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Serving God? Serving Mammon?

April 12, 2006

Judy Chan - Hong Kong

As my eyes glanced over the titles in the church library, I had to stop at this one: Serving God? Serving Mammon? The back cover told me the author was Stephen Green who works as a senior executive in banking in London. He is also an ordained 'non-stipendiary' priest of the Church of England. What a fascinating combination, I thought. Must read this book!

ImageA few years ago, I probably wouldn't have bothered. But my mind has been in turmoil these past 6 months trying to figure out if indeed one could be a Christian and still support a global economic system based on markets and competition.

What brought all this on? It began when the World Trade Organization (WTO) announced it was coming to Hong Kong for its 6th Ministerial meeting in December 2005. Like many people here, I was pretty ignorant about what the WTO does. I was more worried about the violence associated with protests at earlier meetings in Seattle and Cancun. Then a coalition of Christian organizations asked me to proofread a booklet they were preparing called "Responses of Christian Churches to Globalization". Talk about a crash course! Most of the information over 60 pages was extremely negative about groups like WTO and their impact on Third World countries and the poor. No wonder so many were preparing to protest at the Hong Kong meeting.

ImageAt the same time, I was attending a course on Economics and Finance for Reporters taught at Hong Kong University. The professor obviously saw things differently. He patiently explained how the global markets work and why a market economy is infinitely more efficient than a planned economy (like in the former USSR). I felt foolish trying to argue with him about the sin of "wealth without work" because I didn't know the first thing about economics or finance. I never even read the business section of the newspaper.

As I struggled with these issues, I realized that ignorance was no longer an option if we want to make a difference. Not only did I need to be educated about what the Church says about globalization, I needed to learn what lots of other people say about its benefits as well as the costs, its possibilities as well as the dangers. As a Christian, I can never give up a commitment to the poor, but I may find there is more than one way to alleviate poverty.

So, did Serving God? Serving Mammon? answer all my questions? I can't say it did but Green certainly asks the right questions. He draws on his expertise and experience in both fields, challenging the church and business to learn from each other in service to humanity. On the balance, I would say he is more critical of the church, which he says has often condemned the world of finance while offering little practical help for those who work in the midst of it. His book is an attempt to look at life in the markets with the perspective of Christian faith – but from the inside.

ImageI didn't realize just how "inside" Stephen Green was until a few weeks ago when I read that he is going to be the next Chairman of HSBC. HSBC stands for Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation. It was started in China in 1865 and now is the third-largest banking group in the world. Most Hong Kong people bank at HSBC, including me, and maybe you in the U.S. too! Though the headquarters are in London, I am sure Mr. Green frequently spends time in Hong Kong.

If I ever have a chance to meet him, I would want to thank him for his thought-provoking book. He obviously knows where God has called him to serve and he has no conflict about it. As he concludes:

"Christians can serve God in the world of finance and commerce, but it is also possible to fall into the trap of serving Mammon there. Yet the kingdom of God can be found in the thick of the markets and God calls some Christians to take the risk of being there. This does indeed involve risk – the risk of becoming compromised, of becoming obsessed with wealth and power, of selling one's soul. But the markets – flawed as they are, like every other human structure – can be used to contribute to human development. Being there also creates opportunities: to show an integrity that loves others as ourselves and treats them as ends rather than means; and to use the resources we are given as effective stewards should. In other words, we are there as Christians with a purpose."

We should be glad someone like Stephen Green is the head of HSBC. The world desperately needs more people like him - committed leaders in every field who know and take seriously what it is that God requires of us. The question remains then: What are we in the Church doing to help them succeed?

In Christ,
Judy Chan

(Note: Photos are courtesy of Sam Graham, who is Judy's classmate at Hong Kong University)

Judy Chan is a missionary serving with the Hong Kong Christian Council. She is responsible for communications for the Council. She is also in charge of ecumenical radio broadcasting ministry, English publications and ecumenical partnerships in Hong Kong and overseas.

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