Lately I have been writing some posts on what I think the church has to offer the world of Social Enterprise/Social Entrepreneurship. The goal has been to do a little theological work around this topic that extends beyond the world of youth ministry. My sense is that social enterprise needs both the impossible hope of Christianity and its honest and unflinching assessment of a broken world. Today I want to look at the outward orientation of Christianity.
Within the Genesis story is of course the story of Abraham. Abraham is a key figure in our faith and the promise to Abraham frames our entire purpose as human beings. Abraham is promised that he will be the father of a great nation and that through this nation all other nation's will be blessed. (Gen. 12:1-3) While Abraham is receiving a profound gift, he is immediately made to understand that he is merely afforded the privilege of touching a gift that is to remain in transit. Abraham is blessed in order that he and his descendants may serve as a blessing toward others. He doesn't get to hold the blessing. There are two virtues here that offer something to the world of social enterprise.
First, Abraham is a recipient. Well practiced Christianity has a central understanding that God blesses people often in spite of what they do or who they are. Sure, there are many times in Scripture that folks seem to be rewarded for doing right, but there are just as many times that God seems to choose the least likely and even the ostensibly undeserving. Even within the Abraham story there is no particularly robust set of reasons that God chooses Abraham. And the stories that follow the blessing demonstrate that Abraham is far from being blemish free. The point is that throughout the biblical record Christianity is left to understand that blessings happen not because of what we do, but because of who God is. They come from God's inscrutable blessing. Christians are not the creators of their blessings, but the constant recipients. When we are blessed, we are always left with an awareness of, "Why me?" Here is why this matters.
When one is constantly the recipient of blessings it places them in a position of humility. I am neither FULLY responsible for my successes or my failures. This both humbles our victories and blunts our defeats. If social enterprise is going to sustain itself over the long haul and bless our world it will need some kind of narrative that softens the primacy of our human actions. Social enterprise and its practitioners need to know that they are the beneficiary of turns of events that often operate outside of its efforts or control.
But, the idea of God as give of blessing also softens a second danger: the accidental blessing. God as author of all blessing eliminates the idea that we somehow randomly stumbled on our what we receive. Why is this helpful? If blessings come from random chance rather than the good will of something beyond us then they still belong to no one other than myself. It's as though I found them. I staggered upon them. A gold nugget I trip over produces just as much selfishness as the one I mined. But, the Christian narrative suggests that while I may have staggered upon my blessings, they do indeed belong to a someone other than me: God. There is nothing that God did not create and therefore all things ultimately belong to God. This takes all gifts and blessings out of my personal ownership. The result is that the faithfully practicing Christian is left to assume that nothing is truly and fully mine. It is irrelevant whether it appears to have come from the sweat of my brow or random chance. This theological backstory produces a kind of backstop that causes us to hold things loosely and opens up a mindset of sharing. We hold on to what we "have" loosely. We are stewards of our blessings and not full owners. Christianity softens both our authorship and our ownership of what we have. This leads to the second thing that the Christian story of blessing might offer the world of social enterprise.
The result of this theology of God as author and owner of all that is good leads to an outward orientation. We are not blessed for our own sake. We do not clutch what we have because we didn't create what was given to us. Therefore, we are to bless others with the blessings we have received. The blessings we received were not primarily about us, they were the result of the choice of God. We are suddenly left in the beautiful position of being a vehicle, or a thankful relay station for the good that we receive. This is the story of Abraham. It is the call of God not to own his blessing, but to push it outward to the nations that is so central to Judeo-Christian identity. There is also the call to pass this promise downward to future generations. They too inherit this story that holds things loosely and moves outward in blessed sharing. If the story tells us we don't get to hold what we have been given, then the logical question that follows is, "Well, then what do I do with it?"
Here of course we find the center of the Christian faith itself. It is the Christ who enters our world because God is oriented outward in love at the core of God's very nature. God is propelled outward instinctively, if one can say that about God. This outward mission of God is to be mimicked by God's people. The blessings come, and we bounce outward. It's a kind of reflexive rhythm in our lives like when a doctor hits our patellar tendon with his tiny rubber hammer. The autonomous movement of the church is outward with hands full of what we did not create and we do not own.
If social enterprise is going to have the energy to sustain itself in the years to come it is going to need the strength of story that religious institutions have to offer. I am not here to say that Christianity offers something superior to secular social enterprise. But, it's stories exhort human beings to orient all blessing, accomplishment, and failure beyond themselves. Christianity is not reliant upon the generosity or altruism of the human being. Instead, it roots the call for altruism in the beneficience of God who is the initiator of all good gifts. Something outside of us propels us forward. It is my suspicion that this orientation can provide a useful voice in the overall conversation about social enterprise going on in our world.