The Irony of Self-Interest

The thing I really hate about election campaigns is the way that they shine a light on what we value—not the things we say we value in polite company, mind you, but the things we actually value. Unfortunately, it’s not a pretty picture.

It’s fairly easy, I would suggest, to identify what we truly value in these campaigns, because politicians want to find those things that (we think) are important to us and, once they find them, to milk them for all they’re worth. All we need to do, then, is to look at what our politicians are focusing on most heavily, and we’ll see where our value lies. As a side note, it’s fairly depressing to watch politicians scrambling to find these issues, seeking only what is already popular rather than outlining a vision for a better future and seeking to take the rest of us on the journey to that place (or, as I like to call it, ‘leading’).

In this current campaign surrounding the 2013 Australian federal election, the thing that most stands out, as I see it, is self-interest.

So much of this campaign (and similar campaigns in recent years) is focused more and more on who will leave more money in my pocket (or how the other guy will rip that money out of my pocket), or who will make my life that little bit ‘easier’ (especially in the short-term). Basically, the majority of everything that is announced is about who will best pander to my own narrow self-interest.

Nearly everything fits into this scheme.

Concern about the environment is reduced to the immediate effect on my cash flow. Concern for asylum seekers is reduced to misplaced fear about how this faceless, sinister horde is going to effect me personally (through taking my job, or making my commute time longer, or threatening the safety of me and my family in various unfounded ways).

It’s all about me, me, me!

What we have lost, in all of this, is the fact that total self-focus is actually detrimental to us as human beings. This sort of thinking revolves around the idea that, since no one else will look out for my interests, I need to look out for myself. Everyone else is out to get me, so I need to protect myself and my family from ‘everyone else’.

Ultimately, however, our growth as human beings remains stunted by such thinking. We become emotionally and socially underdeveloped. Ironically, having our self-interest indulged leaves us less than fully formed.

Through all of this, we lose the ability to see beyond ourselves. We forget that we, as humans, find fulfilment through each other, rather than in isolation. When we allow this unchecked individualism to invade our thinking, it actually limits us from our full potential.

In short, we make independence our final goal, and we forget that there is a further step in human potential. Though we are born dependent, and though we do move to a stage of (relative) independence, this is not our home. Our final destination—the point at which we reach full maturity—is moving through dependence and on towards interdependence.

Interdependence is when we choose* to look out for the best interest of others, and when they reciprocate. It’s when we seek mutuality over individual rights.**

It entails risk, but it also entails growth as a human being. It thrives on the humility of other-centred thinking, rather than the arrogance of self-focus. And it allows space for true human flourishing.

As a Christian, this sort of thinking should be absolutely central for me. I can’t understand, then, why so many churches allow the same sort of self-centred thinking to pollute and contort the ‘Good News’. But I’ve spoken of that in more detail here, and will leave that point where it is.

The fact remains, though, that this is not just a Christian thing. True human potential is unlocked only in relationship with others, and thus when we allow ourselves to be boxed into the unnatural*** position of narrow self-focus we fall short of that potential.

In election campaigns, our politicians—through their own narrow self-interest—are going to try to focus on the things that, apparently, truly matter to us. If our only interest is ourselves, then they will oblige. They will frame their message in ways that pander to such interests (like they are doing so well now).

But, if we let them know that we actually care about something bigger than ourselves, they will listen. The choice is ours.

* I need to emphasise here the free nature of this choice.
** Those who know me may find this statement quite interesting, as I am a supporter of human rights. My point here, though, is that individual rights are not the end goal. I will always support the goal of seeing each person attain their fundamental human rights (especially where those rights are impinged by another!), however I see this as a starting point, rather than the end goal.
*** Some may argue that self-interest is actually very ‘natural’ for humans. I am convinced, however, that self-interest is the central feature of what is often referred to as ‘sin’, and is not the ideal natural state for humans to occupy.

Challenging the Individualistic (False?) Gospel

Last Sunday I had the incredible privilege of attending a combined church service in a small village in rural South Africa.

It was an amazing experience!

The whole service was very special, and the time we spent after the service listening to and praying with the local church leaders over lunch was beautiful, but the thing that stood out most significantly to me was the singing. Oh the singing!

What struck me was the way in which the individual voices worked together so perfectly to produce the whole. These voices came together so gracefully (and seemingly effortlessly!) to produce impossibly beautiful harmonies. As soon as someone led off with a new song the people in the congregation instantly (quite literally) sprang into action – each voice playing its own part (and individually discernible if you paid close enough attention) to produce a remarkable symphony. Individually, each voice was good and each part necessary; together they were sublime.

In the midst of this experience, I was struck by the intrinsic social nature of humanity in general and of Christianity in particular; the way in which we only make sense in relation to others. I couldn’t help thinking of the powerful imagery the Apostle Paul uses when talking about individual Christians coming together to form one ‘body’. Each part is necessary and must play its own part in order for the whole ‘body’ to function as it should.

I was also struck by how profoundly us Western Christians miss this point.

Of course, this is something that’s been noted many times before, and I don’t really want to get into that whole naive and simplistic notion of how everything about Western Christianity is corrupt and useless and how everything about (in this case) African Christianity must therefore be pure and wonderful. Reality is always far more complex than this, and those statements taken at face value are plainly ridiculous.

Rather, I want to offer two relatively simple observations that stood out to me in the midst of the church service and that wonderful singing.

1) Firstly, I feel like a fairly sizeable proportion of the Church in Australia—at least the parts I’ve had a lot of experience of—has prioritised the personal over the communal to such an extent that individualistic Christianity, if it can be called such, has triumphed. We are taught to focus on our (individual) walk with God. We seek to understand God’s plan for our (singular) lives. When we meet together we are often told to block out everyone else and focus only on God. We hear the biblical imperatives in the second person singular.

Now I don’t for a moment want to forget that our faith must be personal, but I do want to keep that understanding in tension with the fact that our faith must absolutely not become individualistic. It just doesn’t work that way.

In fact, it is my belief that Christianity should offer the most significant critique of and alternative to the rampant individualism that we so often see in Western societies, rather than being (as has so often happened) the conduit for it.

2) Secondly, and this point leads out of the first, the intense focus on personal (or more specifically individual) ‘sin’ has meant that we have lost almost all understanding of the social nature of sin. Not only is personal sin often something that involves other people anyway, but there is significant social or ‘structural’ sin that plagues our societies. I know this might offend some people (who might consider that places like the U.K. or the U.S. or Australia are societies which are ‘based on Christian values’), but I am convinced that there are structures of institutionalised ‘sin’ that are far bigger than one person. There are groups or organisations or companies or social structures or prevailing attitudes or cultural practices that are partly or wholly oppressive or exploitative or just plain evil. These things are real, and they don’t just disappear if we ignore them. In fact, that’s how they thrive.

Again, I don’t want to neglect the fact that our faith should certainly be personal. We do need to bring our own thoughts and attitudes into the light for examination. The point, I guess, is that it can’t stop there. It cannot be our sole focus. Unfortunately, it often is.

And so I finish where I began.

The extraordinary singing only worked because each voice understood itself in relation to the others. It is because of this fact, I think, that the result was a thing of such beauty. May our lives be the same.