13 August 2008

Holy Poverty

In 1920 R.H. Tawney published his book The acquisitive society, in which he criticised capitalist morality and values. Fifty years later Lawrence Lipton, the chronicler of the Beat Generation, wrote:
The New Poverty is the disaffiliate's answer to the New Prosperity. It is important to make a living. It is even more important to make a life. Poverty. The very word is taboo in a society where success is equated with virtue and poverty is a sin. Yet it has an honourable ancestry. St. Francis of Assisi revered poverty as his bride, with holy fervor and pious rapture. The poverty of the disaffiliate is not to be confused
with the poverty of indigence, intemperance, improvidence or failure. It is simply that the goods and services he has to offer are not valued at a high price in our society. As one beat generation writer said to the square who offered him an
advertising job: 'I'll scrub your floors and carry out your slops to make a living, but I will not lie for you, pimp for you, stool for you or rat for you.' It is not the poverty of the ill-tempered and embittered, those who wooed the bitch goddess Success with panting breath and came away rebuffed. It is an independent, voluntary poverty.

In the 1970s Western Christian theologians wrote a lot about "contextualisation", to such an extent that it became an almost meaningless piece of theological jargon. But the main idea is quite simple. It is an image taken from the weaving of cloth. The warp threads are stretched out along the length of the cloth, and the weft threads are woven in crosswise, so that in the finished piece of cloth the warp and the weft are inseparably woven together. So, the contextual theologians said, the gospel must we woven into society. Christianity must be a part of the society in which it finds itself.

For some contextual theologians, especially in South America, this meant a "preferential option for the poor". If the gospel of Christ could not speak to the poor and become part of their lives, it would never be heard. In North America, on the other hand, a movement arose to contextualise the gospel for the acquisitive society. And this led to what is called the "prosperity gospel". And so we discover that "contextualisation" doesn't solve the problem, it just shows it. Do Christian values shape and inform society, or are they shaped by it?

That, in North America, often leads on to debates about "separation between church and state", but I don't want to go into that now. The more important question, the prior question, remains: what are my values? Are they shaped by the gospel, or by the world, by the acquisitive society?

The other side of the contextualisation coin is that in many ways the Church is called to be countercultural. St Paul said "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind" (Romans 12:2).

Perhaps one of the unintended consequences of contextual theology is that it sometimes leads to a conformity to the world's values. In traditional Christian morality we recognise that we have to struggle against sinful behaviour. This spiritual struggle, spiritual warfare, is called podvig in Russian and ascesis in Greek. But contextualisation can sometimes lead to a different way.

Instead of struggling against sins like lust and greed, one simply redefines them as virtues. So for some in the West fornication is no longer a sin to be repented of or stuggled against, but rather extolled as a virtue, in the name of "inclusion". For others, lust remains a sin to be denounced (sometimes self-righteously, especially in others), but it is greed that has been transformed into a virtue in the new "prosperity gospel". And very often the pro-lust group and the pro-greed groups find themselves opposed to one another. The secular world has no such problems. Lust and greed go hand in hand in a symbiotic relationship, and the porn industry flourishes as never before. People from poor countries and regions are traded as sex slaves, and make their pimps very, very rich.

But this article is not about lust -- that was just to show that the unintended consequences of contextualisation can take different forms. Whatever form it takes it means that one no longer even needs to pay lip-service to Christian values. But sometimes even lip service is better than nothing, and leads, however imperfectly, to an attempt to shape society by Christian values. St Constantine is often vilified nowadays since his introduction of religious toleration opened the way for the Christianisation of the Roman Empire. One result of the Christianisation of the Roman Empire was the attempt, at least to some extent, to manifest Christian values in public life.
The emperors participated personally in the care of the needy, e.g. by anointing lepers or sharing meals with the hungry. This must have provided them with political public relations benefits, but it also represents a crucial emphasis in Orthodox spirituality. To be complete, a charitable work cannot deal only with structures and institutions but must involve a direct relation between persons, who bear the divine
image. Thus Romanus not only funds the feeding of the masses but also invites a few at a time to his own table. Whether he does this out of genuine compassion or only from a desire to appear compassionate, he shows his respect for a spiritual and ethical principle which his society values highly (Harrison 1990:24).
The difference is that the acquisitive society does not value that spiritual and ethical principle.

Let St Ambrose of Milan have the last word
How far, ye rich, will you carry your insane cupidity? ... why do you reject nature's partnership of goods, and claim possession of nature for yourselves? The earth was established to be in common for all, rich and poor; why do ye rich alone arrogate it to yourselves as your rightful property? Nature knows no rich, since she brings forth all men poor. For we are born without clothes and are brought forth without silver or gold. Naked she brings us to the light of day, and in want of food and covering and drink; and naked the earth receives back what she has brought forth, nor can she stretch men's tombs to cover their possessions. A narrow mound of turf is enough for rich and poor alike; and a bit of land of which the rich man when alive took no heed now takes in the whole of him. Nature makes no distinctions among us at our birth, and none at our death. All alike she creates us, all alike she seals us in the tomb. Who can tell the dead apart? Open up the graves, and, if you can, tell which was a rich man. . . .

But why do you think that, even while you live, you have abundance of all things? Rich man, you know not how poor you are, how destitute you would seem even to yourself, who call yourself wealthy. The more you have, the more you want; and whatever you may acquire, you nevertheless remain as needy as before. Avarice is inflamed by gain, not diminished by it...

You crave possessions not so much for their utility to yourself, as because you want to exclude others from them. You are more concerned with despoiling the poor than with your own advantage. You think yourself injured if a poor man possesses anything which you consider a suitable belonging for a rich man; whatever belongs to others you look upon as something of which you are deprived. Why do you delight in what to nature are losses? The world, which you few rich men try to keep for yourselves, was created for all men. For not alone the soil, but the very heaven, the air, the sea, are claimed for the use of the few rich. . . . Do the angels in heaven, think you, have their separate regions of space, as you divide up the earth by fixed boundaries?

How many men are killed to procure the means of your enjoyment! A deadly thing is your greed, and deadly your luxury. One man falls to death from a roof, in order that you may have your big granaries. Another tumbles from the top of a high tree while seeking for certain kinds of grapes, so that you may have the right sort of wine for your banquet. Another is drowned in the sea while making sure that fish or oysters shall not be lacking on your table. Another is frozen to death while tracking hares or trying to catch birds with traps. Another is beaten to death before your eyes, if he chances to have displeased you, and your very viands are bespattered with his blood...



Harrison, Verna, 1990. Poverty in the Orthodox tradition, in St Vladimir's Theological Quarterly, Vol. 34(1). Page 15-47.


This post is part of a "Poverty, as seen from God's perspective".

Here are links to others blogging on this topic this month:

Phil Wyman: A theology of poverty and our personal biases
Adam Gonnerman: Echoes of Judas
Cobus van Wyngaard: Luke: The Gospel for the Rich
Lainie Petersen at Headspace
Steve Hayes: Holy Poverty
Jonathan Brink: Spiritual Poverty
Dan Stone at The Tense Before
Jeremiah: Blessed are the poor... churches...
Alan Knox: Boasting in Humiliation
Miss Eagle: Poverty and the hospitable heart
Jimmie: Feeding the poor
Calacirian: Fully known and fully loved


Yewtree said...

Yes, but the Emperor Constantine's toleration of Christianity involved the suppression of other religions, whereas the Emperor Julian's tolerance was genuine - he recalled "heretical" bishops from exile and allowed everyone to practice their religion freely, especially Pagans.

Also, the fact that the Emperors embraced Christianity arguably turned it from a humble and countercultural religion to one that was irrevocably entwined in the politics of hierarchy and empire. (See the writings of Simon Barrow from Ekklesia, who has written extensively on this; or the TV programme Art of Eternity, which shows how the iconography and church design changed after the imperialisation of Christianity.

Steve Hayes said...


My comments about Constantine were something of an aside, and not really what this post is about. I've said most of what I want to say about Constantine at Notes from underground: St Constantine, Scapegoat of the West, if you're interested.

The Chemist said...

I am very interested to hear what you have to say about the American debate over church and state. Especially considering how strong the feelings are where I live, the so-called "Bible Belt". In the state as a whole, we are mainly comprised of right wing Christians, in the capital of the state, we get more lefties (like me).

Unknown said...

My view is that most Christians have their views shaped by the society around them - and most particularly they allow that society to shape them if they hold the view that the society around them (or their govt or their political party) is a Christian one.

Never mind that their society, govt or political party is dominated by Mammon (remember Jesus said we have to chose between God and Mammon), greed, power and, of course, dominance.

Not too many servant-leaders among the leaders of society, govts or political parties and, where they exist in churches and denominantions, they stand out like sore thumbs.

Living the way Jesus did and said is risky busy and, let's face, it - most of the human race is risk averse. Don't we think mountain climbers are mad! Those who take a stand and ruin their careers and finances we regard as even madder!

But we don't even do the little things that society will let us get away with - like refusing to take oaths, ethical food practices, anti-consumerism by recycling and reusing and gleaning. And as for giving up a portion of our lives and going and living with Aboriginal people in the middle of Australia only a few hours plane ride away from a major capital city. Can't be done by most of us!

Blessings and bliss

PS: I've synchro-blogged at The Eagle's Nest at http://eaglesplace.blogspot.com

Steve Hayes said...

Miss Eagle,

Your comment is spot-on, as usual. Deserves to be more widely disseminated, and I hope you won't mind if I do that.


The US debates on church and state I find bewildering and at times incomprehensible. The example I gave of the Emperor feeding the poor is not an isolated one -- St Prince Vladimir, when he became a Christian, did the same thing, and abolished capital punishment as well. But I'm sure some Americans would scream "socialism" and "separation of church and state" without bothering to join the dots for those of us who find their thinking processes difficult to follow.

andrew said...

Perhaps the poor, who are always in the here and now, serve as a constant reminder of how far short of the perfection that Jesus demands from us. St. James convicts us in 1:27 Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.

Unknown said...

dont worry about where you will be clothed or what you will eat. the day will take care of itself. lol. holy poverty is all around us everywhere, in everything that makes our heart leap, or gives a genuine feeling of contentment, it is called nature, we only have to accept it purely.


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