Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Compassion is Not a Zero Sum Game (Dialogue Column 11.17.09)

I wrote this for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, I'll post my newsletter columns here.

As many of you know, our Director of Youth Ministries, Andrew, began attending seminary this fall. One of the exciting things about having a staff person in seminary is talking with him or her about what he or she is learning. In my case, it has been interesting for me to see what I missed or picked up in seminary as compared to what Andrew is learning. At times it is reassuring to find out that my own education seems to be holding up, but other times it is exciting to learn a new concept that enables me to look at things in a whole new light.

One of the interesting ideas Andrew and I recently talked about is the economic worldview of first-century Palestine where Jesus did his ministry. In his New Testament introductory course, Andrew has learned that what economists call an “economy of scarcity” was at work in Jesus’ world. It’s hard for us as 21st century Americans to contemplate a limited economy. Most of the goods and services we consume are manufactured en masse and if we pick something up at a big-box retail store, they will just order more of it. Our supply of consumer goods appears unlimited whatever the reality may be. In the ancient world (and in many developing economies today) such was not the case. There was a limited supply of everything. If one person had more of a good like food, clothing, building materials, etc. that necessarily meant that another person had less—after all there was only so much to go around.

What made Jesus and his followers so radical is that they operated according to an “economy of abundance.” When Jesus healed someone, he did not worry that improving the health of one person would diminish the health of another person. When the early Christians shared their possessions, they did so unconcerned about holding on to possessions when failing to do so would seem at least unwise if not insane. Jesus’ teachings about honoring the “least of these” meant that in God’s kingdom the only status that mattered was one’s relationship with God and there was plenty of that to go around! In their understanding of abundance in the Kingdom of God, Jesus and his disciples followed the view of God in the Hebrew scriptures who could always provide more than enough to God’s people.

At this year’s national meeting of our denomination, The Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, our General Minister and President Sharon Watkins preached about this idea (her words came back to me after my discussion with Andrew). She talked about the picture presented throughout scripture of God’s “economics of abundance” as opposed to our “economics of scarcity.” It seems to be a human instinct to want to horde all we can for ourselves (perhaps our evolutionary forefathers and foremothers learned it as a means of survival). Yet, the way of Christ, according to Watkins, is to give out of the abundance we have been blessed with by God. We become the means for blessing others who have less.

Watkins spoke in terms of Christians in the developed world considering their brothers and sisters in the developing world. She spoke about how our consumption, pollution and outright greed affect people in other countries which are exploited for their resources and unfairly compensated to keep our prices low. Because of our desires to possess the latest gadgets, others work in conditions we would not tolerate for wages we would never accept. How should Jesus’ “economy of abundance” shape our worldview, our politics, our compassion? We operate as if giving to others will mean we will have less, but we are promised that we will be blessed more in ways that matter when we give to people in need.

Our allegiance to an “economy of scarcity” rather than to God’s “economy of abundance” plays out domestically as well. My conversation with Andrew caused me to perk up when I came across an article by Peter Laaman, a minister in the United Church of Christ and director of Progressive Christians Uniting. He writes about American Christians who operate according to an “economy of scarcity” in regards to the Health Care Reform debate. He criticizes what he calls “Ayn Rand Christians” who are so committed to individualism that they fail to recognize the calls for mutual dependence and connection given in the New Testament. He notes that Paul’s image of the church as “one body” and Jesus’ examples of healing the multitudes do not recognize the idea that “I will have less when others have more.” Instead, Paul declares that when one member of the body is injured by another, then Christ is crucified again. Yet Christians may choose their own self interest in this debate despite the fact that the person sitting next to them in the pew may have less health coverage or no coverage because of it. Laaman argues that a more Christian perspective would be one that seeks solutions that help everyone not just the few.

As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving next week, perhaps we all should consider the blessings God has provided us and look for ways to give out of that abundance to others.
Grace and Peace,

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