After my overwhelmingly persuasive and thoroughly inspiring post about why we should voluntarily choose poverty, all of you have undoubtedly sold all of your possessions and are waiting in joyful anticipation for more details, am I right? Well, even if that’s not the case, we’ll press on.
Despite the potentially misleading title, I don’t believe that there is only one way to live Gospel poverty authentically, and so this post will refrain from being overly specific; poverty is a very relative term, and there are things that would fit one’s life that would not fit another. Instead, this “how to” of sorts will identify a few universal values and attempt to offer critical options for particular expressions in a 21st century American context.
Imitate the poor around us
While Jesus is certainly a great figure to imitate, and I in no way want to diminish his witness, following someone who lived 2000 years ago, from a different culture, in a different region, literally, may not be our best blueprint for action in 21st century America. Jesus simply did not have the conception of healthcare, economics, national security, or personal property that we do (which is not to say that our conceptions are better, just to say that there is a context in which we live that puts very real limits on our possibilities.)
Because of this, a much better “role model” for living poverty today is very obviously the poor of our time. How do the poor in our country/region/city live? What do they own? What are they [not] able to do? What are their needs and concerns? What are their social/political/economic struggles?
In a very clear sense, we ask these questions to be more like the poor, in love and in solidarity. As pope Francis has famously said, priests (and ministers in general) should be “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.” Wow. How beautiful of an image and powerful of a reminder of our role is that? A shepherd is not an administrative authority, well-learned in books and capable of making decisions; a shepherd is someone who comes into close contact with those s/he serves and can only say to have served his/her flock if s/he takes on the situation of the flock. If we are to be authentic, we must be willing to let ourselves be affected by the same conditions that affect them. Taking this seriously helps to form an “upper limit” to the amount of things we can own, luxuries in our life, and privileges we are allowed.
Educate and guide the poor
There is, however, another value that needs to be kept in mind that will undoubtedly muddle this discussion: we must be a witness to the poor. All poverty is not created equal, and we must not fall prey to romanticizing it or making it our absolute goal. Some things that happen to the poor (or are done to themselves) are destructive to the human person and even dehumanizing. Every day, people die of malnutrition, preventable and curable diseases, unnecessary violence, and as a result of inhumane living conditions. This level of poverty, poverty that strips people of their dignity as sons and daughters of God, is disgusting and intolerable.
In this way, poverty is not always something to be imitated because poverty is not the ultimate goal we seek. This is clear even in the witness of Jesus, who, though very poor, was not the poorest person of his day. To seek otherwise would be to seek a bottomless pit, a goal that could never be achieved, short of death by starvation. There will always be someone poorer. Thus, just as an imitation of the poor helped to form an “upper limit” for our own lifestyle, an acknowledgement of an unacceptable level of poverty helps to form a “lower limit” for our lifestyle, keeping us from making poverty an end rather than a means.
Living in this tension
This tension of values makes living Gospel poverty a very tricky and relative thing. We are at the same time called to be in solidarity with a person’s undesirable condition, forced to give up our comfort to experience their grief, while drawing an almost arbitrary line as to what is considered “subhuman” conditions. You can see why “poverty” takes on very different expressions within the Franciscan Order, and why we can seldom agree.
These questions are endless in number:
- Should we live with the poor or in more comfortable places so to recharge and better serve them?
- Should we eat healthier, more expensive foods, or cheap foods that lack nutrition?
- Should we have cars, or use public transportation? If cars, should we buy reliable cars that are more expensive, or cars more like the poor can afford?
- Should we even have health insurance, and if so, how comprehensive?
- Should we buy things in bulk because they are cheaper, or live day-to-day?
- Should we buy higher-quality products that will last, or cheaper ones that the poor generally use?
For each issue, it’s clear to see how one could be swayed either direction depending on which value is most important and how one defines “subhuman” conditions. For some, it is an affront to humanity to have to share a bathroom. For others, it’s eating the same processed foods every day. Some won’t stop until they’re sleeping on the floor with six other men in the room, without heat or running water, having only eaten one meal that day.
But at the same time, it’s easy to see that there are clear limitations to what one can do and still consider oneself “poor.” At some point, using that word is an insult to those whose lives in no way resemble ours. As one friar put it, “the poor can always smell a rat.” I think that’s true, and I think that’s why our first step must always be to listen to and imitate the poor, erring on the side of going too far. Until we are able to do that, to put our health, safety, and dignity on the line, how can we ever begin to be compared to those who do it everyday without any choice in the matter? Our poverty is voluntary, and we will never be able to fully rid ourselves of the safety nets around us, but at some point we need to dive in and live poverty the way the real poor people do.