Thursday, 28 July 2011

A Sliding Scale Of Need?

As we have seen in recent posts, Basil of Caesarea's stance on wealth and poverty is blunt and uncompromising, but also wholly relevant to today, where consumerism has achieved almost god-like status.

This piece shows that Basil was also a keen and unflinching observer of human nature - and human excuses. The writer identifies
'the human tendency to adjust the definition of "need" to fit one's current level of income'.

Basil, he says, was on to this 1600 years ago. His homily (practical sermon) on the man in Jesus' parable, I Will Tear Down My Barns [and Build Bigger Ones] treats the barns not so much as symbols of wealth but rather as representing our definition of needs based on our circumstances.

'In effect', continues the article, 'Basil says that if we never have any extra to share, this is due to the fact that whenever we find ourselves in possession of a surplus, we immediately adjust our definition of need to fit the new situation.'

(You say) "I will pull down my barns and build larger ones.” But if you fill these larger ones, what do you intend to do next? Will you tear them down yet again only to build them up once more? What could be more ridiculous than this incessant toil, laboring to build and then laboring to tear down again?

In his sermon "To the Rich", Basil sees this as a form of madness. "Those who have acquired wealth and have great possessions, desire more of the same, nursing the sickness by perpetual accumulation. Having so much here and now fails to bring them happiness, since they grieve over what they don't have, and convince themselves they're lacking. 'We're poor!', they say. And it's true, because a poor person lacks much, and much are you lacking because of your insatiable desires! What was it that killed Naboth? [1 Kings 21] Was it not King Ahab's greed for his vineyard?"

And so, Basil concludes, you commit injustice to so many when you could have helped them - which applies to any level on the scale of wealth.

Friday, 22 July 2011

The Poor Have Faces

As we have seen from previous posts, Basil of Caesarea was adamant that the hoarding of personal wealth was unnatural and a crime against compassion and justice. For him, the issue was both logical and clear:
"If we all took only what was necessary to satisfy our own needs, giving the rest to those who don't have enough, no-one would be rich and no-one would be poor."
(Homily on I Will Tear Down My Barns)

Basil wasn't alone in saying these things at the end of the 4th century. John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nyssa were equally outspoken. What makes Basil stand out, however, is his humanity. To others, rich and poor were more of a moral dilemma, an issue (albeit of vital importance) without faces. You can resonate with their arguments, value their prophetic courage in offending the powerful, but remain strangely unmoved inside.

With great rhetorical skill, Basil gives the poor an identity as people. In various sermons and homilies he paints verbal pictures: the street urchins huddled in doorways, the old man gone blind through neglect and starvation, the agonised mother forced to sell a child into slavery to pay off a debt.

It was this gut-level compassion that also stirred Basil to do something practical: the building of the Basiliad outside Caesarea, a complex which included a poor-house, hospice, and hospital, and was regarded at the time as one of the wonders of the world.

This page offers some thoughts and practical considerations of how the vision of the Basiliad could affect our Christian discipleship today.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Love Means Distribution

Given Basil of Caesarea's stance on simplicity and sustainability (see last three posts), it will come as no surprise that he pushed hard for sharing and justice. For Basil, distribution of one's surplus to those in need is an imperative, not an option .

If you have been blessed with more money and goods than others, it is so you can meet the needs of those others, he argues. 'It takes wealth to care for the needy; a little paid out for the needs of each person, and all at once there is sharing. Whoever loves his neighbour as himself [as Christ taught], will not hold on to more than his neighbour has.' (Sermon To the Rich)

This post and this article show that Basil's contemporary, John Chrysostom, bishop of Antioch, echoed these sentiments and expressed them even more forcefully.

"Wealth is like a snake; it will twist around the hand and bite unless one knows how to use it properly." The huge injustices that wealth creates are intolerable to him. But Chrysostom is no proto-Marxist. "Should we require soldiers to come and seize the rich person’s gold and distribute it among his destitute neighbors? Should we beg the emperor to impose a tax on the rich so great that it reduces them to the level of the poor and then to share the proceeds of that tax among everyone?"

"Equality imposed by force would achieve nothing, and do much harm. The rich whose gold was taken away would feel bitter and resentful; while the poor who received the gold form the hands of soldiers would feel no gratitude, because no generosity would have prompted the gift. Far from bringing moral benefit to society, it would actually do moral harm. Material justice cannot be accomplished by compulsion, a change of heart will not follow. The only way to achieve true justice is to change people’s hearts first — and then they will joyfully share their wealth." (Sermon On Living Simply)