A number of months ago, Jim Wallis, editor in chief of Sojourners magazine, wrote a column asking, “Where Do Enron Execs Go to Church?”
While Wallis did not specifically answer his rhetorical question, he bluntly connected the violation of biblical ethics within corporate America with the all-too-often pulpit silence about economic sin.
The latest corporate scandal deserves a rephrasing of Wallis’ question: “Where Do Worldcom Execs Go to Church?”
The answer for Worldcom’s founder and former CEO, Bernie Ebbers, is Easthaven Baptist Church in Brookhaven, Miss., a church affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.
Worldcom is the nation’s second-largest long-distance corporation, which disclosed accounting irregularities of $3.85 billion, claiming a profit when the company was really losing hundreds of millions of dollars and also providing sweetheart deals for Ebbers, such as over $400 million in loans at a most favorable 2.15 percent interest rate.
Worldcom’s disclosure of its accounting problems has resulted in a Securities and Exchange Commission fraud lawsuit, congressional hearings and investor lawsuits. As many as 17,000 employees may lose their jobs. And Worldcom’s stock prices have fallen to as low as a nickel per share from a record high of $64.50, costing investors their hard-earned money.
After the Sunday morning worship service two weeks ago, Ebbers told fellow church members, “I just want you to know you aren’t going to church with a crook,” according to a story in the Wall Street Journal.
“I don’t know what the situation is with all that has been reported. I don’t know what all is going to happen or what mistakes have been made,” he said. “No one will find me to have knowingly committed fraud.”
Church members gave him a standing ovation.
Ebbers is known as a generous man, a church deacon and a civic leader. He teaches a Sunday School class for young, married couples. He helped Easthaven Baptist Church purchase stock and sell the stock for some $1 million for its building program.
A graduate of Mississippi College, a Baptist institution, Ebbers chaired the school’s New Dawn Campaign, which had a goal of raising $80 million in five years. After the first year of the fund drive, the school had raised almost $58 million. Ebbers said the board of trustees had “stepped out in faith when it began this campaign, and as a result, the Lord has blessed it.” The board increased the campaign’s goal to $100 million.
Bendon Ginn, Ebbers’ pastor, said, “He’s probably the most unassuming member of this congregation,” according to the Jackson, Miss. Clarion-Ledger. “He comes in quietly, politely and sits in a place so as not to be easily seen.”
Ginn claimed that Ebbers had a good heart.
Congressman Billy Tauzin, R-La., had a different take on Ebbers and Worldcom. Tauzin, whose committee investigated Worldcom’s financial improprieties, said this week, “This was a pure case of theft, of inside stealing, again, from their own investors.”
“This is a company simply determined for several years to misstate its earnings to the American public by hiding its costs as capitalized expenses, doing so in the face of advice from their own officials inside the company that it was improper and illegal to do so,” Tauzin said, according to the New York Times.
Another former corporate CEO, Ken Lay, has also been described as a man of integrity, civic involvement and church leadership, known for singing hymns in church. Lay once said, “I believe in God and I believe in free markets.”
Raised in the home of a Baptist preacher and now a member of First United Methodist Church in Houston, Lay’s Enron corporation had trading schemes with names like “Fat Boy,” “Death Star” and “Get Shorty.” He certainly appears to have lied to employees, cut deals for himself and cheated investors.
Both Lay and Ebbers have claimed the “I know no-thing, no-thing!” defense strategy, what one congressman calls the Sgt. Schultz defense.
Sgt. Schultz was a German prison guard in the TV sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes.” Whenever a question was raised about prison camp irregularities, the bug-eyed Sgt. Schultz said, “I know no-thing, no-thing!”
Both these “godly” men have engaged in ungodly activities and have then attempted to evade their responsibilities by proclaiming their ignorance.
So, where do these men go to church? Stated more painfully, does church really make a difference in the personal and public behavior of corporate leaders? Does teaching Sunday School shape the character of the teacher? Does the biblical witness carry any moral weight?
Wallis wrote, “The teaching of both Christian and Jewish faiths would excoriate the greed, selfishness, and cheating of … corporate leaders, and condemn, in the harshest of terms, their callous and cruel treatment of employees. Read your Bibles.”
“Biblical ethics would just call it a sin,” he wrote.
Wallis said, “It’s time for the pulpit to speak—to bring the Word of God to bear on the moral issues of the American economy.”
Preach, brother, preach.
Robert Parham is BCE’s executive director.