Zero-Sum Relationships

— Andy Wade —

For me to gain means you must lose. That’s the basis of a zero-sum relationship. This kind of thinking is deeply embedded in our western culture, especially within the “free market” culture. Life is a competition and, while I might choose to be charitable from time to time, for me to get ahead means others must sacrifice.

t.mcall.2This is also the approach we take with nature. It’s assumed that to grow a plant means the soil will lose nutrients. On the surface, that makes sense. But what if that’s not the way God designed creation? What if God’s design was one of interdependence and self-sacrifice? And what if our misunderstanding of creation and our part in God’s creation plan has influenced our theological framework? Could it be that we have oversimplified the purpose and message of the cross? Have we over simplified Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, reducing it to “God sacrificed, I win” –zero-sum in action.

But a closer look at what Jesus actually says about it reveals something quite different: Jesus sacrificed so that we all may become one as he and the Father are one. Or as the Apostle Paul phrases it, “ For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” Col 1:19-20). This is not zero-sum but rather self-sacrifice for the flourishing of the whole creation! 

It’s interesting that when we go all the way back to the story of the Garden of Eden, zero-sum is introduced by Adam when he blames Eve for their mutual disobedience. The result? Fractured relationships between God and humans, between human and human, and between humans and creation. In the very next chapter (4) Cain takes the life of his brother, Abel, and when confronted by God exclaims, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Choosing to live into the fracture rather than the hope, Cain experiences dislocation from the flourishing life of mutuality God intended.

These are some of the thoughts swirling through my mind as I watched Michael Pollen’s presentation on restorative food systems at the Bioneers conference in 2013. While his is not an intentional theological reflection on our relationship with creation, it is, nonetheless, deeply theological. God’s power and purposes are visible in creation. Anyone, no matter their theological persuasion, can observe God’s creation and see how it was designed for mutual flourishing and sacrifice. As I’ve said in other posts, we may choose to live into the “curse”, our broken relationships with each other and the whole creation, or we can live into the promise and hope the whole creation was founded upon, and to which the cross beckons, healing, wholeness, mutuality, and sacrifice.

Watch the video and see what you think.