Eccentric Christianity: Part 6, The Eccentric Economy of Love

In my books Unclean and The Slavery of Death I describe how, especially in America, our neurotic fear of death often manifests as an embarrassment regarding our neediness and vulnerability.

One of the most shaming things in America is to ask for help, especially material, economic and financial help.

But we are also shamed by physical and psychological needs. Aging. Debility. Handicap. Mental illness.

Success in America is to need nothing. To never need help. Your job in America is to be fine. Autonomous and self-sufficient. To be anything less--to need the help of others--is to be a failure. A drag on society. A loser.

This shaming is killing our churches as it shuts down the economy of love, the ways in which we share and respond to the needs of others and how they respond to our needs. The theologian Arthur McGill calls this economy of love a "community of neediness."

But the flow of this economy shuts down if everyone in the church is neurotically shamed into hiding their needs from others. We all would rather play the hero, we all want to be the helper, the one who serves. But we don't ever want to be the one being rescued, or the one needing help, or the one who is being served. Standing in that location--being the needy one among us--is very, very uncomfortable.

Churches tend to hide their fear of loving each other by serving strangers outside the community of faith. The church gives food at the food pantry. The youth group builds a house for a poor family on a mission trip. We send money overseas to the Third World.

Those people are the needy people. We'll help them. But me? I'm fine. I'm good. No, I don't need anything. Can I help you?

It's not that those people at the food pantry or in the Third World don't need anything. It's that the church is responding to these needs in a state of denial. The church is denying its own need, weakness and vulnerability. Thus, the church comes to see itself as a hero, riding in on a white horse to save others. Since we don't need anything from the people we are helping there is no reciprocity, no economy, no relationship, no giving and sharing back and forth.

We show up, do our good deeds and then pack up and leave. Why? Because we don't need anything from those people. They need us. We don't need them.

But we do need them. And we need each other.

All that to say, the economy of love is an eccentric experience. Need is turning outward to others with the expectation of help. What I currently "have" on the "inside" is not enough. I am not self-sufficient. I need you.

In a community of neediness I must look eccentrically outward toward others. In the eccentric economy of love I am filled by others who pour themselves into my life as I pour myself into theirs.

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8 thoughts on “Eccentric Christianity: Part 6, The Eccentric Economy of Love”

  1. Thanks for the posting. As a Scot living in England (i.e. in the UK), much of what you described applies over here. It certainly struck a chord in my own life and challenged me to rethink my attitude in church. So thank you.

    I wondered to what extent the post is highlighting a blind spot which often exists in 'middle class' or 'upwardly mobile' communities. In other contexts, say one of material and social poverty, it appears that a message which promises the hearer greater independence/success/blessing (i.e. less helplessness) is pastorally more helpful and encouraging, in so far as it helps people to persevere in challenging situations. For in these types of contexts people are usually acutely aware of their lack, and there can be the temptation of focusing on their lack/inability/helplessness or see that as an integral part of their identity.

    So as I'm writing i'm wondering if its 'horses for courses' or is there a holistic view which can account for the different social locations and the influence which they have upon life?

  2. I like the notion of "an economy of love" as it suggests that there has to be movement in the system, what we might call "mutuality." I think the rise of individualism and capitalism shut down the movement, each of us focusing on our own material well-being. That autonomy has two effects, the blindness you note among those who are "successful" (those who make it to the middle-class) or a feeling of inferiority among those who can't, on their own. make it or stay in the middle class.

    I imagine our material situations as individual buckets of varying degrees of fulness. When the buckets are full we feel secure and self-sufficient. When the buckets are low or leaking we grow anxious and insecure. The issue, as I see it, is that when the buckets stand there statically all we can do is measure the levels in each, noting the associated psychological and communal consequences of each level.

    But if the buckets were allowed to flow back and forth into each other? Where needs are expressed and responded to? It's movement among the buckets--pouring back and forth--that is lacking. And I think that movement is lacking because we've grown increasingly ashamed to express or show needs to each other. That shame shuts down the expression of need which stops the flow. And it's a reinforcing cycle. As the flow slows--as less and less need is expressed--the shame increases, which slows the flow even more. And so on until the flow stops entirely.

    Not sure if this is what you're looking for as a "holistic view," but that's what I think of when I go to church: We are a collection of buckets and to what degree are the buckets standing upright and isolated or tipping over and pouring into each other?

    I think love is the amount of flow between those buckets.

  3. I see the pouring of love blocked on two fronts. First, there are those, as you mentioned, who are neurotically shamed into hiding their needs from others. On more than a few occasions, I have listened to someone say, in way or another, "I don't know how to say 'I need' without sounding like I'm whining. I usually regret trying." I believe the reason simply being is that though we like to think of self as one who listens to one in need with heart and understanding, we often give the look that we are embarrassed for them. In short, our reaction to those in need need honest examination.

    Secondly, there's the problem of our egos. As you mentioned, we want to be the hero. The hero wants to be the star, the one that the camera is on, feeling as if each gathering is the movie of my life. I cannot help but remember the story of an interview with Stan Laurel, of the comedy team of Laurel & Hardy. The reporter asked Stan, "How do you feel when you watch yourself on the screen?" To which Stan answered, "Oh, I never watch myself. I watch Ollie. He's the funny one; he makes me laugh". I think when can look at one another and smile, I'm speaking of a REAL smile, the kind though which we actually look at one another, love will then dissolve all embarrassment.

  4. Oh yes, thank you for this post! It brought to mind the words of the hymn by Richard Gillard:

    Brother, let me be your servant.
    Let me be as Christ to you;
    Pray that I may have the grace
    To let you be my servant, too.

    Thank you too for the book Unclean. It was very helpful for a dissertation.

  5. "Churches tend to hide their fear of loving each other by serving strangers outside the community of faith."

    But if churches serve those outside the local community, the presumption is that the local community does not have significant needs. In that case, poor persons are de facto outsiders. So, if you're not relatively well-to-do, church is not for you.

    I wonder to what extent the decline in church attendance reflects the decline of the middle class. I think it's major--in which case to save itself, the church needs to refocus on meeting the needs of the poor in ways that allow poor persons to play a major role.

    In other words, what the (wealthy Western) Church needs to do is to be the Church...

    To push the point further, poor persons typically struggle to eat well because of a lack of funds, well-to-do persons typically struggle to eat well because of a lack of time, and Christian disciples are to commemorate Jesus' life by celebrating meals together.

    If so, what the (wealthy Western) Church needs to do is to be the Church as directed...

    The possibilities for ministry (love in action) are astounding.

  6. I've been thinking about this topic ever since I grew old enough to give rides and money to people who were clearly in a greater state of need than I. I've realized that being the one providing to others puts me in the "higher" psychological and social position whether I realize it or not. One way of talking about this that may help others understand this is understanding the pleasure of giving. What I mean by that is if the church could better understand that being the "giver" is a privilege and a psychological comfort (as you point out at the beginning of this post) we could start allowing others to "play the role of the giver" and in turn make ourselves more vulnerable. Which would lead to everyone being able to give as well as receive, regardless of how (socially, economically, etc) secure he or she is.

    I don't know if that made any sense or if it's applicable at all, but I thought I'd share.

  7. I very much like your "collection of buckets" analogy! Yes! We have recently formed in our community - the local church, AND hopefully, the larger community around us - a "center" for Community of Hope, which is an international, ecumenical organization of highly-trained pastoral caregivers. Two things which illustrate your point, I think, are 1) despite the knowledge that there are needs within our congregation, our so-called caregivers are not being called on. Mostly, what we seem to do are go to those about whom we hear and ask to demonstrate caring. 2) Among ourselves, (the "helpers") we are being challenged to ask for our own help, when we need it. Illustrative of your point, I'm thinking. Thank you for your poignant thoughts; I will take your thoughts to our next gathering and plan to challenge us with the "collection of buckets" idea, especially.

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