If one had taken what is necessary to cover one’s needs and had left the rest to those who are in need, no one would be rich, no one would be poor, no one would be in need.
~ Saint Basil, fourth century theologian and monastic
I received this quote from Sojourners the other day and it brought a couple of stories to mind. The first comes from a friend who is on a speaking tour in the Middle East. A keen observer of culture, he writes:
There, [The Gulf States – Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain] with glass skyscrapers, shopping malls, and every conceivable American fast-food outlet (KFC, Cinnabon, Chili’s, Pizza Hut) you get the sense of an alien, modern culture imposed on a fake society. The class divisions are appalling. Depending on the country, there may be 50,000 Filipinos, 10,000 Nepalis, and 70,000 Indians doing all the labor, while the Bahrainis or Qataris or Kuwaitis collect a monthly government subsidy and travel the world. Churches tend to work among the internationals, who need all the help they can get. A construction worker from India, say, pays a huge fee to some agent who finds him a job in a labor camp. He leaves his family, moves to a place where he sleeps in an open dorm with 8-10 others, shares a single toilet, and works for the equivalent of $50-100 per month. If he complains, leaves the compound at night, or causes any trouble whatever, the host country simply revokes his work permit and sends him back to India. Due to the economic downturn, thousands of these workers are dismissed every week.
The other story is an old memory from when we lived in a southern city during our seminary days. I periodically visited a single mom living in the projects and listened to her stories and prayed. I was in far over my head (Why do we go to seminary so young? Wouldn’t it be better to go when we’re older and finally realize that we don’t know nothin’?) As hard as I tried I really had no idea what her life was truly like. She had four children from different fathers, and her oldest daughter was already starting to repeat the pattern. I stepped over rusty needles in the scraggy yard her children played in. She often looked at me bemused, as I sat teetered on the edge of her couch, legs on tiptoe, waiting for the next rat to poke its face out at me.
Sometimes we’d chat outside when inside became too hot in the stifling weather. Her little house stood almost literally in the shadow of one of the biggest churches in the country at the time. It boasted 10,000 members and this was in the days before the term “mega-church” was coined. It was attended by some of the wealthiest people in the city. They admitted that they felt a certain status in being one of its members. From her yard, my friend and I could gaze at the stately brick facade. Looking back at her place from the church building, her house disappeared neatly into the sea of small splintery homes in the distance. Like the Gulf States described above, it was a startling portrait of the division of class and race.
Our focus in church lately and also in some of my posts here has been on looking at Church and trying to explore who/what we may be beneath all of what we have stacked and nailed together over the millenia on top of our Foundation – Jesus. That curious passage in Acts 2 describes believers having “all things in common”. I honestly don’t think this is something we can pull off. We doggedly believe that what we have or earn belongs to us. We fear someone taking advantage and as we know, there are plenty who believe they are entitled. (Of course, these are all the same people – us.) Our hearts are very blinded when it comes to this stuff.
In the Star Trek Universe, (I am a shameless Trekkie) they have eliminated the problem of poverty by eliminating money. Everyone has access to what they need. In doing so, they believe that they have also eliminated greed. Now, I do not believe that greed is uprooted so easily, nor the fear that often fuels it. But as we rethink and imagine Church in these days, this idea of “no rich or poor” is something to lean into, consider and pray about as a community. This can only be a work of God in us. But we have the responsibility to learn to lay our hearts bare before Him, not withholding anything. That’s a true act of “discipline” for me and I suspect, for most of us. True Christian transformation must include a shift of heart on some level that will lower the walls of “yours and mine” and begin to enjoy the simplicity of having what we need and the sweet forgetfulness of laying down and leaving behind what we don’t.