Miriel Thomas: In the professional world—and in every other context—Christianity is a call to excellence, not an excuse for mediocrity.
Recently, my sister purchased a product from an independent online vendor that turned out to be defective. She contacted the company, got a delayed and insufficient initial response, and then lodged a repeat request for assistance. The receipt of a second inadequate reply—a form email, a phone number that reached a service center in India, a stonewall no-replacements-or-returns policy—would have been frustrating, but not exactly surprising; the market is rife with bad customer service.
What actually happened was genuinely shocking. The woman who wrote the second email—who apparently co-owns the small company with the woman who wrote the first email—dug up personal information about my sister and her family (like me, she is a writer with an unusual name, so she isn’t hard to Google) and attempted to shame my sister into repentance for the audacity of requesting professional and competitive customer service from a company with which she had done business. This company is small, run by two women out of a garage so they can be at home with their kids. My sister writes for a Catholic family website. If she were a good Christian, the woman argued, she wouldn’t make unreasonable demands (like the replacement of a defective product) from other Catholic women who are just trying to spend more time with their families.
It’s hard to know where to begin, with a minefield like that. For one thing, the fact that a business is small does not necessarily mean it can’t prioritize customer satisfaction. Businesses with limited resources can build extremely loyal client bases by emphasizing customer service. And the ethical implications of using details about a customer’s personal life to send her on a guilt trip, in a professional communication, are obviously vast. But here’s what struck me most about the whole exchange: this woman wanted to use the Christian faith that she and her customer share as a shield against a legitimate business complaint.
Think about it in another context. I worked for a year as a research assistant for a con law scholar at a prominent DC think tank. I’m Catholic. He happens to be Catholic. It was a nice thing to have in common with my boss. We shared a certain amount of cultural context, we could discuss interesting questions, and he understood why I came to work one Wednesday in early March with black dust smeared on my forehead. But let’s say I had failed to complete an assignment, or submitted shoddy work, and he had asked me to explain myself. Would our common Christian faith have had any bearing on the situation?
In the obvious and immediate sense, the answer to that question is no. The charity that Christianity requires of its adherents does not preclude their holding one another accountable in relationships of subordinate professional responsibility. Nor does it require Christians in the marketplace to choose inferior products and services simply because other Christians are offering them. (There’s another whole post here about Christian books and music and movies like Fireproof, but for the sake of my blood pressure I will leave it for another time.) All Christians are called to be charitable to all people at all times. Beyond that, the fact that an employer/consumer/client shares his Christian faith with an employee or service provider seems to be irrelevant.
But I’m not sure that’s the whole story. Grant that Christianity isn’t an excuse for sub-standard business practices; isn’t it possible that there is still a role that faith should play in the professional lives of Christians, and that—just maybe—it cuts in the opposite direction?
Let’s do a little thought experiment, shall we? Imagine two professors, fresh out of graduate school and in their first jobs, working side by side in the same department. One of them happens to be pretty secular, the other one’s a Christian. The two young teachers share most of their reasons for excelling in their work: simple survival, long-term job security, the desire for prestige, and maybe even a genuine love of learning.
But the Christian, if he’s well catechized, has something else: he has a sense of vocation. He is aware that his abilities are not his own. He knows that he has been entrusted with his talents for the sake of something greater than himself, and that someday he will have to account for his use of those gifts before the throne of his Creator. So he works, just like his colleague, to feed his family and contribute to the body of knowledge in his field—but he also works to fulfill a purpose.
And this, at the end of the day, is the real problem with the attitude evinced by my long-suffering sister’s misguided interlocutor—an attitude, to be frank, that a lot of Christians share. Christianity is not an excuse for mediocrity, and it’s not a professional get-out-of-jail-free card. The more important point, though, is what Christianity is: a call to excellence. To virtue. A call to infuse even the most mundane of tasks—shipping a package, formatting a footnote!—with an awareness of its eternal significance: that here, even here, we can glorify our God.
Miriel Thomas Reneau is a member of the Humane Pursuits editorial board. She has served as an ISI Honors Fellow, a John Jay Fellow, and an American Enterprise Institute policy analyst in constitutional studies. She endures many a sleepless night, though reports differ on whether this is due to her concern over federal courts’ equity jurisdiction or her addiction to caramel lattes. In her daytime hours, she can be found defending St. Augustine against Calvinist co-optation and T. S. Eliot against everyone.