Do you think a car salesperson would sell you a car that costs more than you can really afford? Would a mobile phone customer service agent sell you a more elaborate two-year contract than you need? Would a heating and air technician push an unnecessary service plan for your home system? Would an electronics company sell you a product and pressure you to purchase the extended warranty? Would a real estate agent try to sell you a house that costs a little more than you can afford? Would an employer hire or promote a family member or friend over you, even though you are more qualified?
Now that I’ve offended several professions, I must include a caveat: Obviously many people in these professions conduct themselves in an ethical manner. But most of us have had the unpleasant experience of being taken advantage of by someone or some institution. In his book Coming Apart, Charles Murray says “The raw material that makes community even possible has diminished so much in Fishtown (a typical poor neighborhood in America) that the situation may be beyond retrieval. The raw material is social trust—not trust in a particular neighbor who happens to be your friend, but a generalized expectation that the people around you will do the right thing.”
Here are some alarming statistics from Murray’s research: Those in the well-to-do city of Belmont (not its real name) who would say “People can generally be trusted” declined from 75% to about 60% between 1970 and 2010. The demise of trust in the poor community of Fishtown was even more striking; it went from 45% to 20% between 1970 and 2010.
Americans are becoming less trustful of each other. This is a grave indicator of a sick culture; a culture fraying at the edges. At best it will lead to a nation of mediocrity, at worst it could completely unravel and lead to the dissolution of a once great nation.
These statistics made me think about Christians and the church and our ability to preserve our culture. Are we offering people something to trust in? Do we offer it in the way we conduct our personal and professional lives? We Americans have historically bought into the philosophy of buyer and seller beware. It’s a way of conducting business that says buyers and sellers are responsible to educate themselves to make sure they do not get taken advantage of. This philosophy, supposedly, does not tolerate outright theft or lying. But if, for instance, a person buys an antique from someone for pennies on the dollar, well, that’s ok because the buyer has no moral obligation to tell the seller that the antique is worth much more. This philosophy has contributed to the destruction of trust in America and is not Biblical. I believe it is likely a sin.
A few months ago I was watching a television program I had never seen before. It’s called American Pickers. It’s about these two guys who travel around buying antiques and memorabilia from people, then fixing the stuff up for resale. In this particular episode the two pickers met with an elderly man who had a lot of old stuff on his property and in his shed. The man was so aged he could barely walk and he wasn’t as quick-witted as he probably was as a young man. Anyhow, the pickers spotted a valuable item (I think it was an old saddle or something) and offered the elderly owner much (and I mean waaaay much) less than its value. The owner sold it to the pickers for the low price. The pickers were elated. Nobody would deny the pickers the right to make a profit. But the way the transaction was conducted with the elderly gentleman seemed unseemly, if not downright cruel and unethical.
Philippians 2:4 says, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
If we want our lives to mean something, then we should probably begin by showing others they can trust us. It’s hard to do in our self-serving culture. Once again we need the Holy Spirit’s love and power to help us live in a countercultural way. If people can trust us, then maybe it will be easier for them to trust God.