Friday, May 14, 2010

Interfaith Shopping

Yesterday I was leaving the grocery store and spotted a “Christian Business Directory” on the free literature rack. Curiosity almost made me grab one, but I decided to pass. Such faith-based business directories have become more common in recent years, and I regard them with deep ambivalence. There is something positive to be said for doing business with fellow members of your faith family, and there are religious sects (Orthodox Judaism and Anabaptist Christians such as the Amish and Mennonites, for example) where this practice has been encouraged for many years. But now it is a much broader group of Evangelical Christians who are driving the movement towards Christian Business Directories. Behind it are two ideals – we should try to support our fellow Christians and we can trust our fellow Christians to deal with us ethically. Which both sound like good things, right?

But I have questions about both of these assertions. Let’s begin with the second one: fellow Christians will deal with us ethically. Some of the worst scandals of recent years have swirled around of self-proclaimed “Christian businesses.” For a year or so you could not turn on your television in Wisconsin without seeing ads for a homebuilder who paraded his rather spooky-looking children before the cameras while announcing that his was a “Christian-based” business. The ads are long gone, as is his business, leaving many trusting customers holding the bag for their deposits. I gather the guy had some “issues.” Then there was a large “Christian-based” financial services company that talked endlessly about Jesus while running an old-fashioned Ponzi scheme until the law caught up with them. Anyone can claim to be a Christian, then abuse the trust that naïve persons invest in them because of that claim. And Christians, as our own doctrines attest, are no less likely to sin than anyone else. As the saying has it, the only difference is that Christians know that their sins can be forgiven.

But back to assertion number one: we should try to support our fellow Christians. Well, yes we should, but Christians also need to answer Jesus’ question “who is my neighbor?” If Christians love and support only their fellow Christians, they have entirely missed the heart of what Jesus taught about love. Based upon my understanding of the requirement to love my neighbor as myself, I attempt to do as much business as possible with locally-owned, small businesses owned by folks who are working hard to establish a foothold in the American economy without regard to their race or religion. My insurance agent is Hmong, and I have no idea what his personal faith is. I am pretty sure that the guy who runs the Indian grocery store where I buy ten-pound bags of Basmati rice is Hindu, not Christian (Christians rarely wear turbans). It is when Christians move among persons of other faiths and cultures, treating them with honesty, respect, integrity and kindness, that they witness most effectively to their faith.

A few months ago I took a suitcase with a busted zipper to a shop in Ashwaubenon to get it fixed. The very pleasant man who ran the shop had a sign professing that his was a Christian business, so I told him I served as chaplain for Goodwill Industries, including the Goodwill store just down the street from him. He was pleased to meet me and asked if I had sought him out because he was a Christian. “No,” I replied truthfully. “I sought you out because you are the only one I could find who fixes suitcases, and I’m too cheap to buy a new one.” I am happy to do business with Christians, just as I am with folks of all faiths.

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