Blessed are the Poor in Social Capital

‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.’
— Luke 6:20

I’m currently reading Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Happiness Hypothesis, which is a blend of spirituality and psychology purporting to crack a great mystery for the reader: what will make you happy in life? Chapter 3, on reciprocity, contains a fascinating treatment of the subject of gossip, and its role in creating and sustaining societies in the ultra-social species that is human beings. Following Robin Dunbar’s suggestion that language functions for humans the same way that grooming each other does for apes as a means of social bonding, Haidt explores the fact that most human conversation is about other people, and most of what we like to share about other people is negative. Gossip becomes our way of both teaching and policing moral boundaries, encouraging conformity through shame. Those who master the art of gossip can move up the social ladder, and remain in the in-group. Knowledge is power, and gossip is a currency.

All this reminded me of a sermon I heard on the beatitudes in Luke many years ago at a church I used to attend in Manchester. The preacher said there are three simple questions we need to ask to understand the first beatitude, and the rest of the blessings become clearer after that: 1) What does it mean to be blessed? 2) Who are the poor? 3) What is the Kingdom of God? You can listen here if you want answers to 1) and 3), but for our purposes here, I’ll let you in on his perspective on what it means to be poor. The poor in the Old Testament, and in Christ’s mind here, are not simply the economically disadvantaged, but the righteous, who, because of their righteousness, are forced to opt-out of ‘the system’, the general way of the world. They don’t go along to get along, but do what is right in the sight of God. For this reason, they very often end up being materially poor, since they don’t play the game, but theirs is the Kingdom of God.

If gossip is a form of social capital, we can see another application of the beatitude here. Gossiping is condemned in the Scriptures, in verses such as Romans 1:29, and 1 Timothy 5:13, and yet we know that to exclude ourselves from gossip, or to speak out against it as it happens, is to place ourselves outside the in-group, and very likely to make ourselves the subject of conversations we don’t have the privilege of joining. It is to opt-out of ‘the system’, and to make ourselves poor, at least socially. As many people become materially rich by exploiting the labour of others, many become socially rich by exploiting the sins and foibles, real or perceived, of others. Resisting gossip is therefore resisting greed, and in the same way, resistance may make us poor, and will certainly make us blessed.

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