Should Apple Cooperate with the FBI?
by Dr. Case Thorp
In the debate over the FBI's order for Apple to unlock Syed Farook’s iPhone, I hear two distinct starting points.
One wing is detrimentally suspicious of the evil corporations. Our cultural zeitgeists include Enron, banks that are ‘too big to fail’, Lehman Brothers, and Volkswagen. Examples abound of corporations using their deep pockets and nation-state jumping to avoid being accountable, taxes and service to the people. Corporations that protect their shareholders and profits to the determent of a government investigation of a terrorist act are selfish and harming the greater good.
A second wing in this debate oogles over the potential of technology and seek to protect the best curator of technological advancement ever known. Apple, as evidenced by its $18 billion profit last year, has cornered the smartphone market and developed a content delivery ecosystem with not mere fans, but passionate followers. I own a number of Apple products and count myself among them.
Realized by few, both corporations and the advanced technology we experience today are direct products of Christian faith. Therefore, for the Christ-follower, how can corporations be purely evil or technology compete for the hope offered the world in Christ?
Recently deceased de Vries Professor of Reformed Theology and Public Life at Princeton Theological Seminary, Max Stackhouse, articulates the role of the Church in medieval Europe that led to both the acceleration technology and formation of the corporation. He writes, “...technological development came to be seen as a human potentiality that, properly cultivated, could help us reclaim the wisdom and virtue God had implanted in each human with the gift of his image.”
In the medieval church, celebrations were held in worship and in the academy over “the mechanical arts” being developed by monks, priests, early scientists and professors. Stackhouse summarizes the Christian's investment and advancement of the mechanical arts glorified God. He writes, “Humanity, indeed, had a duty to seek progress.”
The Renaissance would soon be the seedbed from which advanced technology transformed the world and humanity’s experience of it unlike ever seen in history.
In every culture, prior to the modern corporation, there had only been two centers of social organization: the family and the regime. Out of these two spheres of society, all other institutions came to be: schools, hospitals, military, religion, etc. In pre-Christian cultures religious expression is either seen in institutions to honor the hearth spirits of the family (Confucianism, paganism) or the political regime’s spirits that reinforced their authority (Roman/Greek cults, fertility cults).
Yet, Christians paved the way for a third social center. Stackhouse writes, “The church was distinct from the household, with its hearth spirits, and distinct from the state, with its civic cult. People joined the church irrespective of birth, citizenship, or the economic status determine by these factors. In the church, members lived under a covenanted discipline that was to pervade all aspects of life, in a community dedicated to a transformed world.”
The Church showed both the family and political regimes that a third gathering of non-related people from various parts of society could indeed come together for a common purpose. The corporation was born.
The corporation soon became a prime vehicle for the marketplace. The risk needed to compete in the growing economic boom of Western Europe in the 17th and 18 centuries necessitated something beyond the family unit. A person was unlikely to risk his entire household, land, and other assets on the opportunities he saw before him. And likewise, the needed capital from the wealthy, investors, and emerging banks wasn’t likely to be trusted in the hands of one person. Yet, a collective group of people who own shares and hold one another accountable, a corporation? Yes.
Apple is a corporation, and lauded by our culture for its creativity, innovation, profitability, and impact on our daily lives. As well, Apple is the premiere craftsman of technology that impacts nearly every aspect of our daily lives. Is Apple evil such that the FBI must tame her under the law? Is Apple the hope of the future and therefore fighting the good fight for only greater things are yet to come?
Christian faith also teaches us about sin. Corporations and technology may be vehicles that makes our lives more enjoyable today, and yet sin pervades them each. There are evil corporations and others pursuing the common good. Technology saves me from malaria, but produces numerous screens that distract me from my family.
The key is not to be encapsulated by either wing’s debate over Apple and the FBI. Have a reasoned opinion, and advocate for it, surely. Yet, Christian faith says neither misplace your hope for the world, or your condemnation of large entities beyond yourself. Christ is the hope of the world, not technology. God is sovereign, and bigger than any corporation.