The Cult of Efficiency

The cult of efficiency might be the true American civic religion, and that might be a problem.

I have found in my time in DC that almost anyone working in politics is expected to pay homage to what might be the true American civic religion: The cult of efficiency.

Certainly anyone in conservative circles must paint virtually any proposal or plan in terms of its efficiency. But even Democratic politicians will decry waste and typically offer a laundry list of reasons a particular policy, plan or agency is efficient.

Now I don’t think there is anything wrong with efficiency in and of itself. It often provides the best outcomes and saves valuable resources. But efficiency should not be a goal in and of itself. In fact I believe that Christians are not called to efficiency. Rather we are called to good stewardship—and there is a difference. 

A good steward is not always perfectly efficient. Rather, a good steward manages and uses whatever is under their charge to accomplish the goals of the one who owns the things they manage. Efficiency is only one of many competing requirements to being a good steward.

The Bible is filled with examples of this. Perhaps the most prominent is gleaning. In the Old Testament, God instructs the people of Israel not to reap their fields to the very edge, so that the poor could have the leftovers. This ‘designed inefficiency’ was intended to provide for strangers, widows, and others less fortunate, and it served as a reminder that God was the Lord of the Harvest and that the fruit of the fields all belonged to him.

A more intimate example that has always struck me is Mary’s anointing of Jesus feet. She pours out a very expensive jar of perfume on Jesus feet and is chastised for wasting what the disciples say could have been ‘sold and given to the poor.’ That seems to be a very efficient plan, yet Jesus rebukes them. I think that Jesus wanted to leave room for Mary, and all of us, to show ‘extravagant love.’

I also think that Jesus knew the deception in the disciple’s hearts—and certainly in the heart of Judas, who is referenced in John’s relation of the story. I learned this about my own heart living in downtown DC, where the homeless are plentiful. While I believe we should be wise and disciplined about how we help the homeless, what I found in my heart was something else:

Most often when a homeless person asked me for money, the thought immediately ran through my head, ‘They’ll just waste it on booze or cigarettes’—certainly an inefficient outcome. But of course the reality is that while I disdained giving them a dollar that might be poorly used, I routinely wasted exponentially more than that on a daily basis for a variety of foolish or comfortable items.

I share all of this because as we enter the year of a presidential election, I think that Christians must keep in mind that we are called to use discernment in the policies we promote and pursue—and, more importantly, in recognizing the motives of our hearts behind them.

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