In this Sermon from Samoa, I share the importance of exercising faith in business and stretching our thinking on HOW to do this by removing the usual profit, power, planning and purpose motives from the business equation entirely, ending up with a bigger, better business based on closer, stronger relationships – with others and with God. Christians lean on the bible for guidance. Economists call it the gift economy.
In my prolific blogging about Samoa, I talk frequently about the “poverty mentality” that exists in Samoa. Small thinking abounds here, but the Western world too is highly limited in it’s capitalistic business model, basically designed around profit.
We all know that a profit is a necessity in business, so don’t panic about me going off the deep end here, but what if profit was a byproduct and not a goal?
Some Christians will no doubt say, “Amen!” to that. “I use my business as an evangelism tool.” Others may quote their success at giving to multitudes of worthy causes and how they operate at a low or a nil-profit model. That though only changes the purpose of profit and doesn’t touch the paradigm change that the bible constantly talks about.
I want to go further than this and talk about not only removing profit as a primary goal, but also the power, planning and purpose motives we mostly have in business, and thus aligning our businesses more with what I believe is the heart and mind of God. In this regard I have learned a lot from Samoa, and how the gift economy works. BTW it works well – if you’re wondering – VERY well, and I’m seeing more and more how it aligns with scripture much better than does the capitalism we know so well (and worship) in the West.
I’m going to share two actual examples of how the gift economy has worked for me in the last year or so, then I will share a theoretical one and my personal aim to live totally cash-free and live life to the full in the gift economy.
Tagaloa, is one of my usos (uso = brother in Samoan). I first met him when one of the boys down the road said that his father would surely welcome some free firewood. I was clearing my section a couple of years ago and was giving away my firewood. I cook on gas (it’s one of the luxuries that I extend myself in Samoa) but most of my neighbours use fire and therefore need ample supplies of firewood.
Doing the kindly neighbour thing by delivering trailer loads of timber did several things – it got me meeting and befriending people around about; it got rid of the excess timber I had; and it won a few brownie points in the gift economy.
Over the last couple of years Tagaloa has done the uso thing and borrowed things from me (like money!), and we’ve brought him a string of guests on our Sunday morning To’onais (he likes that) and for Village Stays (he’s a registered host family). His fruit and vegetables helped Debbie and me heaps when we first moved onto the SWAP lands. His boys can move things like rocks and timber that I can’t. Very much appreciated!
Earlier this year he bought a taxi, but he still had a bit to pay off and repair bills when his car battery died. As his uso, I loaned him the battery from my limousine. As things tend to do here, a loan of a day or so turned into a week or so, then a month or so, and finally became permanent when I had to buy a new battery for a scheduled limo job.
His taxi was miles away; his phone had been stolen; the thief didn’t let me know; I thought my mate was ignoring me because he couldn’t get the money together for a new battery in time and that’s another ‘Samoan’ story!
In December 2012, our Fale Samoa got messed up a little in Cyclone Evan. As things went, it wasn’t so much the
storm damage, it was the fact that I couldn’t finish the roof because of other more important things like rebuilding Camp Samoa. The consequences were that the gardens and the Fale Samoa went to ‘pot’. Weeds took over the beans, pineapples and peanuts but the sticks on the Fale Samoa roof structure all rotted in the rain and sun and had to be replaced.
Enter my uso and his trusty boys however and the job is done in no time flat. My battery has been repaid, somewhat!
The point is not that he owes me or that I owe him (although the Western side of me does keep track of IOUs) the important point is that we help each other because of the relationship and BECAUSE WE CAN.
My Uso (No.2)
Fata, is another one of my usos. He helped me with the timber to fix our cyclone damaged Fale Samoa.
I paid him for it, but only a fraction of what it was worth. I’m grateful because I can now use what little money I have this week for the warrant of fitness due on the car.
My uso helped me out last year with the limo. One of the boys cooked the motor and the body needed a tickle-up. My uso got his son to fix all the bits that needed fixing, and I offloaded a whole bunch of gear that I had that he wanted – generator, concrete mixer, ice cream freezer. Done deal! Limousine back on the road and looking shiny.
My ‘uncle’ Fata wants to help me. Is it because I care enough about him and Samoan things that I bring all my guests to meet him and to say, “Hello!” to him, or is it because I drop off bananas and taro and home-baked scones whenever I can, or is it because I teach and preach to him good stuff, or is it because he knows that his fellow Samoans have used me for target practice for a few years and he is embarrassed and wants to set matters right by helping me?
Probably a bit if all of the above, but the point is not that he’s helping me because I helped him. He’s helping me because of a relationship and most of importantly, BECAUSE HE CAN!
From what I have learned, in the Samoan way of doing things there is the widespread current practice and the traditional practice. Assuming that this is correct (and I’m not yet convinced that the good-old-days were that good) then the traditional gift economy when operated through relationships works on a needs-basis, a relationship-basis and without profit.
Benefit is gained, but this is NOT planned, nor a purpose. Productivity and efficiency is maximised. Interest charges (usury) by the way do not apply.
One of the real struggles for a Westerner is to grasp this one of relationship and non-commercial motive, for we are conditioned to monetise and intellectualise the whole process with power games, valuations and view the gift economy as barter. It’s taken me a few years to grapple with this in the Samoan context and it’s much bigger than visible on the surface.
The Christian way and biblical teaching threatens the existence of democracy and capitalism as we know it. Business in the West is all about building a brand, a clientbase, and selling goods or services and we plan to gain power (over our staff, business partners, customers) for a purpose – profit. To us this is totally normal but the bible actually talks about an entirely different way of thinking and living.
Thanks to my experiences in Samoa (and the force of necessity by living on or with very limited means for a season I must also add) I can see more and more how the heart of God is NOT for a commercial growth, business-oriented, purpose-driven, managed structure but instead a relationship-based, needs driven individual walk of faith.
It is my belief that no matter how much we own, earn or have responsibility for (large or small), that those who exercise that faith will always be rewarded for that faith by a good and loving God, who set the rules for His creation.
If we truly trust that God knows the best way then we will act in His approved manner, i.e. doing the right thing. I know that many in Samoa are challenged in this area, but God calls us individually and speaks to us individually and we are accountable to Him individually. While the context in which we find ourselves changes from time to time or within a given culture, the root cause of self-imposed trouble though is always pride, i.e. sin.
In a business sense identifying this pride (sin) is not always obvious. We tend to compartmentalise life into secular and religious and this is unbiblical. Sometimes we will spiritualise the secular by praying for business success, or praying for solutions to business challenges or problems. But this is a limited view of trade in a biblical sense.
Rooting out this pride/sin requires us to deliberately humble ourselves. We should prepare to be humbled if we fail to choose this path ourselves, for financial and other stresses and storms (chief among these the high price of interest charges on money [usury]) have all been stripping us of much.
I’ll work through a few scenarios whereby reduction of this pre-planned, purpose-driven, profit-oriented approach to business could outwork.
We (the SWAP Foundation) have a limousine. For the most part it sits idle until we have a marketing job to do, or perhaps we get a wedding or birthday booking and then it trots off to do a job and returns to get parked up under the coconut trees in the bush. We really need a garage. We can also easily offer the limousine to others and they can benefit from it.
Imagine then that a timber supplier in town has a few pieces of timber left over from his last load. Imagine that a construction company has a few broken bags of cement or a builder has a bit of concrete left over from a job. Imagine that a taxi driver, or tour guide has an opportunity to pick up a few weddings and would like the limo on occasion.
Assuming that we know each other and have a relationship, imagine that we all work together and help each other out. I’ll develop a website for the construction company. He’ll slip me come concrete and put up the garage and the timber merchant will get a slice of the action when the money comes in off the next wedding and the tour driver picks up something from the morning of the wedding.
This trading however is not done with measurement of cash or value. It is done because we have a need, we know and (to some extent) we trust each other and because we CAN do it.
Thought Leaders are those who act first in a given space, and an infinite Creator can generate infinite creativity given the chance to affect His wonders when we open ourselves up to Him.
In business, bartering in the gift economy is not always practical. Trade Exchanges have a purpose but are limited, but creativity in faith can develop solutions that can be emminently practical, so working the gift economy into a larger business could work like this:
Take a larger company that has a troublesome debtor ledger. All Samoan businesses have major troubles with their debtor accounts and collecting debts is a major issue here. Bad debtors play the field, purchasing from other suppliers and avoiding the ones they owe. Relationships deteriorate. Picking a couple of the larger debtors and drilling down into what they have available instead of cash can highlight opportunities for repayment in kind rather than in cash. It could be that they are receiving rental income, or farming income. It could be that they have capital assets that could be shared around, part-owned or leased out. They may have items on the market for sale.
If the Creditor can find ANY way of using the debtor or their assets or resources, relationships can be built rather than strained and debt clearance worked through quicker, more effectively.
The bottom line in debt collection is that anything is better than nothing and maintaining a good relationship is critical.
How the faith aspects work here is that while the focus of the initial meeting is business – collecting money – the result of undertaking actions in faith (and in good-faith) is that opportunities arise, relationships grow and we build solidly. When a debtor and a creditor become partners, the relationship changes. Money becomes secondary to the relationship and a shared vision.
The idea here is that we do not ignore business, money and purpose, but that it becomes a secondary issue.
The best way to see this sort of thing happen at a personal is to think of a boy-girl debt. Imagine that he owes her. If they then become an item and get married I can assure you that the debt somehow becomes less important than the relationship and what their marriage is about moving forward.
A Creditor buying into a debtor’s business somehow changes the relationship altogether. The Islaamic banking community does this very well, as they prohibit usury (interest).
In some ways business might not change much on the outside from applying the principles above, but the essence of the business does and will change entirely. I still run a small backpackers and create value for guests who will return value to me – that’s the business, but when the profit becomes secondary to other issues more biblically aligned, then the holistic faith and relationship-based approach to an enterprise must have the Father’s blessing.
That’s a reward we should all want.