As I was completing the assigned readings for class the other day, I came across a line in Maurice Carmody’s book The Franciscan Story that I found particularly helpful as a point of reflection. Within a section chronicling the first days of the movement, Carmody has this to say about the earliest brothers’ need for a simply lifestyle:
At the heart of their brotherhood lay the conviction that they were called to live in solidarity with the poor, to work alongside them or, if necessary, to join them in begging. If they had given up work, it is hard to see how their way of life, which did not correspond with the traditional forms of religious living at the time, could have survived. Solidarity without work was impossible and begging would have been nothing more than a selfish intrusion into the world of the poor.
I am drawn especially to the last line and the dilemma that all who wish to live in solidarity with the poor have to face: how poor does one have to be “to be in solidarity with the poor?” Does solidarity simply mean being conscious of their troubles and working so as not to worsen them? Does it mean renouncing all of one’s worth, power, and status so as to live side-by-side with the homeless, begging for food to make a living?
What I take from this passage (and others) is twofold: No one can be in solidarity with the poor without experiencing true poverty for oneself, and that poverty is not something to be romanticized as an end in itself.
In order to be in solidarity with the poor, he wanted to know the poor by experiencing what they experienced. He lived where they lived, ate what they ate, and wore what they wore. In doing so, he not only experienced the physical struggles of their poor conditions, but also the psychological ones, like the stress of living without a safety net.
Francis was also conscious of the effect this would have and asked, does it help the poor if we are all just as poor? I’m reminded of a scene from a popular movie: witnessing a woman trapped in a bear exhibit at a zoo, the only four men around that notice her life-threatening situation decide to jump into the pit with her rather than get help. At that point, they were of course in solidarity with the trapped woman; on the other hand, they made her situation worse because there was now no one to help, and if help ever came they would need to help five people instead of just one. The same is true with Francis: had he attempted live at same level of poverty as those incapable of helping themselves, begging when he was capable of working, he would have simply made the life of the poor harder, and at what gain?
As a friar in the modern world, I will be faced with many difficult questions that require compromise and critical thinking so as to live as best I can withand for the poor. With very little way of answering any of them now, here are a few things I’ve been wondering:
- Is it better to buy higher quality products, i.e. cars, appliances, that will last longer and will certainly cost less in the long wrong, or to only purchase what the poor are capable of buying and deal with the same frustrations of lower quality products?
- Taking this question to the extreme (but still and important question), should we even own cars, washing and drying machines, and computers, or should we be forced to use public transit, laundry mats, and libraries for these needs like the poor are?
- Is it better to buy more expensive organic foods, products that are better for the environment, the workers, and our health, all things that friars should be conscious of, or do we resort to buying the cheapest foods we can find and distribute the savings to the poor?
- Is it better to become vegetarians, recognizing that meat is expensive, bad for the environment (in the amount it is currently consumed), and not always readily available for the poor, or do we simply try to provide more adequate nutrition to all?
I don’t think that there is a universally correct answer to questions like these, but I do think we can always strive for more nuanced ways to both be in solidarity with the poor and to serve them better. Ultimately, its helpful to remember that Jesus was not the poorest person in history, and so our imitation of him does not require us to be either. There is such a thing as dehumanizing poverty, poverty that strips a person of dignity and defaces God’s creation. In understanding this, we who seek to live in solidarity with the poor should never cross this line ourselves, foolishly and selfishly accepting less than human conditions. What good is it for the poor for us to jump into the bear pit? I think there are better ways to do justice to our neighbor than to take on their pain just to see how it feels. Then again, I speak from ideals and theories; let’s see what a few more years and some real life experience brings, shall we?