Redemptive Selfishness

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How selfish am I? Or you? How big is our circle of self-interest, our self-centeredness? We celebrate selflessness (altruism). We believe people should be self-giving. We should help others. But most of us most of the time act out of self-interest, don’t we? What is best for me, as I perceive it. So, how big is your, or my, circle of self-interest?

Self-Centered Circles?

Let’s imagine seven circles of self-interest.

First Circle – I focus only on myself. My life centers in me. As much as possible, I do only what I think benefits me. Though common, this attitude is pathological. In extreme cases it leads to suicide or violent acts against society due to a totally warped view of self-interest. Fortunately, most of us pursue self-interest in socially accepted ways!

Second Circle – Me and my family. I focus mainly on whatever touches our family’s (perceived) best interests. I love those who are close to me and take care of them as part of taking care of myself. In many cultures, this means me and my clan, my tribe.

Third Circle – Me and my neighborhood or community. I recognize it’s in my own self-interest to contribute to the wellbeing of those living around me in my town or urban neighborhood, or in my church or other faith community. So I may be involved in various community activities and concerns.

Fourth Circle – My region or state or province. If I live in Michigan, I am concerned about the state’s economy and perhaps about the condition of the Great Lakes. I recognize that my own self-interest requires that schools be good, jobs available, and that essential civic services are provided effectively and efficiently. If I live in Florida, or British Columbia, or Kentucky, I have similar concerns related to my particular place and its wellbeing.

Fifth Circle – I am a patriot, a loyal citizen of my country! I see a connection between self-interest and (perceived) national interest. It serves my own best interest when my country does well; is safe and secure; is prosperous and healthy.

Sixth Circle – I am also a citizen of (shall we say) the United Nations. Or put less sharply: I recognize that my own self-interest is bound up with the best interests of all people everywhere. This is what John Wesley called “disinterested love for all mankind”—that is, a concern about the wellbeing of everyone in the world, whether or not we ever see them, and whether or not they contribute anything to my wellbeing. Wesley saw this as an essential part of loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. It is a key dimensions of holiness.

Sixth-Circle people thus inhabit a big sphere of self-interest. They recognize that what benefits (or endangers) every person in the world in some way benefits (or endangers) them. “No man is an island,” and no person really is an “individual.” We are all webbed.

Sixth-Circle sensitivity may be based in religious concern and love, as it is for many Christians. Or it can be secularly based—a concern for the wellbeing of all people based on a recognition that all people in the world are in fact interdependent within the larger global community. So at this level Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, secular humanists, atheists, and others may share concerns and make common cause on issues that effect everyone, though worldviews may differ radically.

Yet there is an even larger circle.

Seventh Circle – I recognize that my own self-interest is intimately, inextricably, even “scientifically” bound up with the wellbeing of the whole creation. All living things are in fact bound together in one global ecosystem—which in turn thrives or suffers interdependently with the nonliving creation.

Such sensitivity inspired St. Francis’ remarkable poem celebrating “Brother Sun and Sister Moon.” Francis sang,

Praised be You, my Lord, with all your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, Who is the day and through whom You give us light, . . . Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars, . . . Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth, who sustains And governs us . . . (Canticle of Brother Sun).

St. Francis was very self-centered. But what a very big circle of self-interest!

What the World Needs Now

What is it, really, that the world needs now? Not the death of self-interest. That won’t happen. Nor is it biblical. Not pure altruism, which is probably impossible. Rather, a very big and growing circle of self-interest that sees, feels, pictures, and sings about the interdependence of all “the wonderful works [God] has done” (1 Chr. 16:12); all he has made. That is what the world needs now.

My own self-interest prompts passion that other people come to know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; that God’s people walk in all his ways; that nations live in peace; that all life everywhere thrives and flourishes and in some ultimate way praises God. My own self-interest prompts me to walk lightly on the earth; to practice creation stewardship. We don’t have to be totally unselfish.

We just need to have big circles of self-interest. How big is yours? (This blog is a further reflection on “The Community of Earth and Heaven,” chapter 13 in my book Salvation Means Creation Healed)

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International Representative, Manchester Wesley Research Centre in Manchester, England. Formerly professor of the history and theology of mission, Asbury Theological Seminary (1996-2006); Professor of Wesley Studies, Tyndale Seminary, Toronto, 2007-2012. Has taught and pastored in São Paulo, Brazil; Detroit, Michigan; and Chicago, Illinois. Dr. Snyder’s main interest is in the power and relevance of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom for the world today and tomorrow. Works include The Problem of Wineskins, Community of the King, and most recently, Jesus and Pocahontas: Gospel, Mission, and National Myth.

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