Addressing Our Heart Warming Practice of Self-Interest in 300 Words or Less

We respond to a discussion starter in 300 words or less each week in our Christian Ethics class.

This week’s topic was particularly beautiful, so I thought I’d share it:

At the heart of a Trinitarian ethic are three crucial claims, derived from the doctrines of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: God is sovereign over all of life, the will of God for human interaction has been revealed in Jesus Christ, and God acts independently of the claims and interests of any social group or ideology. Identify one potentially unjust or dehumanizing belief prevalent in the moral understandings of the society in which you live, and explain how any or all of these three claims might equip believers to critique and resist that belief.

How awesome it would be for churches to begin evaluating themselves, their beliefs, and their lives with these sorts of thoughts!  Anyway, the first thing that came to my mind is our socially venerated self-interest.

**By the term “self-interest” I mean the practice of seeking one’s own interests above all else when relating with or to others**

The moral superiority of self-interest is a hugely pervasive belief in our society. Our economic system was built upon the belief that an invisible hand of greed guides our market to meaningful growth, our international relationships are defined by the interests of our homeland corporations, and our national security trumps the freedom of countless humans living in foreign countries across the world while we are repeatedly reminded of our Divine Mandate to “Obey [our] thirst[s],” and “Have it [our] way.”  The affects of this underlying conviction are visible all over the surface of our culture.

Is the moral superiority of self-interest defensible in light of the Trinitarian nature?   If God the Father teaches us that God is sovereign over all of human life, then we must recognize that everything exists primarily for God.  This, at least, places self-interest in subordination to the interests of the Creator.  If the life of Jesus reveals God’s intentions for human interaction, then people are not created simply to serve themselves, but to pursue the interests of others.  Have we any greater picture of self-sacrifice than the life of Christ?  If God acts independently of any social group’s claims or ideologies, then we must realize that special group interest (larger scale self-interest) falls short of the altruistic, all inclusive love for all humans that characterizes the reign of God.

Is self-interest morally superior?  In a word, no.

If we are to use the essence of the Trinity as our basis for understanding ethics, we must love (seek the interests of) those outside of ourselves and our own groups.  We must even love those who hate us; and, in doing so, tap into the very nature of God (cf. Matthew 5:43-45).

Allen Marshall O'Brien

Allen Marshall O’Brien is the pastor of a UCC church in Northern California and co-host of the Irenicast. He believes in the importance of education, peace, and ecology, throws things to his border collie Sonata, and writes for multiple platforms.

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