NOTE: While this blog refers to the Simple Way Community, I shold note that they are still recovering from the terrible fire that destroyed the space where their ministry has occurred. They have organized their neighborhood to have the building that burned into a park for children. For more see www.thesimpleway.org.
Recently, I read Shane Claiborne’s book, The Irresistible Revolution, as well as Schools of Conversion, which has been put together by some of the folks involved in the new monasticism movement. As I read these books, I found myself resonating with their call to a simple lifestyle, centered on the way of Jesus in community with the poor and oppressed. At the same time I found myself looking around at my way of life and all of my stuff, and wondering “How did I stray so far from the path laid out by The Simple Way and groups like them?”
When I was in my twenties I espoused and sought to live out the same values of simplicity, honesty, faithfulness and solidarity with the poor that Claiborne talks about in his book. While I did not live in intentional Christian community, there were several other folks around me who were traveling a similar path. Furthermore, there were plenty of examples such as the Sojourners in Washington, D.C., Jubilee Fellowship in Philadelphia, Reba Place in Evanston and many others outlined in the books like Living Together in A World Falling Apart and The Mustard Seed Conspiracy. There were even a few intentional Christian communities in our Boston neighborhood, even though they all disbanded for one reason or another after a short period of time.
When Cynthia and I got married, we continued to espouse those values, even fasting once a week as both a spiritual discipline, and a reminder of the hunger in the world. We lived simply not only because we had to, but because we felt it to be our calling. We interacted regularly with folks our age who shared the same visions and passions.
However, when I graduated from seminary and became a pastor we lost that sense of interdependent community. Living in church-owned parsonages, we found ourselves in the position of being financially dependent on folks who were not dependent on us. It was an uneven and uneasy kind of community. Furthermore, while we tried to continue our focus on the simplicity and justice, most folks in our congregations espoused a Christian faith that was materialistic and nationalistic. We found ourselves as lone voices in churches and communities in lockstep with the government’s drumbeat toward war (the CIA-inspired wars in Central America, Panama, Grenada, and Desert Storm). While there was some solace I could take in being “prophetic,” I see now that we were being shaped nonetheless.
Giving birth to three daughters added another dimension that forced decisions about health care, safety and educational opportunity. When our first daughter was born, we lived in Jersey City, NJ, which was located in an area known as “cancer alley”, so named because the air quality was so toxic that there is a significantly higher cancer rate than elsewhere across the country. The schools were in receivership and homelessness and drug abuse were rampant. A toxic waste dump burned less than a mile from our home. Several times we found homeless people sleeping under our front porch. Both Cynthia and I were involved in work to address these problems, but the birth of a child gave us a responsibility beyond ourselves. Could we subject her to such an environment? We chose to move to a rural community in southern Minnesota where the air and water were still clean, and the streets were safe. Two more children were born. After 5 years we found that environment too sterile and decided to move to the Philadelphia area, in large part because of greater educational and cultural opportunities for our kids.
When I finally left the pastorate in 1997 and we no longer lived in parsonages, we entered the world of homeownership, mortgages, real estate taxes and suburban life. We chose to stay in the same community because at the time it was the least disruptive for our kids. So our kids grew up in suburbia. We did the suburban thing with park league sports, band, and so on. Along the way we accumulated a pile of material things: books, clothes, furniture, gadgets, even a swimming pool that came with our house. The pressure and expectation of providing our kids with the same things and opportunities as their upper middle class friends was tremendous and many times we capitulated.
But if the issue was just about “stuff,” that would be easy enough to deal with. What I realize is that slowly and imperceptibly we have become acclimated to the way of privilege. What I realize is that not only is this lifestyle costly in terms of money, but also in terms of time driving, taking care of my lawn, and generally taking care of all the stuff. Moreover, even if I was to rid myself of all my material things, I could not remove the sense of cultural entitlement that comes from being educated, white and middle class. I don’t begrudge the opportunities I have had, or those that I have provided my children, but I do recognize my racial-cultural-economic standing allows me to make choices that sets me apart and cuts me off from the vast majority of the world’s population.
So we continue to grapple. Cynthia and I have tried to be conscious of our buying habits: we recycle, we spend our money judiciously, and try to live out our commitments in both our personal and professional lives. We have joined an urban church. Cynthia serves the poor as a social worker and I teach students from Philadelphia. We talk about down sizing and possibly moving into the city.
Ironically, throughout this entire time, we have sought to be careful and conscientious, and strive for a life centered on faith, compassion, generosity and justice. We have not been blind to the forces that were shaping us, and yet it happened any way. I take responsibility for my part in the whole process. I am not going to blame the government, the media, other people, or the churches we were part of. Nor am I prone to wallow in guilt.
Yet I find myself wondering would we have made these same decisions had we been surrounded by a like-minded Christian community? Moreover, I wonder what it will take to live out the vision evidenced by the leaders of the new monasticism. Untangling myself from all the material, social and spiritual suburban trappings is not without cost. I run the risk of alienating some of the people closest to me in my search for a life clearly embodying the values and principles of Jesus. I am not complaining, as much as I am expressing an ongoing quandary.
Through it all, the simple way does not seem so simple.
I found your reflections very insightful. I sense that perhaps the future opportunity may present itself for you to find your way to reside in an intentional Christian community as discussed in Shane Claiborne's book "The Irresistable Revolution." You seem to resonate with a need for a simple lifesyle, centered on the teachings of Jesus while interacting with the poor and oppressed. Your history of reflections after being married sound very similiar to my own experiences of getting married and assimilating into American culture. The "things" that we accumulate are a reflection of being blessed to be living in one of the most materialistically oriented societies in the history of mankind. Personally, I feel very fortunate for the financial blessings I have been given, and thank God on my knees on a daily basis for being able to partake in these blessings. However, I have done my best while living in this society to not be controlled by them, meaning that I learned long ago that an insatiable desire to accumulate more "things" by itself was not the end of all things. In contrast to you, I do not feel thee deep sense of cultural entitlement that comes from being an educated middle class American. I feel instead a great sense of gratitude for being able to be a citizen of such a society that offers possible benefits like this to us all. A monastic involvement in a Christian community could be beneficial for a time. However, I believe that ultimately, the teachings of Christ were meant for us to be living out these principles in the deepest connection with the society around us.