So I recently attended a truly fabulous conference on social justice. But during the otherwise brilliant opening address, in the context of discussing how we’re often told there isn’t enough money when social justice and reconciliation initiatives are brought forward, the speaker said something to the effect of “what’s more important, beautiful buildings or people’s lives?” She said it as though it’s a no-brainer. And of course, on one level, it absolutely is! Of course people’s lives are more important than buildings no matter how beautiful or historic! At the same time, though, this quip, not the first of its kind that I’ve heard over my years of political involvement, bothered me. And it took me some time and reflection to work out why beyond the slightly snide, condescending tone in which the remark was and is so often made.
When I thought about it later, though, I realized that what bothered me about this statement and ones like it is that they feel like an adoption into our spiritual values of the scarcity paradigm of the over-culture. Because, to be sure, the neoliberal capitalist system in which we live all too often does force us to make those kinds of choices! But are we really saying that in the Kingdom of God – in the world of justice and peace that we desire to bring into being – there can’t/won’t be enough for us to have both thriving people and beautiful places of worship and social gathering? And if we are, indeed, saying that, why? Some may be saying it out of very real concerns about ecological footprint and use of Earth’s resources, and that’s absolutely legit and an important issue that will need to be worked out. But are we saying it for ideological reasons? Because, remarks like the one referenced above seem to me to reflect a feeling, not just that there is an externally imposed or situational opposition between thriving people and projects like the maintenance of buildings, but that there is an inherent, intrinsic opposition between them.
Note: I’m particularly asking the above questions of my Progressive Christian colleagues, but Pagans need to think about them as well, especially Pagans who seek to be socially and politically engaged. Same questions, different causes and routes there.
In the Christian world, we have a long tradition of exalting asceticism as the epitome of spiritual living – as the way to live a truly holy life. And although we reject that traditions tendencies toward misogyny and hatred of the body, Progressive/Left Christians share its veneration of simplicity and surrender. We cite Jesus’s instruction to “give all you have to the poor”. We look to how the early disciples were sent out to teach and heal with literally nothing but the clothes on their backs, instructed to live only by the hospitality offered to them. We admire figures like St Frances of Assisi for their emulation of this life of holy simplicity. We reference the story of the mana from heaven in Exodus in which God instructs the Israelites to take only what they need to feed themselves and their families each day, and in which those who try to hoard find the extra mana rotten and unusable. We admire movements like the Quakers, Shakers, etc, for their commitments to simple living and, often, for their rejection of “high” church pageantry as well.
On the Pagan side, meanwhile, there is great admiration for the figure of the Witch living simply by herself in a hut in the woods. She is seen as an exemplar of connection to the Earth and of living lightly on Her. And it is true that both these images of holy simplicity, the Christian and the Pagan, offer powerful counters to the over-culture’s constant pressure to define ourselves and our worth by our material possessions or lack thereof. They offer a potent counter to the narrative that material affluence = happiness.
But they also, intentionally or not, imply that subsistence is OK, but that to desire anything beyond that is suspect if not actually sinful. They suggest that humble subsistence is holy, but that wanting anything beyond that runs the danger of sliding toward materialism and greed. They use the language of abundance for all, but abundance is elided with subsistence. If we all just stop desiring anything beyond the basics of decent food, shelter, clothing and access to nature and community, the thinking seems to go, then all the problems of scarcity, inequality and environmental degradation we currently face will be solved. Or, as I’ve heard it said quoting Gandhi, “live simply so others may simply live”.
The problem with the above is that, while that message may resonate very powerfully – and, indeed, may be powerfully liberating – for those seeking an escape from the pressure to “keep up with the Joneses” and/or those called to the path of asceticism, it doesn’t work for everyone. Asceticism is a perfectly valid path to which some people are genuinely called. But not everyone is, and not because they’re greedy or spiritually weak either. And holding up that path as the only way to goodness – the only way to live a just and spiritually grounded life – pushes away and, frankly, alienates those whose spiritual orientations lead in other directions. And if we want and need to build a mass-movement to defeat the forces of capitalism, oligarchy, neo/fascism, etc, then we have to stop alienating the non-ascetically oriented. We have to find ways to welcome and incorporate those not called to asceticism into our spiritual and political work and movements, and not by continuing to try to shame or guilt-trip them into converting to humble simplicity.
Full disclosure here. In case it hasn’t come through yet, I’m very much one of those people. The path of the ascetic has never resonated with me. I have great respect for people who are called to that path and have learned vastly from the wisdom they bring, But that’s not how my heart and soul connect to God/Spirit. And while it is true that the constant exaltation of holy simplicity hasn’t driven me out of activism so far because my care for the issues keeps me hanging in, I have more often than not found that I cannot bring my whole self to political work because my deep love of material culture is looked on as a political and spiritual failing that I need to be encouraged to grow out of.
So yes, I desire and fight for a world in which we can have both beautiful places of worship (official and unofficial), and beautiful homes, and thriving, well-cared-for people of all races, genders, beliefs, nationalities, etc, including true reconciliation with Indigenous peoples! I want us to find ways to break out of neoliberalism’s horrible games of divide-and-conquer and “race to the bottom” that keep us trapped in paradigms of scarcity. I get making a virtue out of – or rather finding the virtue in – living with less given how we’re daily surrounded by increasing economic austerity and climate disaster. But I don’t believe this should be the whole or final answer. We need a world of real, fulsome abundance so that all God/dess’s/Spirit’s children can thrive with dignity and joy, not just live with basic subsistence!
Final point of full disclosure. Because, while this really shouldn’t need saying explicitly, it probably does. I’m not rich. My family fell out of affluence back in my grandmother’s time. And since then, we’ve sometimes sat on the very bottom rungs of what remains of the middle class, and at other times (and frankly much more often since the 90s) we’ve stared down the barrel of dire poverty. We haven’t fallen irrevocably into it yet, but the ever-present precarity is very real! Anyway, I thought it might be important to mention that in case there was some temptation to write off the above as just another affluent whiner.