Last night I attended the annual Economics department Grossman lecture, this year given by Dean Karlan, the founder of the nonprofit Innovations for Poverty Action, whose talk was titled “Continued Existence of Cows in India Disproves Central Tenets of Capitalism.” The title reflects the idea that the economics principle that humans make rational decisions can’t always be true because so many people in India continue to have cows and buffalo when year after year these animals yield a negative return on investment in inputs and outputs across the board (not rational). Of course there are many plausible explanations as to why this is the case – for example, cows are an illiquid investment that people may prefer because they can save their money in an animal instead of an account or somewhere where they may be tempted to spend it. Another consideration is the social and religious significance of the cow, in regards to which Karlan raised a question from a social Darwinist view that if year after year the cow continues to cost money, why wouldn’t people move toward a more practical, if not lucrative investment as their object of reverence? I know, very curious …
I want to note that although this is not the focus of my post, this lecture opened my eyes to a level of innovation and creativity in microfinance techniques and strategies to address poverty and a focus on “bridging the gap between cutting-edge academic research and action by nonprofits, governments and firms” that I have never seen before. It is pretty amazing stuff. I encourage you to check out IPA’s website!
So, the comment about the irrationality of the continued reverence of the cow in India has prompted me to think about some deeper things that I’ve been contemplating for awhile now. I realize that on one hand, yes, the cow in India seems incredibly irrational even in the face of the valid explanations offered for its prominence, but on the other hand, I see that it is a display, a reflection, an allegory for something much bigger. The scope of what the world views as “normal” and rational is so narrow and restrictive. It is worldly, a social, cultural, and human construction. As a follower of Christ, I know that what God did in sacrificing his son for sinners, Jesus’ death on a cross to save and recenter the world, the lives that we are called to lead, and the decisions that we are commanded to make every day as Christians, are never going to be seen as rational or explainable in the eyes of the world.
I know that the Indian families with cows are likely not Christians and the irrationality of their behavior is due to a number of unrelated factors, but that is why this is an allegory for a much bigger issue. Moments where people (like those academics, economists and researchers at IPA) notice incongruities in what the world has deemed as rational, normal or acceptable, should prompt Christians to evaluate their lives. Everything we do as followers of Jesus should cause puzzlement in the eyes of the world. Our actions should reflect a radical departure from the axis of power, greed, wealth, violence, and hate that the world centers around today. This doesn’t mean our actions have to be huge and noteworthy in the eyes of the world, though those can be impactful too. But nothing about stopping and having a genuine conversation with someone, smiling at a stranger, or doing random, unscripted acts of kindness, is rational or normal. It is rational for humans to do anything in our power to preserve ourselves, better our own lives, live as comfortably and happily as we can, solely for ourselves. But as Christ followers, we are called to much, much more. As Brian Zahnd eloquently states in Beauty Will Save the World,
Jesus’ death and resurrection “saves the world from the pernicious lie that power and violence have to be the foundation of human social order. At the cross Jesus cast out Satan as the ruler of the world and gave the world not only a new ruler but also a new center, a new axis. In Christ the world no longer revolves around the pragmatic truth (lie!) of power enforced by violence. In Christ the world now is re-centered around the beautiful truth of love expressed in forgiveness” (77).
The basis of Innovations for Poverty Action is the realization that immense amounts of evaluation, research and behavioral assessment are needed to develop the best approaches to fighting poverty. If a nation’s respect for a cow, or impoverished Kenyans’ decisions to take out a loan, start a business, look for alternatives to change their lives, etc., are causing people at Innovations for Poverty Action (and other places) to reevaluate traditional economic principles and frames of looking at poverty, this draws attention to a couple issues.
First of all, lives lived out, people’s emotions, thoughts, complex life situations, cultural norms and values, etc., simply cannot be boxed in by principles or rationales. We can notice general trends, themes, and guidelines of action, but they should never become so rigid or taken for granted that they shape all policies and ways of doing things. A reevaluation of poverty action, and a deeper assessment of people’s behavior and decisions in shaping results, is a breath of fresh air and a real necessity, considering the complexity of the world and the variety of cultural, social, political and economic situations.
Secondly, as a follower of Jesus who has committed every day to living in love and making choices that strive to differ from the world’s expectations, norms and values, and instead reflect Jesus’ redeeming love, forgiveness, and reorientation of the world, I have a renewed sense of hope in the realization that people notice incongruities and differences. Whether they are good or bad (hopefully good!), acting outside of traditional economic, cultural or social norms catch people’s attention. I am challenged and encouraged to think of really practical, organic, daily things I can do to reflect love instead of hate.
So a few final thoughts. As new creations in Christ, we must remember that we are in the world but not of the world. We live in the midst of a broken world but in the presence of an incomprehensibly powerful, forgiving, merciful, redeeming God. Political struggles, racial and ethnic violence that we cannot understand, brutality and unimaginable horrors of this world, should impassion us, unsettle us, anger us, grieve us, because we live in this world and these are the people that God loves and Jesus died for. But we cannot lose focus and forget that we can live everyday making conscious decisions and actions that reflect Christ’s kingdom on earth, which directly collide with the worldly ideals of power, violence, pride and selfishness. Starting today, don’t let the world tell you what is rational and normal, but let your new life and purpose in Christ motivate your actions, and in turn, spark intrigue and curiosity in those around you.