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God’s Economy

April 20, 2014
by

When I was in elementary school a friend of mine got in an argument with a classmate over the nature of humanity and pulled me in to support her side. “Don’t you believe,” she asked me, “That people are basically good?” Even at that age I knew enough to be unsurprised by her insistence and enough to be equally sure that I didn’t know enough about the world (the adult world) to give a sure answer. More than two decades on I have a much firmer grasp of my answer to that question: no, people are basically selfish and stop to be good only after their first-order needs are met. However, I am also even less surprised that some people think (or perhaps wish fervently) that people are basically good. For some large chunk of the population it is dogma that people are basically good, that we can all get along and be nice, and that the struggles for power that have oppressed and beaten down humanity for all of recorded history are aberrations caused by odd people who depart from the normal path.

This position becomes even less tenable when applied to the natural world. Again, I know a number of people who believe that animals live wonderful lives in nature but as an ecologist I know better: the gears of the world are greased with the blood of the weak. In the constant struggle to survive animals do horrible things to one another and, frankly, it would be odd to me if humans escaped those impulses entirely.

The problem boils down to some simple rules: most of the world is a zero-sum game. Most resources are limited sharply enough that if you have something I don’t have it. While this is often not apparent in the Western world with many of life’s necessities we are all aware of it at less life-threatening level. If there were less people with PhD’s in zoology I would have a much easier time securing a prestigious job. If fewer people wanted to buy the same computer software that I want to buy the prices probably wouldn’t be nearly as inflated as they are. Many of us, at some point in our lives, imagined a world where there were fewer members of our sex competing for the attention of the opposite sex. The basis of the world is zero-sum and so there is always competition. The fragile peace we have achieved in the Western democracies is built on our wealth – we don’t compete for food and shelter (directly) and so we aren’t willing to escalate the permanent war between us into serious territory.

Jesus draws some oblique attention to this issue in John 18:33-36. Pilate asks Jesus whether he is a king and, with a short interruption, Jesus answers that his kingdom (or perhaps kingship) is not from the world. (This is frequently rendered “of this world” but “of” is fairly slippery and the Greek here is “from” or “out of”.) Jesus explains that if his kingdom were from this world his servants would fight to prevent his arrest. Of course. In the world of kings power is zero-sum and so kings always seek to remove power from other kings to add to their own. The struggle for power is one that has killed millions of people throughout history and the desire of autocrats to keep their station still drives conflicts today. Kings respond to this threat of the removal of power through force, the currency of struggle.

Of course, this is not how Jesus’ story goes. When Jesus is killed by enemy action his kingdom does not collapse and revert to those who killed him. In fact, his kingship, his right to rule, is affirmed and supported. The man who is killed by Pilate appears to be a wandering rabbi of unusual power making Messianic claims. The man who walks out of the tomb on Easter is clearly something more. In an odd twist Jesus’ march towards death is also his ascension to his throne. (His ascension into heaven occurs later but it is worth being careful with our words: Jesus may reign from heaven but he reigns over earth and his claim to be the king over all the earth is solidified by his resurrection, not his ascension.)

By itself this would be an odd footnote in a zero-sum world. One man, one divine man whose humanness was tinged by something else, broke the zero-sum rule. Force was used against him, it appeared to work, and then, suddenly, it didn’t. The man who exerted no force won the struggle. Moreover, he gained power without a clear loss elsewhere. Pilate remained governor of Judea. The Sanhedrin lost none of its legal power. Despite this, both of these parties lost a conflict in which their enemy gained power.

However, in rising from the dead Jesus broke more than just this rule once. In one man’s rising all are promised life. It’s an egregiously-outsized impact on others. I don’t struggle for my salvation, it is handed to me free. Moreover, force is the currency of the struggle for limited resources and suddenly force loses its punch. The power of the oppressor is that the oppressor can put the oppressed to death. If death is robbed of its power the oppressor is also robbed of his power.

It gets worse. If Jesus is God, the savior of all, and sets the rules then those rules are not zero-sum. A couple runs out of wine and their wedding in Cana and Jesus makes more wine from common water. People come to Jesus for healing and he heals all of them without a diminishment of power. If you made a Jesus video game it would be awful. You’d want to give Jesus a power bar that recharged over time and limited his miracles but no, Jesus is at full power all the time. He doesn’t learn new miracles or level up for better ones. Instead, Jesus always has God’s full power at his disposal all the time.

This is one reason that it’s hard to imagine writing a book with God as a character. We think of deus ex machina as a cheap fix for a story – someone or something shows up with previously unknown powers and fixes everything. Stories are built on rules and those rules demand a certain amount of outlay for a certain amount of effect, some limits on what characters can do so that they can face real challenges, and God just doesn’t follow that rule. God does whatever He wants without limits at any time. God isn’t a zero-sum kind of guy.

Part of the offense of miracles is exactly that they are not zero-sum. Magic is in some way more palatable than miracle. If you burn these components and say these words this thing happens. It follows rules, it can be blocked, it has limits. Miracles are not like this. Someone prays and anything at all may happen. Moses doesn’t need to pray a hundred times longer to part the Red Sea than he does to split one rock. Elijah isn’t recorded as saying any prayer at all to bring rain back to a drought-stricken Israel and his prayer to call divine fire from heaven is mockingly perfunctory after the efforts the prophets of Ba’al have put forth without effect. God is clearly careless with limits and overly-generous with His infinite resources.

Easter is a promise that the world is not always going to be zero-sum because Easter is a promise that God has won. If the world were always zero-sum then Christianity would be a farce, giving up what we have when we should be hoarding it. But if the Son of God rises from the dead, if death and hell break under the weight of his triumph, then maybe his crazy rules are winning too. Maybe God’s economy of unbridled generosity can be real. Maybe we can have peace because there need not be any struggle.

If Easter never happened then my hippie friend’s dream of a world where everyone was nice to everyone would be a dream that dies under the harsh light of a limited sun. The kings of the world would fight and make others die because that would be the only way to win. The resurrection tells us that this a world of real peace can be and is coming. God is winning. God has won. And that is good news for all of us.

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