Cost of Conversion

Returning a bit to the flavor of my original posts, I was struck this week by a comment I read in an academic paper for one of my development classes. It comes from Ingrid Robeyns’ “The Capability Approach.” She is discussing individual opportunities and outcomes of choices in pursuit of our goals. She points out:

…our ideas of the good life are profoundly influenced by our family, tribal, religious, community or cultural ties and background. There are very few children from Jewish parents who end up being Muslim, for example. One could question, therefore, to what extent this is a choice at all. If we label it as a choice, it would at the very least remain a constrained choice. This does not mean that these constraints always have to be negative or unjust; on the contrary, some people might find them very enabling and supporting. There is very little about these constraints that one could say in general terms, as they are so closely interwoven with a person’s own history and personality, values, and preferences. It is, however, important to question to what extent people have genuinely access to all the capabilities in their capability set, and whether or not they are punished by members of their family or community for making certain choices of the kind of life they value.

pg. 101-102, emphasis added

We discussed this in class and of course, being the only economist in the room, I was immediately reminded of the reality of transaction costs in many of the decisions we make in life. We tend to think of transaction costs only when they exist monetarily, but in truth, I think they occur even more frequently in ways that are intangible, immeasurable, and/or unseen. Every time we choose to make a change in our lives, there is some cost. Addicts may call it “detox” or “rehabilitation.” Breakups might say “heartache.” Survivors may prefer “healing.” Religiously, we could label it “repentance,” but no matter what we call it, it remains.

Why is this so significant? As Robeyns mentioned by example, very few Jewish children grow up and choose to be Muslim. It is a difficult decision to leave behind something that is such a defining part of you, your society, your family, your world. Those who DO make the difficult choice to change religion, for any reason, are very courageous. Even when they have a firm conviction of the truth and correctness of their decision, the transition is often not an easy one.

Take, for instance, an example from the Book of Mormon. Lamanite King Lamoni heard the Gospel preached to him by Ammon. He was prepared, his heart was touched, and he readily accepted it. He, and many of his people, made the difficult decision to change their lives and religion in accordance with what they had learned to be true.

Not soon afterward, Lamoni was confronted by his father, a vocal unbeliever, and persecuted for even being in the company of Ammon, a Nephite. Lamoni’s father commanded him to slay his missionary friend, which Lamoni boldly refused.

“Now when his father has heard these words,” Mormon tells us, “he was angry with him, and he drew his sword that he might smite him to the earth” (Alma 20:16, see chapters 17-20 for full account).

How is that for a “promised blessing” or a “reward for righteousness”? Having your own father turn on you and attempt to kill you? Now, in the Western world, it might seem like this is an extreme example, but to many of our brothers and sisters, it is a conceivable possibility. However, even to those not threatened by death, the loss of familial relationships or friendships can be just as scary, disheartening, and distressing.

As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we are encouraged to share with others the Gospel and the blessings that have been so graciously placed in our lives. Along with that charge comes a requisite acknowledgement of the challenges that lie ahead of each new member who gains a testimony of the restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and chooses to unite with His restored church.

President Gordon B. Hinckley shared an account of a recent convert to the church, and a letter describing her experience in her first year of church membership:

I challenge you, my brothers and sisters, that if you do not know what it is like, you try to imagine what it is like. It can be terribly lonely. It can be disappointing. It can be frightening. We of this Church are far more different from the world than we are prone to think we are. This woman goes on: “When we as investigators become members of the Church, we are surprised to discover that we have entered into a completely foreign world, a world that has its own traditions, culture, and language. We discover that there is no one person or no one place of reference that we can turn to for guidance in our trip into this new world. At first the trip is exciting, our mistakes even amusing, then it becomes frustrating and eventually, the frustration turns into anger. And it’s at these stages of frustration and anger that we leave. We go back to the world from which we came, where we knew who we were, where we contributed, and where we could speak the language.

qtd. Preach My Gospel, pg. 214

While we cannot, admittedly, eliminate all transaction costs to those who choose to embrace the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ, we can do much to lessen the burden, or, in a sense, “subsidize” the transition. We, who were either blessed to be born into a family within the Church, or who personally have walked the same path that new converts are now treading, can make the biggest difference in the smallest ways. We can extend a welcoming handshake and warm smile. We can show love and support through friendly and attentive conversation. We can be more thoughtful and inclusive in our daily prayers. We can share favorite quotes or scriptures that inspire us. We can be kind, thoughtful, generous, sincere. Having been a recipient of these sorts of small Christlike acts, I can testify of their power in touching the hearts of others.

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