Friday, 8 October 2010

'Profit vs Prophet': seminar 1 summary

Presentations from  Mannie Sher (Tavistock Institute), Abigail Morris (ResponseAbility) and Harmander Singh provided a rich variety of perspectives on and approaches to the topic 'Profit vs Prophet: making money and making a difference, are they opposed?', as well as clearly demonstrating the relevance of faith traditions in grappling with the issues.

Mannie Sher began with the Biblical prophets, and the prophet Micah in particular, sketching out the context into which they spoke and highlighting the way in which they demonstrated the courage to denounce the corruption of rulers, sympathise with the poor and call for justice as being the essence of God's demands. The prophets however were opposed to excessive and unequal profits, and not profit per se. In an Agrarian society, production cannot be solely for immediate consumption, some produce must be stored for future planting and a contemporary equivalent may be the division of one third for direct costs, one third for indirect costs and one third as profits for future investment. Time is a key factor as profiteers seek to shorten work processes to maximise profits and are solely concerned with profits in the present rather than investment for the future.

Current research undertaken with Alison Gill seems to suggest that bankers are currently inhabiting a bubble where their only talk is of investments and decisions are made solely on the basis of how much a particular investment has increased. In speaking about the banking crisis they seemed only able to talk in terms of headline phrases and seem unsure of how to judge their part in a systemic failure. The system is drunk on debt and has distorted negatives into positives, so that 'Greed is good'. A middle way is needed which understands that money is more than the value of the things we buy as it is also a vehicle for our fantasies (conscious imagination) and phantasies (inner unconcious). We need both prophets and profiteers in order to marry the wisdom, humility and care of the prophets to the wit and acumen of the profiteers.

Abigail Morris provided a different model for translating the wisdom of the Jewish tradition into the contemporary business world by utilising the insights of psychological and sociological research into wellbeing. Research demonstrates that beyond what is, in the West, a minimal level of wealth (£20,000 per annum) levels of well being do not increase with income. Levels of well being for those with wealth are reduced by surrounding poverty and levels of mental ill health are also high and rising in the affluent West. Positive psychology impacts on wellbeing, including health and longevity.

Based on such scientific evidence, the new economics foundation has created a set of five simple actions which can improve well-being in everyday life. These have clear corrollaries to teaching within Judaism: Give (Tzedakah) - being a volunteer and giving to charity has consistently been shown to be hugely beneficial, both mentally and physically; Connect (Kehilah) - people cope better if they are part of community networks and possess strong relationships with friends and family; Be Active (P’ilot v’kasher) - exercise is not just about physical health, but mental wellbeing as well; Keep Learning (Torah) - learning new skills stimulates the mind and can have long term benefits in reducing your chances of developing dementia or alzheimer’s; and Take Notice (Tefilah) - reflecting on your surroundings and your feelings can help you to appreciate what matters to you most. To these, and based on the work of Martin Seligman, ResponseAbility add Gratitude (Berachot) as studies have shown that if people take time at the end of every day to reflect on things that have gone well there is a marked increase in well-being. It is worth oting that none of these steps towards well being are about making money. Instead, the scripture says, "choose life, that you may live."

Harmander Singh noted that the Sikh Gurus bestowed upon the Sikhs the concept of "Miri-Piri" and "Raj Jog" which is princely living according to Gurmat (Guru's teaching/thinking) and therefore attuned to the Almighty. Miri-Piri is the balance between Spiritual and Temporal living and is denoted by the two crossed swords in the Sikh symbol, the Khanda. All Sikhs are encouraged to be householders but this does not mean becoming property developers or Peter Rachman's. It is acceptable to be rich as long as you live according to the principles of Gurmat and not indulge in un-Sikh businesses or those businesses which force you to a life that is anything but "honest living."  

Here, the three basic principles of Sikhi always apply.  These are: Naam Japna, Kirat Karni and Vand ke Shakna. Naam Japna is to remember God lovingly during all waking moments. Kirat Karni means making an honest living that is according to Gurmat living. Selling alcohol, tobacco, illegal drugs, and being in the adult entertainment business are activities which Gurmat strictly forbids. Vand Ke Shakna is to share with others, especially the needy and vulnerable. As there is no Welfare State equivalent worth mentioning in certain parts of the world and certainly not in the times gone by, Sikhs donate (Daswandh or Darshan Pehta) whatever they can from their earnings to the Gurdwara – which is more than just a place for congregational worship as it provides a centre where support of all kinds can be sought either directly or signposted.

Among the responses made by seminar participants to these presentations were the following:
  • There needs to be a relationship between the systems we inhabit and our human emotions. Systems need to accommodate the expression of emotion and imagination.
  • Wealth can feed a feeling of omnipotence but common wealth can equal common well being and is similar to the concept of shalom.
  • Often we begin with the present situation and apply theology to it. This is secondary theology. Primary theology begins with God's economy and challenges the current situation. Primary theology sees most Western life as built on the exploitation of others.
  • Change is afoot as organisations recognise that in order to gain business you also have to contribute to society. Corporate Social Responsibility is one aspect of this change.
  • We need to explore the idea of common wealth, which was there in the Early Church but was quickly lost as the Church became a defender of private property. Wealth is a gift from the Almighty; a loan to us with a duty to ensure that everyone beefits according to their need.
  • Society promotes greed and consumption; we all bear responsibility for this and need to learn to live within our means. Small businesses and enterpreneurs can signal a different approach to that of the multi-nationals.
  • Money has been fantasy since Nixon delinked the dollar from gold. We have experienced hyper-Capitalism from this point onwards. 
Questions arising from our discussion included:
  • How to define excess?
  • Who will be our Micah?
  • Our use of discernment questions developed by the Amish Community: Is it useful for our community? Is it doing God's work? 
These and other questions will be discussed further through this blog and at the subsequent seminars. The next seminar is Bonus vs Pro Bono which will explore the place of inspirational leadership in renegotiating 'value'. Speakers are: Peter Hyson (Change Perspectives), Bruce Irvine (Grubb Institute), and Baronness Uddin. The seminar will take place on Thursday 4th November, 4.00 – 6.30pm, St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 4JJ. Cost: £5.00. To register, phone 020 8599 2170 or email

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