Stewardship Reflection: The Autonomous Person

by Karl Doege

In his address to the plenary session of the 2010 TENS Conference (The Episcopal Network for Stewardship), Dr. Walter Brueggemann profiles two different responses to the idea of stewardship. The first is that of the autonomous person. The autonomous individual thinks he/she has no one to whom to answer. This is the person who is prepared to “go it alone,” who doesn’t count anything as blessing, who believes that everything that happens is merely chance, who does not recognize any overall governing principle in his or her life. He/she doesn’t need any help. Such a person owes nobody anything.

It may seem difficult to recognize such cold characteristics in anyone we know personally, and I might be drawing too cold a picture of the autonomous individual. But a little thought might reveal that our lives are affected by such people – people whom we perhaps do not know personally, but whom we know about. We know these people primarily because of what they DO, not because of what they say. What they DO reveals that “the bottom line” is all that matters. They are people who use other people to promote their own causes. They are people who run the systems that we think of as “systemic evil.” They are often people who govern us. They may be people who run large corporations. On a less influential level, they may be the ordinary “users and abusers” who seem to always need something done for them, while they offer nothing in return, who think the world “owes” them something, who take but don’t give.

The problem is that we are all affected by such people, perhaps most often unknowingly – which might make us part of the problem rather than part of the solution. We are often unwitting victims of such an autonomous philosophy because we so often “buy into the system.” Sometimes there doesn’t seem to be anything we can do about it – in the short term. In the case of governance, we don’t get much choice about who governs us. We might vote for the person whom we think represents the best choice, but that person is often beholden to the wishes of large corporations with no other motivation than increasing their own profit or promoting their own sinister interests. And in our own personal lives, we are all influenced by the norms of a consumer society – influenced to the degree that we become needlessly stretched financially and can barely afford what we need, so that we cannot afford be generous toward others.
A place to begin a fight against systemic evil would be to ask ourselves this question: “Do our own spending habits keep us from being generous toward meeting the needs of others?”

When we become aware of the way we spend our money and become aware of the choices we make, we may become aware that there is always a part of us that wants to be autonomous ourselves. Honest assessment of how we use our resources is the first step in becoming what Dr. Brueggemann would call a “person of the Covenant.” (I will be trying to describe such a person in my next posting.)