Sunday, November 01, 2009

Wealth, Poverty and St. John Chrysostom

A hard truth for us to realize--especially Americans--is that wealth for one person generally comes at the expense of someone else.

I find it particularly hard to justify doing much of anything when 1 billion people are starving to death at any given moment in time. There is a real cost to living in a continual state of accumulating and consuming--excess resources are coming my way for some small luxuries when they could--and should--be going to someone else to keep them alive. I think of this with every decadent hot chocolate with whipped cream I indulge myself in at the local coffee shop, while typing this on my laptop.

However, intentional poverty is a tough go, and I have barely taken steps in that direction. I am choosing not to burden myself with guilt over it, but to slowly relax my way out of the entanglement with materialism and my inevitable complicity in the violence of the world that comes with it. I've been immersed in this system all my life, it will take a while to wind my way out of it.

Intentional poverty is beautiful as a means of spiritual solidarity with the poor. It also has a very practical side of simply breaking the cycle of consumerism and exploitation. There comes a time when a person simply cannot stand to participate in the madness any longer.

I lean on the words of St. John Chrysostom, bishop and doctor of the Church. It is easier to see these dynamics of wealth and poverty with our modern knowledge about the socio-economic systems in which we live, but in the latter half of the fourth century, St. John saw this just as clearly:

"In order that you may wear one pearl drop, countless poor people are suffering from hunger. What excuse do you make for this?"

"Do you wish to adorn your face? Do so not with pearls, but with modesty, and dignity."

"Take off all ornament and place it in the hands of Christ through the poor."

The idea that our possessions are on loan from God is a strong theme in St. John Chrysostom, as well as in other Early Church Fathers. We are merely stewards of Creation, and it is our job to make sure it gets to those who need it. Many people look to Native American spirituality for these ideas, but there is also a strong tradition right in the theology of the Early Church Fathers:

"Our money is the Lord's, however we may have gathered it . . . this is why God has allowed you to have more: not to waste on prostitutes, drink, fancy food, expensive clothes, and all the other kinds of indolence, but for you to distribute to those in need."

"Not to share our wealth is to steal from the poor, and to deprive them of their means of life. We do not possess our own wealth but theirs."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks Frank for those prophetic words that invite me to look in the mirror. We are SO blessed in so many ways. It's the ever-deepening awareness of our (my) brotherhood with all humanity and the Spirit that loves us all that binds us to each other and asks us to live and work out of love and to honor the dignity of our sisters and brothers. Michael O'Brien