Maybe Poverty Isn't the Problem

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.


To put the problem aphoristically, prosperity is a negative value that seems wonderful, whereas community is a positive value that kind of sucks.

What I mean to say (other than "I'm a misanthrope"), is that the kind of community that has the highest value is the kind that exacts the greatest cost. I haven't read The Cost of Community, so I don't know if I'm tracking with Arpin-Ricci here or not, but community (which I would define, lamely, as a family, or a tribe), requires more work and investment than a forty- (or even a 60-) hour-per-week career. Prosperity usually requires work; community requires more work, and I disagree with the use of the term "orderly" in your definition of it. Redemptive community (if I can be forgiven for putting it that way) is nothing if not chaotic and messy. Occasionally even gory. It's a collection of friends and neighbors who would willingly die for each other, even for those whose company one does not particularly enjoy.

Prosperity distances us from the need for such community, from an utter dependence on such community, and is therefore no good thing.

The fact that we can agree with such a statement without acting on it (selling everything we own, giving the proceeds to the poor, and dedicating our lives to following Jesus in community) should not dissuade us from continuing to agree with such a statement.

There may be other reasons to disagree; I'm just saying that failing to live it out ain't one of them.

I guess I would want to rework Bauman's quote then: "The opposite of prosperity is not poverty; the opposite of prosperity is community."

Which is, I think, more or less, to say, "I agree."
David Zimmerman said…
Nicely put, Mark--if that's your real name.
Great post, Dave. I have so much to say, but much would be repeated from my book (which you've already read). I think Mark's comment rings very true too.

One core thing that I have come to learn about community is generalized definitions rarely encompass the unique nature of true Christian community. True community in this respect is characterized by a people redemptively formed and restored (transformed) into the image of the Triune God through the path of Christ. Of course, that leaves a HUGE topic to discuss right there, but my point is that the community of Christ defied generalized definitions.

True poverty & prosperity are conditions of the heart that are reflected in our lives.

Anyway, so much to say, not enough brain power. I'll come back later! Thanks for the kind words, bro!
Anonymous said…
Thanks for your excellent post! The elusive quality of the Christian life and the model of the Franciscan tradition is seen in your post as it is in so many lives of those who wish to follow in the footprints of Christ as Francis did, but struggle to do that. I think your reflection is very honest and I am really grateful to have read it.

Like Jamie, I have so much to say. So much to affirm as well as challenge. I'm a Franciscan friar who both appreciates the appropriated Moltmann quote and, at the same time, gets Jamie's objection. The issue is the meaning of poverty -- no small task of clarification.

What Moltmann (and his paraphrasing successor) is getting at is absolutely true insofar as we agree that poverty in that instance is abject poverty . The poverty of privation, or lack of necessities that allow human beings to flourish. And what Jamie is saying about the connection between community and poverty is true insofar as we agree that the Franciscan tradition is about Evangelical Poverty and not abject poverty.

See both are correct. Franciscans are not about promoting abject poverty. As Gustavo GutiƩrrez highlights so keenly, abject poverty is always and everywhere an evil against which Christians should protest. Yet, Evangelical poverty, living in right-relationship with Creation and humanity through community and sharing mutually life-giving resources is what Francis was about.

True, Francis sought solidarity with the poor and marginalized. He saw prosperity (to use Dave's term) as a barrier to right relationship with all of humanity. It is a matter of power, of authority, of distancing one's self from others and creation by establishing one's self as 'above' and 'apart' from others. This was the milieu of Francis's day. The merchant class (to which Francis's family belonged) sought to rise up to the status of nobility, while avoiding, ignoring or marginalizing the lower classes (minores, as in, the Order of Friars Minor).

Anyway, I'm rambling now, I invite you to check out a recent post over on my page about this issue of poverty and solidarity. I hope it helps illuminate why both Dave/moltmann-paraphraser and Jamie are correct.

Peace and Good!
David Zimmerman said…
Super helpful. Thanks!
Dan always says things WAY better than I can. (Make note, Dave, he's a writer too).

The only thing I would add is that, while in no way advocating for abject poverty, I do find it interesting that the truest communities often emerge out of abject poverty. In part, I believe it has to do with the lack of pretense & self-emptying that it often demands.
TBone said…
I am not a Franciscan, but they are my favorite religious order! It is weird, that as a Dave Zimmerman type guy who has two computers, more than three chairs, two cars and plenty of junk - I am constantly trying to rid myself of stuff. However, I am right now in the process of getting to Ethiopia to supply them with more stuff? Nice work Dave and everyone who posted!

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