Monday, July 21, 2014

Rethinking Utilitarianism

Something's been bugging me about the middle class Christian values taught to me growing up. You see, I was raised to make my life count, to "make a difference in the world." My Sunday school teachers in high school advised that since my classmates and I belonged to the richest 1% in the world, we should use our opportunities and privilege to create justice for the poor (Isaiah 58 was blowing up like no other back then). The gist of their teaching was, "If you're going to be a lawyer, be a lawyer for the marginalized. If you're going to be a doctor, work in public health with the uninsured." The implicit argument was use your influence for good.

That's all fine and dandy. I'm not saying that wanting to live a life of service to others is for dreamers and fools. Yes, if you have a burning passion to reach out to those that society has thrown away and forgotten, I think that's so cool!

My problem is with the Christians that think they know the *best* (subtext: only acceptable) way to engage in social justice. Utilitarian influences are pervasive if not unquestioned in Christian thought--post-modern, middle class, 'progressive,' American, Pacific Northwest Christian thought, especially. This is not good! Let's unpack this a little.

To put it roughly, utilitarianism values getting 'the best bang for your buck.' Jon Stuart Mill, the 'father' of utilitarianism, was interested in the question: How can we maximize happiness (on the societal leval) and minimize unhappiness? It's about creating the greatest total impact of happiness using the limited resources available--optimization and efficiency are key in Mill's take on 'best' social policy.

So what does this have to do with my Sunday school teachers telling me to 'make a difference' with my educational and career choices? Well, kind of everything.

There's no denying that injustice is rampant around us. What's unfair in the world today? Uhhh, a ton of things. That's a big "duh." (See: racism, sexism, class difference, physical/emotional abuse) It's not hard to see what's wrong. And for those already on the social justice bandwagon (I include myself in this!), it's pretty obvious that there's much to be done.

However, it seems to me that progressive American Christianity's answer to social injustice has been get as much worldly power as you can, and exert it to benefit the poor.

"What's wrong with that?" you may ask. "Why shouldn't we help the largest amount of people possible by attaining the largest amount of political/financial power possible?" Again, the implicit statement is I'm going to use my power for good!!!

Let me put it to you this way: would you consider Jesus' actions during his life to be utilitarian in nature? Did Jesus 'work his way up' in Jewish society so that he could 'change the system from within' from a position of power? NO! In fact, he was reviled and rejected by those in power, Jewish and Roman alike. Rather than rise up in the ranks and use political power to effect a cultural change, he preferred to go from village to village with "no place to lay his head" (Matthew 8:20). "[H]e made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant" (Philippians 2:7). He knew that the political systems of his time were corrupt (e.g. crooked tax collectors, hypocritical Pharisees), but rather than creating a complete institutional overhaul by force (i.e. taking up worldly power/kingship and exerting influence), he was in fact, victimized by the unjust justice system. Does this not blow your mind?!

Utilitarianism posits that top-down reform is (supposedly) the "best" because it affects the largest amount of people, therefore maximizing positive impact.

How does this manifest in the church? Have you ever met someone who's so well-versed in the ways of "correct" social justice that they "pooh-pooh" "handouts" and "band-aid solutions" such as soup kitchens and emergency shelters? A person like that might say, "Oh, meals for the homeless? You know that only addresses symptoms, not the cause, right? True structural change has to come before THAT can be fixed." To the well-meaning believer engaged in charity work, a social justice snob would deem said work utterly inadequate.

I do not mean to be ranting and rude--trust me, I used to be a social justice snob. I applied to get my MPA at UW, for goodness sake! I was convinced that I need to use my power for good.

However, this utilitarian "policy-level-change-or-bust" mentality is severely restricting. More important, though, is to question of how it agrees with or comes against the will of God. What does the Lord think about this?

On a personal level, I have been reflecting deeply and praying about how God desires to use my life to effect justice in the world, to bring his kingdom to earth. And he's been breaking down my utilitarian mindset.

I am "smart." I can talk to other "smart" people and excel in the world of politically powerful, "smart" people (i.e. when I worked for King County). I'm sure I could exert plenty of influence on behalf of the disenfranchised on the policy level if I wanted to go that route.

But the most important question is: Is that what God is calling me to?

In May I received a word from God that due to the immensity of my giftings (i.e. being "smart"), there was a pressure for me to achieve much. The Lord said, "That is not my way for you. I have shoes for you that fit just right." Well, I just started crying when I heard that. What a relief! God was releasing me from the pressure to 'make it big' in the world to 'make the biggest difference possible.' He was releasing me from utilitarian ways of thinking and inviting me into kingdom ways of thinking.

I am convinced that God is aware of social justice in an intimate, nuanced way that only an omniscient God can. I am thus also convinced that he knows exactly how he is going to address it--and more specifically, how he would like us as individual believers to address it.

Let's not confuse the world's ways of dealing with social injustice with God's specific call for us to engage it. One-size-fits-all approaches to social justice work is total malarkey. And for those who buy into and perpetuate the culture of Christian utilitarianism--be careful!

For God has said,
"[M]y thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways... As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:8-9).
May God reveal his ways for you to address social injustice today!