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Merton on Religion and Poverty

Is Being Poor the Will of God?

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Religious organizations have a long and complex history with questions about poverty, class stratification, and other economic matters. On the one hand, most religions have embedded within their traditions explicit statements about the importance of helping the poor and the dangers of too much accumulation of wealth. On the other hand, successful religions typically attach themselves to powerful political and social forces — forces which, almost by definition, value the accumulation of wealth and often do little to help lift up the poor.

    It is easy enough to tell the poor to accept their poverty as God's will when you yourself have warm clothes and plenty of food and medical care and a roof over your head and no worry about the rent. But if you want them to believe you - try to share some of their poverty and see if you can accept it as God's will yourself!
    - Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation, chapter 14, p. 107 (1949).

Christianity has had an especially difficult time reconciling itself with this matter. On the one hand, the words attributed to Jesus are pretty unambiguous in their defense of the poor and their attacks on the wealthy. There is little room to argue that Jesus didn't really mean it when he is portrayed and stating that the rich wouldn't easily get into heaven and that the best course of action for a rich person is to sell all their belongings and follow Jesus.

Moreover, during its early stages Christianity was closely associated with the poor and other outcasts in Roman society. It is arguable that much of Christianity's success can be attributed precisely to the fact that it provided as stable social network for the poor, allowing them to survive such disasters as plagues while others died off at a precipitous rate. The ability of Christianity to attract and hold converts certainly didn't go unnoticed and, eventually, it became the official state religion of Rome - and that's when things changed.

Thereafter, Christianity was more closely associated with the rich and powerful in Rome, adopting many of the imperial trappings which it once would have shunned. It would not be entirely unfair to argue that Christianity become corrupted, but it also wouldn't be unfair to point out that this merger with the powerful state was also key in helping Christianity to dominate Europe. The most successful religions can't remain the exclusive ideology of the weakest members of society. If principles aren't compromised, failure looms over everything.

Such issues would have been keenly felt by Thomas Merton, a monk who is regarded as one of the greatest mystics of the 20th century. If any Christians continue to hold closely to some of Christianity's original ideals, it would probably be monks and nuns living in religious communities. These people are also often the source of some of the most trenchant criticism of trends in the larger Christian community to focus on material wealth and success.

In the above quotation, I suspect that Merton was singling out some of the rich and powerful Christians of the West - generally Protestants - who regard wealth and a sign of God's favor. It is strange that some have managed to link material prosperity with divine blessings in light of so many passages attributed to Jesus which argue against the exact opposite - but many Christians, it seems, have never let a little thing like that stop them - especially Christians in America. After all, the phrase "God helps those who help themselves" isn't in the Bible, but a lot of Americans think it is.

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