Who and How?
He who diggeth a pit shall fall into it. Thus saith the preacher (Ecclesiastes 10:8).
While Jesus cautions us about name-calling (Matthew 5:22), the Bible also says a lot about fools, sometimes in vivid ways: “As the dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly” (Proverbs 26:11). In this edition of Issues, the authors chiefly help us consider a ministry of mercy, care, and justice through which, as Gregory Mech writes, God “uses our hands to care, our arms to hold the hurting and push back the chaos, our contributions to alleviate suffering, feed the hungry, dig through the rubble and rebuild neighborhoods.” Our authors are right and wise to guide us in this compassion. Those in need of our care have often been put in need not by their own doing but by natural disasters or failed and corrupted social systems. Still, like the poor, the fool we also always have with us.
And, though certainly not always, the poor and the fools can sometimes be the same people. They do not plan for retirement. They persist in behavior that threatens their health. They remain uninsured or underinsured, unwilling to figure out some adaptation to the convoluted healthcare industry. They sabotage their family and household stability, undermining their best context for long-term wellbeing. They devote their resources of time, attention, and finances to endless distractions rather than patterns of self-care so that they might then be able to care for others. Instead, they eventually become the focus of their own anxiety and the object of others’ charity.
Perhaps at this point this editorial seems a bit less than charitable. For example, how well can the working poor plan for retirement with their minimum wage? And is the middle class person pursuing upward mobility in larger houses and more expensive cars wiser than those Jesus describes in his parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13–21)?
In the early church, some innovators devised some helpful ways to address the conditions of both the poor and the foolish. Pachomius, a pagan soldier in 4th century Egypt who became a disciple, organized eight Christian communities within or adjacent to towns and villages which were nearing abandonment. His communities served not as isolated monasteries but as centers for interactive care and development. These Christians farmed, traded, fished, and produced alongside their neighbors, sharing Christ’s love and modeling a modest, disciplined life that others might imitate. The church calendar remembers Pachomius on January 17.
Basil, best known as bishop of Caesarea from 370–379, exercised his office by creating open-access monastic communities dedicated to poverty relief, medical care, and the reform of those foolishly gone astray. His center on the outskirts of Caesarea, called “New City,” included a hostel, hospice, and distribution center for the needy. Basil’s letters describe his strategies for establishing Christian communities that interact with society to proclaim and practice both love for God and love for neighbor, demonstrating a practical alternate lifestyle.
Christians, of course, often demonstrate these practices individually in the estates and roles of their vocation and need not organize further. But they can organize further. In his 1981 book, After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre maintains that our culture has largely lost the virtues needed to sustain a thriving society and that the foolish among us stand the most to lose. He concludes that we must not settle for the foolishness among those waiting for Godot. Rather, “We’re waiting for a new and doubtless very different Saint Benedict to bring those who want to live the moral life together in community to survive through this current darkness.” Benedict, known for his Rule of precepts for monastic life, is considered the founder of the monastic tradition in Western Christianity. MacIntyre suggests Benedict not as a model but as a symbol for a Christian response to modern culture.
More recently, social commentator Rod Dreher has proposed what he calls the “Benedict Option.” Dreher says, “We have got to prepare ourselves and our families and our churches through intentional living, through disciplined living, and through an awareness of the cultural moment to deal with perhaps even persecution …. Let’s stay involved in the outside world, but let’s also do a strategic retreat. That’s not, ‘head for the hills.’ That’s doing things like turning off the television. Back away from the culture.” His proposal has received attention from many in the church. (http://www.worldmag.com/2015/06/rod_dreher_explains_the_benedict_option)
We Lutherans will not likely re-invent monasticism, and certainly not as Luther knew it. Nor will our theologians of the cross re-invent another holiness theology. I’m not sure I’m ready to join Dreher in a Benedict Option. Still, his views prompt reflection about what communities we can fashion in the best interest of our neighbor. I do propose that readers and others consider edifying ways of arranging the Christian life, ways that both express a Gospel-informed discipline and a practical compassion for those in need. And, yes, including the foolish and misguided among us who keep digging themselves pits and falling into them or building themselves bigger houses and falling into them. Surely they, too, are part of our social ministry, our ministry of mercy, and our ministry of justice.