For Christopher Wendell, the first beatitude–“blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”–is about a third way of seeing poverty and wealth: instead of ignoring the divisions that wealth and poverty create or being paralyzed into inaction by them, we can see how they unite us, not just divide us. This third way of seeing means choosing a spirituality of abundance in the face of a culture of scarcity.
A recent graduate of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Chris is now serving a suburban parish in Wellesley, Massachusetts. He admits it’s not the kind of church or community that might come to mind when one hears “blessed are the poor in spirit.” He is keenly aware of the privileged community he serves.
“I work in a materially rich parish,” he says. “While not everyone is financially stable, looking at it from a global perspective I serve a wealthy congregation in a wealthy community in a wealthy state in a wealthy country.”
Chris’s childhood spanned the tech boom of the 1980s and 1990s, and his family was part of that boom. “My dad was a venture capitalist, helping to grow companies that could be transformative for the whole world. We grew up learning that innovation could change the world and we could be participants in it. In that environment each of us felt like we could be a mover, we were responsible for change, for making things better.”
“Making things better” has been Chris’s priority through school and now in his parish ministry. He says that “making things better” in the global sense begins with the transformation of people–their souls, their minds, their hearts–and it is this that drew Chris toward parish ministry.
“The transforming Spirit of God comes not just through individuals deep in prayer, but to communities working for growth and change together,” Chris says. “Parishes are unique communities of trust, places where people can begin to take risks of all kinds with each other. One kind of risk that the church invites us to take is to see a wider range of the economic spectrum–to open our eyes to how interconnected the financial realities of the well-off and the destitute really are. Parishes are places to come to Jesus, literally in the sharing of a simple meal and figuratively in the sense of finding the strength to recognize that material wealth can create spiritual poverty.”
Chris is quick to point out that he does not interpret “poor in spirit” or spiritual poverty as a spiritualization of the beatitude or any kind of attempt to sidestep the harsh realities of economic poverty. He sees spiritual poverty as an avenue for the materially rich to recognize their relationship to the materially poor–the third way.
“For people like me, who have enough to eat, who live in stable circumstances, it can be hard to recognize the ways in which we are poor, the ways in which we still have unmet needs,” he says. “The myth of affluence is that it’s completely satisfying. But we are all poor in some ways, we are all poor in spirit–that’s what the first beatitude is all about. When a person of social privilege can become aware of their spiritual poverty, of their distance from those who are materially poor, it gives him or her an experience of need, of incompleteness. This is the fundamental first step in creating the space for growth and for more just relationships.”
“The disparity of rich and poor is very apparent and very visible even when you live in communities that you’d assume are homogeneously wealthy, like the one I grew up in, because you see people at different levels of the economic spectrum in your daily life. The rich may never see where the poor live, but they interact with them daily. The working poor see the rich every day. The question is, how do you respond to the disparity?”
For those in the “upper bands” of the spectrum of wealth–that is, anyone with education, work, enough to eat, and a place to sleep–Chris sees three possible choices.
“First,” he says, “There is denial. You can deny that the poor exist, you can turn your back. You can reduce yourself to living only within your own economic band; you can keep with ‘your kind.’ You can say: ‘I do the best I can within my band.’
“A second possibility is that you are unable to deny the difference in economic disparity, but you don’t know how to engage it. You are aware of inequality, you are aware of suffering, and you experience a sense of responsibility for this system in which you see the suffering of many. You know that you are not ‘the many,’ but you don’t know how implicated to feel, how responsible for it you are. This whole can of worms can be overwhelming. You can choose whether to enter or not, so you choose not to.”
“But there is another possibility, a third way,” he says. “You can respond with awareness to the spectrum of suffering–identification with people who are suffering to the point that you can’t choose not to be implicated. This identification is the opposite of guilt or shame. It is rooted in a sense of solidarity with everyone who suffers at the hands of forces they cannot control–in the recognition that we are part of everyone.
“I think Christianity invites us into that third way of being. It’s a way of being connected, a way of starting to close the distance in life experience between our own sufferings and the sufferings of the poor. It’s acknowledging that suffering is real and I’m part of it: both creating it and experiencing it. I call that third way ‘poverty of spirit.’ I want to help wealthy persons understand this third way so that they don’t jump back to denial or think that they have a choice about getting involved. I want to help people get from step two to step three, to see that as members of the human family we don’t really have a choice but to acknowledge our connections to each other.”
Taking this step requires a new understanding of abundance and scarcity.
“In affluent American communities, it is often the case that our material abundance creates a kind of spiritual poverty in which the sufferings of life cannot be acknowledged and God’s blessings cannot be celebrated or cherished,” Chris says. “There is instead an anxiety, a fear that what we have today will be gone tomorrow. There is a fear that we’re not doing enough to protect ourselves or to give our children an advantage. This outlook leads to a spirituality of scarcity where we cling tightly to what we have, unable to embrace God’s transforming mercy, unable to trust that there is enough for all. Holding on to what we’ve got keeps us from moving beyond charity to advocacy, moving beyond seeing the poor as ‘other’ to seeing ourselves in solidarity with these brothers and sisters in Christ. Holding on in fear keeps us from experiencing abundance, the abundance of God’s kingdom.
“My calling is to invite people to recognize their spiritual poverty and start telling stories not only about their affluence but also about their need. That’s the first step toward justice.”
But it’s not an easy step, he acknowledges. “Taking this step wounds your spirit,” he says. “This wound of knowledge really connects you to some kind of experience of suffering, some lack or need or hunger that you don’t have as a wealthy person, a hunger that takes you to the edge of survival. Telling your story–saying out loud what’s really going on instead of saying ‘everything’s fine’–makes you vulnerable. It wounds your spirit and it transforms your soul. It’s an ‘aha’ moment that takes you out of yourself, out of your comfort zone, and then you can see that you are part of the beloved community–you enter a wider band of the spectrum than you ever thought you could be part of.”
“This is about the experience of being part of a beloved community,” he says, “not just being beloved as an individual. Congregations can talk a lot about how God loves you, but it’s only good i
f we see that God loves us all–and wants us to love each other.”
God’s love for all, the beloved community, is revealed in the beatitudes, says Chris. “The real purpose of the beatitudes is to reveal the solidarity among all people, despite the vast differences in human circumstances on this planet. The beatitudes aren’t just about ‘those other people’ who are different because they are poor or hungry or persecuted. They are also about how our own lives are made spiritually poor by the suffering of others.”
Adapted from Claiming the Beatitudes: Nine Stories from a New Generation by Anne Sutherland Howard, copyright © 2009 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
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