Christianity, it seems to me, has a deep split in relation to its view of poverty.
On the one hand, there is the sanctification of poverty. Religious take vows of poverty, and the poverty of saints is often held up as an example of selflessness and holiness. Giving up everything beyond the mere essentials required for survival is seen as the true wisdom. Being poor, then, is seen as intrinsically valuable in itself. Doing without, being hungry or cold, is virtuous. This is more than a warning not to become obsessed with material wealth and the accumulation of things. The rich man, the bible says, will find it as difficult to enter the gates of heaven as will the camel getting through the eye of the needle. The poor are truly the humble saints among us.
At the same time, poverty is often used as the explanation, even the excuse, for anti-social or criminal behavior. In a stance of patronizing arrogance, Christians often suggest that the poor should be forgiven, because poverty is the reason they are under-socialized. Inequality, they lament, is the scandal, a profound unfairness that we must strive to overcome.
On the other hand, in a paradoxical contradiction, we praise the Great and the Good. We bury them in our churches with great aplomb. Christian leaders themselves parade in an astonishing array of material riches. Bishops live in palaces, they carry gold sceptres and jewel-studded crosses, wear luxurious robes, and adorn churches with a display of great wealth. Even those who take vows of poverty rarely know what it’s like to wonder where their next meal is going to come from or where they will lay down at night. I know, because I lived an extraordinarily comfortable life under a vow of poverty. I was never cold, I was never without access to running water, I was never denied medical help, I was never hungry.
Stripped of its religious aura, I think most people would agree that poverty is not in itself an indicator of either holiness or lack thereof. Heroic generosity and selfless dedication reside among both the comfortably well-off and those with fewer material assets. Yes, extreme poverty that denies people enough food and water, that prevents access to adequate medical care or security is something which we must strive to reduce and ultimately eliminate. If we can cure or prevent it, we must try to do so. By the same token, an obsession to acquire things, to have as much or more than one’s neighbours is equally not a formula for human fulfillment. Money can solve some problems, but money will not of itself bring happiness nor is it a mark of virtue.
But is it easier to be holy if one is poor? I doubt it. Is it easier to be good if one is not poor?
I don’t know. But I’m trying!