Editor's note: This article was originally published in the Nov. 2018 eJournal from GreenMoney, and is reprinted here with permission.
The phrase “What would Jesus do?” or “WWJD” emerged in American consciousness during the 1990s as motto for many Christians seeking to regularly reflect on how the moral teachings of Jesus could be reflected in their daily lives. As is the way of our modern culture, the reflective purpose of this cue soon became obscured by our collective passion for marketing and merchandise in all its many forms.
Whether one participates in organized religion or not, the idea of finding a mechanism that calls us to step outside of our personal situation to view things from a different, morally-grounded perspective can have many benefits. This was the original intention of WWJD.
This also appears to be the intention of many of the parables shared by Jesus throughout the New Testament. He is frequently presented responding to critical — even tricky — questions with stories that cause reflection, rather than answers that reflect or refine the religio-political rules of the day, as most expected. These parables were all the more disruptive by their inclusion of persons — women, children, tax collectors, slaves, etc. — in roles and situations that challenged the status quo and current thinking on what was “good” and “right.” The parables seemed designed to pull listeners out of their presuppositions and self-assuredness.
So what does all of this have to do with how we, as people of faith or good will, approach investing? And more importantly, how do we do this when we may not all agree on how it is to be done?
Both less and more than you might think!
Less, because the Parables and many similar religious teachings are not necessarily about “how to do” something, but more often about “how to be” in a situation. These stories challenge certainty about rules, righteous action, and our place in the world with a focus on right relationships — between people, classes, ethnic/racial groups, genders and with Creation itself. And it is this centrality of relationships that makes such teachings more relevant to the increasingly contentious and conflicted environment in which many values-based investors find themselves.
One parable that seems particularly relevant to the current SRI investment arena is that of the Good Samaritan. What is both ironic and even more timely is that this parable was offered in response to a question posed to Jesus asking, “And who is my neighbor”? It is a question of inclusion and value that echoes with importance through the centuries to America’s reality today.
Found in Luke 10:25-37, this story — at least in its simplest form — has practically become baked into American culture. In short, the Samaritan (from an ethnic group often looked down upon by the dominant culture Jesus was a part of) stopped to help a man wounded by robbers while two religious leaders (a priest and a Levite) passed him by, presumably not stopping because touching the wounded man would have made them unclean according to the religious rules of the day.
When Jesus flipped the question to questioner, asking “Which of these three ... was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”, the answer was “The one who showed him mercy.” One can easily replace any of these characters with modern stand-ins (and people have!) and get a similar reflective opportunity. The point is to step out of what we think we know and ask how our “answers” fit in a broader, moral frame — particularly when that challenges our current world view and objectives.
What then might we learn, applying reflection from the story of the Good Samaritan, to our collective work in faith-based, SRI/ESG investing? Here are my takeaways:
Relationships matter — For me, this is the overarching message of this Parable (and many others). Understanding the human component, motivations, objectives and needs in any situation — especially one of conflict — is critical. How can we first see what we share, not where contrast? No strategy, marketing opportunity, or clever taking of the intellectual high-ground is worth sacrificing community and collaboration in your wake. Being “right” (often a less certain thing than we think at the time anyway) should not preclude being in right relationships with those around us — even those we think are in opposition to us.
Remember the shared goal — One reason why relationships should and do matter, is that we often have shared goals, whether we choose to focus on them or not. It is unlikely the religious leaders thought the wounded man should die. Rather they chose to place their own rules and priorities above the shared goal — mandated by religious teachings — of caring for those in need. In the end, we all need to decide if it is the path or the goal that is more important.
The work is often messy — The issue of “purity” or remaining “clean” runs deep in the Good Samaritan Parable. This theme seems to echo within both the faith-based and SRI investment world as well today. While an important — and potentially valid — point of values reflection, avoidance rarely brings the solutions we want and need. Getting to our shared goal demands the ability to engage, understand, challenge, and compromise (practically a four-letter word in our current culture) with those of a different perspective. Whether corporation, investor or activist (or combinations thereof), achieving justice and sustainability has nearly always been messy.
There may be a cost — The Samaritan invested his own time and resources in caring for the wounded man, in both the short and long term. The Holy Grail of SRI — and particularly ESG — has been to prove that one can do demonstrable good for the world and deliver competition-topping performance. Incredible strides have been made, materiality demonstrated, and successful claims put forward. Yet in many cases there remain a number of asterisks, requiring a fuller look at the details to understand the complete picture. Perhaps the more important point to consider — whether approaching the investment task on behalf of the environment or a set of faith-driven values — is how much cost is too much and is the cost worth it in the end.
Being “wise” (or smart or clever or right) doesn’t trump mercy — In a culture and communication environment dominated by selective information, passion-driven marketing campaigns, and the need to find enemies/opponents, the question our community (really any community) increasingly faces is whether or not to engage in the popular “wisdom” of the marketplace or stick to the values that unite us. It is a hard choice to make with friends and competitors alike chanting “fight fire with fire.” And it is one we must all choose for ourselves.
In the end, the value of a moral reflective cue — like “What would the Good Samaritan do?” — is to cause us to stop and think about how our situation and related actions look from a different perspective, or in the context of diverse values that we claim to support. It wouldn’t surprise me if no two people respond to my own reflections in exactly the same way. I think that’s the point of parables anyway. All I can do is repeat Jesus’ suggestion — “Go and do likewise.”