Written by Scott Bessenecker, an employee of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, this book describes the ways in which a sect of Christianity is making efforts to reconnect with the world's poor by mimicking the work of particular monastic legends, like St. Francis of Assisi and St. Patrick. These Christians confess that "God's plan was to keep the gap between rich and poor small...because both [the rich and the poor] deserve the dignity of sufficiency" (43). It is an admirable feat in my opinion, to turn one's "back on the 'American Dream' and a life of conspicuous consumption" in order to turn, instead, to God's dream of "simplicity and compassion" (13). I find very interesting his readiness to admit that the church often loses her emotional vigor with the onset of new movements and subsequently dies, and has died several times throughout the ages of her past and present (16). This in part is why I have been suspect of New Monasticism, I suspect? Who is to say this is more than another bandwagon effort to renew the church and keep her relevant in a culture obsessed with improvement? But Bessenecker goes on to say that this movement is different in that it comes on the cusp of many new developments and stems not from a position of power and influence, but with a grassroots mentality appropriated through equal leadership of service. I am inspired by the plethora of organizations and churches he names who are engaged in this work of serving the poor as the poor throughout the world.
As he began chapter 2 recalling his experiences in the slums of Ho Chi Minh City, I was drawn back to my experiences in Dhaka and Rajshahi, Bangladesh. The corrugated-tin walled houses, covered with thatch roofs, stacked above sewage, stinking of stale air, and packed full of families line the city streets this country. The people are beautiful and in great need. They lack not only the resources for solid education, but frequently the ability to attend the schools or places of employment that are available to them as well. It is yet another example of the "poverty you cannot break out of" (29). I like the bold statement, "So long as there is someone desperate enough to work for a dollar or two a day, there is someone else willing to exploit that labor for those of us who just want a cheap pair of jeans" (33). This is harrowing and honest. It forces us to deal with a personal issue on a corporate level. How can changing our own behaviors in the mundane of daily living affect for better the living conditions of the poor, especially those who dwell in the developing world? I believe strongly that decisions like refusing to offer our patronage to large (and evil?) corporate chains like Walmart is a small contribution. However, this simple act still does not connect us with the poor themselves, and it seems to be Bessenecker's argument that first and foremost we must in engage with the poor on a personal level before we can fully recognize the enormous amount of changing we must do ourselves in order to lessen their plight (35-36).
The "pull forces" of poverty are those that contribute to a generational cycle of "destitution and the intractability of the most desperate forms of poverty" (44). They reside in our cultures (44), our personal approaches to the issues of poverty (49), are are being disengaged through the work of spiritual forces like the new friars (54). However, his discussion of the forces of evil that manifest themselves so readily in the lives of the homeless and poor bring to the surface a theological question that I am working through right now. He notes that issues like drug addiction, emotional resignation, greed, prostitution, and sweatshops are "things dreamed up in hell..." (56-57). Yet, I want to believe that even in the midst of deplorable sweatshop conditions, God can still find room in there to work with and minister to the young women making gym shoes for Nike in Indonesia at some nine cents an hour. If we insinuate that these hellacious conditions are only from hell, (and I am not sure if he means that literally or metaphorically), then does that negate any potential for the incarnation to be present even in such horrid spaces? Is not hell the absence of the presence of God? All this to say, while I am very willing to confess that issues and places such as these are evil and the result of systemic injustices embedded deep within our cultural milieu, I am not comfortable saying that they are from hell. I want to believe in the power of redemption, and to me, hell negates that power.
Bessenecker uses a powerful word to describe one of the purposes of the incarnation, "solidarity" (60). Simply stated he writes, "There is something about living with a group of people that changes the dynamic of a relationship" (60). As I was speaking with a friend the other day about my desire to live in an urban environment among the poor she noted that a pastor friend of hers in a similar position said that it is not difficult to give up all the stuff--the new ipod or cool jeans or flat screen tv's. The part that is difficult in living with the poor is figuring out how to minister to them. I have been pondering this heavily ever since she shared it with me. This is what Jesus mastered! He gave up life enthroned with God to take on the likeness of humanity, and he ministered to them by serving them, dying for them, and paving the way for them to receive the great paraklete. Bessenecker argues that this is what those who live in voluntary poverty are doing as well (65).
Chapter 5 discusses this concept of incarnational ministry through poverty more intimately by bringing to light the power games that are ignored when both the minister and recipient of ministry are economic equals. "When the poor see 'outsiders' [those who rejected a status of privilege] subject to the very same conditions and realities under which they are suffering, something very powerful emerges in the nature of the relationship" (76). This leads me to rethink some of my earlier critiques of new monasticism. I am negotiating the lines between living with the poor as opposed to being impoverished as well. Many members of new monastic communities continue on with their white collar jobs, which are the result of many years of expensive educations, while their fellow community members might also continue in their minimum wage paying blue collar positions barely making ends meet. Is this acceptable with the presence of a common purse? Are there not still power-plays at work? Basically, I want to practically know what this looks like. Bessenecker has helped me articulate finally some more of these questions. He writes, "Intractable poverty is evil" (80). And as a means of combating this evil, Jesus precipitated the coming of the kingdom of God, a kingdom that is present to all, even in the slums, even in aids-ravaged villages, and even to people who are plagued with mental illness and abandoned on skid row. But they can only know of this kingdom if those who bear it live with them (80). This is a very powerful statement, one that is changing my life right now as a result of reasons beyond my control. So that, when he closes the chapter with the following statement, I cannot subdue the quickening in my heart beat:
But with a compulsion to incarnate the gospel among the bottom of the human food chain comes also a quest for devotion and spirituality that is hard to achieve in a life of material overabundance. Following Christ in his example of downward mobility brings a kind of intimacy and identification with the Savior that can be experienced in few other ways (84). Wow.