Saturday, November 10, 2012

Lessons from John D. Rockerfeller's biography

After blogging in the previous post about John D Rockerfeller and how his Christian views shaped his capitalism, I have decided to share more about what I read in his biography and my assessment of the lessons to be learned from his life. For those who are not familiar with the man, Rockerfeller was a 19th century American  entrepreneur who was hated by many because of how he did business. Nevertheless, the man was also at the end of his life a philanthropist giving a lot of money for charity. In Colllier and Horowitz (1976), Rockerfeller was so considered to be a wicked man that there were some pastors who felt that they could not accept funds donated for charity  from him. Rockerfeller was so considered evil (in my estimation), because he was on of those men who destroyed small businesses while creating one of America's large corporation within his period. At the time, the people of America valued small businesses rather than corporations (and perhaps still do).

From now on, all the information that I present in this post comes from the book/source :

Collier, Peter and David Horowitz. The Rockerfellers: An American Dynasty. New York: Holt, Rhineart and Winston, 1976.

Alternately to this post, one can browse the Wikipedia article on him.

While I do not want to insinuate that Rockerfeller was evil, wicked or immoral, I see some lessons from his life that will do well to serve as a warning to Christian entrepreneurs and those who are financially rich while professing the faith. It must be noted that the scriptures hints that the very anti-Christ spirit could come from a falling away from Christianity (see 2 Thessalonians 2:3). It is therefore not strange that someone from the Christian faith that grew up in the church and once practiced Christianity could become the final embodiment of the Antichrist. On reading the biography of John D. Rockerfeller, the concern in my mind is how close every one of us is to falling into that pattern.

An inspiring beginning?

John D. Rockerfeller had ambition as a young man. He set out in his mind what he wanted from life. He did not just want a career, but wanted to be worth thousands of dollars (p. 11).

He took his first job because he wanted a job that would prepare him for (to borrow Charles Dicken's words) his "great expectations" (p. 12). As such, he aimed high, seeking employment at big companies (p.12). This ambitious young man was thereby in pursuit of greatness and wealth. Especially considering the dishonour to be gotten from his poor family background, especially the negative and criminal reputation of his father.

John's Father, William was a deceiver, a con artist/artiste or con man, a "pitchman", who was also ever absent from the home (p.8). He was described as "the sort of man who could tell a tale" (p.7). He was implicated in the rape of a girl and was on the run from law (p 8-9).

In contrast, John's mother "was quite the opposite – moral, strict, severe with harsh Scottish piety”. She filled her son's head with maxims that he would recollect all throughout his life (p.9). Her influence resulting in John growing up as a faithful Christian at the Erie Street Baptist Church where he eventually became a deacon.

John was both diligent in his career, business and in his church life. He rendered faithful service both at his job and at his church. He believed in recording his expenditure and in record keeping of what he spent. Consequently, he “wrote down (daily) the penny, the income and expenses, the saving and investment, the business and benefactions of his life” (p.12). Church was his only “recreation” (p.13). He gave money faithfully to his Sunday school at Erie Street Baptist Church, money to the poor and to foreign missions (p.13). Eventually, John became an entrepreneur, after asking for a pay raise and being denied that raise.

The immoral change?

Our friends and associates really colour us. It is the company that we keep that can drag us into immorality. So it is with John, who though distant from his father's ways, encountered someone who had those same ways that helped to lead him into a path that deviated from his inspiring progress.

John found a “friendship” that was “founded on business” which he believed was better than a “business founded on friendship” (p. 20). This friendship was with a man that John believed to be competent in making deals. John later remarked that “the ability to deal with people is as purchasable a commodity as sugar or coffee...and I pay more for that ability than for any other under the sun” (p. 21).

It was this friend that was made an executive in Rockerfeller's firm. This same friend was a man that was shady and of the same disposition as his father. Collier and Horowitz states of the man that he “resembled [John's] father and did not stickle at taking care of those aspects of business from which Rockerfeller himself preferred to establish a certain distance” (p.21). Apparently this began the downward spiral of Rockerfeller's character.

From then on Rockerfeller went on a path of making secret deals that would eliminate his competitors. His lifelong policy of close door meetings to change the economic landscape of the state of Ohio and later America and eventually the world now began. He wanted to buy out all his rivals and establish a monopoly, viewing himself and the company that he operated as acting in grace by saving the other firms. He declared of this initiative:

“We find her the strongest and most prosperous concern in the business...turning to its less fortunate competitors...and saying to them, 'We will stand in for the risks and hazards of the refining business...Come with us, and we will do you good. We will undertake to save you from the wrecks of the refining business'” (p.25).

“What other men saw as villainous self-interest, he regarded as Christian charity...'Get into the ark. Put in your old junk. We will take the risks'” (p.25). John wanted to bring all businesses under the umbrella of his own company, and believed that what he was doing was merciful and righteous.

My questions:

Is Christianity today being perceived in the same way as Rockerfeller? Especially in America. And if the answer is yes, are these principles truly Christian and in light with the ancient faith from 2000 years ago?

My interpretation or assessment

I remember from my studies of European history that Antisemitism began when people in Europe saw the Jews as wealthy aristocrats, benefiting from the economic system while the masses struggled and suffered. It was on this issue that Hitler and Fascist Germany arose.

Yet I fear that the recent US elections also painted the Republican party in similar light. It seemed as if the America's wealthiest persons were conservative Christians benefiting from the current economic and social system of US while those not included in that social group suffered. But that is not just in America.

In my homeland Jamaica, it is the same. My Anglican education and Protestant upbringing caused me to see that the important, respected and wealthy people in society were all professed Christians. They had stable  families, wealth and prestige. As such, what I learned from school, was that if I followed the rules, rituals and protocols that my principal and teachers taught me, I too could achieve the success of those highly respected people of society. In fact my school motto was "hard work conquers all".

I also remember a political cartoon sketch from my study of the French revolution, where the nobility and clergy were pictured as placing burdens on the poor while being well fed and rich. It is therefore with concern that I note that the wealthy Christians among us may be creating an image that will lead secular people who are suffering to blame us as the scapegoats for their sufferings.

However, my greatest concern is that rather than showcase Christ, we ourselves may be the obstacles or the stench that turn the poor away. Just like Rockerfeller, we may be doing what we feel is our Christian duty, but in the process, causing people to blaspheme God's name because of our insensitivity to their needs. And even after we have made millions of dollars and decide to spend some of it on the poor, the damage may be irreparable.

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