Unpolished 2015 Conference: Is Capitalism, Like Gold, Amoral?

Unpolished 2015 Conference at Crossroads Church opens with prayer through music. Photo courtesy of Jim Gormley.

The over-sized parking lots at the Oakley campus of Crossroads Church were packed with cars Sep. 17 and 18 as 2,000 or so entrepreneurs flocked to deepen their faith while developing their business. From a first-rate panel of inspiring speakers, attendees at the Unpolished 2015 Conference were able to explore “the struggle of starting a business and the challenge of walking in faith.”

Discussions about tech start-ups with large target markets, warp-speed growth potential, and ready scalability provided the sex appeal for the conference.

But I heard virtually no exploration of the economic connections between business and society. Are we buying what Uber, Airbnb, and Taskrabbit, the heroes of the sharing economy, are selling? That is: ‘We’re just a platform, a middleman. We’re entrepreneurs, innovative disrupters. We have no responsibility for our platform’s effects on consumers, workers, and other businesses. The laws must change to fit the future of work. We’re accountable only to our investors.’

Brian Tome, Senior Pastor of Crossroads Church, opens the Unpolished 2015 Conference. Photo Courtesy of Jim Gormley.
Brian Tome, Senior Pastor of Crossroads Church, opens the Unpolished 2015 Conference. Photo Courtesy of Jim Gormley.

The through message of the conference was that you can be entrepreneurial and serve God in the workplace, whether as an employee, a manager, second-in-charge, or CEO, or whether in a tech startup or a traditional business. In short, one can innovate to make a positive difference no matter where one is in an organization.

Important values were discussed: humility, prudence, integrity, learning, self-mastery, and the value of relationships. Diligence was given special emphasis. Chris Bergman, founder of the local startup, ChoreMonster, articulated the theme: “The route taken to success is almost always through failure.” Others chimed in: “Best to fail fast.” “You don’t fail alone.” “God cares more about your character than your comfort.” “Failure is an act of faith.” “Failure is a form of R&D.” “If you’re not failing, you’re not innovating enough.” And, you don’t fail less because you believe in God.

And, of course, there was the topic of money. With tongue firmly in cheek, Kirk Perry, president of Brand Solutions at Google and former manager at Procter & Gamble Company, showed a video clip of the ‘Greed is Good’ speech by Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) from the 1987 movie, Wall Street.

Ben Crawford, founder of Epipheo, talks to Brian Tome about money and relationships. Photo courtesy of Jim Gormley.
Ben Crawford, founder of Epipheo, talks to Brian Tome about money and relationships. Photo courtesy of Jim Gormley.

Ben Crawford, founder of Epipheo, a local startup, encouraged attendees to develop a philosophy about money. In Crawford’s personal philosophy, which grew out of his experience as a card-counting professional blackjack player, he says, “Nothing exists outside of relationships with people and God. Nothing is more important.”

And as Calev Myers, founder of Jerusalem Institute of Justice, observed, “The problem is not gold, it is the hearts of man.” Yes, gold is amoral. But, like Pharaoh’s Egypt, economic systems and structures are not. They can be economically (and politically) oppressive.

Gold is a naturally occurring chemical element, but an economic system is a product of human decisions about the rules of the game such as private property, contracts, liability, child labor, markets, international trade, minimum wage, monetary policy, and taxation. The rules structure the relations between economic actors. The Constitution, for example, is largely a political document, but it was also an economic one, privileging certain economic interests, such as landowners and slaveholders, over others.

Conference speakers were silent about this topic, and it was deafening. Do young entrepreneurs, men and women of faith, think our economic system is amoral? Do they think the poverty, inequality, and lack of opportunity and economic mobility are the norm? Like fish in water, do they just accept the economic conditions they swim in? Or do they fear losing investors if they buck the system too much or they refuse to accept unhealthy concessions demanded of them?

“God is not a socialist,” according to Brian Tome, Crossroads Senior Pastor, in his opening remarks. Then, by implication, is God a capitalist? An unbridled, free market capitalist in the spirit of Adam Smith? No, Perry’s spoof of Gekko’s greed suggests otherwise.

If economic systems are not amoral, let’s talk about them. After all, capitalism has extraordinary power to create wealth and relieve poverty, probably more than any other economic system. However, as the history of American capitalism shows, capitalism also has extraordinary power to consume and transform culture, tradition, values, communities, workers, and families in ways that create oppressive outcomes.

Finally, John Gray, associate pastor at Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas and a native Cincinnatian, broke the silence, speaking directly to the connection between business and economic justice.

John Gray reminds conference attendees, "People are hurting. They need hope." Photo courtesy of Jim Gormley.
John Gray reminds conference attendees, “People are hurting. They need hope.” Photo courtesy of Jim Gormley.

“People are hurting. They need hope. They need business leaders.” Jesus is looking for people to partner with, he said, in the same way he partnered with the Simon and Andrew, the Galilee fishermen, “to be an extension of God’s heart.”

As a member of Crossroads for more than 10 years, I know the church, as part of its mission, wants to change the city and indeed the world. Entrepreneurs like Tome think big, and I applaud the vision. Chuck Mingo and other members of the team are exceptional, so I am confident they are aligned with the vision.

Maybe Uber and the heroes of the sharing economy are right. The organization of work is changing, and society needs to change with it. If so, let’s be intentional about it, as John Maxwell said. The so-called “invisible hand of the market” is not a disinterested, amoral party to the results, as some would have us believe.

At the 2016 Unpolished Conference, I hope we hear more about the power and responsibility of all of us, but especially business leaders—those who hold an elevated status in our society because they hold the keys to jobs and investments—to think critically and act prudently about our economy. Where all relationships matter, that is what leaders do. It takes courage. That is my opinion. And drawing the connection between business and faith, as the 2015 Unpolished Conference has done, gives me hope for a better future.

By Mike Brown, mbrown.c4ad@gmail.com

See Jim Gormley’s extensive photo albums of the Unpolished Conference here: Day 1 and Day 2.