One of the most profound cultural shifts that has taken place in the last fifty years or so is in the value we place on loyalty.
In my father’s generation, it was not unusual for a man to work for just one employer from the day he left school to the day he retired. His marriage likewise was normally for life. If he had a bank account, it was probably with the same bank that his father had used, and it was very unlikely that he would move it to another branch (let alone to a different bank altogether).
Nowadays that all seems rather quaint and parochial. Nobody expects to live in the same place or work for the same company throughout their life, and only the fortunate minority will have a marriage that survives twenty years or more. For years now we have been encouraged to change energy companies and mortgage providers on a regular basis, in order to ensure that we are getting the best financial deal for ourselves. Energy providers, insurance companies, banks and mobile phone networks fall over themselves in the continuous drive to attract new customers – not just those starting from scratch, but people who already have mortgages, insurance policies, mobile phones and credit cards.
And all this is good – if ‘good’ means saving money in the short term. All too often, however, the discounts offered to new customers are being paid for by charging higher costs (or giving lower interest rates) to old customers. This of course adds further impetus to the search for pastures new, fuelling a vicious circle. The time spent on making comparisons between the different companies (even with the help of comparative websites), the time spent checking the small print, and the hassle of changing from one provider to another (which never seems to be as straightforward as they promise) must also be factored in. And we are encouraged to do this every time our insurance policies come up for renewal – which for most people means gong through this exercise several times a year.
The supermarkets, however, have been bucking this trend by issuing us with ‘loyalty cards’, which come with various perks and discounts attached. This goes some way towards redressing the balance, but only by giving us a fistful of immediate incentives to stick around. Effectively, we are being bribed. And do we resent this? Not at all.
It could be argued that such commercial competition is healthy, but what about our personal relationships? I find it much more worrying that here also loyalty and commitment are increasingly considered as being optional extras. Marriage is seen as an add-on to a sexual relationship, rather than its foundation – and it is no longer ‘for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, till death us do part.’ If you no longer fulfil the needs your partner, you are very likely to be discarded in favour of someone else. The immediate advantages (at least for the individual who initiates the break-up) are obvious; but they come at a high emotional cost to the rest of the family (and especially the children).
Is loyalty simply a commodity to be auctioned to the highest bidder? Do we really admire someone who is willing to change their allegiance for immediate financial (or other) gain? I suggest the reverse: true loyalty is recognised by its refusal to bow to such considerations. Loyalty is a statement that relationships are more important than money, or personal freedom. True loyalty stands firm in the face of short-term suffering or loss, and does not count the cost of doing so; it considers the preservation of the relationship to be of much greater importance.
The most extreme example of this must be martyrdom (and I am talking here about the Christian variety, not Islamic terrorism). The martyr chooses death rather than denial of his/her God. Here the price of loyalty is enormous, for no visible benefit. What does that say about the value they place on a relationship with God?
“Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life” Revelation 2:10).