Thursday, February 4, 2010

zero-sum living

I have been thinking lately about the "economy of lack" that we seem to live in. There's this idea that there's not enough to go around - we have to grab all we can and hoard it just in case. This way of thinking has been described as social Darwinism. You have to want not only to survive and thrive, but you must do it at the expense of others. It's like life is a zero-sum game. If you don't succeed and others do, their success will come at your expense. So get yours before they can get theirs.

I don't see this as living into the kingdom of God. Is there not enough in the kingdom of God? Do we really believe in the KOG?

Obviously, we are responsible for our own success. The most effective way to secure one's own success is through hard work and perseverance. There's no reason to expect that one can or should live comfortably while doing absolutely nothing to take care of themselves. So everyone is expected to pull their own weight. In theory, I suppose that would mean that we would all work hard, so we'd all be able to take care of ourselves. But that's in theory. If we work hard, will we always be rewarded? If we work hard, can we be truly self-reliant? No man is an island, right? Are we supposed to be peninsulas? Or are we our brothers' and sisters' keepers?

Are we supposed to take care of each other or blame others who need our help? Why do they need our help anyway? Shouldn't they have planned better? Shouldn't they have lived better? Maybe they need help because they are just plain lazy, or made bad decisions, or are living an immoral lifestyle. Maybe we can pick and choose whom we help. There are some people I don't want to help. They don't really want to change the way they're living. So why should they get the benefit of the hard work of others?

This way of thinking reminds me of the "deutoronomic thought" of old. By this $50 word, I mean the idea that God punishes the wicked and rewards the good. If you are suffering in any way - physical disabilities, economic troubles, etc - it is because of sin. If you are doing well, it is because God is rewarding your righteousness. Usually, this concept is rejected if you discuss it in a Sunday School class. We claim that this is a silly idea, blaming someone's handicap on the sin of their parents or their own sin. But do we really reject this way of thinking? I think this way of thinking is still prevalent among Christians today.

For the most part, we don't associate physical handicaps with sin. But we do tend to lean heavily on the "it's their own fault" way of thinking for many other problems. Of course, a lot of times it is their own fault, at least some of it. Sometimes it really is the result of bad decisions. We live in a broken world, though. People make decisions that are bad for themselves. People make decisions that are bad for others. There is both personal and systemic sin to blame for many tragic situations.

But there is good news. We serve a God who will pay us a full day's wage, even if we can't find work until late in the day. If we are truly followers - imitators - of this God, then we must have at least some of this sort of generosity of spirit. That doesn't mean we are doormats to those who would take advantage. It is possible to be generous in our treatment of others while still holding each other accountable. But we needn't spend much energy worrying that people will take advantage of us.