If you’ve ever lost your wallet then you should appreciate this story. Back in 2013 the Readers Digest magazine tried a fascinating experiment in honesty. They went to 16 different cities around the world and in each city left 12 wallets lying around as if lost. The wallets were dropped in parks, near shopping malls, on sidewalks, etc, and in each wallet was a name with a cell phone number, a family photo, coupons, business cards, and the equivalent of $50.
Overall, 47% of the wallets were returned, (although some cities faired far better than others) and contrary to what some may expect, age, gender, or economic status seemed to matter little. There were honest, and dishonest, people in every pigeonhole.
The top six cities included the only American city (New York) to be tested. They are:
1. Helsinki, Finland (Wallets returned: 11 out of 12)
2. Mumbai, India (Wallets returned: 9 out of 12)
3. (TIE) Budapest, Hungary (Wallets returned: 8 out of 12)
3. (TIE) New York City, U.S.A. (Wallets returned: 8 out of 12)
4. (TIE) Moscow, Russia (Wallets returned: 7 out of 12)
4. (TIE) Amsterdam, the Netherlands (Wallets returned: 7 out of 12)
The bottom six are as follows:
7. (TIE) Bucharest, Romania (Wallets returned: 4 out of 12)
7. (TIE) Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Wallets returned: 4 out of 12)
7. (TIE) Zurich, Switzerland (Wallets returned: 4 out of 12)
8. Prague, Czech Republic (Wallets returned: 3 out of 12)
9. Madrid, Spain (Wallets returned: 2 out of 12)
10. Lisbon, Portugal (Wallets returned:1 out of 12)
I’d love to try this wallet experiment in Terre Haute, although I’m not particularly keen on putting $600 at risk. But if I were to do it, I would expect the people here to rank among the top 6. Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I think this is a good place, full of good people.
What I found especially interesting were the reasons the honest 47% gave for returning the wallets. Most of them said things like this:
“Of course we returned the wallet. Honesty is an inner conviction."
“My conscience wouldn't let me do anything wrong. A wallet is a big thing with many important documents [in it]."
"I am convinced that people should help one another, and if I can make someone a little happier, I will."
“I saw the photo of the mother with her child. Whatever else is important, a photo like that means something to the owner."
"My parents taught me how important being honest is. Once I lost an entire bag, but I got everything back. So, I know what it feels like."
"If you find money, you can't assume it belongs to a rich man. It might be the last bit of money a mother has to feed her family."
Nobody said: “I returned the wallet so I can go to heaven when I die,” or “I had to do it because God was watching.” Nobody said “I returned the wallet because the Bible told me to,” or “I wanted to impress my minister.” In fact, while many of the honest folk were almost certainly Christians, they didn’t tend to refer to their faith at all when explaining their moral choices. They did the right thing because they wanted to do the right thing, and because they had feelings of empathy and concern for the person who had lost the wallet.
Christian morality is really about becoming that kind of person, one who sympathizes with others, and genuinely wants to make the world a kinder place. I’ve always seen the heart of Christ-like morality to reside in two of Jesus’ core principles: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31 NRSV); and "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Mark 12:31 NRSV). These are really two ways of expressing one truth, which is basically “empathize with people and treat them nice.” And in practicing these principles, it’s ironic that some non-Christians are more “Christian” than some Christians.
If you find a wallet, return it. If a cashier gives you too much change, say something. If you can prosper by harming another, resist the temptation. And don’t do these things out of fear or selfish desire. Do them because God, through Christ, has changed you into the kind of person who wants to do these things.
And in this way we people of Terre Haute can give Helsinki a run for the money.
Yours in Christ;