment. Show neither partiality to the weak nor deference to the mighty, but judge your fellow men justly.  You shall not go about spreading slander among your kin; nor shall you stand by idly when your neighbor's life is at stake.  I am the LORD."

"You shall not bear hatred for your brother in your heart. Though you may have to reprove him, do not incur sin because of him.  Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your fellow countrymen.  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.   I am the LORD."

The 6th Commandment
You shall not commit adultery (Ex 20.14; Deut 5.18). You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Mt 5.27-28).

If we offer to sell you a gallon of milk and deliver a half-gallon of milk mixed with a half-gallon of water, we’ve committed adultery.   Mixing water with milk is not much different from breaking one’s marriage vows because it’s altering a contract between two people.   If a company reduces the pay and benefits they’ve agreed to provide their employees, they’ve altered the contract they had with them.   If we don’t keep our promises to our employees, customers, or employers we’ve committed adultery as well.

Companies justify reducing their employee’s pay and benefits packages as cost savings measures to keep the company profitable.  But to the employees this is a reduction in their compensation package and it creates both an immediate and future hardship.   For example, if an employee has an agreement with their company for medical and retirement benefits and their company decreases these benefits without an equal value increase somewhere else then the company has committed adultery.  If this seems strange, think about that gallon of milk: we’d feel cheated if we’d paid for a gallon of milk but only received a half-gallon of milk mixed with a half-gallon of water.   In exactly the same way employees feel cheated when their company reduces their pay or medical and retirement benefits.  If the employee doesn’t like it, his only recourse is to find another job and hope his next employer won't alter the contract he made with them.  But for retired employees who lose their pension and medical benefits they have no recourse.

There have been several reported stories of employees that had their pay and benefits reduced and later discovered that management was given huge bonuses.  In some cases these bonuses exceed the cost of the lost pay and benefits.  The adultery in modern business today is when management has the power to arbitrarily reduce their employee’s compensation package while increasing their own. This is nothing more than a selfish childhood attitude of I got mine and you’re on your own.

Loyalty is a two way street with employees on one side and the company on the other.  Cheating employees, customers, or employers is not only dishonest but disloyal as well.  If a company is so poorly structured and organized that it has to earn its profits out of the back pockets of its employees and customers, then it probably needs new leadership or a new business plan.

Another way companies commit adultery is in not keeping their loyal employees’ pay competitive.  We’ve both worked for and heard of organizations that hired new employees in at higher salaries than their current employees.  Think about how that makes the old, loyal employees feel?  It’s analogous to buying your mistress an expensive piece of jewelry for your illicit anniversary and giving your real wife a greeting card for your real anniversary.  It’s just wrong on so many levels!

The 7th Commandment
You shall not steal (Ex 20.15; Deut 5.19; Mt 19.18).

The 8th Commandment
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor (Ex 20.16; Deut 5.20).  You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. (John 8.32). 

Everyone knows that taking something that isn’t yours is stealing, but there are other ways to steal. An employee that spends hours each day surfing the Internet, or taking too many smoke or coffee breaks, or too much time chitchatting with colleagues instead of working is stealing from their employer. An employer that doesn’t compensate their employees for all the hours they work is stealing from them. A company that expects employees to drive their own cars from their regular work place to visit a customer without reimbursement is stealing from them as well. When you advance your cause at someone else’s expense, you’re stealing! In practice, this commandment not to steal includes: 

Not returning goods that were loaned to us; not returning goods that were lost when you could discover the owner; any form of business fraud; not paying just wages, or withholding benefits; not paying taxes or social security contributions; forcing up prices by taking advantage of ignorance or hardship; artificially manipulating the price of goods; any form of corruption or bribery; misusing company property; excessive business expenses and waste; poor workmanship; shirking one’s duties; forging checks and invoices; or vandalizing property.

Most of us think of bearing false witness in the traditional sense of lying to or about someone else, especially in legal proceedings. In the business world, bearing false witness expands to include any form of deception. This includes the things we say as well as the things we don’t say.

Companies are notorious for this! When I (Bryan) was growing up in Minnesota, my father, who is a machinist by trade, took a job in the 1970s with Burlington-Northern Railroad (which is now a subsidiary of Warren Buffet's company Berkshire Hathaway) in a city about 150 miles north of where we lived. After my parents sold their home, bought a new one in the new city, and moved our family, the company abruptly laid my father and his colleagues off.  Come to find out, the company only needed temporary work done as they were planning on closing that facility for some time.  They kept it a closely guarded secret as they knew no one would take a job with a company that was planning on closing in less than a year.  It certainly wasn't illegal at the time, but it was morally and ethically wrong on so many levels and I clearly remember the hardships this caused our family (as well as the families of all the other poor slobs that had the misfortune to take a job with Burlington-Northern Railroad). Fortunately, my Dad was able to find another job, but it was in another city that was 150 miles even further north, so we had to pack up and move again. The silver-lining in all of this, is that my Dad was able to get a job with a really great company (which is still in business today) and eventually retired with them with over twenty years of service.     

The eighth commandment forbids misrepresenting the truth in our relations (word or deed) with others. Since God is the source of all truth, we are all called to live in truth. Jesus said in John 8.32, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” In other words, truth is very liberating. We should always be true in deeds and truthful in words and guard against any duplicity, dissimulation, and hypocrisy.

Honesty means that we should always keep our promises and honor the spirit and letter of contracts we make with others. We should respect other people’s property, pay our debts, fulfill our obligations, and make reparation for injustices we committed.

Respect for the reputation of others means that we should avoid any attitude or say anything that would cause others unjust injury. We should not assume the moral faults of another without sufficient foundation. We should not disclose (without an objectively valid reason) another’s faults and failings to others who do not know them. We should not say anything that would harm another’s honor and reputation.

Furthermore, we should not use flattery in order to gain favor with others. We should not misrepresent what you have or what you have done in your life. And we should not lie in order to deceive others. St. Thomas Aquinas said, “Men could not live with one another if there were not mutual confidence that they were being truthful to one another.”

David Callahan, Ph.D. in his 2004 book, The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead (see his web site: explores many of the sociological impetuses behind the American culture of cheating.  In nauseous detail, Dr. Callahan documents case after case after case of dishonest, unethical, hypocritical, immoral, and oftentimes illegal behavior in the legal profession (no surprise there), the judiciary, the government, in politics, in medicine, in business (no surprise there either), in accounting, in financial services, in sports, in journalism, and in academia (from preschool through graduate school). He also cites numerous examples of tax evasion at all economic levels, electronic piracy over the Internet, and wealthy individuals who exploit the system at the expense of the poor and middle class.  

More than any one thing, the love of money seems to be the one common denominator to our cheating culture in America. Dr. Callahan makes a convincing argument that unless our American society reforms itself, our country may eventually end up like Brazil with pervasive corruption in every corner of society. He also offers many suggestions about how our society can transform to become more honest and ethical, but none so poignant as, “be a chump, and don’t be afraid to be a pain-in-the-ass!” In other words, be honest and ethical in everything you personally do regardless of the personal cost or what everyone else is doing. And at the same time, don’t be afraid to expose dishonest and unethical behavior whenever you encounter it.  We're a bit more crude than Dr. Callahan as we'd tell you, "Don't take sh*t from anyone, and definately don't drink the kool-aid!"

The 9th and 10th Commandments
You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife; you shall not covet your neighbor’s goods (Ex 20.17).

When we covet, we start to put little gods before the one true God and we begin to break all the other commandments. When we covet, we begin to accept that it’s alright to steal the object of our desire or to lie to get what we want. When we covet, we begin the process of accepting that dishonest actions are acceptable to gain the object that we desire, such as another man or woman or a promotion or to curry favor etcetera. 

We need to remember that wanting to have the same things as others is not the same as wanting those things at another’s expense. It is the first step in a moral and ethical decline that ultimately ends in the loss of our honor and self-respect. And once we lose our honor and self-respect we lose our respect for others.

We covet when we desire and work for riches, social status, and power at the expense of honesty and truthfulness. We covet when we’re unfaithful to our spouse or leave them to marry another. We covet when we try to keep up with the Jones. We covet when we buy things we can’t afford and live beyond our means. We covet when we’re jealous of another’s status, possessions, or accomplishments. Coveting is at the root of all jealousy, theft, robbery, vandalism, murder, fraud, greed, adultery, fornication, rape, arrogance, and every other dishonest, unethical, or immoral practice. St. Paul in his first letter to the Bishop Timothy (6.6-10,17-19) talked about the dangers of covetousness in this way:

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.

Christians have always believed that relationships with others are not to be based on money. Businesses should not make profit their exclusive measure and ultimate end. The disordered desire for money will only result in perverse effects and conflicts with others. Any business practice that reduces people to nothing more than a means of profit enslaves men and women and leads to idolizing money (Matt 6.24).  Our superiors have told us both over the course of our working careers that we were nothing more “than a unit of production,” or “a cog in the wheal.” We weren’t human beings with hopes and dreams to these people.

History has clearly shown the adverse affects of the love of money. Over the nineteenth century, an industrial and economic revolution shook the very foundations of our civilization when unbridled greed, capitalism and competition oppressed the masses everywhere. Wealth became concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people and disparity grew between the rich and the poor. These changed the way people looked at society, the role of government, and work in general. Unfortunately, they also precipitated disastrous political ideologies like communism and fascism.

As a result of these social and economic changes, antitrust laws were passed to control the oppressive use of money and power by individuals and corporations. Many leading Christians (especially in the Catholic Church) reminded businesses that they had an obligation to consider the good of people and not just the increase of profits, and that the ultimate purpose of business is meant to provide for the needs of people.

We’re afraid to tell you that history is repeating itself right before our eyes over the last several decades.


We’ve tried to show you the connection between economics, business and the central moral edicts of the Judeo-Christian faith traditions: the Ten Commandments.  

Here are ten simple rules to live by that we extrapolated into hundreds of rules to follow in life and in our economic dealings with others. The Ten Commandments were given to show us how to love God, our neighbors, and ourselves. St. Paul wrote, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13.9-10).”

As flawed human beings, we may not always be successful in living up to these commandments, but keeping them as our central focus will help us to make the tough decisions we all face in life and in our business dealings. 

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