A Non-Zero-Sum Life

Probably like some of you, I have been spending a good deal of time in front of the TV lately watching the Olympics. And I'll come right out and say it ... it's been a rough one this year. The constant commentary on political tensions with China, and the heartbreaking doping scandal involving a fifteen-year-old Russian figure skater--overlayed, of course, by the threat of war in Eastern Europe. The only sport I've really been able to enjoy watching this year has been curling, of all things. I still have no idea how the bizarre shuffleboard-on-ice game is scored, but there is something comforting in watching a perfectly polished hunk of granite smoothly slide down the ice. Injuries are extremely unlikely in curling and doping is pointless, frankly.

At the other end of the spectrum, the downhill skiing this season has had a good deal of drama, and I have kept an eye on Mikaela Shiffrin's journey. She is an American alpine skier who has won medals in the past two winter Olympics, and she was expected to perform well in the Beijing games. In three of her six events, though, she crashed. Nothing spectacular--no medics needed. Mikaela just leaned a little too far and fell, or missed a gate, tripping her up and disqualifying her run. You could just about feel her frustration--and utter confusion--after the failed events. In a post-race conversation with a journalist, a baffled Mikaela said, "I don't know what I'm supposed to fix. I don't know if there's anything to fix." She felt like she had done everything right. She had trained hard, the course felt good, she certainly had the credentials. Her performance just didn't add up.

And as I was considering this morning's passage from Luke, thinking about the litany of illogical requests that Jesus makes of his followers--requests that just don't add up, Mikaela's comment came to mind.

In this world we live in--this world of bank accounts and balance sheets, of contest and competition, we expect things to add up. Our businesses run on sound accounting principles and the knowledge that resources are finite. If we spend money over here, we'll have less over here. Labor has value too. If we work hard we expect to see positive results. And we have these expectations for good reason. Most of the time our formulas are rock solid--one plus one does equal two. Things add up.

A term often used in economics to understand this phenomenon is zero-sum. You can think of it this way: In a game of poker the chips on the table at the beginning of a game are still on the table after the game ends, they just get redistributed. When one player wins another player loses. The sinister side of zero-sum thinking is when it moves beyond the game table and becomes a guiding principle for how we relate to each other, and we begin make emotional decisions based on the thrill of a win or the fear of a loss; if we believe that there's only so much to go around, then we ought to play our cards right so that we can come out on top. We see consequences of a zero-sum mentality daily in the economic and social disparities in this world. We also see the tell-tale signs of its destructive power in the wake of broken relationships. If we believe there are only winners and losers, why would we dare show vulnerability? Why would we trust? Why would we have faith?

In today's passage from Luke, Jesus's message is distinctly non-zero-sum. The Kingdom of Heaven just doesn't add up to those who only see the world in black and white. Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Pray for those who abuse you. Turn the other cheek. If someone takes your coat, give them your shirt also. Lend without expecting anything in return. These sayings bring another piece of Scripture to mind: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.” Jesus's words can be truly baffling to us who are immersed in the win-lose economy of this world. And yet, by virtue of our baptism, we have become citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven and are to be ambassadors of God's impossible, unlimited grace.

The often quoted author, G.K. Chesterton once said that the kind of love Jesus speaks of would transform our world. The trouble is that this kind of Christianity has never been tried.

So, how do we give Jesus's non-zero-sum life a try? Well, we don't have to start with loving our enemies--admittedly, that's pretty advanced stuff. We start by accepting the fact that we, ourselves, are profoundly loved by God, warts and all. For some of us, that's a pretty tall order in and of itself. Knowing we are deserving of love, we then work on loving ourselves, then those we're already fond of, and then we work on growing compassion for those who frustrate us, or for those who have caused us pain. And along the way we'll come to see that giving our coat away is not simply a redistribution of finite goods, but an expression of God's limitless love.

There are actual spiritual practices within our tradition that help us along this path. Making the shift from a zero-sum perspective, where the world is comprised only of winners and losers, to embracing Jesus's non-zero-sum life, is our baptismal charge. Imagine a world where there are no winners or losers--only beloved children of God. This is the promise of the Kingdom of Heaven. This is the truth that will set us free.

Back to the skier Mikaela Shiffrin for a minute. Her reaction to not finishing as well as she had hoped struck me because it seemed to be a transformative experience for her. She was clearly shocked and disappointed, but she didn't crumble in on herself. She didn't associate her sense of self-worth with her performance. She was complementary of her fellow skiers and seemed truly thankful for the opportunity simply to be a part of the Olympics. Apparently, though, she has been the recipient of a great deal of hateful comments on social media--people accusing her of not trying hard enough, and calling her a loser. Her response has been magnanimous--showing compassion for these angry people clearly imprisoned in a two-toned world of winners and losers.

After Mikaela's final event she said this: “I have had a lot of disappointing moments at these Games — today is not one of them. Today is my favorite memory. This was the best possible way that I could imagine ending the Games, skiing with such strong teammates.”

This, my friends, is non-zero-sum living. And it can transform the world.

The Rev. Canon Jason Alexander
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