Blessed Are The Poor

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 44, Easter 2008

Kathleen Gallagher and Jim Consedine

The Catholic Worker has long been attracted to the teachings of Jesus on the relationship between wealth and poverty. Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin chose voluntary poverty as a foundation stone for their new movement. The last judgment parable in Matthew 25 is an iconic Catholic Worker position. Christians are challenged to live it. But Dorothy Day was clear that she opposed destitution in any form. She believed that capitalism was structurally flawed, producing destitution just as much as it produced wealth for the few. She was always opposed to that and was a fierce critic of capitalism – ‘that filthy, rotten system’ she frequently called it.

The issue of ‘blessed are the poor’ is one of the real paradoxes of the Gospels. On the one hand, it is clear that Jesus opposed destitution as an affront to human dignity. And the Church has rightly over the centuries produced many social teachings to confront this ‘structurally sinful situation’ as John Paul II called it. ‘Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty’ are imperatives for all Christians wanting to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. In other words, alleviate the situation of the poor.

On the other hand, ‘blessed are the poor’ is a phrase which resonates through the scriptures and which is popularly understood to imply that Jesus himself chose downward mobility and voluntary poverty as a means to holiness. Indeed the Church teaches that ‘Jesus took a preferential option for the poor’ in recognition of this position. This has most recently been reaffirmed again at the combined Central and Latin American and Caribbean Episcopal Conference held in Sao Paulo, Brazil, late last year. Often Jesus condemned the rich in unequivocal terms. Lazarus is praised in Luke 16, while the rich are condemned for ignoring the poor.

Voluntary Poverty

In reflecting on voluntary poverty, Dorothy Day used to point out that the bit usually missing, even in religious orders, was the element of precarity – the living on the edge so as to identify with the really poor. Dorothy taught that precarity was an essential element of voluntary poverty. Quoting a priest friend, she wrote, ‘Precarity enables us to better help the poor. When a (religious) community is always building, enlarging, embellishing, there is nothing left over for the poor. We have no right to do so as long as there are slums and breadlines anywhere.’

For Peter Maurin, personal and community poverty was the road to the spirit and to freedom. A person is freed in giving up superfluous goods and life becomes ordered to its proper end. The community becomes free because it is no longer consumed with the material. For Peter Maurin, Francis of Assisi represented this transformation – a return by the person and the community to a total dependence on God.

Satish Kumar, editor of the magazine ‘Resurgence’, says we need to reclaim the words poor and poverty. Originally the word poverty was not equated with misery and starvation. Poverty meant the voluntary acceptance of a materially simple and uncomplicated life and the renunciation of unnecessary possessions. A monk or a nun takes the vow of poverty – not a vow of misery and starvation, but a vow that simplicity will underpin their life. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, ‘Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven’.

In vast sections of the world, poor people know how to make and repair their own clothes. How to grow their own food, harvest and preserve and store it. How to walk and bike and look after their shoes and their bikes. How to get around, to care for each other. Neighbours and families cut each other’s hair, swap around goods to those who need them. For example, when a baby arrives, all the things you need arrive from everywhere with the baby. People make presents for each other. They baby-sit, make up songs and music and share food together at celebrations, exercising naturally in the work that is being done. Exercising the process of living by hanging out washing, preparing food, gardening, walking to work, making things. They are living simply, uncluttered by surplus possessions.

Sharing Resources

While there are many among the poor who are as acquisitive as the next person, many are not. Poor people often don’t hold on to material goods but they let them pass through their hands to the places where they are most needed. When the Europeans arrived in North America, a chief handed them a peace pipe to smoke and pass around. But instead they took it and put it on their mantelpiece for their own private use. They didn’t pass it on. The Indians thought they were ill, that there was something wrong with them. A chief becomes great, not by how much he accumulates and holds around him, but by how much he passes on, shares out to those around.

Millions of dollars would have passed through Mother Teresa’s hands, but she nevertheless lived a life of simplicity. Mother Teresa’s community may have bought land and buildings with some of the money that came their way to further the work of hospitality. It wasn’t held personally by Mother Teresa, nor used by the sisters to ease their life of simplicity. Rather it allowed the sisters to further their work and move their work and their simple lifestyle – which included a vow of poverty – to many different continents and among many different peoples.

Poverty per se is not the problem in this world. Destitution is. Most poor people know how to live on the planet without consuming gallons of resources. Poor people don’t live in houses designed for elephants. Poor people live in dwellings built around the size of the animal we are. We are not huge beasts. Poor people have continued to use and keep alive the skills needed to live simply on the earth. Poorness and poverty is not the problem in this world. Destitution is.

The feeling of ‘not enough’ is the problem. No matter how much we have, we don’t feel we have enough. Taking land from poor people to build huge houses for one or two people to live in and to concrete over the good food growing earth for cars to drive on is the problem. In Third World countries, polluting waterways where poor people catch fish is the problem. The proper use of resources is always a major issue. So often wealthy minorities take them over for personal advantage. In Canterbury at the moment corporate interests want to change the nature of the farming terrain and turn grain and sheep land into dairy farms by harnessing and diverting public rivers for private use through irrigation. This is to cash in on the high prices dairy products are bringing in the global market. It’s a short-sighted policy based on greed. It undermines the common good and threatens the environmental balance.

Simplicity of Lifestyle

Poor people’s solutions are often small and simple. Being satisfied, feeling I have more than enough, delighting in being poor, feeling free because of it. Peter Maurin worked out that carrying few possessions around with you gives a freedom and spontaneity, an openness, an ease that you don’t have when loaded with things. A de-cluttering of the physical world can also lead to a de-cluttering of the spiritual realm. Jesus says travel lightly.

Economist Fritz Schumacher of Small is Beautiful fame advocated a culture of simplicity based on the knowledge that the real needs of human beings are limited. They must be and can be met. But our greed and wants are unlimited – they cannot be met. The rich are chasing their wants while the poor are simply trying to meet their needs. Poverty is not the problem; affluence is the problem and voluntary poverty is a solution. The real problems are social injustice, human exploitation, conspicuous consumption and the looting of the natural world.

Gandhi says a certain degree of physical comfort is necessary, but above a certain level it becomes a hindrance. Instead of enough being a help, the idea of creating an unlimited number of wants and satisfying them is a hindrance to joy.

Jesus is right. The poor are indeed blessed.

Easy Essay:

What makes People Human

To give and not to take

That is what makes people human

To serve and not to rule

That is what makes people human

To help and not to crush

That is what makes people human

To nourish and not to devour

That is what makes people human

And if need be to die and not to live

That is what makes people human

Ideals and not deals

That is what makes people human

Creed and not greed

That is what makes people human

Peter Maurin

Comments are closed.