The argument about poverty and how to address it creates more debates among serious Christians than almost any concern I know. Some Christians believe the response should be to tax the rich and redistribute wealth through government safety nets and programs. Other Christians are equally convinced that such programs are not only unnecessary but downright harmful. When incentive is removed and the poor are given government aid it destroys their dignity and creates a welfare dependency that is a serious problem. So far as I can tell this debate has raged in America all my life.
In the religious world this debate plays out constantly. Jim Wallis and Sojourners focus on condemning greed and promoting social justice through government solutions. Others, including many that I am closer to in this debate, argue that income inequality is itself a form of greed. Both sides argue their point of view with conviction and sometimes their arguments become rather fierce, even mean-spirited.
In 2010 1.6 million children in the US were homeless and more than 15% of Americans lived below the poverty line. Worst of all, several million children are actually hungry in a serious way. Some will only get a decent meal in school thus creating a two-day fast every weekend. Meanwhile, our political leaders debate all of this while our national debt is out of control and threatens the well-being of millions of both the poor and middle-class Americans.
In a USA Today Monday Focus (2/27) Anna Williams, an editorial page intern and recent graduate of Hillsdale College, reminds us that hidden from the public eye are the many people who don’t argue about poverty but who choose to live out a lifestyle that seeks to alleviate it. Williams is referring to Catholic monks and nuns. While their commitment, says Williams, is radical they offer to all of us some valuable lessons. Their primary motive is not political. Their primary motive is living out the love of Christ in practical and simple ways. They run homeless shelters, food pantries, medical clinics, etc. By the way there are evangelicals doing the same but their number seems more difficult to determine and much harder to track.
This much we know. Since the first century there have been Christians who took a vow of poverty so that they could give themselves entirely to living with and serving the poor. These people have no personal bank accounts, no cars, no computers and no cell phones. This sacrifice is, for those who make it, not so much a sacrifice as a way to freedom. It is their way of loving God and their neighbors.
Fr. Peter Funk of the Benedictine Monastery of the Holy Cross in Chicago says, “Once we have things, we want to protect them, and we also can get used to satisfying our desires in a way that we don’t get to the bottom of our root desire for God.” This is the point really. Not simply living a life of extreme poverty but rather getting to the root of our true desire, namely to know God’s love in Christ very deeply.
These monks and nuns, and similar lay orders as well, reject the concept of self-reliance and depend on one another for their support, trusting God to work out the rest through their community.
Anna Williams writes, “Though it’s difficult to separate politics from social policy, party affiliation is irrelevant to people wondering how to feed their kids or pay their health care bills. Americans have justifiably low expectations of the government’s ability to solve the world’s problems. But individuals can still open up their wallets and their hearts to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and think of others rather than just themselves. So how can we do this better?”
First, as these monks and nuns all admit a vow of poverty is not for everyone, not even for most Christians. But we can all heed St. Gregory’s advice and "Not let what you own, own you.” And we can follow Mother Teresa’s advice, at least sometimes, to “give until it hurts.” She specifically said, “We are supposed to stretch our hearts a little bit, to be open to giving even if it hurts, because that’s the test of love.”
Williams concludes, rightly I believe, that these religious bands and groups offer better relief to our society than all the programs that we fight about politically. And there is evidence that a growing number of younger Catholics and Protestants are forming “new monastic” communities where this lifestyle is being taken very seriously in fresh and creative ways.
Will these response solve all our poverty-related problems? It is quite unlikely. Some form of government safety-net is still needed and even most conservatives agree with this premise. What troubles so many conservatives is the wasteful and harmful way that such federal programs are administered and abused. I would argue that those programs that are closest to the real people in need are usually the best. Those people who actually see the need in the real faces of people can do the best job of serving those people. This is much more than a budget debate. It is a human crisis debate that should awaken us in America today. We would do best to admit that we have the problem and then discuss how to proceed. One thing is for sure, while many of us are talking and debating during an election season many are hungry and some of our fellow Christians are actually doing something about this problem rather than discussing political solutions, pro and con.
I find it sad that so many Democrats who say they care deeply about the poor are often wealthy people who want government to solve the problem through more taxation. I think of business tycoons and Hollywood stars who favor the government way in this matter. Then there are Republicans who fight against this viewpoint by arguing for the role of private charity while their giving records reveal little or no evidence that they have done much at all to help the poor.
The one thing you and I can all do. We can adopt a more selfless focus, based on what we see in those who live in these unique communities of faith. We can then proceed to simplify our lifestyles for the sake of those in need. While this choice will not be the same for all of us it will require each of us to take stock and ask some hard questions that we ought to be asking more than ever.