Anabaptists and Transnational Corporations

By Tim Nafziger and Jonathan Blakeborough

Trans-national corporations are among the most powerful economic institutions in the world representing 51 of the top 100 economies in world. Not surprisingly, given their sheer size and power this means that they have the ability to do a great deal of good, or a great deal of harm. They can decide the fate of whole communities, even countries, yet unlike elected governments and civil society organizations there is no real system of accountability other than to shareholders. When a corporation moves into a new area to exploit natural resources or labor, the population has little recourse. In fact, under agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, corporations can sue any government that gets in the way of their profit.

Perhaps no region has felt the effects of this system more than Central America. Over the last 100 years, a few major fruit companies have played with the governments of the region as pawns in a giant chess game. The huge tracts of land owned by the corporations are worked by the campesinos whose ancestors used to work the land for themselves. Any opposition to this reign from governments or movements is ruthlessly repressed. In the last 20 years, the IMF and the World Bank have pushed through austerity measures and structural adjustment programs in heavily indebted countries that has further privatized these countries and opened them up for corporations while slashing social services. What do Anabaptists have to say to churches in these countries where corporation have much more influence over their lives than the state?

Walter Wink is clear that all human institutions are not merely impersonal entities but each have a spiritual dimension. There is thus both an exteriority and an interiority even to Nestle, Unilever, Hitachi, General Motors or Microsoft. To use the biblical language of Paul, they are powers and principalities in their own right, and yet given their sheer size, influence and power, is it not surprising how little attention has been given to them by the Christian Church at large, particularly the church in the West? Cynics may point out that this may be due to the fact that Western consumers of all religious persuasions and none have benefited greatly from the economic activities of transnational corporations, particularly their monopolistic ability to enforce ever lower commodity prices on producers in the so-called developing world, thus contributing in no small measure to the ever increasing gap between the wealthiest and poorest nations.

Corporations were first granted personhood in U.S. Courts in 1886. In the UK, the creation of ‘joint stock companies’ had a similar effect. This signaled the end of an era in which corporations were chartered by governments to carry out specific tasks. This shift along with other reforms has helped crystalize and magnify a system under which the survival of any given corporations depends on its commitment to the “profit motive” above all else. Another way to look at it is that we created a system in which thousands of massive, immortal entities walk the earth with the ultimate purpose of amassing wealth. Gone are the days when corporate charters were revoked when corporations overstepped the bounds of usefulness. The corporate system has long ago gone beyond the control of any one person or even any one government. It is a system with a life of its own and gradually this life is taking over ours.

Joel Bakan, Professor of Law at the University of British Columbia, uses the metaphor of the psychpath in seeking to define the true nature of transnational corporations in his book, The Corporation : The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. Transnationals are deemed in law to be persons and are part of a system that ultimately forces them to exclusively pursue their self interest and maximum profit. Bakan notes that if such a person were a human being, motivated purely by self-interest and unable to be concerned about others, he or she would be diagnosed as a psychopathic.

As Christians, it is important for us to remeber that individuals working for such institutions are not themselves psychopaths. But we are all shaped by the institutions we work for. The reverse is true as well, one would hope. Yet as the size of a corporation grows, the weight and momentum of the institution grows and the voice of the individual diminishes. We as human beings are quite adept at rationalizing and adapting to the roles we are given. The infamous Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971 is a reminder of the extremes to which this can go.

While corporations may have taken things to a whole new scale, Revelations 18 deals with a strikingly familiar situation. Babylon, the spirit of empire is vividly described, along with the merchants who “gained wealth from her” by trading in slaves and human lives or souls (Verse 13). This fits well with the psychopathic pattern of treating humans as little more than objects to be exploited for maximum profit. Furthermore, these merchants were inextricably linked to Babylon and what she stood for. Verse 23 says, “for your merchants were the magnates of the earth, and all nations were deceived by your sorcery.”

What therefore should the response of the Christian Church be in such a scenario? For centuries the Anabaptist tradition has been unhappy with Christendom, the historic interconnections between the wider church and the state, democratic or otherwise. At the very least most Anabaptists would urge their fellow Christians to avoid an uncritical symbiosis with national governments or indeed with the increasing number of supra-national bodies such as the UN or European Union. Instead the Church is to be a distinct worldwide entity whose primary loyalty is to God rather than to the state. Christians are called to be self-consciously citizens of the reign of God, a kingdom characterized by peace and justice, a true biblical shalom, rather than to be unthinkingly loyal citizens of the countries in which they reside.

If we are to continue to take seriously our autonomy as Christians, we must begin to seriously address our relationship with corporations and the new challenges and questions they bring Christians across the globe. Is it therefore time to reframe the debate as to how Christians should deal with the powers and principalities of our world? Other than offering words of caution, does the Anabaptist tradition offer constructive insights for how to engage with this new world order? Given the difficulties inherent in seeking to transform even the growing number of democracies, how will it be possible for hitherto largely unaccountable Transnationals to be transformed into supra-national agents for good? Will it be possible for the man from Del Monte to say an unequivocal yes to the desperate needs of the poorest of the poor in our much divided world?


Anderson, Sarah and John Cavanagh, Report on the Top 200 corporations (Washington D.C: Institute for Policy Studies, 2000).

Korten, David, When Corporations Rule the World, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Pub, 2001)

Madden, P., A Raw Deal: Trade and the World’s Poor (London: Christian Aid, 1992)

Murray, S., Post-Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World

(Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2004)

Wink, W., Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis; Fortress Press, 1992)

Williamson, Thad. "The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power." An interview with oel Bakan, Professor of Law at the University of British Columbia, and author of The Corporation : The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power.