The Other I

December 18, 2012

Christianity’s split personality

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!





  1. during my first visit to the displacement camps in subukia we brought with us $200 U>S> worth of flour and soup. the community off loaded it from our suv into a large pile in the middle of the meeting ground where we had our first planning session to allocate the land that was finally released to them by the government. 900 people who had their homes burned during the tribal wars prior to the national elections in kenya 5 years ago had been living in tents now tattered providing little against the rainy season that we were in. plastic, tin foil cardboard were used at an attempt to patch the gaping holes. the camp had no water, no electricity, no bathrooms. women went 5 km to carry water back to the camp on a daily basis also firewood. the tents were about 6ftx12ft. they housed families from 6-8 or possibly more. they were pitched 1 ft from the next. as is the custom, even the littlest female wore a skirt/dress. the dresses were most often 2-3 sizes too large/small. it was apparent that they did not have any underwear or socks or shoes. the only “furniture” in the camp were three chairs that were offered to us. as we were leaving i asked a colleague how they would dispense of the food/soap as there were many more families than bags of goods. she said – the women know who need it the most. i turned around to see a group of 10 or so women parceling out what we had brought. every one was calm, waiting in line. others who apparently were not being given anything, were helping those who were to carry their larder to their tents.

    black friday in the US: people in beach chairs outside the stores for 10 hours before opening – when the doors open their is a stampede. last year, a store employee who was opening the door was trampled to death by the crowd churning to get to the computers, jewelry, toys, cashmere sweaters.

    maybe being poor is easier because gratitude in operative rather than entitlement.


    Comment by kateritek — December 19, 2012 @ 12:28 am | Reply

    • I’m not absolutely sure what you mean when you write that “maybe being poor is easier because gratitude is operative rather than entitlement.” So my response that I don’t agree, may really mean instead that I misunderstand.

      But personally, I cannot see that being poor is easier. I don’t think being poor makes it easier to be good, or to be law-abiding, or to share, or to be considerate of others. I think it’s often harder. As you possibly know even better than I, thefts and betrayals occurred in displaced persons and prison camps following the second world war. Being poor and being desperate doesn’t make us unselfish. It’s got to come from a different source. If being poor itself actually contributed *per se* to our sharing and respect for each other, we would expect crime levels to be lower in areas of poverty. And we know that heroic generosity and selfless altruism exists at every socio-economic level.

      I do think what you saw in the camp in Kenya is humbling. It is beautiful. But I would guess that it is the daily experience of knowing very personally day after day who it is who is hungry and cold makes a big difference. And they know on the most intimate level that they are in this together. We in the developed world are just as dependent on each other, but we rarely experience it so intimately. I do not know the farmers who grow the food I eat, who deliver it to the stores where I buy it, even the check-out person whom I pay for it has no name. I go to a restaurant and eat food cooked by someone I do not even see, I drink water from my kitchen tap purified by someone I will never know. I don’t see the people whose lives are stunted as a result of the pollution created by my energy-exuberant life style.

      And then, of course, we add our independent American spirit, and distort it to believe that each of us are self-sufficient if we are only willing to work hard enough, and you have the kind of self-obsessed behavior to get to a bargain that you describe.

      But just as gun legislation (much as I support it) isn’t going to solve our belief that violence is a constitutionally-enshrined and even admirable way of defending our rights, being poor doesn’t make us good, or even better than if we weren’t. Difficult as it may be to be poor, generosity and respect and love for our fellow creatures isn’t achieved simply by giving up all our worldly goods.

      Somehow I doubt very much that we seriously disagree. I’m not denigrating the generosity of the poor. I think generosity when one is poor is often truly heroic. I just don’t think it’s being poor that makes one generous in the first place. And that’s the religious myth with which I take exception.

      On Wed, Dec 19, 2012 at 12:28 AM, The Other I


      Comment by Terry Sissons — December 19, 2012 @ 3:02 pm | Reply

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