Friday, December 25, 2009

Redistribution of Wealth and Personalism

A Linear Way

One of the primary tasks of the Catholic Worker is the redistribution of wealth. One way of looking at it is actually very simple: We take offerings from those who have in order to make it available to those who have not. We have the great joy and privilege of being the ones in the middle of this transfer--what a blessed place to be! I still believe that if people knew just how blessed it was, they would be knocking down our doors trying to steal our jobs from us.

The clothing "free store" is a great example: Folks have excess clothing and household supplies they are glad to give. Most of what we have received so far is in very good condition and given with great love and care--you can tell. Other folks are struggling so being able to clothe their families frugally is a big deal. We make it available to them. Goods travel from areas where there is a surplus to where there is a deficit. It doesn't sound like communism--it rather sounds like a natural, healthy equilibrium for all parties. Folks who need have the opportunity to be blessed by receiving, and folks with a surplus have the opportunity to be blessed by giving.

I am often shocked at how simple it is.

To paraphrase St. John Chrysostom, our possessions are the Lord's, however we may have obtained them. It is pretty much an audacious idea to think we actually own any part of God's creation. Sure, creation is a gift to us, but since we are all equal in God's eyes, wouldn't it be appropriate to share creation equally among each other? It is God's gift to all of us. If a greater amount of wealth and property falls into our sphere of influence, that just means we have more to distribute to correct the imbalance.

If God came to the door and delivered Christmas dinner for the whole neighborhood, it would be terrible for a small group of us to hog more than our fair share while others did not get any at all--some folks taking seconds and thirds and squirreling away extras in freezer bags with others not even having a single plate. Rather, you would distribute the food so that everyone had some and it would probably be based on their need--the family with the growing teenager would get more than the elderly couple, but each would get their fair share.

On a small scale, the right thing to do is simple common sense, as the above example shows. But this is exactly how we squander the resources of the earth! Americans make up 5% of the world's population but consume almost 50% of the world's resources--an imbalance that is hard to justify when 1 billion people are literally starving to death at any given moment in time.

A Personalist Way

This isn't to say that all possessions are bad. When people oppose a system of injustice that they are embedded in, sometimes they still think in those terms. As good capitalists, we have been trained to accumulate. This accumulation is a form of power and protection. We have more stuff so that we can leverage more safety and pleasure for ourselves than others. When we see the injustice in this, all too often we assume that the answer to accumulation is to de-accumulate. And when you consider environmental strain and the fact that there is so much wealth concentrated among so few people, there is a pretty easy argument to simply have less stuff.

Live simply, so that others may simply live . . . Reduce, reuse, recycle.

Those are good mottoes--up to a point. However, they are also the words of capitalists trying to reform while still using the tools and mindset of capitalism. I think one of the reasons that Americans have difficulty with following these mottoes is that they sense that the only way to be good is to have less of themselves in the world. That doesn't settle well.

When we've been trained all our lives to accumulate more stuff, then the idea of de-accumulation is almost a form of suicide. We rarely think of it consciously, but when we have spent so much time seeing our very worth in terms of what stuff we have, then to have less stuff might equate to trying to erase ourselves from the world.

This comes to bear particularly strong with the carbon footprint. When you sit down and do the math, it is hard to justify being alive at all! While any good plan for sustainability is going to have to address overpopulation at some point, we must be careful not to devalue life in the process. This is the danger of secular liberal philosophy--it seems to argue that the world would be a better place if you weren't here. That is simply not true.

The personalist philosophy which is at the foundation of the Catholic Worker movement reminds us to take a second look at this. Our personal possessions are truly that--something personal. The material items in our lives can be there to expand our person--our whole person. They are not just items in our possession, but can truly be a tool for the extension of ourselves.

A personalist might recreate those mottoes this way: Have more so you can give more. Or maybe: Instead of spending your life to have more, use what you have to live more life.

Accumulating a big house with a hefty security system is merely an accumulation for your body--it is a power move designed to keep the outside world out and to live a lavish lifestyle. On the other hand, accumulating a big house so that you have more room to share and invite the whole world in is an expansion of your whole person, not just pleasure and safety for your body but your heart and soul, as well. In the latter, you leverage the resources at your disposal to expose yourself to the world for service and the possibility of growth.

That can't be done with a mathematical formula but rather a personal change of heart.

It is not always about having less. It is about doing more with what you have--doing the kinds of things that expand your sphere of influence in the world not in terms of simply accumulating more power and territory, but an expansion of your whole being which involves service, risk, and growth. A certain amount of attention on safety is necessary to stay alive. But with too much obsession on safety you can spend you time and resources in a self-imposed prison, not really living fully.

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is an extension of Michelangelo's whole person. The paint and brushes allowed him to be more and to give more to the world. For others, having that 3rd house on the beach or a closet full of clothes that are never worn probably do not measure up the same way. Do the possessions at your disposal make you bigger or smaller as a whole person?

This is where the witness of the Catholic Worker movement is not limited to the official houses of hospitality. This is something we can all participate in. The Catholic Worker shows us how to turn our very homes and lifestyles into acts of service, a theme I have written about before here and here. We all have possessions. Are we using them to insulate ourselves from the world at someone else's expense? Are we puffing ourselves up with stuff we don't need while others are hungry out on the streets? Or we using the resources at our disposal for more opportunities for service and growth for ourselves, expanding our whole person?

There are no strict guidelines for this--it is a personal decision based on personal circumstances. how to translate this into addressing systemic injustice is hard. It is based on personal conversion, as one person may accumulate for power while another may accumulate for love. While the Catholic Worker tends to eschew institutionalization, many communities have found that it can be possible to come to a point where having a security system or an insurance policy makes sense given their circumstances. However, that has to be a lived decision that you come to by being embedded in your environment. From a personalist perspective, you have to ask: Does that insurance policy make it more possible to be available to the community or does it close ourselves off? Is it a good stepping stone to further openness or is it a step back?


I look at the redistribution of wealth in a linear way and also in a personalist way. Hopefully this shows how the philosophies at the core of the Catholic Worker movement (in line with Catholic Social Teaching) do not jive with either modern liberal or conservative ideologies, but are truly a third way.

The redistribution of wealth sounds like Marxism. Taking personal responsibility for ourselves and the world aorund us sounds like a Libertarian principle. Yet neither of these left of right wing ideologies fully captures what we are about.

Check pages 106-107 of The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins for what I'm talking about. In this reflection, I draw heavily and directly from the French personalist philosophers Mounier and Cantin. You can peruse those pages online here.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Nonviolence Training Workshop

Jasiu instructs while Ruthmary, Jonathan, Mary and Bob look on.

The Catholic Worker house was filled to the brim last Saturday, as 35 participants and 3 facilitators engaged in an 8-hour nonviolence training. The event was sponsored by the new Columbus chapter of Pax Christi. We were pleased to host Jasiu, Sherri and Mary of the Michigan Peace Team who drove through Lansing blizzards and ice to make this happen!

Pictured above are Sherri, Tom, Jasiu and Frank

As Pax Christi and so many other groups have shown us, nonviolence is the best and probably the only way to bring about true, long-term peace. However, just as I surely would not want to go into armed combat without adequate training, I certainly would not recommend attempting to resolve a conflict nonviolently without training, either! This is what groups like the MPT teach.

The morning session was an introduction to nonviolent communication skills--how to talk in a non-aggressive way and healthy, productive ways to respond to aggression.

A good portion of the afternoon was spent in role plays, working out ways that people could react in various situations to be a presence of peace. What would you do if you saw the police beating up a guy? What if you were part of a demonstration that went awry? Jasiu told a story about how he and his wife intervened when they ran across a man beating up a woman in public. Spouses and friends can become "affinity teams" and work out ahead of time how they might react as a team to situations like that.

As the pictures can attest, we took the roles of police, demonstrators, antagonizers, peace team members and bystanders. We put ourselves in the shoes of these people to see things from their perspective. Much of the work of the MPT involves being a peaceful presence at gatherings and demonstrations. They also send international teams to be observers and peacekeepers in troubled areas such as Palestine and, more recently, Mexico.

Jonathan, Kelly, Jonathan and Heather are deep in concentration above.

At our gathering were members of many different justice groups, different religious affiliations and folks ages 18-80. It was a wonderful opportunity to network. While the event was originally conceived as a chance for the new Pax Christi group to gel together, it ended up being a service we provided to the larger Columbus peace community. We are quite pleased with how it turned out, and we saw a snapshot of possibilities for the future--How wonderful it would be if the CW house could be gathering spot for the larger Columbus peace & justice community!

It is my belief that Columbus is ripe for this type of organization. We are a new and large city with many progressive elements, but we don't have the deep structures and our grassroots groups don't have the same long-term history like I saw in Cleveland and Akron. As prior generations have shown us, the key to any effective, nonviolent social change is to organize, organize, organize. Today, a larger percentage of the population want social change but there is overall less organization and, as a result, less effectiveness.
Fred, Joseph, Ruthmary, Mike and Jason gather around as an affinity team to work out how to handle a difficult situation ,with Bob looking on in the background.
Jasiu instructs the new team of "police officers" for the upcoming role play. Bob, Irene and Julia are ready for action!

* * *

In related news, one of the founders of the Michigan Peace Team, Fr. Peter Daughterty, was recently honored in India with the International Gandhi Award. He also has the distinction of being named the 2002 Teacher of Peace for Pax Christi USA (Dorothy Day was the first Teacher of Peace, named in 1978--some great names on that list!) I had the great privilege of meeting Fr. Peter at the recent Pax Christi gathering in Chicago, he said Mass and I later talked to him about the MPT.

Monday, December 07, 2009


We often thank God
for all the material wealth in our lives.
We call it a blessing.

Indeed, it is true that the more God has given to us
really is a great blessing to us.

But the reason it is a blessing is not because we have more--
The reason it is a blessing is because we have the opportunity to give more.

By giving more we have the opportunity to be more
like God
and what truer blessing is there than that?
and what more wealth is there than that?
and what more reason is there to be thankful to God than that?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Untold Story: ESL

There is a story that needs to be told.

There was an amazing experience of grace at the Columbus Catholic Worker recently, at a much needed time. Bev, our trusty core member who started and led so many wonderful initiatives with us—English as a second language (ESL) classes, the free clothing store, and a co-founder of Pax Christi—decided to move on without us. We wish her well and offer prayers of gratitude for her many contributions.

I assumed we would have to let ESL go, as it was hard to figure out where we would find the time or energy to continue the program. It would have been very sad, as we are only teaching a small fraction of the people at this parish alone who hunger and crave ESL instruction (we teach approx 20, but there are 120 who signed an interest list with Fr. Pat!)

Our Catholic Worker community member Erin S would not let that happen. She freely admits to having absolutely no previous ESL experience, but her many years in non-profit administration show that she knows how to form a team to meet a challenge. She put a dream team together—Vielka, our long-time friend from Kairos who had already started teaching ESL the last couple of months, Erin K, one of our garden leaders who had spent a year in Costa Rica and loves learning about other cultures, and Ginger, expert host of hospitality.

They sat down one afternoon and worked out a plan. Magic happened. Ideas were shared. Someone had a spark and another could see where it could go. Let’s try this, let’s try that. They put a wonderful patchwork quilt together. Some folks have ESL experience, some have experience learning a language of their own, some just have all the gusto in the world. ESL was back on track! Not long after this new team took over, some more amazing volunteers appeared—Mike, who keeps showing up with trunkloads of ESL materials, Ginger has been recruiting tutors, Joan, Steve and Gilda all take their turn, and I keep the coffee brewing. Vielka is unbelievable, she is the anchor who is here night after night.

It is a FUN, dynamic environment and the sweetest sharing of hospitality. The building is alive with robust laughter and friendly cheer. Many of these students have been in America for 5, 10, sometimes 25 years without knowing the language here. ESL programs are in short supply and often cost too much. The ministry of welcoming them into our home and helping isolated people have the tools to do something as basic and essential as simply talking to the people they come across in their daily lives is immense. It is hard and intimidating to learn a new language, but folks feel safe here. They can take risks.

Along with mostly Latino students, we have also started drawing folks with a Vietnamese and Cambodian background—they are learning some Spanish as well as English!

The initial plan is to keep the classes running until Dec 15th for the holiday break. At that time, the group will evaluate their methods and schedules and put something in place to start up again hopefully in January. We’ll have a pot luck party on December 15th at 6:00 pm, feel free to stop by!

Numerous others have expressed interest, so we are looking forward to a dynamic team in the new year. If you have ever wanted to do it, you may be surprised how much you can do, even if you have never tutored English before!

I am in total awe of this team--in their teaching, in their enthusiasm, and, most especially, in the way they have each responded to God’s call in this. What a spiritual boost this has been!