A balancing act

Dr. James Jakob Fehr talks about the Mennonite movement's struggle to distinguish community from th

The question is not unlike Zeno’s paradox. How does one form a peace community that engages the world and yet embodies a social alternative? Connecting with the world means conversing with the world. But as soon as you start to talk like everyone else, you think and behave like everyone else. You lose your critical distance. You get tempted to use your influence, to apply pressure, to exercise power. The peace witness is elusive. It is a tight-rope act.

This has been the experience of the Mennonite denominations in their attempts to follow the advice of St. Paul to be in the world, but not of it. The community of Jesus should stand over against the world as a prophetic witness of how life can be. And yet it is not its own raison d’etre. It exists to serve that world. Now if involvement with secular instances is necessary in order to call them to act justly, that implies the community will also be influenced by that “other”. The result: In any given community of faith there are those who think that some among their number make too many compromises and these others think their non-compromising brothers and sisters are dragging their heels. The Anglican fellowship is currently experiencing this push-me, pull-you on various issues, most notably with regard to homosexuality. (Conversely, it is not without significance that on a matter that is also dear to the hearts of Mennonites, namely poverty and social injustice in undeveloped countries, the Anglican bishops are undivided in their advocacy for revised political priorities.)

Depending on whether you see the glass half-empty or half-full, you can call this situation a chronic problem or the challenge of faith. It is a reflection of that most fundamental and yet difficult of theological concepts, God’s incarnation in Christ. Divine acts in human form? Is that not the ultimate balancing act?

From its very beginnings the Mennonite movement struggled with the question of how to distinguish community from world. All agree that doctrine cannot be the shibboleth of faith, because we are called to be doers of the word and not hearers only. That is, not what we affirm, but how we live must be the mark of Christ in our communities. Therefore, instead of confessions of faith, exclusion from community was used to exercise power over others. The breakaway community of the Amish began when the Mennonite leader Jakob Ammann decreed that any member of the congregation who told a falsehood should be excommunicated and shunned. If Ammann had convinced the majority of Mennonites of the correctness of his views, who knows? Perhaps all Mennonites today would be wearing long beards or kerchiefs.

Through several centuries shunning became the main tool of the hardliners for maintaining the purity of the faith. As a psychological control mechanism it worked. But leaders fearful of change often erred on the side of zealousness. For a community that holds high the banner of peace and reconciliation, it is humbling and disappointing to see how our history is repeatedly marred by conflicts that led to schism. In the last few decades Mennonites have gone another way, reaching out to others with new-found self-confidence. An example of this is the fruitful dialogue with the Roman Catholic church, which has led us to embrace each other in our differences. Two centuries ago, driven off by their persecutors, Mennonites ensconced themselves in isolated corners of the world. Now we speak boldly to government agencies and work for change, trusting that prophetic witness is the best means for keeping our faith communities alive.

James (Jakob) Fehr is the newly appointed Director of the German Mennonite Peace Centre. He has served as an academic researcher and a Pastor in the Mennonite Church in Germany (AMG)
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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.