We fear poverty made visible

By  Maura Hanrahan, Catholic Register Special
  • September 6, 2007

{mosimage}The Fear of Beggars: Stewardship and Poverty in Christian Ethics by Kelly S. Johnson (William B. Eerdmans,  236 pages, softcover, $24.99.)

Yes, it’s judgmental, but I’ve always been flabbergasted when Christians vote Conservative. The hard, cold policies of Margaret Thatcher and, closer to home, Mike Harris, literally put vulnerable people on the hard, cold streets. One reason for such voting patterns is the fact Christianity, including Catholicism, so often fails to make the crucial links between theology and economics, between finances and ethics. Kelly S. Johnson, professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton, Ohio, ably attempts to fill the gap in her striking new book, The Fear of Beggars.

Johnson’s thinking is original and rooted in common sense. Right away — on page 1 — she asserts, “Beggars do a reasonable thing: needing something and seeing someone who might have it, they ask for it.” But, as she points out, there is so much moral clutter and baggage around begging that this statement is like a bolt of lightning. Who among us has not found beggars alarming and disturbing? Even 12th century wandering hermit-preachers were accused of being parasites. Beggars make poverty visible, they make us confront our deeply held notions of property — and we become afraid. Says Johnson, “We fear to be family to the poor because we fear becoming poor.” 

There is not a single solution for Christians who care about this centuries-old issue: “There is no lasting city.” Instead, Johnson’s concern is to explore Christianity’s theological responses to the fear of beggars. Hers is a journey worth taking; in fact, I expect Jesus would say it is one our faith demands of us.

{sa 0802803784}Stewardship was one Christian response and, although the word at least has much modern currency, it is a flawed concept. Johnson writes, “Stewardship sees God as the Owner who charges His somewhat confused management team to tend His investments.” Indeed. For Johnson, stewardship is “cautious and practical,” failing to challenge existing social structures or property rights. But stewardship does critique selfishness and it reminds us of our obligations to share — “Knowing their responsibilities and limitations, the prosperous were to be humble through generosity.” Thus, stewardship offers a kind of economics on the way. Questioning stewardship allows us to look for better ways to build relationships with each other, the Earth, etc. 

St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of what Johnson calls Christianity’s most contentious order, figures prominently in The Fear of Beggars. Money was becoming entrenched in Francis’ lifetime and there was a turning away from mutual customary obligations in favour of individual property rights. Franciscan renunciation of property (both “critique” and “witness”) was a legal incoherence but the saint’s conviction that we could use goods without giving up spiritual poverty lives on. Francis was, says Johnson, a viator, a wayfarer who followed Christ, “never at home here, still travelling towards full possession of (his) inheritance.”

Another viator economist is the heart of the book: Peter Maurin. The French prophet saw in beggars “God’s suffering patience.” Their role was sacramental, “because the source and sustainer of all economic life is a beggar.” In some other publications, Maurin’s theology is reduced to criticism of his “utopian” communal farming plans. But Johnson understands him and goes far beyond this to get to the heart of what Maurin was all about: human contact and love. 

Beggars sit there on the sidewalk, presenting a challenge or is it a call? Johnson writes, “Beggars disrupt economics as system and demand personal responsibility by creating the most localized of economies, one on one.” Informed by St. Francis and Maurin, Johnson urges us to unlearn “strangerliness” and to relearn human contacts as we make our pilgrimage through life. 

The author’s prose is clean and often elegant. Johnson is an academic writer grappling with complex ideas, but she does a wonderful job making them as clear as possible. Still, parts of this book, such as the lengthy deconstruction of stewardship, require concentration. The effort is amply rewarded and The Fear of Beggars should be on the bookshelves of teachers, academics, religious and lay, and all those involved in Christian social justice.

(Hanrahan’s new book is The Alphabet Fleet: The Pride of Newfoundland’s Coastal Service.) 

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.