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September 24, 2020

Bread and Spirit

The issue has again been brought up lately of funding religious denominations. A young politician, judged for being cutting edge more than anything else, proposed a special taxation system very much like the German model. Other politicians, more or less `devout` reacted like `the devil would to incense`, although the  arguments are in favor not only of taxpayers, who will surely be more at ease with a transparent system, but of religious confessions as well, as they would be less vulnerable to politicians’ whims. Yet, aside from the various pragmatic tactics aimed at a societal collaboration between the State and Churches, the polemic persists over the values of `poverty` and `wealth `. Over centuries, the Christians have promoted, with outstanding passion at times, not just the virtue of being poor, but also the challenge of not neglecting the usually neglected: the poor, the sick, the helpless, the vulnerable.

To be temperate, to have little desire, to only rely on the minimum, materially speaking – it’s a `philosopher’s` virtue to which many have resorted, from stoics to Buddhists. It’s the principle of negative ascetics, which aims at release from the containments of this world.   The situation however gets more complicated when you look at the other, your fellow human being. Christianity, with its brotherly vein, looked at the aforementioned marginalized categories as an opportunity to prove the power of unconditional love. But how should you love your fellow human being? Should they only be associated with a world dominated by voluntary ascesis? Otherwise said, is it enough to offer them `the poor man’s soup`, preaching renunciation and temperance? Not everybody looked at the Christian’s condition as that of a surviving poor, based on a minimum of satisfied needs.Although undermined by some of the statements of Jesus, such as that referring to the difficulty faced by the rich to accede to the Kingdom of Heaven, wealth had undergone but a partial crisis.

A society such as the Byzantine one, which has stirred nostalgia to this day, was deeply polarized actually. Imperial and aristocratic treasures were at odds with the masses of poor people many of whom were merely subsisting. Were the latter more Christian than the `rich`?, this the sort of question that applies to any epoch. It’s easier to be poor:  responsibilities are fewer, options are often lacking, the qualities required to subsist are few, while resentments, frustrations, thirst for revenge go deeper than the haughtiness, self-sufficiency and selfishness of the rich. Actually, the true Christian ascesis supposes to pass both the test of poverty, voluntarily maybe, and that of being rich, even if only conjectural. The way he saw it, Jesus only cautioned about the risks of an existential journey, yet he didn’t demonize a social condition. He wasn’t a communist avant la lettre. The memorable characters chroniclers wrote about are at least half `rich`: Nicodim, Zaheu, Joseph of Arimateea, Maria Magdalena, the young man concerned about spiritual life, Simon The Leper, Matthew, the publican turned disciple etc. Jesus often went to feasts, being despised on grounds of moral promiscuity and fellowships with collaborationists, yet, he was not confined to `proletarian` circles, the destitute that followed him were, more than anything, sick people, no matter their social condition. By the same token, we shouldn’t take a hypocritical look at a Christianity of the plenty, or even waste, of wealth used for beauty and fellowship, for a cultural excellence and civilization of prosperity. Practically speaking, the Christian ideal is a combination between relative social justice and elitist creativity. Not monumental constructions, though they were not lacking either, as a form of neglect of the condition of actual people, in the name of arrogant achievements, yet, not equality in mediocrity either. `Man shall not live on bread alone` – this is a saying we haven’t pondered on long enough, since it’s exactly the combination between `bread` and Spirit at stake here, between materiality and spirituality, and not a collage, an association of some rather incompatible aspects, but the rediscovery of convergences. While spiritual reality is neither more authentic nor deeper than the material one, it’s nonetheless more wholesome, less fragmented and contradictory. It is not a competition between two worlds, although there have always been a strong tendency to separate and delineate them, but the sought transfiguration of the world we live in.

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