The call to embrace voluntary poverty is one of the hardest teachings in the Gospel. It is widely rejected by otherwise devout Christians. In part, such rejection stems from mere misunderstanding. Gospel poverty is often equated with destitution, but it does not entail a lack of basic necessities. In fact, Gospel poverty calls us to aid the destitute by sharing generously with them.
Other objections have more of a basis in actual fact. One of the main concerns people have about embracing poverty is that poverty seems to entail a lack of security. Wealth is fundamentally oriented to security; savings accounts and insurance policies are designed to protect us from unforeseen disasters. In particular, parents desire security and stability for their children, and wealth seems to be the only way to attain this goal.
Some would respond to this concern by claiming that such a lack of security is a good thing. They would say that our security should be found in God alone and that putting our trust in created things is inimical to putting our trust in God. After all, we will have to give up any created security at the end of our lives when we will be called to surrender ourselves completely to the mercy of God. If we haven’t practiced such surrender during our lives, how will we achieve it at death?
There is some truth to this position; however, it ignores several critical points. Some people are called to embrace destitution and a total lack of security for the sake of God. But for most of us, and particularly for children, material security is important.
Today, most of us seek our security through what I will call the “individual method”, which is based on wealth. We are advised to make investments, build up savings, purchase insurance, gain marketable skills, and even choose a house based on the likely resale value. This personal accumulation of wealth is supposed to provide for the upbringing of children, support us during retirement, and protect us in the case of disasters and misfortune.
“Prepping” is a good example of this pursuit of individual security. Preppers store up vast amounts of food, weapons, and other supplies to ensure that they will survive any disasters in the future. This may seem extreme, but prepping can serve to highlight certain fundamental tendencies in our society. The American Dream is based on achieving individual wealth and then enjoying a comfortable and secure suburban life, isolated from the problems of other people. While the prepper seeks security and isolation in a bunker full of food, the suburbanite seeks it in a house with a two-car garage, insulated from neighbors by lawns and winding drives and paid for by a well-stocked bank account.
In fact, our society is so oriented toward this kind of individual security that even Christians have come to see pursuing it as praiseworthy and virtuous. Given our social conditions, such a mistake is understandable. But it is undeniable that this individual search for security is harshly condemned by the Gospels. Perhaps the clearest example of this condemnation is the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:13-21. He built bigger barns to store his vast wealth; this wealth, he thought, would make him secure and comfortable for many years. But God responded to these thoughts of his, saying “You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?”
Christians should avoid such hoarding of wealth not merely because it is spiritually dangerous, but because it signals a lack of charity. Effective hoarding depends on protecting wealth from others. If we save up wealth for a future that may never come, we can’t use it now to help those who are in need. Why should the hypothetical needs of our future be considered more important than their real needs in the present?
There is, however, another way of attaining security: what I will call “the communal method.” This method of achieving security is common in more traditional cultures, and is actually recommended by the Gospel. It is based on giving generously in the present while trusting in the goodness of the community to provide for the future.
The Amish, for instance, condemn the practice of insurance. They feel that it displays a lack of trust in God. And due to their cohesive communities, they don’t need insurance. When disaster strikes, the community comes together to help those who are affected. If a house or barn burns down, the community has the skills and ability to rebuild it.
This kind of tightly-knit community used to be much more common. A friend of mine told me about his experience growing up in an ethnic neighborhood community on the East Coast. He said that while they were all poor tenement dwellers, nobody would have ever been allowed to go hungry in his neighborhood.
The Early Church provided this sort of community-based security. The Acts of the Apostles describes how the wealthy members sold their property to provide for the needs of all, and local churches sent aid to areas that were suffering from famine. Monastic orders have continued this practice of communal security.
Depending on a community for security is not opposed to trusting in God. God works through secondary causes. In fact, the Christian community is supposed to show the world the love that God has for each one of us. As the Mystical Body of Christ, when we care for one another we are participating in God’s work of creation and redemption.
Of course, this security strategy depends on having a community! St. James condemns the Christian who would ignore a brother or sister who was in need of food or clothing. But today, we don’t know who among us might be in need. We hardly know our neighbors and our fellow parishioners. For all we know, the family in the next pew over has just had their power shut off or is struggling to buy groceries.
In this way, Gospel poverty and intentional community are the flip sides of the same coin. Poverty makes community desirable. If we are individually wealthy, we may come to feel that we don’t need others. By contrast, in poorer countries, community is still valued. An acquaintance recently told me that in Honduras the people tend to look out for one another, despite all their other problems. As he put it, in Honduras they have “small houses and large plazas”; the public sphere is emphasized. By contrast, here in the USA, we have large houses while in many places the public square is non-existent.
At the same time, community makes voluntary poverty survivable. We can achieve a certain simplicity of life by ourselves. It is fairly easy to cut back on unnecessary travel, avoid buying luxury goodsn and switch to buying second-hand clothing. But to follow this teaching fully we need a supportive community. We can’t escape our dependency on insurance and individual wealth without assistance.
All the Gospel precepts were given to a community rather than to disconnected individuals. Christ came to found a Church, not to provide a list of ethical statements. Without a community, we are unable to fully live out the Christian life. For this reason, rebuilding community needs to be a priority for Christians going forward. This rebuilding doesn’t need to come in the form of grandiose projects. Rather, it should start simply. Get to know fellow parishioners. Invite them over to talk, eat, and pray. Spend time with one another. While such gatherings may seem futile in the face of the challenges facing us today, Christ promised that where two or three are gathered in his name, he would be in the midst of them. Only by gathering together with Christ will we find true security, both in this life and in the next.