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  • Writer's pictureMartin Newell

Poverty and Riches

The first time I ever picked up a copy of “The Catholic Worker” newspaper from New York, it was two of Peter Maurin’s Easy Essays that struck me. One of them contained the words:


“Everybody would be rich
if nobody tried
to be richer.

And nobody would be poor
if everybody tried
to be the poorest.”

The Catholic Worker commitment to the practice of voluntary poverty was one of the first things that jumped out at me, that drew me to this movement. Not many people understand it. Voluntary poverty seems one of the least understood of the Christian virtues.


Peter’s words seem to me to sum up what Dorothy Day was trying to say when she wrote, “Poverty is a strange and elusive Marriage of St Francis of Assisi and Lady Poverty, Print, c. 1930 thing. … I condemn poverty and I advocate it… We need always to be thinking and writing about it, for if we are not among its victims its reality fades from us. We must talk about poverty because people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it” (from “Loaves and Fishes”).


There is a lot said about poverty, and rightly so. Most of it is about poverty as a problem, something to be condemned or eradicated. On the other hand, Peter Maurin also wrote:


“For a Christian,
voluntary poverty is the ideal
as exemplified by Saint Francis of Assisi.”

Jesus after all “became poor… so that we might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).St Paul exhorts us to “have the mindset of Christ… who made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” (Phillipians 2). That is to say, we are called to follow the example of Jesus, for the good of others. And St Francis spoke of “Lady Poverty”.


On the other hand, it seems to me that Jesus spoke more about the problem of riches. He said “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven!” (Matthew 19: 23) Jesus worried about the rich. He said “alas for the rich, for they have had their reward” (Luke 6:24). He spoke of “the rich fool” who stored up his wealth and lost sight of eternal truths of justice and love (Luke 12:13-21). And he talked of how the rich are separated from God by a chasm, while the God is close to the poor (Luke 16:19-31).


It is clear that Jesus viewed riches as a problem. In this age of climate and environmental emergency, we are re-learning that riches are not only a spiritual problem, but also a practical problem. It is the rich nations, and the richest people, who have caused and are causing a vastly greater part of the climate emissions and other environmental problems. They – we – have literally been consuming the life of God’s Earth, on which we depend for our own life.


There was a time – very recently – when it could be thought (and Alastair Campbell more or less said) “why worry about how much the rich have got as long as the poor (and the rest of us) get better off”. But the limits to growth are reasserting themselves. We are re-learning that for the rich to have more, the poor must have less. Only now the poorer countries have the power to assert themselves.


If Europe and the USA and others are not prepared to make sacrifices to protect our Common Home, then China, India and others will not either. They are prepared to play a global game of environmental chicken and see who, if anyone, blinks first. It is a high stakes game. The poor are waiting for the rich to act first. The rich includes most of us in industrialised countries like the UK, but the responsibility of the super[1]mega-rich multibillionaires is as outsized as their asset base. We need to speak more of the problem of riches. It is a spiritual problem, a human problem, a justice problem, an environmental problem. It is no good being “detached” from riches. The Second Letter of St Peter says “if anyone has the enough of the world's goods and sees his brother or sister in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?”


And globalisation has reminded us that we are all brothers and sisters in the one family of God, the human family. In relation to some of these questions of poverty and riches, Austin Smith, my brother Passionist, said “there is a world of a difference between being detached from your Rolls Royce and not having a car at all.” In the world as it is with so much need, if we love our neighbour – including all the creatures of God’s crucified Creation – and are detached from our money or possessions or pleasures – then we will actively give them away. When we fail to do so, we are falling into sin. And the evil consequences are plain for all to see. We need to live by this truth. As much as we participate in this sin, we need to do penance, seek repentance, trust in God’s mercy, and call others to do likewise. We need to speak and write this truth, and communicate it by all means possible. Including protest and direct action. This is the path our Christian faith calls us to at this point in salvation history, the history of God’s Creation and of the human family.

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