Samford University The BelltowerNovember 2004

Seay Challenges Separation of Faith, Business

"...I can't fathom how you can own 17 homes and this woman can't pay her doctor's bills...”

Chris Seay founded the University Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, and currently is pastor of Ecclesia, the progressive Christian community he founded in Houston. He is widely known for co-authoring provocative books that use popular culture and news events to make points about Christianity.

Chris Seay also happens to be fussy about public restrooms, and not without good reason. The goal, he feels, is to get in and get out without touching any handles, knobs or assorted other bacteria-laden fixtures. Speaking to Samford students in October as the School of Business's 2004 Gerow Hodges Speaker, Seay pointed out that many Christians take a similar approach to their spiritual life. "How will I get in and out of this place without actually having to get my hands dirty, without actually having to touch something?"

As spiritually squeamish as many Christians are, Seay explained, "what Christ did was touch what no one else would touch, go to places no one else would go. That's what was so compelling and beautiful, and that's how redemption permeated the darkest places." Contrary to that spirit, Seay said, many Christians have created a separate, hypocritical and, ultimately, alienating culture. As a result, he said, "people are saying 'I don't buy it, I don't want to go there.'" He noted that the ethical failures of prominent, self-described Christians further isolate Christianity from the culture in which it could do so much good.

Citing examples from his book, The Tao of Enron: Spiritual Lessons from a Fortune 500 Fallout, Seay offered a unique perspective on how business ethics fit into the problem of self-defeating, isolationist Christian culture. Seay said he was inspired to write the book with co-author Chris Bryan after witnessing a troubling exchange at a gas station in Houston. An obviously wealthy man pulled into the station in his expensive car and was approached for money by a homeless man. The wealthy man cursed the homeless man and complained that his own wealth would soon be gone in the aftermath of Enron's collapse. "I realized everything is upside down," Seay said. "This is not how the world is supposed to be."

Since then, Seay has spoken with many people whose lives were upturned by the ethical lapses of a few. He described meeting with an Enron employee who had multiple sclerosis and had lost her job, her home and her health insurance as the result of the company's bankruptcy. Only two hours later Seay interviewed former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay, the son of a Baptist minister, and whose own son was studying to enter the ministry. "I had to tell him, 'I can't fathom how you can own 17 homes and this woman can't pay her doctor's bills,'" Seay said. "This doesn't fit with the ethic of Christ."

"How did we get to this place?" Seay and Bryan wondered. They decided such profound ethical failures occur because Christians adopt that "restroom" mentality, getting their spiritual life out of the way quickly and cleanly one day each week and bringing nothing of that experience into their daily business lives. "But the reality of the Gospel," Seay said, "is that it permeates everything--every place you live, what you do for a vocation, the way you treat your family, the way you treat the environment, all these things."

Seay said a recent survey revealed widespread dislike of evangelical Christians. The reason for that stunning finding, he said, is that although the message of Christ "is a message of grace, love, redemption, reconciliation between God and man, man and man, man and the Earth," the people who responded to the survey apparently look at Christians and see only actions at odds with the core values of their professed faith. In much the same way Americans scorned Ken Lay, Seay said, "people were turning to us in this survey, I believe, and saying 'unless you're going to live what you say you believe--which is about love and grace and reconciliation--we want to have nothing to do with you.'"

"What we've got to learn to do in business, life, art and culture is live amongst the people," Seay said. And, he added, "you must do business in such a way that instead of becoming the most hated person in America, you become the most beloved because you do what you say you're going to do, you do it with hard work and with good ethics and compassion and love for the people who surround you."

Seay left the Samford students with a troubling prediction, but also affirmed their ability to rise to the ethical challenges they will face. "You will be called to a place in life, in business and family, much like (Enron whistleblower) Sherron Watkins was, where you must either speak truth and live truth or deny the essence of the Gospel," he said. "Sometimes you may have to leave. But more often, I believe, you learn to be a Christian in that place."


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