In this episode, Malcolm interviews Peter van Kampen, the author of Live Simply: So That Others Might Simply Live. They discuss the Gospel’s teaching on material wealth and why Christians shouldn’t live lives of luxury while others are starving. You can purchase his book here.
Peter is a cradle Catholic. In college, he become really struck with the Church’s teaching on the universal call to holiness. We are all called to be saints, and Peter wanted to put this calling into practice in his life. Of course, there are many components to striving for holiness; but Peter found that the definition “make love your aim” really sums up what holiness is all about.
As he tried to apply this motto to his life, he began to wonder about the way he spent his money. He was tithing his income, since that seemed to be a basic Christian principle; but after that, he felt free to spend his surplus money as he saw fit. At the same time, he knew that there were charitable organizations that could feed and cloth a child in Africa for a little over a dollar a day. And as Christians, we are called to love others as we love ourselves.
With this in mind, his spending started to seem selfish and inconsistent with his goal of making love his aim. He would find himself spending 15 dollars on an unnecessary restaurant meal or movie, or two dollars on a Coke—and then think about how he’d just wasted the money that could have provided for the basic needs of somebody else.
He eventually confided these concerns to his future wife, Catherine. She challenged him to stop just worrying about it and do something practical. So he decided to implement what he calls his “luxury budget”. He would continue to tithe and would pay for all his basic necessities. Beyond that, he would allow himself only $100 dollars a month for any unnecessary purchases, and the rest of his surplus money would go to charity.
This allowed him to give away more money, and he found that he actually enjoyed living a more simple lifestyle. But it also forced him to ask even more questions. Suddenly, every purchase had to be classified as a necessity or as a luxury—and if it was a luxury, it was going to eat away at that luxury budget.
On a mission trip to Kenya, he encountered real poverty for the first time. This encounter increased his determination to live within the luxury budget he had set—and in fact, he eventually reduced the monthly amount.
Initially, Peter had thought that this attempt to live simply was just a part of his personal spirituality. Eventually, however, while he and Catherine were preparing for a conference, they discovered that the Church actually teaches that wealth is spiritually dangerous and that our surplus money belongs to the poor as a matter of justice.
Once he realized this, he felt free to teach it to others. And he became struck by two things. He found this teaching on simplicity of life everywhere he looked; in official Church documents, in the New Testament, in the writings of the saints and the Fathers of the Church. At the same time, Catholics in the “developed world” simply weren’t talking about this teaching. Most of them had never heard of it, and even explicitly denied that the Church taught anything of the sort. This surprising disconnect is what led Peter to write his book, Live Simply: So That Others Might Simply Live.
During the podcast episode, Peter quoted the following section from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
2445 Love for the poor is incompatible with immoderate love of riches or their selfish use:
Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have killed the righteous man; he does not resist you.237
2446 St. John Chrysostom vigorously recalls this: “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. the goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.”238 “The demands of justice must be satisfied first of all; that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity”:239
When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.
During the podcast, we talked about the important role of conscience in the Christian life. Each person has to discern what the Church’s teaching on the proper use of material goods means for his or her life. But the importance of conscience does not mean that anything goes! Rather, we each have a duty to form our own conscience properly and apply certain basic principles in each area of life. At the end of the podcast, Peter outlined three principles that should guide our use of material goods.
Every Christian is called to live simply and donate any surplus wealth to the poor.
This does not, however, mean that we must give away what we legitimately need. As Pope Leo XIII said in Rerum Novarum: No one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own needs and those of his household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly his condition in life.
We need to be careful, however, that “living becomingly” does not slip into living luxuriously. And this leads to the third principle. St. Basil the Great said: “By a certain wily artifice of the devil, countless pretexts of expenditure are proposed to the rich.” We have to be alert and reject those “pretexts of expenditure”.
A Greater Understanding of Reality
One of the advantages of a simpler way of life is a greater understanding of reality. As inhabitants of the so-called “developed world”, we consume resources at an enormous rate, without being aware of how unusual this is. Historically speaking, even the wealthy consumed much less than we do. The rich at the time of Christ or in the Middle Ages would be amazed by the lifestyle of middle-class North Americans. Even a hundred years ago, people owned many fewer possessions, lived in smaller houses, and generally lived a more strenuous life.
Around the world today, this affluent lifestyle is still an anomaly. Most people have to get by on much less than the average Canadian or American. By embracing a simpler lifestyle, we will not only be able to help the poor; we will be able to recover a sense of gratitude as we realize how blessed we really are.
And we will be able to recover another kind of reality; a realization of our true obligations to God, who has given us everything we have. We are constantly told that we are supposed to be “stewards” of our possessions; such language makes little impression on us, because we don’t think about what the word really means. As stewards, we don’t own anything. Everything truly belongs to God; as the psalms tell us, “The Earth is the Lord’s”. That means we don’t get to decide how to use our possessions; we have a duty to use them for the glory of God and the service of our neighbor. We get annoyed when politicians use our money for their own enjoyment; we should feel the same way about a Christian who uses God’s money for personal enjoyment while other people are starving.
Featured Image: Houses in the Kibera Slum, Nairobi, Kenya; image by Colin Crowley, CC BY 2.0.
I recently had an interesting conversation with Jason Wilde and Peter Land, in which we reflected on the first year of our podcast project and discussed the direction of the project going forward. The conversation will be edited and released as an anniversary podcast episode. In this essay, I want to expand on some of the themes that came up.
Walking as Community
We often think of community as a stable, static thing, rooted in a particular place. Peter Land recently took part in a three day walking pilgrimage, and found a deep sense of community among the participants. It made him reflect on the traveling community that surrounded Christ, and also on voluntary poverty and detachment. When one has to carry one’s belongings, simplicity of life starts to seem more attractive! We’re called to be open to the Holy Spirit, journeying together toward the Kingdom of Heaven. Is the rooted village or neighborhood really the best metaphor for the Christian life? Is such a community even the best setting for the Christian life?
The Dangers of Community
A false sense of security and contentment can certainly be a danger for Christain communities. In my interview with Charles Moore and Rick Burke from the Bruderhof, they pointed out that community members can become attached to their ways of life. They can also slip into seeing the community as an end in itself, as a substitute for following Christ and being open to the Holy Spirit. Communities need to be on guard against becoming self-referential and satisfied with themselves.
A spirit of poverty keeps these problems in check. Although factual frugality of life is necessary, being “poor in spirit” means more than merely living simply. Wealth represents an attempt at control, a grasping at security. The rich fool of Luke 12 thought he was all set once his barns were full of grain, but his security was an illusion. Even without material wealth, we can fall prey to a spirit of wealth that desires control and security on individual terms. To avoid this, the community must practice poverty, but must also exercise a “preferential option” for the poor. Poverty comes in many forms, and there are many ways that communities can reach out to the poor of the surrounding community, whether those in need of food and clothing or merely those in need of a listening ear. The community must refuse to treat anyone as “outsiders”, and instead should see everyone as part of their community in Christ.
By reaching out and entering into the life of others, we are freed from false contentment, security, and routine. The life of Catholic Worker communities provides a good example of this dynamic in practice. Not only do they practice voluntary poverty and service to the poor; they invite “outsiders” to participate in the life of the community and host “round table discussions” that provide a platform for dialogue with a diversity of views.
These same dynamics can affect the Church as a whole. Throughout Church history, there has been the temptation to complacency with how things are, which leads to insular thinking and a focus on the structures of power in the Church rather than on our journey to the Kingdom. As Pope Francis has often reminded us, we are a pilgrim Church on the road with one another, an evangelizing Church reaching out to those on the peripheries. We must never lose sight of the Apocalypse, the coming of the kingdom for which we pray in the Our Father and for which we are called to work in our lives. Only by going beyond ourselves, reaching out toward God and neighbor, can we avoid the stagnation that leads to decay.
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.)