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Deciding on a Christian Life Style

by Robert L. Stivers

Dr. Stivers, associate professor of religion at Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Washington, is author of The Sustainable Society (Westminster). This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 17, 1980, pp. 1244-1288. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Traveling as a Christian in a world of poverty and energy constraints is like hiking a path that repeatedly forks. To the right at the first fork stand the technological optimists, clamoring for freedom to turn loose their genies on the problems of food, energy and pollution, and promising unlimited abundance if only the traveler will go their way. To the left dance the "new agers," forecasting limits and promising the new spiritual delights of conservation, simplicity and smallness.

Deciding between these options is no easy task. For reasons of prudence in a limited world, of concern for the increasing side effects of many new technologies, and of care for the poor, many Christians elect to turn left. But having made this decision, they are immediately confronted by a second fork. To the right is a sign reading "The Path of Social Engineering and Minor Tinkering," to the left a sign of equal size indicating "The Path of Major Value and Life-Style Change."

A still-sizable group of Christians turns left here, too, thinking that minor alterations are inadequate given the magnitude of the problems. A little way down the path, however, they encounter still another fork. To the right stands a rather somber-looking man holding a sign reading "Responsible Consumption." To the left is an eager lad enthusiastically proclaiming the virtues of Christian perfectionism, of self-denial, and of solidarity with the poor. His sign reads "Rigorous Discipleship."

Some quickly turn left, attracted by the young manís intensity and immediately resolved to give all they have to the poor. But many remain undecided, needing to wrestle seriously with the problem of how to relate the ideal of the Kingdom of God to the realities of everyday living, or frankly caught in the bind of having too many possessions, or simply not cut out for a life of self-denial.

The issue is joined. Is it consistent with the life and work of Jesus Christ to be "reasonably" comfortable in an age of advanced materialism, limits to the consumption of resources and energy, and the continuing ravages of malnutrition and poverty? Or is living in "reasonable" comfort under such conditions a cop-out, with the only faithful response being obedience to the radical claims of the Sermon on the Mount?

The task is to understand that both paths -- rigorous discipleship and responsible consumption -- are valid Christian options. It is to see with the apostle Paul that there are varieties of gifts, varieties of service and varieties of work, but the same Spirit. It is to help overcome the dilemma of Christians who are not monks or ascetics but who nonetheless feel caught in the crossfire between the realities of daily living and the demands of the Kingdom of God. It is finally to anticipate the dangers of both paths: to see the tendency of those turning left to neglect everyday- reality and of those turning right to lose sight of the Kingdom.

The Early Church

The witness of the early church is relevant to this task. However, we must acknowledge the differences between then and now. The early church was not beset by the same limits to material growth that todayís church is. The milieu by comparison was decidedly nontechnological. Wealth was in no way nearly as abundant, and thus the problem of consumption and ownership of possessions was far less acute. Most significant, the imminence of the final coming of the Kingdom of God dominated the thinking of many in the early church and lowered the priority accorded to worldly goods, economic systems and attempts at social transformation.

While these differences must be kept in mind, the biblical witness remains for Christians the starting point for deciding which path to take. Of first importance and so obvious that little needs to be said is the biblical concern for the poor. Found in both testaments, it called in biblical times for both charity and social justice. In the New Testament this motif is most prominent in the writings of Luke, who was perhaps the most troubled by the apparent delay in the coming of the Kingdom and hence most concerned with the problems of ongoing life. The concern for the poor expressed by Luke remains of first importance and is directly transferable to the present.

Regarding consumption, riches and self-denial, the Bible is not so univocal. The Hebrew Scriptures come down hard on unscrupulous speculators and the idolatry of riches. But this polemic against the misuse of wealth is balanced by praise of the just rich man. Here and there in the history of Israel, groups such as the Essenes preached asceticism and the virtues of poverty, but this was by no means the general rule. In the rabbinic tradition the criticism of wealth itself and the preaching of self-denial are rare. In fact the opposite is often the case: riches and their just use are held in high repute, poverty in contempt.

With Jesus things are different. On the one hand he proclaimed the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God. His preaching called for an unparalleled righteousness, freedom from possessions, and complete trust in God. Serving God and serving riches were not compatible because riches closed oneís ears to the call of the Kingdom. Jesus himself had no possessions and prodded his disciples into renouncing what they had and accepting extreme poverty.

On the other hand, Jesus took for granted the ownership of property. He was apparently supported by women of substance and urged that possessions be used to help those in need. He did not require Zacchaeus to give up more than half of his possessions to the poor. Jesus dined often with hated tax collectors and, was fond of celebrations, especially meals of fellowship. While by no means a heavy consumer of goods, Jesus was not a rigorous ascetic, either. He apparently enjoyed the material pleasures of life, though he probably could afford few of them.

The Dangers of Possessions

The life and teachings of Jesus thus lend credence to both rigorous discipleship and responsible consumption. However, complete support for any of the current options to the exclusion of the others is not to be found, The imminent coming of the Kingdom colored Jesusí perceptions and hence his ethics, in a way which makes their direct appropriation difficult for present-day Christians who must deal with a delayed coming. Jesus was not interested in theories of property or of the rightness or wrongness of possessions. His support for the poor was unequivocal, but he did not champion social programs such as wealth redistribution or guaranteed incomes. All this was superfluous; given the signs of the times. Yet, when all this is said, present-day Christians must bear in mind that the weight of Jesusí teachings is on the dangers of possessions and the responsibility of sharing.

Early Christian communities were also dominated by this sense of the imminent end. In Jerusalem there developed what some biblical scholars have called "love communism," which was the close personal sharing of goods within the community of Christians. How well this experiment worked out is not clear, but Luke ceases to mention it in Acts, and Paul made no attempt to duplicate it in the communities he founded. His communities were poor but apparently not so poor as the one in Jerusalem, for he successfully called on them to send gifts. Paul -- like Jesus and probably for the same reasons -- did not systematically address the problems of poverty, riches and consumption. He himself had few possessions and was self-supporting. He did not advocate social transformation; the slave, for example, was to return to his master. But echoing Jesus, Paul did preach freedom from attachment to possessions and the importance of sharing in community.

In sum, the early Christian communities seconded the message of Jesus. Be not anxious about or attached to possessions. Give freely to the poor. Do not worry too much about social structures. That they were poor and that Paul, at least, lived without possessions lends support to the path of rigor. But, again, not all are called to Paulís ministry, and not all have Paulís gifts or his sense of an imminent end.

As the Christian communities developed, the problems of the long haul began to emerge, and the same forked paths now being encountered began to appear. Some early Christians were influenced by ascetic and sometimes apocalyptic tendencies; interestingly, they joined pacifism and sexual abstinence to their radical criticism of wealth, possessions and consumption. On the other side were those who urged moderation and charity, while property, the poverty of the many, and the wealth of a few were assumed and seldom addressed.

Theological Tensions

Theologically, the two paths of rigorous discipleship and responsible consumption take their cues from a classic tension in Christian thought: between the way things are and the way they ought to be, This tension appears in the very first pages of the Bible: persons are made in the image of God but with Adam fall into sin. It reappears again and again as the Israelites wrestle with the obligations of the covenant, comparing their own situation with the responsibilities set forth by Yahweh at Mt. Sinai.

In Jesusí message the tension appears in his teaching that the Kingdom of God is at hand, Later Christians reformulated this slightly to say that the Kingdom had been inaugurated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but that its fulfillment awaited his second coming. "Here, but yet to come" exemplifies the tension, as does Jesusí advice to his disciples to be sheep among the wolves and to have the wisdom of the serpent and the innocence of the dove.

Pre-eminently for Christians, this tension is found in the cross and resurrection. The cross is reality at its worst and points to th.e limitations of individuals and groups and to the need for order to keep sin in bounds. Yet the cross is not the last word in Christianity. It is followed and superseded by the ever-new word of the resurrection. The resurrection points to a God at work in the human situation overcoming sin and death. It points as well to the possibility of "new creations" in the lives of individuals and groups. As a result, Christians are Invited to deal hopefully with a partly open future in which even small responses can make a difference.

The cross and the resurrection are closely tied together; separated, they yield a distorted message.The cross alone leads to cynicism, apathy and resignation to fate; the resurrection alone leads to a theology of glory and to sentimental illusion or fanatical aggression.

Finally, the theological tension is highlighted by Paulís sense that Christians live between the ages. Though still in the Old Age of sin, death, injustice and limitations, they are called to live according to the New Age inaugurated by Jesus Christ and made present by the Holy Spirit. Living in the Old Age involves supporting less-than-perfect institutions and making compromises (which those who take the rigorous path call cop-outs). Even so, Christians are not to be serpentlike or to abide by the ways of the Old Age; they are to live in the resurrection according to the love and justice of the New Age. In the present context this means pushing beyond current assumptions to changed life styles -- but always with the wisdom of the serpent and the innocence of the dove,

Rigorous Discipleship in Action

The theology of the path of rigorous discipleship is simpler and better known, and its advocates frequently are more vocal and more intense. Basically the position builds on Jesusí call to radical discipleship, his frugal and simple living, and his freedom from possessions. In some cases the "love communism" of the early churches is stressed along with a preference for asceticism and self-denial,

Simply put, the Christian is to live a life of simplicity, to satisfy only the most basic of needs, and to give all that he or she has to the poor. It is a life of surrender and total commitment to the Kingdom of God, a life made possible by the grace of God through faith. As for living between the ages, this path emphasizes the New Age almost to the exclusion of the Old -- an exclusion that comes not from failure to see the sin of the Old Age but from the assumption that total and sustained commitment is a real possibility.

The path of rigorous discipleship is attractive and validly Christian. It does not bog down in the inevitable relativities of the Old Age. It is simple, direct, and often accompanied by communities approximating the "love communism" of early Christianity.

It is also problematic. Beyond the obvious dificulties of works righteousness and a tendency to failure and illusion about sin, the wisdom of the serpent suggests ways in which the Old Age garbs itself in the New Age. The disguises are many. Claims made for the path of rigorous discipleship do not always carefully distinguish ego needs from the Word of God, Those who take this path are often predisposed to it by a preference for self-denial or asceticism, and this preference can be just as self-centered as gluttony. As a consequence, their pleas for radical change are sometimes perceived not as calls to discipleship but rather as ego-trips to expiate guilt or even attempts to re-create others in their own image.

More subtle is the underestimation of the resilience of the Old Age. There are serious consequences to changed life styles in an economy based in the short range on heavy consumption. One is the unemployment that results from reduced consumption and that always strikes the poor first. Ask an unemployed Detroit auto worker who is trying to feed a family what he thinks about reduced consumption. Another consequence is the lack of genuine options. New jobs, new housing and new transportation systems are simply not possible except for a very few. Ask the homeowner who has life savings tied up in a poorly insulated house and whose skills qualify her only to make energy-guzzling widgets what she thinks about the possibility of change.

Still another consequence is exposed by people of the worldís poorer countries, to whom talk about sustainability and reduced life styles has the familiar odor of injustice to it. They see it as a new way to keep the poor in misery so the rich can maintain their high living standards even with diminished resources. Ask the landless farmer in Guatemala what he thinks about asceticism and self-denial.

Responsible Consumptionís Appeal

The path of responsible consumption takes its main directions from the theological tension between the Old and the New Ages. Christians on this path are equally concerned for the poor and aware of the problem of being tied to possessions. They do not, however, take the asceticism of Jesus literally or urge the surrender of all possessions.

Reduced to basics, following this path requires wrestling with what it means to live between the ages, taking both ages seriously. In contrast to the rigoristsí heavy stress on the New Age, these Christians point to the realities of the Old Age or to the ambiguity of life between the ages. The problem for them is how to act responsibly so as to begin a process of change which will lead to sustainable consumption and greater justice. Their mood is sober, their programs moderate and reformist in nature. They also have a greater appreciation of material consumption.

Their path is attractive to less ascetic Christians and admittedly to those who find themselves heavily committed to consumption-oriented life styles. It is a valid Christian path with several advantages. It does not play on guilt feelings. It accounts for the complexities of living, in the world as it is. It does not pursue an impossible ideal and thus avoids the illusion and the fanaticism that sometimes accompany appeals to the Kingdom of God. Finally, it offers a Christian response for those who are not predisposed to asceticism and self-denial.

The responsible-consumption position is not without difficulties. A heavy stress on complexity, realism and limitations has a way of dulling the blade of social change. Complexity overwhelms us, and we resign ourselves to the impossibility of doing anything. Realism moves us beyond a healthy sense of sin into cynicism. The inevitable limitations on all actions dim our enthusiasm and turn us into silent champions of the status quo. The wolf in sheepís clothing on this path takes the form of selfishness in the skin of responsibility; ten dollars to the food bank once a month makes us automatically virtuous. Finally, legitimation of consumption can lead to the ratification of selfishness and to neglect of the poor. Once the door to a little consumption is open, television sets, boats and vacation cabins push in like the proverbial camel with its nose in the tent. These things become basic needs seemingly just as important to us as food, clothing and shelter are to a poor person.

Some Practical Considerations

Living responsibly between the ages today requires new thinking and being. A few general elements common to all Christian life styles are clear. A Christian life style is one that puts trust where it belongs: in God, not in material possessions -- or even in a life style. It is involved in the affairs of the community, including the distribution of political power. It is sensitive to the concerns of the poor and the impacts of social programs on them. With regard to existing political and economic arrangements, it can support them within limits despite imperfections, but at the same time it works toward a greater approximation of justice in these arrangements. It is concerned for the maintenance of basic ecological support systems.

These generalizations can be enunciated with great ease. The rub comes in putting them into practice, in trying to decide which path to take. What does it mean, concretely, as applied to consumption, possessions, poverty and wealth, to live responsibly in a world that cries for justice and that probably cannot sustain American levels of consumption?

At this point the, immediate response of those on the path of rigorous discipleship is clear and direct. In the present situation, being a Christian means such things as cutting back to a level of consumption which satisfies only basic needs, building new communities, and giving what one has to the poor. In short, it means a radical life-style change.

Such a response is admirable for those called to it. Christians who elect this path are to be encouraged, for they play the vital role of witnessing to the ideal, thereby keeping the ethics of the Kingdom alive and calling easy compromises into question. They occupy the same position in regard to consumption and wealth that pacifists do in regard to violence.

The path of responsible consumption is also a valid Christian response. Without exhausting the possibilities, I can offer four practical suggestions here. The first has to do with personal consumption and takes seriously the Bibleís concern for the poor, its teachings on the dangers of possessions, and its call to sharing. The suggestion is this: in major consumption decisions involving purchases beyond the basic needs of food, shelter, clothing and transportation, include a gift to the poor of time or money. For example, in the purchase of a boat for recreational purposes, set aside a sum up to the price of the boat to give to the food bank or an organization such as the Urban League.

Second, in response to both the biblical concern for justice and the problems of resources and energy, actively support international, national and local initiatives to conserve energy and resources and to reduce poverty and injustice. Progressive taxes, self-help programs for the poor, agrarian reform, low-interest loans for home insulation are just a few possibilities.

Third, to conserve energy and resources, avoid -- or at least cut down on -- unnecessary consumption of energy and resource-intensive products. Combine several shopping trips into one, and weatherize your home. Beyond this, in all consumption decisions elect the alternative which, within reasonable cost, does the most to conserve energy and resources and to protect the environment. For example, when the time comes for a new automobile, buy one that maximizes gas mileage and durability.

Fourth, to ensure consistency, develop within the churches responses that embody the generalizations and suggestions offered here. Of practical note are programs for conserving energy in church buildings and for sharing income and wealth within each congregation.

These suggestions are vulnerable to criticism from the rigorists. They will also be attacked by conservatives and by those who deny that there are problems with resources and energy. They are only starting points, not solutions or even blueprints. But justice and sustainability, as approached through Christian life styles, have great potential. Like the mustard seed, they can grow mightily, and one day the wisdom of the serpent and the innocence of the dove may be brought into harmony. Both rigorous and responsible living fertilize Godís seed of love.


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