Posted by: dacalu | 28 December 2011

Social Capital

The Church runs on social capital – genuine interest in, affection and concern for others – commonly known (though rarely understood) as love.  I believe this to be the besetting challenge for Christians. 

For many, this seems obvious, but in a particular way.  They recognize the value of mutual support and, therefore, think of the Church as a group of people helping one another.  Whether the key element of their faith is behavior, belief, or belonging, they see the Church as a group of people who support one another in that endeavor.  They reinforce, both encourage and discourage, people in particular actions and ideas by defining the in-group and the out-group.  The in-group includes those you can depend upon for the right help and you, in turn, have a responsibility to them.  “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”   More commonly, you agree with me and I’ll agree with you.  You help me out – financially, socially, materially – and I’ll help you. 

It works wonderfully well to create an environment of love within the group – and thus, teaches love beautifully.  You have clear examples of right behavior and right thought, because everyone on the inside has them.  And the best examples can be held up for people to emulate.  Love becomes clear precisely because it manifests in our relations to other members, but not to outsiders.  Look, I’ll give you this taste of favor, and you, if you’ll just join the group, can enjoy that kind of support perpetually.  Many cults make a drug out of this kind of inclusion.  You get the high, you get hooked, and you cannot stand the thought of losing approval and support.  It works.  It works because the affection you experience is real, and a profoundly deep human need.

Alas, this type of love may not be true love. (An interesting argument for another time.)  It is reciprocal love, and therefore conditional.  Conditional love presents problems for Christians because Paul and Jesus both speak so ardently against it.  Just as God loves us in spite of anything we might do, so we must love one another, in spite of all impediments.  Conditional love produces genuine interest, affection, and concern, but only for those who meet the conditions.  [Conditions commonly include baptism, being born again, subscribing to a creed, or behaving appropriately.]  The down side comes when we look at members of the out-group.  If you aren’t a member, then the obligations, the entitlements of love fall away.  Members must ask the question: “why haven’t they joined?”  Clearly the outsider must not want to part of the community of “love,” they say.  They must not, then, deserve that love.  It’s a nasty train of thought, but terribly common.  When love becomes a property of the in-group, outsiders necessarily lack love.  And no, that’s not really love.  So love, much like clear thought and openness, cannot be a good definition for the Church, or any group; it automatically downgrades outsiders to haters (or fools or bigots).

Both liberal and conservative Christians are guilty of this type of thinking.

Conditional love means love for members at the expense of hatred or apathy toward outsiders.  It blinds us to the faults of anyone who agrees with us and the merits of those who do not and, as such, makes it harder to learn the important lessons in life.  We are, however, conditioned by evolution to think in this way.  Favoring the in-group means that people like us will be more successful, both in business and in reproduction.  Groups of mutual support make it possible for in-group members to outcompete others.  You can see this in any church that provides housing, medical care, job searching, any number of services for members – or for people they want to become members.  Once again, it’s not a bad thing.  It can represent genuine interest, affection, and concern.  But it represents them to a limited population, and with somewhat of an ulterior motive.

Many modern Christians have responded to this sort of conditional love by trying to reconstruct Christianity without the social capital aspect.  They want a church defined by right belief or right practice.  They want church to be solely about what you think or do, and not about your relationship with others.  Once again, both conservatives and liberals fall into this trap.  For conservatives, there is often a move toward certainty, both intellectual (scriptural inerrancy, dogma) and behavioral (moral rigor).  They want the Church to be a collection of people who are right regardless of whether they love one another.  Liberals on the other hand fall into the trap of making Christianity abstract rather than concrete, intellectually (e.g., process theology) and morally (relativism).

Jesus said that we would be known “by our love,” presumably for God, for one another, and for outsiders.  Jesus goes out of his way in the Gospels to speak of love for the outsider – the widows and orphans (outside economically), the outcast (outside socially), and prisoners (outside legally).  Modern people perceive the hypocrisy of conservatives who love one another but not outsiders (right now gays and the poor would be common outsiders).  They also see the vapidity of faith that doesn’t lead to some form of concrete behavior and belief, which brings us back to social capital.

I don’t know if I’m using the word in the most common sociological sense, but I’d like to highlight the parallels between social and financial capital.  Social capital, like economic capital, increases the more it’s used.  The circulation of capital produces more, because so much of it has to do with trust.  Like, money, social capital represents (though is not identical to) worth.  We can really talk about an abundance, or lack, of interest, affection, and concern for one another within communities and within the world.

So often church leaders want to improve their community by fixing the intellectual or behavioral norms without looking deeply at what makes for real love.  That’s the measure.  What increases love for God (which overflows into love of people)?  What increases love between members (which may or may not overflow into love of outsiders)?  What increases the love of all and each?  It’s a terrible balance, because interest in one person often means not taking the time for interest in another.  Supporting one can mean disregarding – or even taking away from – another.  And there is no way to do the math on any commodity other than love itself.  No way to simplify by enforcing a belief or a behavior.  You genuinely have to look into the hearts of your community, your congregation, your family and ask, is there love there?  Does it overflow?

I have a challenge in my life.  I find love in Christianity.  I think that the words of Jesus, the scriptures, and yes the tradition of the church is soaked in the love of humans for God and for one another.  I believe that to be the central message.  And yet so many Christians practice conditional love, and so many Christians practice abstract belief that I despair at times that I will ever be able to deliver the central Christian message without unpacking all the distrust brought on by my co-religionists.

I cannot tell you what Jesus taught.  I can only show you.  I can only do my best to instill love into communities and individuals, to draw them out of themselves so that they too manifest worth through love.  Do they have inherent worth?  Yes!  Of course, but just in the same way that a potato has calories.  It doesn’t mean something until it comes into contact with something else.  It takes an act of will to love.  It takes listening, understanding, and helping others to generate real value in the world – real social capital that can be spent and redeemed.

Care for someone, not for reciprocity, but for the sake of awaking caring within them.  Love your fellows, your friends, coreligionists, colleagues, and family, but never let that love be an excuse not to love others, not to nourish the spark of compassion wherever you find it.

As you meditate on the economy this year, think of this.  It’s in your power to stimulate the economy of caring.  Let us pray for a truly productive year.

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