A few weeks ago, Steve Skojec posted an essay to his substack that bore the provocative title “Busted Are the Poor”. The tagline encapsulates the message of his essay: “Christ said the poor are blessed, but poverty makes most of us miserable.” As the editor of a blog entitled “Happy Are You Poor”, I felt that this called for a response! Yet I don’t completely disagree with Skojec. In fact, I think he makes many valid and instructive points. It certainly is true that poverty makes many people miserable. As Skojec personally experienced, poverty can even have negative spiritual effects. It can make people selfish, discontented, angry, and depressed. How can it still be true that the poor are blessed?
A Confusion of Terms
Father Dubay, the author of the book Happy Are You Poor and the unofficial patron of this blog, can provide some insight. Addressing the disagreements that swirl around the concept of voluntary poverty, he cited the following quote from St. John Henry Newman: “Half the controversies in the world are verbal ones; and could they be brought to a plain issue, they would be brought to a prompt termination…When men understand each other’s meaning, they see, for the most part, that controversy is either superfluous or hopeless.”
In this case, I think there is a lot of superficial confusion that can be cleared up by a careful definition of terms. To begin with, the concept of “blessing” itself can be confusing. Christ says that the poor are blessed, but poverty is a mere negative. As such, it has no value in itself. It is only valuable insofar as it prepares the way for something else. Just as silence can be valuable if it leads to prayer, poverty can be valuable if it clears the way for discipleship. Fr. Dubay uses the example of readiness to read to illustrate this. By itself, such readiness is not valuable. A child who is ready to learn reading still can’t read, but such readiness is a prerequisite for eventual learning. Poverty is a prerequisite for true discipleship, but it does not necessarily lead to such discipleship. The poor merely possess a certain readiness for discipleship.
Further, this readiness can be negated by other factors. As Skojec points out, the material circumstances of the poor can hamper their spiritual development. And here it is important to draw another distinction. While poverty can be spiritually beneficial, destitution and a lack of security are generally harmful to a person’s spiritual life just as they are harmful to a person’s physical life. Skojec says that his family was not destitute while growing up, but it appears that he experienced destitution later in life: a lack of the basic necessities for a good human life. He writes:
During one particularly rough patch, when my wife was pregnant with our fifth child, I was working 50-60 hours a week in a state with no mandatory overtime pay and no benefits. It wasn’t enough to cover food, utilities, rent, and all of our other expenses. We couldn’t afford living room furniture, so we sat on an old air mattress that kept deflating on the hard tile floor. The front two tires on our van wound up blowing out because the rubber had worn paper thin. The generosity of a stranger who was reading my blog at the time and offered to loan me a couple thousand dollars is the only reason we got out of that situation. We broke our lease, moved across country into my parents’ cramped 1-bedroom basement apartment with all five of those kids, and stayed there for a year until I had saved up enough, with the help of a loan from one of my brothers, to put down on a house. The son my wife was pregnant with at the time is named Jude because a novena to St. Jude I was praying was answered. The petition I was praying for was that our food stamps would be renewed. My pregnant wife and small kids needed nutritious food, not borderline spoiled garbage from the “manager’s special” section of the ghetto grocer. My son Ivan was so excited the first time we were able to buy fresh fruit again that summer. I gave him a bag of oranges, and you’d have thought it was Christmas.
The Gospel’s call to embrace voluntary poverty is not a call to embrace destitution. A few saints do have a special calling to embrace destitution, usually as an act of solidarity with the destitute. In general, however, we are not called to embrace destitution; in fact, we are called to eliminate destitution through charitable giving.
It is true that destitution can make it harder to attain sanctity, or even a decent human life, in the here and now. There is yet another meaning to the term “blessed” that should be considered, however. God seems to favor society’s outcasts and rejects. It may well be the case that a homeless drug addict is nearer to the kingdom of God than many prosperous and devout Christians who seem to have everything together. In the Gospel, this can be seen in the stories of the Good Thief and the Samaritan Woman. They were social outcasts and sinners, yet they recognized Christ while the Pharisees failed to do so. Similarly, Lazarus was admitted to the company of Abraham, while the rich man burned in hell; Abraham explained that during their earthly life, Lazarus had received bad things, while the rich man had received good things. Now their roles were reversed.
This Gospel teaching does not mean that we should tolerate destitution, or that we should stop striving for virtue and discipline in all areas of life. It is merely a warning against judging solely from the standpoint of this life. Even spiritual successes can be dangerous if we put our trust in them. We’re all equally beggars before God; none of us merited our own creation, and none of us can merit our eventual salvation.
Security, Good and Bad
The lack of security that so often accompanies poverty is a complicated issue. Like destitution, a lack of security can be spiritually corrosive, particularly for children. Some people say that a lack of security is a good thing; according to them, it leads to greater trust in God. Should we really put our security in anything other than God? There’s a certain truth to this, but I think such people are missing a crucial point. Steve Skojec writes:
Jamie was more successful than I was early on, but we kept having kids every two years like good Catholics do, and she’d have to stop working to take care of babies or risk leaving them in the care of others. This situation made me upset every time we found out we were expecting again, which took a toll on our relationship. We frequently couldn’t cover all our bills, and were constantly floating late payments…So while yes, being poor makes people more dependent on God — you’ll rarely pray harder than when you’re about to be evicted or don’t have enough to eat — I’m just not sure that’s the best way to experience religion. One of the most important things I had to learn was to do for myself, and that meant not expecting God to do it for me. I believe I’ve written about this before, but the notion that we “can do nothing without God” needlessly debilitates people, sometimes keeping them from recognizing their own ability to help themselves. Praying for a raise isn’t the same thing as asking your boss for one. Novenas for a good job aren’t the same thing as building the skillset you need to land the position. And resigning yourself to poverty because you don’t want to be overly attached to money or material possessions means you’ll always be mired in mediocrity. If you don’t have the ambition you need to properly provide for yourself and the ones you love, how is that a virtue? How is the mentality that you’re blessed because you’re poor not just an excuse not to do your best?
Skojec is right to criticize the platitudes about trusting in God; it can all come across as very patronizing to the poor. In reaction to this, he advocates a certain kind of self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Both positions miss a fundamental point. Jesus didn’t come to give humanity a code of ethics that individuals could adopt at will; rather, he came to found the community of the Church. Within that community, we’re supposed to be as tightly joined to one another as the members of a physical body. For an isolated individual or family, poverty entails a damaging lack of security. The only way to attain security as an individual is through the accumulation of wealth.
The pursuit of such individual security is harshly condemned by the Gospel. What is often missed, however, is that Christians are called to replace the individual security based on accumulating wealth with the security that comes from being part of a loving community. The rich fool with his barns was condemned, while the first Christian communities described in Acts shared their goods to such an extent that “there was no needy person among them”. (Acts 4:34) If we’re going to tell the poor to trust in God, then we have to get busy and ensure that their trust is not in vain. We have to act as the agents of God’s providence; otherwise, as St. James tells us, our faith is dead. (James 2:14-17)
A friend told me that when he was growing up in a “Little Italy” of tenement dwellers on the East Coast his family and friends were all poor, but nobody was ever allowed to go hungry; the community looked after its own. Currently, the Church is failing to even live up to the standards set by merely human communities. The call to embrace poverty goes hand in hand with the call to build radical Christian community. (It is also notable that this is a “pro-life” issue. Steve and Jamie Skojec choose to have a large family. Such generosity is commendable, but too often the parents of large families end up burnt out by the strain. Today, individual families are on their own; in more traditional cultures nuclear families were supported by networks of extended family and local community.)
At the same time, a commitment to voluntary poverty does not prevent individuals from striving for excellence in their professions. In fact, voluntary poverty does not even rule out making a lot of money! Let’s imagine a hypothetical businessman who runs his company in accordance with Catholic principles. He pays all his workers a generous living wage and offers family-friendly benefits, his products are of high quality and are sustainably produced, he avoids undercutting his competitors, and he reinvests surplus wealth in his company’s local community. Even though his high principles put him at a disadvantage against unscrupulous competitors who off-shore jobs and pillage local communities, his commitment to honesty has paid off and his company is making a huge profit. So far, our businessman is an exemplar of Christian virtue.
Now he is able to pay himself a large salary. Everything depends on what he does with this income. If he uses it to amuse himself or live in luxury, he is not living a truly Christian life. But if he provides for his family’s modest needs and then gives the rest of his income to charity, he would be living a life of voluntary poverty in accordance with the Gospel. In any discussion of voluntary poverty, the stress should be on the word voluntary.
Still, it should be noted that many people will not achieve such success, no matter how hard they work. Skojec says “When you believe in abundance, and that there’s more out there for the taking if you just go out and get it, suddenly the stuff you have isn’t such a big deal anymore. Suddenly, you don’t feel like you need to cling to it for dear life.” Believing in abundance will only get one so far. For one thing, our hypothetical businessman is rather rare today; our whole economy is stacked against those who bring their Faith into their business dealings. For another, many people struggle with some kind of disability or handicap. The Christian community exists to make sure that the weak are not crushed by the burden of life, burdens that they might not be able to carry by themselves.
You Can not Worship God and Mammon
The idol of the USA is Mammon: the individualistic pursuit of wealth, power, and status. In such a society, the poor are outcasts. They are not able to worship at the sacred shrine, and so lack a sense of self-worth and dignity. Skojec recounts his experience of being rejected as a child:
I’m the oldest, but I rarely got new clothes, and when I did, they were usually from a clearance bin. Most of my apparel was of the hand-me-down variety, and it usually arrived in large black trash bags, the collected cast-offs from my more well-to-do older cousins. I got made fun of a lot in school because of my clothes, or the fact that I wore whatever generic sneakers my mom could grab for cheap from K-Mart instead of Nikes or Reeboks. It was the age of Air Jordans and Reebok pumps, after all. None of this Spaulding crap. So I started picking up jobs as early as I could. Babysitting at 14 turned into mowing the parish cemetery at 15 and then working at the local hardware store at 16. I quit football after my freshman year so I could work. The wages were garbage, but I worked as much as they’d let me, and it felt good to go the mall and buy my own clothes, my own shoes, and my own video games. I could even go to the movies, or go out to eat at the Chinese buffet. I had to go alone most of the time, but at least I got to go.
Whatever else that school may have been teaching, it was effectively training new acolytes for the worship of Mammon. Jesus said that the poor are blessed, but he also said that no one can serve both God and Mammon. In the USA, most of us are subconsciously trying to serve both. Not surprisingly, such divided loyalties come with quite a bit of mental anguish. As the young Steve Skojec found, Mammon is a hard master, and its servants mercilessly persecute those who can’t or won’t serve their god. There was no logical reason for Steve to have been ashamed of his generic sneakers; in some societies, he would have been seen as fortunate for having shoes at all! And it isn’t as if the name brands are that much better at protecting one’s feet. Rather, he suffered embarrassment and rejection simply because he was not able to afford a meaningless status symbol.
Whether our poverty is voluntary or involuntary, few of us can resist the societal pressure to worship Mammon. We all tend to give the well-to-do more respect. Nor is this a recent problem. In his Letter, St. James warns the early Christian communities to beware of making distinctions based on wealth and fashionable clothing. He directs them to honor the poor members of the community. Without such a truly counter-cultural community, the poor will indeed tend to become mentally and spiritually “busted” by their interactions with the worshipers of Mammon.
A Community that Builds One Another Up
As Skojec points out, not all of the poor end up busted. Almost miraculously, some of them are supernaturally generous and unselfish:
It must be acknowledged, though, that there is another group of people: the truly, inexplicably generous…Poor folk who give freely and without reserve. People who will give you the coat off their back on an icy day, or the last bowl of soup in the pot even though they don’t know where the next meal will come from. They exist, and they are mysterious. Almost inexplicable, humanly speaking. These people are truly next level. They’re the ones I really admire. They’re the truly blessed poor. The ones whose wisdom we could all stand to benefit from, if we can only understand how it works.
I think that such generosity truly is a mystery; a mystery of God’s grace. Such people represent the Christian ideal. Most of us, however, are not able to achieve this ideal without assistance. That is the purpose of the Church. As Christians, we are called to “build one another up in Christ”. Through a personal experience of God’s love mediated by the Christian community, we can grow in the trust necessary to embrace voluntary poverty. No one can give what they do not have. To pour ourselves out in love of God and neighbor, we must first receive this love through those around us.