The World Economic Forum in Davos, the annual meeting of political, economic and civil leaders that make up what’s been called the “NGO of the status quo”, is in its edition this year plundering the Bible for lessons on winning back trust in capitalism and globalisation.

Driving the news

Due to speak at the Forum in Switzerland is David W. Miller, a Princeton University professor and self-described “independent, external ethics advisor to Philip Morris International… compensated for my counsel” to the Swiss-based multinational cigarette and tobacco manufacturing company.

Miller is to offer to the some 3,000 participants in the Forum, including some 50 heads of state and government and more than 300 ministerial-level officials and CEOs, a list of “Eleven Theses” to increase “trust” drawn from the “Abrahamic traditions”.

“It’s not about religiosity. It’s about wisdom”, Miller told the Washington Examiner about his theses.

Go deeper

Miller and list co-author Michael J. Thate, also of Princeton, refer in a preliminary white paper to the “‘trust crisis’ facing not just ‘big business’ but also government and other social institutions”.

“Through misdeeds and charges of obfuscation, falsification, malevolent lobbying, and disingenous denials, [business, social and religious institutions] have ruptured trust”, Miller and Thate admit.

But trust in what exactly?

“We operate in an extremely competitive global market economy that places high expectations on speed, innovation, increasing corporate profits, return on assets and return on investments”, Miller and Thate write.

“We also operate as human beings with our own high expectations and eternal yearnings for dignity, respect, and trust”, the academics add.

They explain that they aim with their research “to amend the vector of time and focus from quarterly returns to whole-life returns; to expand and change our mindsets from thinking about the way things are to what they might be; and to integrate the reality of the physical with the wisdom of the metaphysical”.

To that end, in the context of their “Eleven Theses”, they “highlight the Abrahamic conceptions and practices of transparency, conversion, confession, institutional ritual, covenant, care of self and the other, mutuality, honesty and fallibility as particularly worthy of transposition and application into a corporate context and ethos”.

Why it matters

What could possibly be wrong with all of that?

After all, as Miller and Thate recognise, the Abrahamic traditions “have spent thousands of years thinking about these very challenges” and have built up considerable wisdom in the process.

The problem, though, is not only that realities such as “profits”, “assets” and “return on investments” are antithetical to the economies of the Abrahamic traditions. They’re also antithetical to the basic human experience of “dignity, respect, and trust”.

As Pope Francis never tires of pointing out, it’s not a matter of transposing and applying Abrahamic wisdom to help solve contemporary economic problems, or about using the Bible to “expand our mindset and frames of reference to help reframe the presenting problem”, as Miller and Thate would have it.

It’s not about fixing the old economy with the guidance of the biblical tradition.

Instead, it’s about drawing on that theology to replan a whole new economy: one “at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral” (Laudato si’ 112) and as such not limited to Miller and Thate’s – and Davos’ – “profits, assets and return on investments”.

For the record

Pope Francis said it again today, in his message to this year’s Davos attendees, when he stressed that “the overriding consideration, never to be forgotten, is that we are all members of the one human family”.

“The moral obligation to care for one another flows from this fact, as does the correlative principle of placing the human person, rather than the mere pursuit of power or profit, at the very centre of public policy”, Francis explained.

“Materialistic or utilitarian visions… lead to practices and structures motivated largely, or even solely, by self-interest”, the Pope decried.

“A truly integral human development”, Francis explained instead, “can only flourish when all members of the human family are included in, and contribute to, pursuing the common good”.

“In seeking genuine progress, let us not forget that to trample upon the dignity of another person is in fact to weaken one’s own worth”, the Pope implored, pleading for a “growth in solidarity, especially with those most in need, who experience social and economic injustice and whose very existence is even threatened”.

Implementing that “solidarity” inherent in “truly integral human development” is the only way to win back trust in the economy, not merely “transposing and applying” biblical wisdom into exisiting business practices.

Placing qualities back in the centre of the financial and social system is also the reason the Pope has convened his own “anti-Davos”, the “Economy of Francesco” event, in March in Assisi.

Between the Pope and the Davos Forum driven by “globalization’s ‘mafiocracy”‘of bankers, industrialists, oligarchs, technocrats and politicians”, I know which one I have clear is capable of bringing about real change.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.