We will fight for peace, but we will do no violence.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Meet Your Fighters: Thomas Crisp

I was born and raised in Southern California. I am married to Alison, and we have two daughters, Madeline and Peyton, ten and seven years old respectively. I am a philosophy professor at Biola University, where I have taught for seven years. A couple years ago, I had a sort of conversion experience to a more justice-oriented Christianity. Since then, I have been thinking and writing on Jesus' ethics of poverty, and hope to do a lot more thinking and writing in years to come about Jesus' ethics of violence, the Sermon on the Mount, agapistic theories of ethics, Christian anarchism, and the Catholic Worker movement. I and several of my students have been practicing a ministry of listening among the houseless at the Orange County Catholic Worker for a year or so, which has been very healing for me.

Here's some thoughts to share:

Since the 1970s, the controversial Princeton ethicist, Peter Singer, has been arguing that it is deeply immoral for the affluent of the world to indulge themselves in needless luxury whilst others die from lack of access to food, clean drinking water and basic medical care. (For a popular presentation of his argument, see more

For years, I puzzled over Singer's argument, utterly convinced by it but not doing much about it. Recently, I starting thinking about his argument afresh, particularly his claim that his argument fits nicely with some of Jesus' teaching on wealth and poverty. Is he right? Does Jesus teach similar things about the moral demands of affluence?

He does! He tells his followers not to store up treasure on earth, but to give to anyone who asks, and to store up treasure in heaven by selling our possessions and giving the proceeds to the poor. He says that no one can be his disciple who does not give up all his/her own possessions, and that those who live in splendor, dressing in fine clothes day after day, whilst people starve around them, risk damnation. Strong stuff, I know, but these and many teachings like them fill the pages of the gospels.

Interestingly, for the first three or so hundred years of Church history, most of the major teachers, bishops, apologists, and church leaders said very similar things about the moral demands of affluence. As Augustine put it:

"Not to give to the needy what is superfluous is akin to fraud."

And John Chrysostom:

"I beg you to remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs."

And Ambrose:

"You strip people naked and dress up your walls. The naked poor cries before your door, and you do not even look at him. It is a naked human being that begs you, and you are considering what marbles to use for paving. The poor begs you for money and gets none. There is a human being seeking bread, and your horses chew gold in their bits. You rejoice in your precious adornments, while others have nothing to eat. A harsh judgement awaits you, oh rich! The people are hungry and you close your granaries. The people cry and you show your jewels. Woe to one who can save so many lives from death, and does not!"

Justo Gonzalez's masterful Faith and Wealth: A History of Early Christian Ideas on the Origin, Significance and Use of Money (Wipf and Stock: 2002) explores early Christian teaching on these things, and offers fascinating explanation how, beginning around the time of Augustine, the Church gradually softened its teachings on wealth, adopting the Roman perspective on surplus wealth, according to which one has little to no obligation to use one's excess to care for the needy.

In short, Singer is right: Jesus's teachings on wealth and poverty make heavy demands on the affluent. The most important early writers and teachers of the early Church taught the same thing. To be a follower of Jesus, one who enters into his teachings and practices, is to live in radical simplicity and generosity toward the suffering. The big questions for us: How best to do this? What would it look like in Southern California? What are some good models?

I'll be talking about some of these issues/questions at the Pacifist Fight Club. For further reading, download my paper "Jesus and Affluence" on PDF HERE

Comments/criticisms welcome.

-Thomas Crisp
Associate Professor | Department of Philosophy
Associate Director | Center for Christian Thought
Biola University

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