Are the Poor Busted—or Blessed?
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.
Cover Image: photo of old cars uploaded to Flickr by Robert Couse-Baker, CC BY 2.0
Interview with Simone Weil House
In this episode I interview Bert Fitzgerald and Emma Coley from the Simone Weil House, a new Catholic Worker in Portland, Oregon. They explain the ministry and vision of their house of hospitality and outline an exciting new pilot project: demonstrating how an existing faith community can become a community of mutuality within a credit union, able to provide interest free loans to one another.
Bert founded Simone Weil House almost three years ago. Prior to moving to Portland, Bert served as a live-in volunteer at the South Bend Catholic Worker and experimented with a number of alternative economic projects. In Portland, he hoped to start a project that would model some of the less emphasized aspects of the movement. As well as hospitality, he hoped to develop an alternative model of Christian economics.
Emma had volunteered for a Catholic Worker house while she was in high school, and when she was in college she got to know a self organized community for the homeless called Second Chance Village. On a visit to Portland she encountered the newly formed Simone Weil House, and eventually came back to join the project a little over a year ago.
The French mystic and philosopher Simone Weil was chosen as the patron of the new Catholic Worker House. Bert described her as the Christian answer to Nietzsche. She wrestled with basic questions with the same exacting honesty, but found truth rather than dissimulation in the mystery of Christ.
Simone Weil’s thought can also help us to overcome the “right/left” dichotomy and the compartmentalization of life in general. I recently wrote an article that draws on Weil’s spirituality of attention.
The project started out in a simple and humble way. Bert stressed that he wanted it to provide an example of “Christ Room Hospitality”, something that any home could participate in. By working with a local provider of services for the homeless, Bert had got to know several individuals who were in need of housing. So with his landlord’s permission he invited them to share his house.
Over time, the number of people being housed increased. Simone Weil house acquired tiny houses and converted storage units to provide more living space. Eventually they were able to clean up and use the “Hell House”, a trashed drug house across the street. After a thorough cleaning and two exorcisms, this became “Dorothy Day House”. On any given day, there are now between 11 and 14 people living in the two houses.
Interest free loans
As well as providing hospitality and other services such as free laundry facilities, the Simone Weil house has started a community of economic mutuality that has partnered with Notre Dame Federal Credit Union to make interest free loans available to its members..
This project is grounded in Christian spirituality. We all tend to treat members of our families in one way, and members of the wider public in a different way. But what if we broadened the circle of people we treated as family? Isn’t that part of a truly Christian outlook on the world? We are all part of God’s family now, and should treat one another accordingly.
This attitude can even be found in the Old Testament. Much of the Old Testament law was concerned with social justice. The people of God were supposed to make sure that individuals or families didn’t fall “through the cracks” due to inter-generational poverty. The Jubilee years were designed to prevent this from happening. Similarly, there was an obligation to redeem the debts of relatives so that they did not fall into debt bondage.
Under the New Covenant, we have an even deeper obligation to redeem debts for one another. Christ died to redeem us from our spiritual bondage. Having received such a great grace, how could we begrudge the effort to redeem others from their earthly debts?
This was actually the origin of Credit Unions. Today they operate in much the same way as other banks, but originally they were founded by religious communities as a way of looking out for one another. The Simone Weil house is trying to recover this tradition.
Simone Weil House has a bank account with the Notre Dame Federal Credit Union called the “redemption fund”. Individuals who who join the mutual community open an account with NDFCU and can choose to have $150 sent to the fund. Simone Weil house identifies local recipients who are in need of loans. They then work to find a “guarantor”, someone who will provide a security for the loan.
In particular, they try to make the whole process serve the building of local community. The guarantor and recipient know one another and build a relationship. In this way, their project is trying to reverse the way that money tends to tear down and atomize community.
An example can help to illustrate how this process works. The following quote comes from a Simone Weil House newsletter reporting on the past year of the project.
The loan recipient, an older man on a fixed income, was in a car accident last year that left him with high medical bills. Unable to access a reputable bank due to his lack of credit, he accepted a high interest credit card offer he received in the mail. He quickly became buried in debt at an incredible 38% interest. He heard about our community while volunteering his time at a local parish food bank, where one of our steering committee members happens to also volunteer. We were able to refinance his debt at 0% interest, and this steering committee member ultimately served as this borrower’s guarantor. Since getting connected with our community through this program, the borrower now comes by our Catholic Worker house multiple times per week with food for our community and to stock our community free fridge.
Different Kinds of Security
The various projects of Simone Weil house highlight something this podcast has discussed before: the different kinds of security. One the one hand, there is the individual attempt at personal security through possessions. This is condemned by the Gospel, but is a defining characteristic of our time. On the other hand, there is the Christian kind of security which is based on mutual self-giving within a loving community. For more on this topic, see our episode on voluntary poverty.
For more information on the many projects of Simone Weil House, visit their website!
Interview with the Alleluia Community
In this episode, Malcolm interviews Dan Almeter from the Alleluia Community in Augusta, Georgia. They discuss the history and growth of the community over time and its structure and spirituality. Dan also talks about his personal experience with Fr. Thomas Dubay and how Fr. Dubay influenced the community.
The Alleluia Community
The Alleluia Community started in 1973 in Augusta, Georgia. It grew out of a large Charismatic prayer group. A number of people in the group started meeting to discuss living the Christian life in a more intentional way, and out of this smaller group 12 members ultimately formed a covenant community. The group grew rapidly; today it has 700 members. The 12 founding members were all Catholics, but they discerned that they should become an ecumenical community. (In part, this was due to the fact that Catholics are such a small minority of the Christian population in Georgia.)
The ecumenical nature of the community has a lot of influence on its spirituality. There is a large focus on scripture, on personal daily prayer, on being open to the charisms of the Holy Spirit, and on enthusiastic worship. Contemplative prayer plays a large role in the community, in part through the influence of Fr. Thomas Dubay. There is also an emphasis on good interpersonal relationships and accountability.
The community has a leadership council of seven elders, who are elected by the community and serve for life. They are assisted by a complementary leadership council of women. In addition to this, there are numerous small group leaders and other leadership positions. Before an individual can become a vowed member of the community, there is a two year postulancy.
The members of the Alleluia Community serve those in the local area in a number of different ways. Members are free to start their own initiatives which are then supported by other members. Many service projects have started this way. They include:
- A food bank with multiple locations across half the state
- A city wide soup kitchen at different local churches
- Prison ministry
- Service at local churches
- Street evangelization
- Prayer and healing ministries
- Pro-Life work
- Ecumenical organizing at both a local and an international level
- And a spiritual direction training program
Relationship of the Alleluia Community to Local Churches
Dan emphasized that the Alleluia Community does not compete with local churches; instead, the community serves local churches. One requirement for membership is that an individual has to be a member in good standing with a local church. Local pastors appreciate this, since the community is not pulling members away from their congregations. There are many priests and protestant pastors in the community, each of whom serves their wider religious congregation.
Communal Economics and The Family
Dan explained that the community started out owning everything in common. They pooled their funds and bought a run-down set of apartments in a rough area of town. Over time, however, owning everything in common became unwieldy as the community grew. It also infringed on subsidiarity and the rights of parents. Under the original scheme, a father who wanted to buy anything for his children had to apply to a central committee. The community members now own their houses individually. They still contribute 10% of their incomes to the community fund, however, and 6% to run the community school. Most of the members also still live in the same geographic area.
We noted that very few Christian communities manage to hold everything in common while still allowing families to be full members. A notable exception to this dynamic is the Bruderhof. Dan commented that this may be possible for them because they collectively own their own means of production.
(For more information on the Bruderhof, see our recent interview with some Bruderhof members here.)
Ecumenism and Unity in the Alleluia Community
The Alleluia Community is ecumenical, and is enriched by the diversity of spiritual perspectives among the members. We discussed the importance of unity among Christians. While unity on doctrinal issues may be important, unity in love and serving the Lord is more important and has to come before any progress can be made on doctrinal issues. At the Alleluia Community, the members don’t try to resolve their doctrinal differences. Instead, they focus on relating to one another with love and respect.
Father Thomas Dubay and The Alleluia Community
Father Thomas Dubay influenced the founders of the Alleluia Community, who read his book Caring, a Biblical perspective on Community. Later, Fr. Dubay became Dan’s spiritual director, and Dan started a study group within the community to read Fr. Dubay’s writings on contemplative prayer. Dan shared stories of his personal interactions with Fr. Dubay and we briefly discussed some of Fr. Dubay’s books, including Happy Are You Poor.
Community and the Christian Life
Community is necessary for the Christian life; without a community one can’t advance in sanctity. Those we live with “rub against us” and show us our weaknesses and imperfections, but they can also build us up with their strengths. A community also makes it possible to evangelize, which is an integral part of a Christian life.
Authority in Community
Those in positions of authority in a community should see themselves as servants, helping and serving the other members of a community. Further, they only have authority insofar as they’ve been given authority. Community leaders can call members to live up to the agreements and commitments they have made. That doesn’t give them authority over other areas of the member’s lives.
Advice for Starting Out
Dan gave a few pieces of advice for those trying to start a Christian community.
- Don’t reinvent the wheel! There are established communities out there that have already made all the mistakes and figured out what works. You don’t have to make the same mistakes again.
- Move from less intentional to more intentional. The Alleluia Community started from a large prayer group; similar large, low-commitment groups can help to find like-minded individuals to build community with.
- Be clear about your vision. If the vision isn’t stated clearly and thoroughly understood and shared by those trying to build a community, there will be trouble down the road.
For More Information:
Poverty, Justice, and Peasant Economics
A version of this essay was presented at Denver Faith and Culture in 2017
How should Christians relate to God’s creation? First and foremost, we should be thankful for it, we should be in awe of it; but our relationship with creation goes beyond that of an admiring spectator. We are part of creation, and we interact with it. We are called on to tend the garden, to rule over the beasts of the earth; in short, we are called on to practice economics.
“Economics” comes from the same Greek root word which gives us the word ecology: oikos, the home. Economics studies the provisioning of the home, the feeding of the family. Ecology studies the home God has made for us.
All economic activities start with the gift of the land given to us by God, because economics consists in the application of labor, human effort, to the land. Similarly, all economic activity should end in the giving of gifts, the tribute of worship to God and the gift of food and shelter to family and neighbor.
In our efforts to redeem society, we must realize the primacy of economics. Leisure is first in intention, but economics is the first in order of actuality. If we are not able to feed and clothe ourselves, we will not be able to produce art or liturgy or politics. Similarly, if a society’s economic order is unjust and works against human dignity, the culture of leisure in that society will become degraded.
Today, our economic system is brutal, unsustainable, and unjust. Simply by participating in our economy we are supporting injustice, the enslavement of the poor and the destruction of the environment. This injustice will undermine all our cultural efforts, which will become just another trendy hobby of the rich. In the end, we will have built a “good life” that would have been familiar in the ancient world; leisure and culture for the upper class, slavery for the others. If we can not restore a right relationship to the land, none of our other attempts at societal renewal will bear fruit.
There are many ways a society can organize its economic relationship to the land, ranging from the clan solidarity of hunting tribes to the vast slave empires of antiquity, and these various forms largely determine the type of culture a given society will produce.
I purpose that in our quest for a just economy we can learn from one form in particular, that of the peasant.
Today the word carries connotations of poverty and backwardness, but all it truly means is production for consumption instead of for trade. It is a simplification of economics in which an individual family or small group of families controls all the economic factors; land, labor, capital, and consumption. Cutting down a tree to heat one’s house is an example of peasant economics. So long as the primary focus is on self-provisioning, it is still peasant production. The adjective “peasant” says nothing as such about technology use or wealth.
I’d hasten to add that many goods can not be produced this way, and no healthy society can consist solely of peasant production. Primary goods, such as food, shelter, and clothing, as well as the tools to produce these, can and have been provided by peasant villages. There is a bit of a blurry line here, I admit; there was division of labor in a peasant village. A blacksmith may shoe his own horse, but will spend much of his time shoeing horses for others. However, the blacksmith is part of the village; he will live his whole life with the other villagers. Just so, there was some division of labor in most peasant families. But the focus was on the self provisioning of the unit. In this way, the village can be seen as the literal and functional extension of the family. Secondary goods, such as computers, television sets, smart phones, and fluorescent lights can not be produced in a peasant fashion, not solely because of their complexity but because of the economies of scale necessary to their manufacture. Secondary goods, however, are not essential to life, and can’t be allowed to dominate the economic order to the detriment of primary goods.
We are called to live lives of Christian poverty, though not of destitution. As Matthew’s Gospel tells us, God knows we have need of “all these things”; the primary goods of food, clothing and shelter. But as Luke’s Gospel warns us: “Woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full.” And as Matthew’s Gospel warns us, our wealth can make entrance to heaven as difficult as the passage of a camel through a needle. If we are to be followers of Christ who came to earth poor and humble, we must shun unnecessary wealth. Some secondary goods are necessary for a full life, but when we live in a society where the bulk of our income is spent on secondary goods, we can guess we have made a mistake. A life spent seeking for comfort and fashion instead of sufficiency is not a Christian life.
In fact, because we spend so much on secondary goods our primary goods are shoddy and unsustainable. In the USA we spend less than ten percent of our income on food, and then wonder why farmers can’t make a living and our soil is eroding away. Italians spend 30 percent of their income on food, because they still realize the food is important. If we want a right relationship with the land we must stop spending our lives in a hunt for secondary consumer goods.
It also should be noted that I’m not advocating the rejection of any technology that can’t be produced by a peasant village; I am advocating relegating such technology to its proper place in society. Also, the Gospel condemnation of wealth is a hard saying. It will take a long journey of Faith to arrive at Christian poverty. But when we find ourselves living much more comfortably and wielding much more power than the rich of Christ’s time, we must begin to ask some hard questions. I don’t have all the answers; each Christian must discern with much prayer their proper relationship to wealth.
In exchange for relocalizing our production and eliminating surplus secondary goods, what will we gain? A better quality of primary goods has already been touched on. Beyond that, simplified peasant economics frees us in many ways, from dependence on markets, from ecological destruction, from the support of empire, and from the financialized imagination.
Among these, the most obvious is freedom from markets. Alternative market farming is currently trendy, and small scale farmers are often locked into an intensive process of providing fancy salads for urbanites. This type of farmer faces competition from “Walmart Organic” with minimum standards and slave worked fields in Mexico or China. The competition has conditioned the customer to expect cheap food, which is only made possible by vast mechanization, government subsidy, debt, ecological destruction and social exploitation. If we eat our own crops and build our own furniture, we can meet our own needs without reference to market values.
Looking farther afield from our individual plots or farms, we should take note of Uncle Sam. Potatoes grown and eaten on the peasant plot are duty free. If we sell our potatoes or tomatoes, taxation will take a cut before we buy our bread and beef. Do we support what our government uses our tax dollars for? From local town councils funding shoddy development to the Pentagon buying million dollar bombs, our taxes fund waste, evil and destruction.
Between the sale of the turnips and the purchase of the bread, our money will presumably sit in a bank. What is the bank up to with our money? Who are they funding? Bureaucrats and other parasites are only too willing to suck the wealth out of our local communities. The less liquid it is, the less they will be able to get. Potatoes grown and consumed on a peasant plot are revolutionary; they threaten the established order while building the new. They free us from the support of empire and exploitation, because they are not financialized or monetized.
At a deeper level, that is exactly the point. Monetization itself is the enemy. In theory the farmer on his combine or the CEO at his desk are providing for their families, just as is the turnip grower. But it is much easier for us to realize this in the third case. Money’s purpose is to abstract; it is artificial and corrupting, becoming an end of its own. It has always been a tool of managers, bureaucrats, and imperialists, given their inability to directly interact with the local, particular, and real.
Proponents of the globalized market economy claim that individual vice or virtue, the quality of the product produced, and its effect on society are irrelevant to the common good. In fact, they do not scruple to base a vision of the common good on the selfishness of individuals, claiming that our evil is magically turned to good by the all powerful hand. But if we let our minds run idle, without direction and intentionality, evil creeps in. Similarly, when our economic life lacks intentionality, evil inhabits it. In fairy tales a snuffed candle may end a life, or a shattered crystal may break a spell. And in our modern economy, such a trivial thing as buying a new shirt may kill another half a world away, or destroy a home we’ve never seen. The Bible says that love of money is the root of all evil. Why love of money, and not of, say, turnips? Because money is pure, abstracted power. We can have an unlimited desire for profit. The love of any real thing, while it can become evil if it is not properly ordered, still involves an outward turning towards something other than self. The love of money, in contrast, easily becomes a love of power and security for oneself, even if one tries to use that power for good.
In contrast, inhabitants of other cultures did not feel this profit motive. Instead, they were motivated by more local and concrete concerns; family, local society, religion. They could, and did, misuse these local relations; but the lines were more clear cut. Greed was not admired as it is today, because the greed of one impacted those around him, not those half a continent away. By avoiding the use of currency, we can strike a huge blow in the favor of reality, sanity, and meaning in our lives. We can “reincarnate” our relationships by dealing in the local and particular instead of the abstract and far away.
As St. John Paul II said, faith that is not inculturated is not truly Faith. There can be no point at which we draw a line: “Faith Stops Here”. Our faith must be central to our economic life. We exist for the glory of God. All else must be subordinated to this. All our work and art and craft should exist to praise him; to support his worship directly, or to feed and clothe ourselves that we may continue to praise him, or to raise up the next generation to praise him here when we have joined the great song of praise in heaven. One can offer even the most futile tasks to God: but weak mortals that we are, we need all the reminding that we can get. And so our goal must be to reconnect the broken cycles of our lives so that every economic act may flow to its proper end of love; love of our families, love of our friends, love of our homeland, and ultimately love of the God in whose image we are made. Human life was broken in a garden, and restored in another. To restore our society, body and soul, we must return to our gardens.
Podcast 3: Voluntary Poverty
Peter Land and Malcolm Schluenderfritz are joined by Jason Wilde, a lay missionary with the Catholic Family Missions Company. They discuss voluntary Gospel poverty, and in particular the role of voluntary poverty in our relationships with God and neighbor.
Topics covered include: the nature of voluntary poverty; the difference between poverty and destitution; the individual, personal nature of a call to embrace a simpler lifestyle; Fr. Dubay’s Happy are You Poor; the need for individual discernment in responding to this call; the experience of the podcast participants with poverty; the many different types of poverty in the world today; Fratelli Tutti; finding pleasure in the simple things; finding happiness in Divine and human relationships; the importance of serving the poor; the importance of solidarity with the poor; Christ’s “solidarity” with humanity; the Mystical Body; the recurrent danger in the life of the Church of rejecting either the Humanity or the Divinity of Christ; the lack of security, both physical and spiritual, in today’s world; the difference between individual security and communal security from the perspective of the Gospel; and the relative affluence of most Americans when measured against other times and places.
(All transcripts edited for clarity and readability.)
Header image: Caravaggio, Calling of St. Matthew. Photo by Steven Zucker CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Podcast 2: Organic Development of Community
Peter Land and Malcolm Schluenderfritz discuss community development. Topics include: the purpose of this website, the importance of organic development, the tension between intentionality and organic development, the primacy of friendship, core groups, the role of time and spatial relationships in building community spirit, community as an internal attitude or virtue that needs to be developed, an integrated life, the preferential option for the poor, poverty and community spirit, prepping, security in community, individualism, isolation, and the unexamined life.
(All transcripts edited for clarity and readability.)