The Ethical Responsibility of Engineers -- And Those Who Pastor Them

I often say that one of my favorite parts of being a pastor for 24 years was pronouncing the benediction each week at the end of gathered worship. It wasn't that I was glad for our gatherings to be over; rather, I was thrilled to be deploying people into the world to live out their faith between Sundays. In my understanding, it is in the daily life of family, neighborhood, market, and workplace that a functional, vital faith makes its greatest contribution and bears its most important fruit.

And it is in those arenas of daily life where a dysfunctional, unhealthy faith also shows its true colors.

Could I suggest that the West Virginia Massey coal mining disaster and the BP oil rig explosion are a reflection not just of the dysfunctionalities of extractive industries, but also of the dysfunctionalities of popular American Christianity?

Both disasters represent failures on multiple levels. Political leaders failed to provide adequate regulatory oversight. Journalists failed to investigate corporate threats to public safety and health. Boards of directors and accountants failed to provide due diligence in risk management. Chief executives failed to create a culture of safety and responsibility in their organizations. Mid-level managers failed to stand up as whistle-blowers when they saw corners being cut and risks being taken. And engineers failed to build in sufficient structural strength and fail-safe backups for emergencies.

Many, perhaps most, of the politicians, news directors, journalists, directors, accountants, executives, managers, and engineers in question attend church on a regular basis. Whether they go to a traditional Catholic mass, a high-intensity charismatic megachurch, a staid Evangelical chapel, or a quaint Protestant high-steeple congregation, they apparently did not hear a challenge to integrate their faith with their professional lives. If the spiritual leaders of their faith community sent them out with a missional benediction -- such as "Go forth to love and serve the Lord in your home, neighborhood, and workplace" -- the message wasn't conveyed with sufficient fervency to get their attention.

Take engineers, for example. At first glance, it's hard to imagine any career more removed from moral matters than engineering. Designing the tensile strength of a bolt or projecting heat transfer rates or perfecting a detonation device seem like matters of pure mathematics and physics, not ethics and morality. But think again: if a bridge fails or a shut-down valve won't shut down or a bomb misfires (or fires), people die. If a mine shaft doesn't ventilate properly or if a deep-water oil rig fails, we've seen on the news what unfolds. On the other side of those seemingly amoral engineering equations are orphaned children, burn victims, families thrust into unemployment and poverty, dying ecosystems, depressed public health, ruined livelihoods, and incalculable suffering.

So a message to pastors and priests this Sunday: you share in the ethical responsibility of every decision made by your parishioners. If you inspire them to deepen their sense of ethical responsibility, if you give them courage to stand up for what's right even if it means losing their job, if you sharpen their moral vision to see something beyond the morally bankrupt bottom line of profit, you are doing God's work. But if you don't, no matter how big the attendance and offering numbers are, you are selling out. You are part of the same dirty economy as BP and Massey, thinking of your organization's well-being and not of your responsibility to the community. You are part of a religious extraction industry, making a living by extracting time, energy, and money for the benefit of your enterprise rather than mobilizing and deploying agents of ethical responsibility and goodwill in the community and for the common good.

And a message to engineers, politicians, news managers, journalists, executives, managers, accountants, and others: if you are a person of faith, make sure you live it out in your profession. Singing, kneeling, tithing, praying, and listening to sermons on Sunday (or whenever) aren't worth much if they don't affect the way you do your work on Monday. Think of BP and Massey, Enron and Bear Stearns, and realize that your work reflects your values, your ethical character, and your vision of God and God's character. To paraphrase the apostle James, faith that doesn't affect your work is dead.