As a student of American education, I’ve learned that to pull yourself up by your bootstraps is the epitome of American success. I was told many stories of a young future titan of industry landing on the shores of New York City, destitute and alone, yet with the gumption to turn the freedom of opportunity into financial success for him and his family. I can understand the allure of this story line. The alternative story came from countries enmeshed in aristocracy or caste, a story in which you were born into your place in society, your birth determined the level of your opportunity, and there was no chance to pull yourself up by your bootstraps even if you tried hard enough.

But in America, try hard enough and you shall succeed.
However, this story line becomes dangerous when it tangles with a greater story - the one in which you are asked to love your neighbor as yourself. In that storyline, the ultimate definition of success is laying down your life on someone else’s behalf. In that story, God himself set the example for loving your neighbor. Then he asked his followers to do the same.
So how does that jive with the bootstrap story? I’ve asked other people this question and usually the answer I get is that in business, you have to watch out for yourself, and that is different than the concept of loving your neighbor. So in the world of business, loving your neighbor doesn’t apply.

Yet, I don’t buy that.
First, we don’t really think that. Whenever you rally around a friend’s new business, whenever you decide to call a friend for lawn service instead of searching for the cheapest landscaping company out there, whenever your heart breaks at the stories of people in sweatshop conditions making your clothes… those are all signs that you don’t really think business is exempt from the greater call to love your neighbor. You’re just not sure what to do about it.

Second, it is not logical to have such a dualistic thinking about business. There is no hard and fast boundary around business that exempts it from the greater laws of mankind. Business is embedded into society as much as school, church, and government.
So ask yourself… does it really make sense that my economic activities are exempted from my mandate to love my neighbor? What “mantras” have I embraced in the name of economic opportunity? Here’s some American economic mantras you might want to let go of:
  • I must win in every economic transaction because otherwise I won’t be maximizing my money (if you win does that mean the other person has lost?)
  • I shouldn’t help that person because s/he didn’t work hard enough (to pull herself up by her bootstraps)
  • I don’t care about the values that a business embraces (or doesn’t embrace) because “it’s just business” and you know, they have the best stuff
  • Why should I care how the people in (pick a place) are treated when they make my clothes? (they should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps)
If you truly believed that loving your neighbor means loving them in business as well, what would that look like?
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