gail song bantum

blog on identity, leadership, discipleship

real talk #2

i know there is a movement among some christians that are into this whole “be poor with the poor” notion of the christian life, aka the new monastic movement. i have a problem with this… not so much with the intent but the hyper spiritual authority/superiority that some folks revel in who participate in such movements. here’s why:

i’ve had my taste of poor. i remember big government cheese blocks. i remember doing homework by candlelight because our electricity got turned off. i remember taking cold showers because we had no hot water (in chicago!) i remember being evicted from multiple homes. i was poor.

that said, though i have had the tremendous opportunity to arise from the suffocating realities that poverty imposes, i often feel convicted because i know that so many others are still there. at the same time, i don’t want to go back from whence i came.

i like nice things…..actually, i LOVE nice things. is that wrong? i’m just being honest.

to the folks that live into the monastic movement, is it really that you’re living poor or is your “poverty” still a manifestation of power? to be able to choose poverty is power. at any point, these folks can choose another way. however, those who are truly victims of poverty often have no out, have no choice, have no sense of hope -basically powerless.

perhaps this is the reason why i was a prime candidate early on to embrace the prosperity gospel. though i am no longer a follower of the prosperity movement as it is generally thought of, i do believe in hope, in blessings, in faith, in a god who desires only good for humanity yet dwells among and with those who suffer.

the truth is, i struggle with this. even the thought of being poor in that desperate kind of way gives me hives. *sigh*



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5 thoughts on “real talk #2

  1. ‘agree’ with the connection between the ability to choose poverty as a manifestation of power. the power connection isn’t made often enough, and poverty as a ‘lifestyle choice’ trivializes actual poverty while allowing those with power to feel better about themselves.

    the government cheese blocks made really good grilled cheese sandwiches.

  2. Brian and I had a brief (but good) conversation about this at the faculty retreat. While I certainly agree that new monastic vows of poverty can be legalistic, polarizing, and plagued with problems of privilege, I also think that new monasticism (in its variety of expressions) has something worthwhile to offer the church, particularly the American church that has domesticated itself within the larger cultural assumptions of consumerism and upward mobility.

    I don’t think the choices are either/or (do I accumulate as much capital as possible or do I give everything away?); instead, I think there are countless dimensions to our process of discerning ways that we can live more simply as we wrestle with the downwardly mobile trajectory of the cross in all of its socioeconomic implications.

    Lastly, the socioeconomic stratification that segregates our world (obviously including the city of Seattle) can only be remedied by variants of what John Perkins calls the “3Rs”: relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution. If the gospel is indeed, as Jesus declares in Luke, “good news to the poor,” then I think we have to identify our own complicity in either reinforcing and perpetuating that stratification, or working to dismantle its oppressive structures.

    Thanks for starting this conversation… I still have a lot to think about.

  3. Great post Gail. I recall in college one of my friends romanticizing about her new life as a married couple with her seminarian boyfriend. Along with the other joys of marriage she expressed how she couldn’t wait to be poor b/c “it’s so romantic.” I like folks like Shane C. and their prophetic call to mainstream evangelicalism, but I worry that people will get the impression that there is something inherently good about being poor. Poverty sucks period. I wish that for nobody.

  4. Gail, I enjoyed your post very much. After graduating in 1997, I taught at an inner city school in Manhattan that was established for the students in the area who came from families with severe economic disadvantages. The school was established in the Jesuit tradition of providing these students with a “preferential option for the poor”. I took the job as I was seeking the “magis” the more, that piece of my own life that was seeking truth and context for my own life and spirituality. I was a “private contractor” for the school, meaning, I was not a part of the Jesuit Volunteer Corp, a group of young people like myself who give one or two years of their lives dedicated to service while voluntarily living in “poverty”. While I was quite accustomed to growing up with nothing and continuing to have nothing, being poor was nothing new to me, but these JVC volunteers complained incessantly behind closed doors about how hard life was and while in front of others wore their “poverty” like a shiny badge to elicit sympathy from others. I found their behavior to be personally revolting as it was contrary to the overall mission of spiritual development. It wasn’t until my time in El Salvador that I realized what being poor really is. I found an instant connection with the people I met and was able to find the right path in which to begin my own true relationship with God.

    Now that I am simultaneously working two career paths and don’t have to worry about where I am going to beg, borrow or steal my next meal, I find that while my experience of being poor for all those years did help me in my formation as it pertains to my relationship with God, it is not a requirement to continue thusly.

    Thank you for provoking some good thought for me this morning.

  5. Tim McGee on said:

    Thanks for your thoughts. I’m not sure if it helps but I believe some of the new monastic folks have moved away from the “vow of poverty” to a prayer that is, I think, based out of 2 Cor 8:15/Ex. 16:18 (“The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little”) as a way to work through some of those concerns. I think there is still the lingering question you raised at the beginning, regarding the spiritual authority/superiority/self-satisfaction that can come from seeing yourself as a radical and distinct christian community that more faithfully embodies the gospel than mainstream christianity.

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