Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Nordic Theory of Giving

I recently read Anu Partanen’s book, The Nordic Theory of Everything. One of the arguments she advances in the book is something she calls “the Nordic theory of love.” According to this theory, relationships between people represent the truest expression of love when they are not encumbered by any form of dependency of one party on another. Dependency is seen as introducing power dynamics that negatively affect both giver and receiver. Moreover, it shifts the basis of the relationship from love to need or power.

The alternative to this type of dependency is to guarantee certain things as a right within society so that people are not dependent on family, other individuals, companies, municipalities, etc. to provide them. This “Nordic theory of love” is operationalized within society by creating social and government systems that emphasize the autonomy of individuals and provide basic needs for all through collective programs so that people are not dependent upon one another. Certainly, many Americans are uncomfortable with the state playing such a role in people’s lives, but my point is not to argue for an active state; it is to use Partanen’s ideas about dependency to reflect on the UMC.

To give a few instances of how the Nordic theory of love plays out in the Nordic countries, college students are not required to report their parents’ incomes on financial aid forms, since college students are presumed to be financially independent of their parents and should not be forced to rely on parental assets to determine their futures. The government runs health programs so that people are not dependent on their employers for health insurance and thus forced to continue to work at jobs they hate just to keep their health insurance. Married couples file tax forms separately to avoid fostering financial dependency of one spouse upon the other.

Let’s see specifically how this theory works out with the imaginary example of Wi-Fi. The American system is that everyone should pay for their own Wi-Fi. For those with the resources to do so, that works out great. If someone doesn’t have enough money to pay for Wi-Fi, then they would have to rely upon a neighbor or friend to share their Wi-Fi password with them, perhaps, or go without. The neighbor or friend may ask for favors in exchange or set conditions on the gift – the password recipient may not watch Netflix in the evenings or must wash the password-giver’s car, perhaps. The recipient thus becomes dependent on the giver. As a consequence, they are not free to use their internet and other resources as best they see fit.

The Nordic solution would be to provide Wi-Fi through a municipal utility, as some cities in the US have done. Thus, everyone gets Wi-Fi – the poor are not left behind, but no one is dependent on another person for their Wi-Fi access, since it is a basic service provided to everyone. Note, that this is not charity Wi-Fi for the poor; it’s Wi-Fi for everyone that the poor can use along with the middle class and rich. Moreover, under the Nordic theory, everyone contributes to the Wi-Fi, to the extent they are able (and barring severe temporary circumstances such as loss of a job), through their taxes. Wi-Fi is thus not an issue of charity; it’s a basic public service.

I was thinking about this system as I was thinking about dependencies that are created through mission giving in the UMC. There are many instances in which American or European United Methodists share generously with their fellow believers in Africa and the Philippines. Yet, like the person giving out his or her Wi-Fi password above, American and European giving can come with conditions or expectations of return favors. These conditions may range from naming rights to restricted uses of donated gifts to expected support for polity positions. When such conditions or expectations are attached to them, the gifts create dependency. As a result, the receivers are not free to use the gifts or their other resources as best they see fit.

There are several ways to move beyond such dependencies. One way is to revamp giving along the lines of the methods described in When Helping Hurts, Toxic Charity, and similar books. This is an important approach to overturning dependency-creating models of mission, and readers are encouraged to explore these books if they have not already.

Yet I wonder whether it would also be possible to institute some Nordic theory of love solutions to the issue of dependency in the UMC. What common services would we want as guarantees for all churches, regardless of location? What services would we want our general agencies to provide to ALL churches or annual conferences – rich or poor, Western or Southern? Construction assistance? Disaster relief coordination? Technical assistance for annual conferences? How could we structure contributions to the World Service Fund or other means such that all annual conferences can contribute to these basic public services, to the extent they are able and barring severe temporary circumstances?

Such a shift would require significant changes in mindset and sacrifice of privilege by American and European churches. It’s nice to be the donor and to be able to dictate the terms or call in favors when needed. There are advantages to being the patron in a patron-client relationship, and Westerners would need to self-sacrificially give up those advantages for the sake of striving toward the gospel equality to which Jesus calls us.

Yet Methodists are supposed to be known as a people of love. It’s worth thinking, therefore, about what Anu Partanen’s Nordic theory of love might have to say to us as we seek to better love our Methodist neighbors as ourselves.


  1. What an ingenious theory, David! Definitely picking this up for UM Insight. Thanks!

  2. David,
    Thanks for another thoughtful and stimulating post on the global nature of the church.

    The Nordic theory of love, as you point out, embraces the concept of autonomy as the antidote to dependency. In last week's posting about the mission structure of the Nazarene Church, you commended their emphasis upon three self philosophy (self sufficiency, self determination, self propagation) for producing a higher quality of participation in their global church fellowship.

    Autonomy is a key ingredient in church polity aimed at neutralizing the controlling influences of external authority. It expressed itself in the movement of many Methodist founded mission churches into independence during the post colonial period. And it was also the force behind the provocative missionary moratorium intended to enhance the prospects of strengthening indigenous leadership and direction for many of the same churches in the South.

    But the struggle to achieve economic self sufficiency for these churches has been a daunting challenge. They, like the many conferences that stayed in the connectional relationship within the UMC, remain in the grips of the charitable mentality of the churches enjoying more favorable economies of the North.

    In the early 1990's, the World Council of Churches initiated a consultation to address the issue of financial dependency with the theme Ecumenical Sharing of Resources. Representatives agreed to a radical affirmation of a global stewardship principle in which there would be no absolute donors and no absolute recipients. They attempted to define a process for identifying and celebrating the distinct gifts each member body brought to the ecumenical table without attaching any financial value. These efforts at balancing the equation between donor and recipient soon broke down as the vagaries of the global economy and declining fortunes of member churches prompted increasing uncertainty for the survival of the Council itself.

    So, when we look to relationships within the UM denominational fellowship that can be enriched by a shared service(s) or common resource(s), an equitable distribution of financial wealth will most certainly and always be the primary issue. Though ill informed about Nordic love, I am not too sanguine about what it offers as the additive needed to break the grip of harsh economic realities. Nevertheless, I heartily endorse the experience of autonomy it promotes as the quality needed to enhance the integrity of each participant and require their full accountability both locally and globally.

    Robert Harman

    1. Robert,

      Thanks for your comments. It is interesting to hear the background of WCC experiments with increasing autonomy through a radical approach to valuing contributions. You are right, of course, that the economic realities of the world cannot be ignored. The question for me is how we as the body of Christ demonstrate a system of valuing and being valued that reflects Christ's universal love for all rather than the world's rather unequal system of assigning economic value.