This is a remarkable clip from yesterday’s Senate confirmation hearing of Rex Tillerson, former head of ExxonMobil and nominee for Secretary of State. Toward the end (4:08), GOP Senator Marco Rubio affirms his respect for Tillerson as an individual but highlights the difference between leading a corporation and being a diplomat.
Senator Rubio makes the point that being Secretary of State involves a lot more than simply knowing how to make deals internationally. The very things that served Tillerson in business may not serve him as Secretary of State–in particular his unwillingness to name and classify different nations and leaders as human rights offenders. As Rubio points out, the Secretary of State is the face of the US to people living under oppressed regimes: to the dissidents in prison, to those persecuted for their religion, to those who are being trafficked as slaves. These people do not look to ExxonMobil to promote freedom and democracy, but they do look to the US State Department to do this.
I don’t know enough about Tillerson or the State Department to know whether his nomination should be confirmed. I’m not sitting in Rubio’s seat so I don’t need to know. But I do know that this exchange points to something bigger: The fact that Tillerson–a man with zero experience in government or diplomacy–is even being considered for Secretary of State reveals how much our society worships business. How much we worship the wealth and power of the marketplace. And because we do, we assume that if you’ve been successful in business, you can be successful anywhere else. We assume that leading a corporation is no different than leading a school or a church or a country.
This assumption is simply untrue and it disrespects people who have devoted themselves to serving their communities outside the marketplace. In His wisdom, God gives us each a unique calling and the ability to fulfill that calling. He has clearly gifted Tillerson with the ability to succeed in the marketplace. But even as men and women like Tillerson play a vital role in human society, the role they play can in no way replace the equally vital roles that the rest of us play. It is the height of folly to assume they can.
And honestly, we’d never assume the reverse. We’d never assume that a stay-at-home mom with decades of experience in managing her home (which amounts to a small business) could apply for a management position at ExxonMobil based on her domestic resume. We’d never assume that a well-read, well-traveled missionary could manage the financial portfolio of an international company. But in a society that worships the marketplace, we regularly assume that successful businessmen and women are immediately qualified to hold positions outside the marketplace.Now, to be clear, there is a set of common character traits that make us successful whether we are called to the marketplace or not. Honesty, self-governance, compassion, leadership, faithfulness, goodness–all these are vital to success but like Senator Rubio observes, the question is not whether Tillerson possesses these characteristics. The question is whether his business experience is enough to overcome his lack of diplomatic experience.
And this is where worshiping the marketplace skews our understanding of vocation. The Christian faith teaches that God gifts and calls human beings to specific tasks and that each of us is equally necessary to His work in the world. I cannot replace you and you cannot replace me. This reality motivates me to pursue my calling precisely because no one else can do what God has given me to do. But this understanding also leads me to respect and value YOUR calling because I must also acknowledge that I cannot do what you do.
But as with any other idol, worshiping the marketplace blinds us to truth. God’s value system is replaced by the marketplace’s value system. God’s understanding of vocation is replaced by a market-driven understanding of vocation. And slowly but surely, we begin to honor work in direct relationship to the amount of money it produces. Slowly but surely, we being to honor workers based on their paychecks and where they sit on the corporate ladder.
What we’re really seeing in this confirmation hearing (and I imagine in coming hearings) is a crisis of vocation. Does having success in the marketplace mean you have the skills to be successful in international diplomacy? Or do you actually need to devote time and effort to learning how public policy works? Don’t misunderstand. I don’t have anything against folks who are called to business. And I’m not arguing for career politicians; I believe in citizen-led government. But we live in a society where citizens who are businessmen and women get ushered to the front of the line; we live in a society where businessmen and women are viewed as more qualified than their fellow citizens.
Last November, some folks voted for PEOTUS Trump precisely because he had no experience in public office. On the one hand, this speaks to the level of corruption that exists in government; but on the other, it shows how much we trust the marketplace. Could a teacher or pastor or stay-at-home mom with no experience in public office have been equally successful? You know as well as I do that the answer is, “No.” After all, as we regularly reminded each other, we weren’t electing a Pastor-in-Chief. But we did elect a Businessman-in-Chief who is now appointing businessmen and women to the highest positions in the land, regardless of whether they have actual experience in the sector they will be overseeing.
This is our great gamble. One that we’re willing to make because we idolize the marketplace. But I worry that it’s a gamble we’ll eventually lose. Not because men and women like Tillerson are bad men and women but because our confidence in the marketplace is misplaced. The businessman cannot do what the pastor is called to do; and the pastor cannot do what the diplomat is called to do; and the diplomat cannot do what the doctor is called to do.
But accepting this view of vocation requires humility. It requires embracing the limits of our humanity. We are bound by space and time and simply cannot be everything we want or dream ourselves to be. The years that the doctor devotes to learning medicine are years that she cannot devote to learning about city planning. The years a pastor devotes to tending his flock are years that he cannot devote to being a plumber. It’s true that calling often has many dimensions, that at some level, we are jacks-of-all-trades; but we must also acknowledge that our humanity limits us to becoming master of only one. We simply cannot “do it all.”
And so we must also acknowledge that with vocation comes sacrifice. When we are called to certain places of service, like business, we are not called to other places of service. We must give up certain opportunities to pursue others. And having pursued those opportunities, we automatically limit the ones available to us in the future. But we can only sacrifice these things as we humble ourselves and acknowledge our own limits. We can only sacrifice these things as we learn to trust the One who has called us to our work in the first place.
On this week’s episode of Persuasion, Erin and I talk more about the limits of vocation and the sacrifices we must make to follow God’s call. Listen here.