Friday, August 17, 2007

Moving Beyond Zero Sum

BBC News reports this morning that "The international aid group, Care, has rejected a [food] donation of $45m (£22.7m) from the United States government." The story continues:

Care criticised the way US food aid is distributed, saying it harms local farmers, especially in Africa.

It said wheat donated by the US government and distributed by charities introduced low prices that local farmers are unable to compete with.

But USAid says assessments are carried out to try to ensure that commodities do not disrupt local production.

Correspondents says disagreements have emerged in the US aid community on the best way to use food aid.

"We came to the realisation that if we wanted to do what was in the best interest of poor people and efficiency in aid, that this wasn't it," Care President Helene Gayle told Reuters news agency.

Care said it did not oppose emergency food aid during periods of drought or famine.

But the group said the US government's method of food aid did not help communities which were permanently in need.

I'm struck by this story because it calls in to question are naive thought that simply "intending good" is the same as "doing good." But in fact, as the above news report suggests, sometimes doing what we think is good--and might even be good in the short term--has negative consequences in the long term.

Likewise we often discover that doing this or that particular good thing, precludes are doing other, equally good things. For example, if I give $5.00 to a homeless man on the street I don't have that money to say, give to the Church to spend on mission work. Granted the example is simplistic, but it is offered for illustrative purposes only.

In the background of all of this is what we might call a "zero sum" approach to the various good works of the Church. What is zero sum? Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, describes it this way:

In game theory, zero-sum describes a situation in which a participant's gain or loss is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the other participant(s). It is so named because when the total gains of the participants are added up, and the total losses are subtracted, they will sum to zero. Chess and Go are examples of a zero-sum game: it is impossible for both players to win. Zero-sum can be thought of more generally as constant sum where the benefits and losses to all players sum to the same value. Cutting a cake is zero- or constant-sum because taking a larger piece reduces the amount of cake available for others. In contrast, non-zero-sum describes a situation in which the interacting parties' aggregate gains and losses is either less than or more than zero.
While there is much in the tradition of the Church--East and West--that is incalculably value for our spiritual lives, we need to exercise a bit of prudence that we not uncritically take over the zero-sum world view that is common in many pre-modern (i.e., pre-capitalist) cultures.

Often in our conversation about the spiritual life and the life of the Church we in fact do fall into looking at reality as a zero-sum game. We think there is only one way to be good and when that happens we hold on to this one good thing even in the face of evidence to the contrary (like in the BBC story above).

Take for example the resistance we often encounter in parishes when they begin to add new members either through transfer from other parishes or by conversion. The concern is often raised by the established members that the "new people" are changing everything.

In a sense of course they are. A parish is a fairly complex social group. New members invariably change the relational dynamics in the community much the same way as adding rocks to a stream can change not only the flow of water within the stream, but even cause the stream to over flow its banks. Adding rocks doesn't just change the internal dynamics of the stream, it makes a "new" stream, that is, it changes how the stream interacts with the larger environment.

When we added new people to a parish, yes, things change and sometime, as when the circumstances of our personal lives change, new situations bring new stresses. But new people in a parish also allow us to discover new understandings of ourselves as a community, new insights into what God would call us to do, and even new opportunities for service. If we allow ourselves to welcome new people into our lives, they, like new situations, make it possible for us to discover new gifts in ourselves. And all of this is possible because the Christian life is not a zero-sum game. Life in Christ, St Paul tells us, means moving "from glory to glory" (2 Cor 3.18).

This phrase, "from glory to glory," was a special favorite of St Gregory Nyssa. He writes:

[Let] no one be grieved if he sees in his nature a penchant for change. Changing in everything for the better, let him exchange "glory for glory," becoming greater through daily increase, ever perfecting himself and never arriving too quickly at the limit of perfection. For this is truly perfection: never to stop growing toward what is better and never placing any limits to perfection.
Taken up in faith, hope and love, change in ourselves, our communities and the world around us isn't to be feared, but raced towards--a passage from "glory to glory." But this requires from us not only detachment in a spiritual sense, but also a basic sense of trust and a relaxed psychological openness to the world around us. This trusting openness, this detachment, is not possible however, if we allow ourselves to become run down trying to manage and control every element of our lives.

Again we see this in parishes that simply won't change. Eventually the desire to not change, to remain the same, takes over and soon not only are new people, new ideas and new ways of doing thing threatening, even the same old people, ideas and ways of doing things become a source of anxiety. Why? Because like it or not, things and people simply change--we can't remain static in our spiritual lives or our community lives without doing violence to others and ultimately ourselves.

In the end a zero-sum approach to life fosters in us fear and suspicion. Paradoxically, the harder we hold on to "the way things have always been," the less secure they become. Like trying to hold tightly on to water, it just doesn't work.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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