Christian Ethics: The Poverty Paradox Resolved

The poverty paradox present in Christian ethics is obvious to any casual onlooker, and was brought up in an earlier post. In that post I hinted that I’d offer my resolution to the paradox later, this is that later “resolution.”

Christian tradition, Scripture, and praxis value rejection of material things and the ascetic embrace of poverty. At the same time however, the Christian virtue of charity calls the faithful to assist those in need. But why, the state of being poor is a state to value. Should the Christian not instead, envy the downtrodden and those without means? To summarize:

  • In Luke’s version of the beatitudes, Jesus notes, “Blessed are the poor, for they shall inherit the kingdom of heaven.” A blessing is not to denote a bad thing. One isn’t blessed for having a condition if that condition is morally or materially thought bad.
  • In Romans 5, St. Paul notes that we should “celebrate our suffering”, for suffering ties to hope of salvation and leads to endurance and character and other good things. Suffering is a thing then, that should be celebrated, in fact sought.
  • Death, seen by the pagan and unbeliever as a thing to fear. But for the Christian death “has no sting” as the Orthodox Paschal troparion (short hymn) sings, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling death by death and to those in the tombs restoring life.” Poverty and lack of resource leads to an early death … which is a thing not to fear, and has no sting. So … why bother helping those who are in need? Why help the dying, after all it’s no big deal. Right?

In an earlier discussion on Liberation Theology and its ties to Marxism at  Stones Cry Out (a group blog which has graciously permitted me to join), I was asked in a comment thread/discussion what, if anything, was evil about Marxism. In that discussion I had tied much of the evil inherent in Marxism to Leninism, noting Zizek a prominent Leninist political theorist and philosopher crafted a syllogism. That syllogism was Lenin is to Marxism as St. Paul is to Christianity. This I took as a teaching of what Lenin means to Marxism, not the reverse.

But … there is indeed evil (or at least moral error) inherent Marxism and it is the same evil that is found in poverty and why the Christian responds vigorously against it.

For poverty is indeed a blessed thing. It is indeed a thing to which the best and greatest of our fellowship embrace, live, and dwell. From St. Antony,St. Mary of Egypt, St. John Cassian (who brought monasticism to the West), and other in the first millennial ascetics, the entire Eastern and Western monastic traditions, to the modern ascetics such as more famously the Mother Theresa of Calcutta. However there is an essential difference between their embrace of poverty and the Haitian or African child and family eating fried mud because they have no other food. The problem is one of choice. Poverty is a blessed good and a thing to aspire to if you choose it. Choice is the ultimate and crucial difference between poverty as virtue and why we aid those who are afflicted by this particular virtue when it is not of their choosing.

That too is the essential problem with Liberation theology and its embrace of Marxism. Marxism and Christian cenobitic communities both embrace renouncing private property and sharing and sharing alike. However, Christian communal communities are joined by choice. Marxism is a political system which imposes, like poverty in Zaire or today in Myanmar/Burma itself on those it afflicts with no regard to choice.

It is not for nothing that Genesis is a crucially important book. The eden stories of early Genesis teach well that God values our free will. We ignore that at our peril.

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