“The doctrine of corporate personhood.”

This evocative phrase comes from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1886 decision in which corporations were granted the same rights as living persons under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

Remarkably, this doctrine was introduced into the decision by the court reporter’s headnote — a brief summary statement of the decision — and not by anything penned by the justices themselves. Had the reporter not specifically linked “corporations” with “persons” in the wording of the headnote, Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company might have been just another unknown, uninteresting tax case.

Instead, the doctrine of corporate personhood paved the way for legitimizing and advancing the interests of corporations in ways that the nineteenth-century Supreme Court could not have envisioned. (Though the Constitution’s framers, a hundred years before, were deeply worried about the growing influence of corporations on the fledgling American democratic process).

It’s chilling to ponder that the Supreme Court afforded the legal rights and protections of full personhood to corporations  before it did so for African-Americans, immigrants, natives, and women. Privileged white men in power and the fiction of fairness in American jurisprudence: seems like a wise Latina woman had something to say about that awhile back.

Last month’s decision by the Supreme Court to expand the doctrine of corporate personhood — this time by appealing to the First Amendment — is another chilling reality to ponder, and one that seems especially incomprehensible in light of the corporate bullying, the breathtaking arrogance and greed, the outright thievery of Wall Street investment “persons” of late.

Equating money with free speech, and overturning a century-old ban on corporate donations to federal political campaigns, the Court has made it possible (made it a sure thing, in fact) that corporations will  be able to “use their vast treasuries to overwhelm elections and intimidate elected officials into doing their bidding.”

In the legal realm the doctrine of corporate personhood elucidates a strange phenomenon: how an abstraction was given a body (corpus). And how that body was deemed to be a living, breathing, rights-endowed participant in electoral politics.

In the theological realm we also talk about corporate personhood in a couple of ways. One, the idea  that God is three persons (though not three people), a community of divine relations, corporate, though not corporeal, existing and cohering in and through love.

Two, the ekklesia is a bodily entity, quite corporeal, existing in time and space but traversing those boundaries as it gathers persons from every age and place into Christ’s body, the Church.  

From the earliest decades of the Jesus movement, this body was interested in money and power, for it knew the corrupting influence of both on its common life and witness. Acts 2:37-46 reveals the early Church’s unequivocal communism, something that today inspires all sorts of hermeneutical gymnastics to make the text say anything — anything! — but that.

In her book A People’s History of Christianity, Diana Butler Bass chronicles how the relinquishing of private property and the giving away of personal wealth made the early Christians, according to the pagan critic Lucian, “easy prey for any sort of huckster, who because of Christian generosity could make ‘himself a millionaire overnight’ with these ‘simpletons.'” 

But a lot has changed in two millenia. Indeed, it wasn’t too many generations after Lucian that the Church found Constantine’s marriage proposal irresistable and bedded down with him in an alliance that, to this day, makes it difficult if not impossible for first-world Christians to claim the critique of imperial power and accumulated wealth that lies at the heart of the gospel.

Church leaders may lament the excesses of Wall Street and mouth cliches about corporate greed and its correlative dangers for “individual” Christians, but many are as preoccupied with growth as is the CEO of General Electric or Coca-Cola. 

One church leader, though, beleaguered and routinely misunderstood and underestimated, actually went into the belly of the beast recently and spoke the gospel truth to corporate power. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was a featured speaker last week at a conference entitled “Building an Ethical Economy,” sponsored by Wall Street’s Trinity Church.

With characteristic humility and grace (and a razor sharp intellect), Williams responded to an economist’s claim that Christians naively assume that “there can be profit without private property, work without incentive, enterprise without income inequality.”

“I’m not against the generation of wealth,” Williams replied, “but rather the “accumulation of it in sums far beyond the capacity of anyone to meaningfully use it.” He was also opposed, he said, to “the logic of some kinds of capitalist practice that leads to the invention of more and more recondite, metaphysical, unreal forms of wealth.”

More and more corporations — emboldened by the recent Supreme Court decision — will assert their personhood in ways that promote this unreality and the obscene profits it somehow manufactures, the use of which will continue, now in the electoral process itself, to thwart the common good.

Thank God for Williams and others who, for Christ’s sake and for the sake of his body, remind us that in the Church our “corporate personhood” binds us to all people and to their needs, to a suffering world and a besieged planet. And that our task is not to fixate on growth or success (the church’s or our own) but to give ourselves away completely so  that, like the early Christians, it might be said of us, in our love of God and neighbor, that we “spared nothing.”