One of the greatest challenges to my own faith was Christ’s teaching about the elevation of the poor. It simply makes no sense to me to see any special spiritual significance to mere poverty. By itself it does nothing to improve behavior or adherence to law, and for every “smiling face in an impoverished village” that gets mentioned in sermons there are just as many savage and violent faces, to say nothing of the cheerful faces among those in penthouses or lake homes. But I think my challenge was based on confounding two separate elements in Christ’s teaching that need to be kept separate. I’ll call these two elements “the older account” and “the newer account”.
The older account of Christ’s elevation of poverty imputes a mystical character to to it, as though the condition itself was a sort of prophesy. The newer account is not mystical but practical and political: we must elevate the poor above others because the rich, so the reasoning goes, have the means to fend for themselves but the poor need advocates to advance their interests. On the first account, Christ elevates the poor because of a mystical vision of what Francis would call “Lady Poverty”; on the second he is modeling how a social and political leader should act and speak so as to ensure justice.
Notice that the newer understanding is based on the idea of human equality. We advocate the rights of the poor in an effort to ensure equal access. The older understanding is based on the idea of hierarchy and ordered separation. On the new understanding, poverty is ultimately an evil that, of itself, is hostile to justice and so needs to be remedied by the polity; on the older understanding it is a sort of blessing that sets someone in a group above another group. Both elements seem necessary to the Christian message – on the one hand the poor have a unique likeness to Christ who though he was in the form of God, emptied himself. At the heart of the Incarnation is this sort of acceptance of poverty, along with all of the spiritual theology that teaches that the goods of this world and those of God are in some sort of contradiction (here I’m thinking of John of the Cross, who sets the material and the spiritual as playing a zero-sum-game). But this account becomes nonsensical on the political or economic plane. Advocating poverty as an economic policy is either exploitation or contradiction.
So, at the moment, my resolution to Christ’s challenge is to divide the economic sphere* from another sphere of existence. This other sphere does not admit of an easy name – it is at once symbolic, spiritual, and prophetic while not being in every case a sphere of existence leading to better morals or cheerfulness. This second sphere has a likeness to the sacramental order, where, for example, marriage is at once symbolic, spiritual, and prophetic while at the same time being a secondary state. I’m bungling this last point but I won’t erase it since there’s something there.
*”Economic” is also too limiting a name. Persons are not equal in a merely economic sense, and ensuring this equality of state is not limited to economics. But this sphere, however broad its scope, is limited by the other one.