What is Voluntary Poverty?

Reprinted from The Common Good, no. 23, Lent 2002
by Nicholas Drake

Voluntary poverty is a technical term used in Catholic Worker tradition. It means using and owning as little as possible. The sense of the word ‘poverty’ is that of having little or no wealth or possessions. It is distinct from destitution, which means having less than one needs, and from poverty that is not of one’s choosing. Both the latter are regarded as evils by those who believe in voluntary poverty.

Voluntary poverty is not a particular state of poverty, or particular set of practices. Rather, it is a lifestyle in which the attempt to live more simply is ever present, and involves an ongoing search to define what is necessary, and what is possible.

I will not go into the arguments against voluntary poverty, except to point out the two most common objections that I encounter: (1) ‘It is necessary for me to have more than is necessary,’ and (2) ‘It is not possible for me to live as simply as possible.’ Neither of these statements require refutation as they are both self-contradictory; they are, however, remarkably common.

The reasons for voluntary poverty

There are four reasons why voluntary poverty appeals.

  1. Economic Equality. Voluntary poverty is founded on the principle that it is unfair for some people to have more than they need, while others have less than they need. It means to give what we don’t need to those who do need it, or to sell what we don’t need and give the money to those who do need it.

Capital gifts, locally or internationally, are unlikely to be a complete solution to systemic injustice, and can, especially internationally, be logistically problematic. Nevertheless, while access to basic human rights such as food, housing and clothing is based on the amount of money one has, monetary gifts will be helpful, if not life-saving, to many, and an essential part of the solution to systemic injustice.

Commonly, voluntary poverty contains the idea that rightful ownership is based on necessity.

An aspect of economic equality is the use of work and the stuff of nature (commonly referred to as labour and resources, terms which I avoid as they imply the rightful commodification of such things). Wealth is based on extraction from the less wealthy in both these areas. The wealth of rich countries is based on extraction of natural materials from poor countries, and the underpaid work of their people.

The picture of rich countries supporting poorer countries with aid is false. In 1997, for example, poor countries received $25 billion in aid, but paid $270 billion in loan repayments. Living simply is in part an attempt to withdraw from this system as much as possible, and entails seeking and building alternatives. In any country, the most common foundation of wealth is the exploitation of work, paying the worker back less money than she generates.

As production is controlled by the wealthy, its prime motive is profit, rather than need. Workers are forced to use limited materials to make products that are unnecessary, while themselves earning less than is required to purchase necessities. Simple living moves away from profit-based production to needs-based production, necessary if work is to be fair and meaningful.

  1. Solidarity. Solidarity means unity with other people. It has been said that there are three aspects of solidarity with poor people: living for the poor, living with the poor, and living as the poor. Voluntary poverty should ideally encompass all three. Living simply keeps us aware of the reality of life for most of the world’s people, more deeply connected to our sisters and brothers everywhere, especially our own communities, while living in a way that puts us firmly on their side of the struggle, a way that minimises their impoverishment and exploitation while working towards just alternatives.
  2. Sustainable Living. The excessive use of natural materials may ultimately mean the end of life on earth – human life, at least. The earth loses 56 million acres of trees and 26 billion tons of topsoil each year. The International Red Cross reports a 100% increase in natural disasters since 1996, due, it says, to global warming. The nation of Tuvalu recently announced that it is evacuating the entire population, as the rising sea will soon cover the whole country. (No one seemed to notice, but the tens of millions who live in low-lying Bangladesh may be harder to ignore.) In short, the state of the earth and the grim prospects for human survival are known to all but the most stubbornly ignorant.

Survival requires a drastic simplification of life for the rich, and new (or very old) forms of ‘development’ for the poor. Excess is very often justified in the name of our children, but they can hardly be expected to feel grateful as they die horribly in a few decades. It is startling how many parents manage to suspend this contradiction. Living simply means living sustainably, giving nature and our descendants the possibility of survival and renewal.

Living simply and sustainably keeps us deeply and richly connected to nature. We begin again to see plants and animals as living creatures and sentient beings, rather than green objects and moving food or furniture. We are kept, by simplicity, aware of the sacredness and preciousness of life and people, and see behind objects to their origin and creators.

  1. Personal Freedom. Apart from the most wealthy, those whose lifestyles require excess wealth and possessions must work hard to get them. This is especially true of the middle classes in developed countries, where both parents in many families work full time to sustain their lifestyles. Voluntary poverty means only working for money as much as necessary for a simple life, which means more time to spend with children, spouses and friends, in art, reading, helping people, watching the sunset, or whatever makes us happy.

Secondly, those who live simply enjoy freedom from many unnecessary objects that clutter and distract. The busyness and complexity of lives full of supposedly convenient, time-saving devices is legendary, and baffling to those who live simply, who are able to focus more on their environment and their thoughts.

A third freedom is freedom from addiction. Lives of unnecessary wealth are characterised by addiction to prestige, luxury, superficial stimulation, buying and browsing, constant distraction, and a sense of financial security which requires one to earn and invest more and more without ever quite reaching ‘enough.’ These addictions dull the mind, exhaust the body, and kill the soul. Voluntary poverty leaves us free from compulsion and open to possibility. It keeps us grounded in the depths of our being, aware of reality, and able to make decisions about all aspects of our lives based on love, conscience and happiness, rather than unnatural desires.

In summary, voluntary poverty consists of the removal of unnecessary and harmful work and leisure activities, and the replacement of these with work and leisure that are fulfilling and genuinely enriching. Thus we participate in changing the world for the better.

Voluntary Poverty and Christianity

  1. The First Testament. The Bible is perhaps unique in being history mainly from the perspective of the poor. The identity of the people Israel is forged in slavery under the Egyptian empire. The book of Exodus details the conditions of these exploited workers and lays bare the ugliness beneath the surface beauty of imperial magnificence.

God, through Moses, enables the slaves to escape. This liberation is to the First Testament what the resurrection is to the New Testament – a decisive moment in history when God shows whose side She’s on. Homeless, the Israelites wander the desert. They wrestle with the hardships of freedom and simplicity, and often wish they were back in Egypt, as slaves. (Ex 14:11, 16:3, No 11:5-6)

The Law of Moses is radical in its attempt to create a just society where those in need are cared for, and wealth is redistributed regularly (Lv 25, esp vv 35-43). The prophets arise to call Israel back to this tradition, by living in radical poverty (Ezk 4:9-12, 1K 17:2-6) and pronouncing God’s judgement in favour of the poor and oppressed.

  1. The New Testament. Mary, pregnant with Jesus, declares of God, ‘He has pulled down princes from their thrones and raised high the lowly. He has filled the starving with good things, sent the rich away empty.’ (Lk 1:52-53) John the Baptist teaches voluntary poverty as the means to fulfil this prophecy of economic equality: ‘Anyone who has two tunics must share with the one who has none, and anyone with something to eat must do the same.’ (Lk 3:11) The holy man Simeon sees the child Jesus in this light: ‘Look, he is destined for the fall and for the rise of many in Israel…’ (Lk 2:34)

From the many occasions that Jesus enjoys dinner parties, we can deduce that he does not see plenty and pleasure as bad in themselves. However, like the prophets and wisdom writers before him, he believes that they must be shared without reserve. Thus, he tells a rich host during a meal, ‘When you give a lunch or dinner, do not invite your friends or brothers or your relations or rich neighbours… No, when you have a party, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.’ (Lk 14:12-14) To Jesus voluntary poverty and hospitality do not constitute ascetic self-denial, but ‘a party’. (v13)

The Church

Many saints and great teachers of the Church through the ages have believed in voluntary poverty. Here are some examples.

St Augustine: ‘Find out how much God has given you and take from it what you need; the remainder which you do not require is needed by others. Those who keep more than they need possess the goods of others.’

St Thomas Aquinas: ‘In the case of necessity, everything is common.’

St Ambrose: ‘This bread which you store belongs to the hungry, these clothes which you hide away belong to the poorly clad, this money which you bury in the earth is for the ransom and freedom of afflicted people.’

And again, ‘It was in common and for all alike that the earth was created. Why then, O rich, do you take to yourselves the monopoly of owning land? It is not with your own wealth that you must give alms to the poor, but with a fraction of their own which you give back, for you are usurping for yourself something meant for the common good of all.’

St John Chrysotom: ‘It is the poor’s wealth of which you are trustees even in cases where you possess it through honest labour or inheritance. And is not the earth the Lord’s with all that therein is? Everything which belongs to God is for the use of all.’

Pope Paul VI: ‘Private property does not constitute for anyone an absolute and unconditional right. No one is justified in keeping for their exclusive use what they do not need, when others lack necessities.’

In Conclusion

The danger to survival posed by greed and excess, and the immense suffering caused by inequality, are clear. So too are the teachings of the Bible and especially of Jesus, whom we who are Christians claim to follow. However, to paraphrase the gospel of Mark, Jesus looks steadily at us and is filled with love for us and says, ‘You need to do one thing more. Go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ But our faces fall at these words and we go away sad, for we have great wealth. (Mk 10:21-22)

In a world dominated by a consumer culture, built on material greed and acquisition, it truly is a witness to the simplicity of Christ and his message to practise voluntary poverty.

Nicholas Drake belongs to the Te Kaimahi Katorika CW, 107 Burney Tce, Sandringham, Auckland, ph 09 846 4896.

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