Friday night I was bored, and my wife had other plans, and I found out about a free public session of a missions conference in my area. So I went. I went by myself, which I thought was a little weird, but whatever. Fortunately I ran into someone I know, and I glommed on to the group he brought from his church. Made it a much better night--thanks, Mark!
The conference was OK, I think: probably the most ethnically diverse group I've been in for quite a while, with the event's leaders similarly encompassing a mix of ethnicities. The format of the evening was, however, pretty dyed-in-the-wool Western. We sat in rows facing the podium. We stood up to sing mostly European and American hymns and contemporary praise music. We clapped on the down beats. We applauded politely as each new person ambled up to the microphone. We listened to all men, most of whom were white.
But enough about that. What makes the event worth commenting on, to me, was a single statement from one of the speakers: Stephan Bauman, soon-to-be president of World Relief. "The opposite of poverty isn't prosperity," he said. "The opposite of poverty is community."
I thought it was clever, so I posted it to Facebook--as did, apparently, one or two other people in attendance. Turns out Bauman was perhaps quoting (or paraphrasing) theologian Jurgen Moltmann, who has said something similar in the past.
Anyway, lots of my Facebook friends liked it (at least one even retweeted it, if you don't mind my mixing social media), but one friend pushed back a little. Jamie Arpin-Ricci, who knows a fair bit about poverty and community (his book The Cost of Community drops this fall), reminded me that "the Franciscans would take exception to that!" He should know, since he's a third-order Franciscan or somesuch.
(Not that Bauman knows nothing about poverty or community; he's had a storied career of service to impoverished and otherwise suffering people. Also, for the record, his talk was really engaging and generally quite good.)
Anyway, Jamie's become a friend over the past year, and in the process of editing his book I've become, sort of, his student. So even when he punctuates his comment with a winking emoticon, I take it seriously. Add to that this morning's sermon from Ray Kolbocker about the vanity of prosperity as articulated in Ecclesiastes, and I'm all like "Quick! To the Blogger Dashboard!" I need to sort this out in my head, and anything that needs to take place in my head also needs the input from thoughtful people such as yourselves.
Here are the assumptions in Bauman/Moltmann's statement, as I see it:
* Community is a value.
* Prosperity is a desired condition.
* Poverty is a negative condition.
* Poverty has an opposite.
Here, as I see it, is how Jamie/the Franciscans complicate things:
* Prosperity is not a value. (I'm not sure they would go so far as to say it's a negative condition; you'll have to ask a Franciscan and hope they haven't taken a vow of silence or anything.)
* Poverty is a desired condition.
* Community is a value.
The story goes that St. Francis (who founded the orders now known as Franciscan) was a prosperous little hedonist who had an epiphany, gave all his money to the church and his clothes to a beggar, and set to work rebuilding a demolished cathedral. When his dad showed up to complain, Francis stripped down naked and permanently dissociated himself from his father's wealth. No longer prosperous, now impoverished, Francis was soon surrounded by repentant hedonists who wanted to be like him, so he organized an order and found himself in the thick of community.
There you have it: poverty and prosperity and community, all in the mix. Call me a hedonist, but I'm sort of poverty-averse and attracted to prosperity; meanwhile community seems hopelessly elusive as a definable value. I started to think that what I really need to wade through all this is some definitions. So here's what I came up with, for starters:
Prosperity is the condition of having plenty of what is generally hard to come by.
Poverty is the condition having little or none of what is necessary.
I haven't come up with a definition for community yet, but I'm leaning toward something along these lines:
Community is an interdependent and orderly network of people.
That would, of course, make my workplace a community, my church a community, and my neighborhood, ummm, something entirely different. So I'm not settled on any of these definitions, actually. But what I think is the main thing that strikes me is that poverty isn't necessarily negative; it's simply, largely, undesired. Likewise, prosperity isn't necessarily a desired condition, unless it's a value, which apparently it's not--at least if you were to ask St. Francis. The Franciscans court poverty--commit themselves to it--and they're not insane or anything. In fact, they're generally the type of people you admire and even emulate.
It does strike me, however, that given my working definitions, one can be prosperous and impoverished at the same time. One could, for example, have lots and lots of gold (which is hard to come by) and yet be in a desert with no water or food or protection from the elements (all of which are, arguably, necessary). Meanwhile, one might have no money or shelter (and thus be impoverished) but have a limitless supply of friends willing to open their home and hearth (and thus be prosperous). I think of Jesus, who said he had "no place to lay his head" and yet is found eating and drinking with all kinds of people all the time. Homeless, yes; without assets, yes; prosperous, yes?
This, I think, is what the Franciscans believe: their faith calls them into poverty but assures them that their needs shall be supplied. It's possible, the Franciscans demonstrate, to discover a kind of prosperity while courting poverty--just as, presumably, it's possible to discover a kind of poverty while courting prosperity. (You'll have to ask someone really rich and hope their lawyers will let them talk to you.) Some eight hundred years of consistent ministry have borne out the Franciscans' thesis, making prosperity look less valuable, if not in some ways undesirable.
So maybe what's throwing me off is my knee-jerk assumption that poverty is negative. Maybe it's not--maybe it's even, in some circumstances, desirable. Maybe poverty isn't the problem that we need to solve with prosperity or community or some other elusive opposite. Maybe we should consider instead what is the opposite of prosperity--and maybe what we come up with will make us desire it a little less.
I write this, of course, from the comfort of one of my household's three reclining chairs, on one of our three computers, while snacking on one of the I-don't-even-know-how-many kinds of crackers there are in my house. So whatever prosperity is the opposite of, I recognize that I'm that thing's opposite.