Not quite ready for subversion

When Clark said last week that “I think Joy is asking us to engage in some subversive imagining,” he was giving me more than my due. My actual aim was more modest: I simply wanted to consider how religious views support and feed the status quo, and vice versa.

But, in the funny way things work, Clark’s blog became my call to make his comment true: a call to actually try busting out of Bizlam and follow Jesus afresh.

I turned for inspiration to Shane Claiborne. If anyone has busted out of Bizlam, it’s him. Claiborne is the young, dreadlocked co-founder of The Simple Way, an intentional Christian community in a scrappy Philadelphia neighbourhood. Wanda and John E. had told me about him a couple of years ago. I’d seen a movie about him and was not impressed; heard him speak this fall and was impressed; and this week, borrowed his book Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical and read it in a two-day gulp.

Claiborne’s revolution is hard to resist. While at university he broke out of his East Tennessee, suburban, Methodist upbringing and decided to act the way he saw Jesus act. He helped a bunch of squatters resist eviction from their homes in an abandoned church, and then moved with a group of friends into a house nearby. He worked with Mother Theresa and visited Iraq during the bombing.Through all this, it’s clear that he is having a ball. The pages are full of parties and pranks – throwing $20,000 in cash into Wall Street; breaking up a neighbourhood fight with juggling; murals, hugs, gardens, praying, drumming, summer camps, community theatre, and dozens of other life-giving things. (You can read more about these beautiful things at The Simple Way.)

Claiborne is not calling everyone to live the life he has chosen. But he is calling us ordinary Christians to stand out from the crowd. He notes that most people would be able to answer the question, “What do Christians believe?” but would be stumped by the question, “How do Christians live?” That’s because Christians live pretty much like everybody else, they “just sprinkle a little Jesus in along the way.”

Claiborne also talks about “creating a culture in which it is easier for people to be good.” I like that. He notes, for example, the problem is not that Christians don’t love the poor – they just don’t know them. It is by living together that the “rich and poor” stories become inter-twined and sharing stops being charity – a guilt-induced thing — but a natural part of living.

Yes, but . . .

I love what Claiborne is doing. But as I read his book, I contracted a bad case of “yes, but . . .”

Yes, I love the idea of rich and poor living together, and a big part of my work has been devoted to promoting mixed-income communities. But I’ve also read the research that shows that rich and poor may live next door to each other, but that doesn’t mean they talk to each other, or that poor people are better off. All we can confidently say is that social mixing is better than concentrated poverty. As one paper put it, “For the underprivileged, social mixing may not be a universal ‘good,’ but social segregation is definitely a universal ‘bad.’”

Yes, I love the Wednesday Night Suppers in the basement of Danforth Church. They allow me to meet people that I would never have the chance to know otherwise. But perhaps these same people would prefer to eat their dinners and leave, rather than suffer conversation with the likes of me.

Yes, as Claiborne accurately notes, charities and non-profit organizations serve to distance the rich from the poor. The poor get the cash or services. The rich assuage their guilt. But it’s not the way of Jesus, who touched, fed, washed and blessed people directly and individually.

But I also recall that a hundred years ago the poor were quite used to visits from the rich, who doled out advice along with their hampers. Myself, I rejoiced when yesterday’s Globe said that a Guaranteed Annual Income was once again under discussion. I think it will be a great day when low-income people can receive cheques in the mail without any intrusions from others.

The real question: do “the poor” want to be with me?

My “yes, buts” may just be a cop-out. But I don’t think so. I hear Jesus’ call to “be with the poor.” I want to respond. But I really have no confidence that “the poor” want to be with me, or people like me.

As I was preparing this blog, I googled Claiborne, and learned that in 2007 his home and the homes of six other families were completely destroyed by fire. In the story in the Philadelphia Inquirer, a devastated mother and her daughter “turned tear-stained faces to the sky. They collapsed in grief. They shook with anger” at losing their home, clothes, car — even the daughter’s Dunkin’ Donuts uniform.

The Simple Way raised over $4,000 for fire relief. And Claiborne, who had also “lost everything but his white Apple laptop, which he kept tucked under his arm,” said “The most valuable things in life you can’t buy, sell or steal. . . People ask, ‘How does it feel to lose everything?’ I say, ‘I wouldn’t know. Everybody survived.’ ”

It’s an inspiring thought. I hope that if I am ever in the same position, I will feel the same way. But if I were that mother or her daughter in the article, I’m not sure I’d feel inspired. I think I’d  feel shamed.

And that’s why I’m feeling a bit stuck.


Many of you have thought long and hard about the questions that I wrestle with, and have been wrestling with for the past 30 years. Tell us what you’ve been thinking.



Filed under Joy's entries

4 responses to “Not quite ready for subversion

  1. Barbara Anderson

    Joy, this is a question I have also wrestled with because my church, the United Church of Canada, is always talking about siding with the poor and marginalized and God’s preference for the poor etc. but very few if any ‘poor’ people however you define them would feel at all welcome in a United Church service.
    With real poverty comes illiteracy, mental illness, addiction, a lack of social skills and hygiene and often no ‘hope’ or concept of tomorrow. There is no saving for tomorrow because there is nothing to save. A ‘windfall’ of a monthly welfare cheque or a residential lawsuit payout etc. disappears like Mary’s squandering of perfume on Jesus’ feet. Here today and gone tomorrow because all tomorrows are the same. Rich and middle class people are always planning for tomorrow because they can count on a job, a paycheque, the love of a family, a roof over their heads. A middle class person would rather walk a few blocks than ever take a taxi or sometimes even a bus. If a poor person had a chance to take a taxi a few blocks with their last few dollars it might relieve the pain of sore feet, ill-fitting shoes, or a cold night walking past someone who normally might terrorize them. Yet, to our eyes, we can’t understand why they wouldn’t walk the few blocks and save the money to buy some food.
    A neighbouring United Church holds a community breakfast every Tues. morning and provides hot food for anyone in the east side of Vancouver until 12 noon. The people who run the program never know how many will show up and say that even inclement weather or the day before welfare Wed. is not a good predictor of numbers. The same is true for shelters which never know how many may arrive each night. A sign of idiosyncracies of the poor or our inability to ‘understand’ the poor?
    While it may be soothing to say the poor ‘live in the moment’ the way Christ taught us to think only of the present because that is sufficient worry for the day, we understand too much about science, history, and ‘life’ to know the dangers of sex without protection (hence planning), infants requiring regular feedings and warm clothing, the value of education which means planning and studying for tomorrow’s exam, and the pride of paying off debts. And it’s in that distinction between “living for today” and “living for tomorrow” that the chasm between poverty and affluence cuts us off from dialogue and understanding.
    If I decided to live simply by unloading my junk and downsizing to a communal house (which I lived in during my twenties) and even if I decided to quit my job and live on welfare I still have my education, my ability to read, to discuss ideas, to plan. I would not have ‘voices’ haunting me, fears of being attacked by my dealer or pimp, nor the concentrated gnawing hunger for my next fix. My brain chemistry would not be altered by potent and toxic medications legal or illegal or the history of abuse and desperation of having no one who had ever cared about me. I would never have had the experience of being in jail or facing the justice system and watching my back every second.
    Poverty, as I think Joy is saying, is much more than living simply. It is never a ‘choice’ in that respect. So while we can applaud Mr. Claiborne and others like him because they are living amongst the poor, it does take much more than a casual conversation in a hallway to communicate with people who are ‘poor’, rather than those who are down on their luck for a time or who live the frugal life of a student in the hope of making a good living in a few years.
    We do have one or two mentally ill people living on disability attending our church. My conversations with them are often cursory though caring -sometimes because of what I might call non-sequiturs and inappropriate statements (TMI)
    but they struggle harder with me than I do with them, I’m sure. They are proud and want to be able to give as well as ‘take’.
    Perhaps the answer is in being willing to accept from and not always ‘give’ to the poor. Our own dignity and self worth is bound up in what we can ‘give’ to others; our family, friends, our work, society. Maybe the way to bridge the divide is to ask poor people for their contribution, whether it be a widow’s mite or their time.
    Especially during the season of giving – instead of just giving money to the poor we can accept from them- a smile, their thoughts, advice, handshake, directions, a helping hand – to show our respect for their dignity and humanity. Maybe that’s what being open to the Spirit means- to be open to the dignity and humanity of each person.

  2. Kathy Campbell

    I have not responded to your blogs in a long time, Joy; forgive me. My response to this is that it will take time for the rich or comfortably off and the poor to feel comfortable enough to sit down together and talk in an easy way. There are still stigmas attached to both, really. It would be good if this could happen, though. I hope my response, though short, makes sense.


  3. Joy – I used to host a ‘Rich Man Poor Man’ lunch at George Brown College’s Culinary School.
    I’d invite business people I knew to have lunch with some of my street friends.
    As a way of encouraging the inspired thought of rich and poor together, below is an account of one of our more memorable lunches.
    I am convinced this is fundamental to the expression of the gospel! (ref Luke 14:12-14)

    Had a fantastic lunch this past Tuesday, the experience I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
    David Duncan, David Finnegan and myself met with Phil and Mike and 40 minutes into our lunch every line of demarcation disappeared. No telling who the rich or the poor were, no way of telling who the wise ones were or who the ones more blessed were – it was only as we got up from the table 2 hours after we began that the thought dawned on us that we’d be returning to different worlds.
    Probably the most astute among us was Mike, a homeless person who I met through my friend Robert over 4 months ago. If you can imagine Einstein in homeless attire, Mike’s that guy. When he wasn’t reciting significant passages from a book he wrote 3 years ago – which has since been stolen – he was answering the tough questions about poverty – why poor people believe the rich make their money off the backs of the poor, how he would resolve the homeless issue, the huge role addiction has on street life, etc.
    Never strident, surprisingly soft spoken given the weight of his opinions, he came to life in our midst. As the two of us walked back to Yonge Street after the lunch was over, he was beaming…explaining a patent he’s submitted which would allow homes to generate their own energy using electro-magnets. As I left him to return to my office and he to his (just outside Tim Horton’s at Yonge and Richmond), he told me that he hadn’t felt this good in years.
    David Duncan was the great conversational stimulant – whose questions to Mike got the ball rolling. There was a smile on David’s face, the kind you see on someone stoking a fire, bringing the kind of warmth to a room where time becomes irrelevant and everyone’s at ease. The other David lent a serenity and respect that made everyone feel valued. For a while I was somewhat frantic – wondering why the two people I had seen an hour before the lunch hadn’t shown up (as it turned out, one got delayed at his doctor’s and the other got sidetracked by crack) but eventually I settled in.
    Phil was his usual caring and engaging self. Phil is one of my oldest and dearest street friends and his input to the conversation did much to affirm Mike’s own observations. Whenever our table broke into two conversations, the one would be between Mike and David Duncan, the other between Phil and David F with me flitting between the 2…

  4. Rhonda Teitel-Payne

    Joy, I’m undoing your shorthand a little when you wonder if “the poor” will sit with you, because we know that there are some who are happy to do so and others who don’t, all for their own very diverse reasons. We don’t concern ourselves with the ones who do want to be friends on some level or at least share a meal. It’s those who will not let us take (learning, pleasure, connection) that cause the questioning and discomfort. I agree totally with Barbara that removing the barriers means we have to accept what we can receive from people in poverty, and be open to what that means beyond the obvious. Most of what I know about growing food comes from people who, to middle class eyes, are sorely lacking in resources of all kinds (including education, social capital and “life skills”). But refusing to give is also a matter of dignity and freedom of choice, and what feels to us like a failure to connect because of social barriers may be a triumph for the other person.

    I missed the thought-provoking blogs when I was away, glad to see the circle getting bigger.

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