The Cosmopolitans Vs. The Locals

August 23, 2012

I’ve been sorting through stacks of paper, determining the relevance of various items. I recently found a yellowed newspaper clipping from an article by Robert Shiller in the December 2006 edition of theHartford Courant.Although I saved this clipping well before I came to work with the Boston Faith & Justice Network, I’m struck by its application to Christians working for justice in our community.

The article, titled “The New Cosmopolitan Social Class,” cites a well-known 1950s study conducted by sociologist Robert K. Merton classifying worldviews of Americans into two distinct categories: “cosmopolitan influentials” and “local influentials.” According to Merton’s study, cosmopolitan influentials are those who “habitually orient themselves right respect to the world at large” while local influentials are those that “orient themselves with respect to their own town.” Shiller goes onto write that “[Cosmopolitan influentials] tended to hang their success on their general knowledge, whereas locals relied on their friendships and connections.”

In ways that eerily foreshadows the economic collapse that would happen less than two years after this article was published and the ensuing conversation about inequality, Shiller wonders how the cosmopolitan class will behave as their role in the global economy continues to grow. He also implores cosmopolitans to remember the importance that relationships and neighborhoods have in shaping strong societies.

He is specifically concerned about the growing gap between these distinctly different orientations, and the unchecked greed that he sees the cosmopolitan influentials wielding in society. He writes that as the world globalizes wealth has increasingly become the signifier of the cosmopolitan identity. This class of people is “developing loyalties to each other that cross national boundaries.” As a professor of economics at Yale University, Shiller is careful to disclose his membership in the cosmopolitan class, recounting an experience at a dinner party where the majority of the guests were global scholars. He felt a much stronger kinship with his Namibian dinner companion, “speaking in impeccable and relaxed English”, than with the “local Americans” serving the food.

In many ways, people who are connected to the Boston Faith & Justice Network embody both the characteristics of both the cosmopolitan and local influentials. Shiller’s point that cosmopolitan influentials are often disconnected from relationships likely would resonate with many BFJNers. We know that building the kingdom of God is a lot more than “armchair justice.” We need to be in relationship with others to be effective and need to be mindful of how our actions (such as our personal consumption) impact people who are made in God’s image. (One fantastic example of an initiative that invests in local relationships really well isThe Boston Project– a neighborhood ministry focused on urban renewal in the Dorchester Neighborhood of Codman Square.)

BFJN’s economic discipleship curriculum,Lazarus at the Gate, has helped hundreds of Boston area Christians explore generosity and lifestyle shifts towards justice in the context of community. The curriculum contrasts Old and New Testament themes regarding wealth, best practices for poverty alleviation and practical advice on reducing personal consumption. Throughout the course, participants save money by reducing their spending. At the end of the study, groups form a giving circle, where members contribute what they’ve saved individually to make a corporate gift. Those relationships provide a context in which Christians can struggle to understand how to apply Old and New Testament teachings on money in the 21stcentury. Without the accountability provided by community, it is easy to ignore the Biblical command to love our God through loving our neighbor.

Yet in a world where distance no longer defines who our neighbor is, it is critical to understand how a global (cosmopolitan) understanding of the world informs local action. At BFJN, we help Christians understand how their resources afford them options that most of the world simply doesn’t have.A global view of wealthhelps middle class Christians – who are not rich by American standards – understand that their income puts them in the top 5-10% of global income earners. Money (and the intangible resources such as time and education, etc.) should motivate us towards understanding the specific ways we can engage in stewardship as followers of Jesus.

I would argue that Christians must to be able to have both perspectives simultaneously. It takes specific skills to be able to apply what is happening globally (in economics, politics or socially) and to be able to apply it local relationships. The globally-minded, cosmopolitan perspective devoid of relationships with your neighbors and community rings hollow and runs the risk of being irrelevant. However, those who invest heavily in local relationships and in community need to understand how what is happening on a macro scale effects their reality.

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