Regaining a Neighborly Narrative
June 3, 2022
Part 1 concluded by observing that if we are going to rehumanize our work in business and investing, we need a larger, more inspiring narrative than that of unbridled self-interest.
One such example comes from First Nations author and educator, Robin Wall Kimmerer, who explores gratitude and reciprocity in an Emergence Magazine essay entitled “The Serviceberry: An Economy of Abundance.” From her perspective, “Conceiving of something as a gift changes your relationship to it in a profound way . . .” As she considers the life-giving role of Serviceberries in the larger biome, Wall Kimmerer invites a more expansive definition of economics. Rather than the production, consumption, and distribution of goods and services under scarcity conditions, she calls for a definition of economics that summons new possibilities.
The Greek word οἶκος or “home,” stem for both ecology and economics, is a term that offers fresh insight. How we think about something influences how we behave. If we view investments as a commoditized thing, a dislocated product and/or service separate from its larger living ecosystem, we debase it. If, however, we recognize the role investments play in human flourishing, we cultivate a different, richer garden.
Jesus’ final exchange with the religious scholar provides fertile soil for the flora (the flourishing) of our personal and professional lives.
Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers? He [the lawyer] said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:36-37, NRSV)
A sense of our home-embeddedness reinforces our God-given call to practice interdependency and mutuality in the broader web of our community and work-related relationships. When we begin to see our work and investing holistically as bandaging wounds and serving neighbor, we move from mere workers to worshipers, recrafting our jobs from isolated labor to sacramental, civic service. Rather than investing only for a return, we look through to the people affected by the businesses in which we’re investing. Rather than engaging in financial management, advising, and investing as merely a technical craft, we embrace our vocation as an active liturgy of educating, counseling, and guiding others into greater human flourishing.
Reflecting on the actions of the Samaritan as a holistic model to better serve the financial needs of neighbors, consider three opportunities for further growth:
The Little Economy Must Be in Sync with the Great Economy. In his essay “Two Economies,” author and environmental activist Wendell Berry distinguishes between the “little economy” or “human economy” and the “Great Economy.” According to Berry, if the human economy is to be a worthy economy, it “must fit harmoniously within and must correspond to the Great Economy.” For any leader or organization to truly flourish, they must always see their “little economy” work as an act of neighborly love within a larger whole — a single tithe joining other gifts to strengthen the community to which it belongs.
Berry likens the bond of the little economy to the Great Economy as one of harmony — a wheel in sync with creation, or as the prophet-priest Ezekiel imagines, “a wheel in the middle of a wheel.” (See Ezekiel 1:16, NRSV). According to Berry, the human economy cannot dictate its terms to the Great Economy, just as we cannot dictate our terms to God. “The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps.” (Proverbs 16:9, NRSV). When our little wheel turns in opposition to the great wheel, we embrace competitiveness, scarcity, and the neuroses of our daily lives. “If, on the other hand, we see ourselves as living within the Great Economy, under the necessity of making our little human economy within it, according to its own terms, the smaller wheel turning in sympathy with the greater, receiving its being and its motion from it, then we see that the traditional virtues are necessary and practically justifiable.”1
To invest faithfully, we must quiet the inner and outer forces that impede our best neighborly attention. Whether it be the pressure of sales, the unending demands of regulatory paperwork, or the time constraints that constrict our days, Samaritan-like service discerns and prioritizes the needs of others.
Our Little Economy Is Derivative of the Great Economy. Another key difference, according to Berry, is the dependence the little economy has on the Great Economy. Although “a human economy can evaluate, distribute, use, and preserve things of value, it cannot make value. Value can only originate in the Great Economy.” Participants within the human economy must recognize that all of its creative resources — natural, intellectual, social, and financial — are derivative of a greater life force. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:1, NRSV). Only God creates out of nothing; we create out of the world he formed.
Which means that all our work and investing is derivative. The noble work of investors depends on millions of others who assess the viability of markets; design, engineer, and manufacture products; fulfill orders; transport goods and services; account for financial transactions; and attend to customers. In fact, all our various forms of work depend on the work of others. And the (legitimate) work of humans originates from the work of God, whose image we bear.
Our Role in Reversing a Globalization of Indifference. As we better understand our embeddedness within God’s larger economy, we are called to action on his behalf. Pope Francis in a July 2013 homily reflects on the priest and Levite as illustrative of global indifference.
Today no one in our world feels responsible; we have lost a sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters. We have fallen into the hypocrisy of the priest and the Levite whom Jesus described in the parable of the Good Samaritan: we see our brother half dead on the side of the road, and perhaps we say to ourselves: “poor soul!” and then go on our way. It’s not our responsibility, and with that we feel reassured, assuaged. The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others; indeed, it even leads to the globalization of indifference. In this globalized world, we have fallen into globalized indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business!
In his speech at the Mason Temple the night before he was gunned down at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Martin Luther King also spoke of the Good Samaritan, “who decided not to be compassionate by proxy” but got down alongside his brother in a posture of “dangerous unselfishness,” bandaging wounds, showing heartfelt concern for the stricken, and demonstrating deep capacity “to project the I into the thou.”
The Great Recession and the precipitating role that the investment industry played in it is a prime example of economic dislocation and global indifference. Financial capital, and the vital role it has in ordering our world should never be commoditized. To do so cheapens the life force it can bring to a needy world. When animated by a grander narrative — one rooted in beauty, truth, and goodness — the gift of financial capital and its effective stewardship reflects the “abundance of the sea,” “the wealth of the nations,” and “the Glory of Lebanon” as pictured in the New Jerusalem, the restored kingdom of Isaiah 60.
Investing delivers its greatest value when it remembers that it is “a wheel in the middle of a wheel.” The capacity to see and serve neighbors requires a larger story — a grand narrative that comprehends need through the eyes of a Samaritan on a dusty, dangerous road two thousand years ago, or a sanitation worker in Memphis in 1968. As Dr. King observed, the priest and the Levite both asked, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But the Good Samaritan reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
Jesus told his parable with purpose, and its message instructs today. Neighborliness breaks down barriers, crosses over, bends down, dresses wounds, and risks loving and being loved. Neighborliness is rooted in action, agency, responsibility. Financial advisors, managers, and investors, have almost limitless opportunities to help heal a broken world. Heeding Jesus’ response to the religious scholar, he commissions you: “Go and do likewise.”
Image Credit: Christ Preaching (La Petite Tombe), c. 1652, Rembrandt van Rijn