We do the things that are important to us. But we don’t always do what we say is important to us. A person of integrity is one who can harmonize what they do, what they say, and what they believe to be important. If there’s an “odd-man-out” in the system, it’s the verbalization of our priorities. I was reminded of this when British Petroleum started running ads after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010. After the offshore rig exploded, killing 11 crew-members and leaving an uncapped hole that poured 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, BP was careful to present itself as an environmentally sensitive company committed to repairing the damage inflicted on the sensitive ecosystems of the Gulf. Economically, BP went from the 2nd largest to the 4th largest oil company after the spill, and BP gas stations in the US reported a sales drop of 10 to 40 percent as consumers expressed their anger about BP’s responsibility for the disaster.
For a time after the Deepwater blowout, BP was in danger of collapse. But with careful management and a consolidation of assets—to say nothing of a slick PR campaign—BP had returned to producing more oil than most OPEC nations by 2018. Restrictions kept it from tapping into the Gulf’s resources to the same degree they had before the disaster, but BP had moved on to other fields—in Egypt, shale fields in Oman, and in the North Sea. While most observers seem to be satisfied with the company’s clean-up in the Gulf, persistent health problems among residents as well as long-term environmental impacts tell another story. BP’s priorities are illustrated by its actions, not by the professionally produced commercials it ran after the spill. As a corporation, BP is in the business of business, it bears a responsibility to its stockholders to make as much profit as it can. Its priority is not the health of a certain community or environment, regardless of what it says in a television ad. And the company’s return to profitability shows what its true priorities are.
Regardless of what the courts say, corporations are not people. Corporations operate with a fundamentally different set of priorities, divorced from the moral and ethical convictions individual humans use to shape their priorities. So, perhaps it’s unfair to judge them on the same standards that we might hold for actual people, even though real people within the system contribute to the shape of corporate priorities. Regardless of the relative morality of a corporate entity like BP, their actions—like the actions of real people—give an indication of what’s important to them. And when their words say one thing, and their actions say another, we can look to the actions more than the words to give us an idea of their true heart.
I was thinking about this principle as I reflected on our virtue for last week—the virtue of peace. As I mentioned in Sunday’s message, advocating for justice is important, but it’s not necessarily the same as being a peacemaker, in the manner Jesus seems to have been talking about in Matthew 5. How supposed “peacemakers” go about their work—their actions—tells a lot about their commitment to the principles of peace. The historic position of the Anabaptists was non-resistance—they interpreted Jesus’ words about not resisting the evil person (Matt 5:39) as a call to abstain from force when it came to settling disputes, even if it meant looking like the “loser” in the eyes of the world. And, at least initially, this position was shaped by a priority deeper than just the desire to be blessed as peacemakers.
The early Anabaptists—for all their problems—were a deeply evangelical group. They believed they were called to share the gospel, the euaggelion, and they believed that their most potent evangelistic tool was their faithful example. How could they offer others the good news if they themselves were not following it? How could they call someone to discipleship if they weren’t disciples themselves? Their desire to faithfully enact the precepts of Jesus was fueled by a profound hope that the world would come to see Jesus as Lord. Being peacemakers was not an end in and of itself; it was one contribution to a greater, evangelistic vision. The logic was simple: if they were called to share the gospel with the world, then that started with obedience to the one who embodied the good news. Hypocrisy was fatal to their witness, and since their priority was evangelistic, faithfulness was an absolute necessity—not just in word, but in deed.
Our actions are a more faithful representation of our priorities than our words. Christian communities that claim to be shaped by peace but who adopt worldly patterns of violence and coercion to push their agenda on others are no different than a corporation that claims to be environmentally sensitive while following a dangerous path in an effort to boost profits. What they say doesn’t match what they do. This should cause us to examine our own actions, to see what they reveal about our priorities. Again, it doesn’t matter that much what we say—what we do is a far more faithful indication of what is important to us. So what do we do? How do we spend our time, our resources? What does it look like we are shooting for in life? And are those things conformed to the pattern of the world, or transformed by the redemptive power of Jesus? If we truly take our commission as Christians seriously, then making disciples will need to be our greatest priority, and all our actions ought to be directed toward that goal. And since faithfulness to the leadership of Jesus is absolutely necessary to maintain a witness of integrity, then perhaps the early Anabaptists were on to something. After all, if we’re all about the Good News, then we ought to be living that Good News.