Solidarity and Asceticism.
Asceticism actually has to do with solidarity with the poor and the earth.
In his excellent article in Rick Ufford-Chase’s powerful new book, Faithful Resistance, Aric Clark offers a cogent, if brief, critique of ecclesiastical connectionalism. In my experience, connectionalism has to do with about keeping congregations subordinate to the corporate higher-ups. It is almost never about congregations connecting with each other, let alone with their context. Conectionalism is about why you have to pay your per capita.
Clark calls for us to replace inbred connectionalism with a solidarity that brings into church leadership people who have usually been overlooked or even excluded.
“Solidarity requires that I actively identify with you (or work to do so),
that I stand with you in a way which is personally risky.
Solidarity is a more thorough Christian virtue.”
But how do we avoid giving the title of “solidarity” to tokenism, window-dressing, and other superficial, ineffectual, and even cynical strategies? What does it mean to “identify with” and “stand with” people “in a way that is truly risky”? Solidarity has to be more than people with privilege deciding to give something away or making room at their table for others, while still maintaining their own status. How does solidarity avoid becoming merely letting a little more power and resources trickle-down? How do we get beyond the idea that solidarity is little more than righteous talk?
I wonder if we don’t need to personally embody our solidarity by relating it to spiritual practices. Political advocacy, and even reshaping ecclesiastical structures and procedures — all of which is deeply important — may not go quite far enough. We may advocate such things from afar without embodying them at all. We may do these things and not know a change in our heart; we may even perform them resentfully or as a matter of duty or compromise.
I want solidarity to have the roots and the energy to last,
and this only happens through presence and embodiment.
I suggest that we need to extend our solidarity beyond the boundaries of the church,
and then base, fund, and express it with the marginalized and the oppressed
in actual embodied practices.
One of the things mainline Protestants mostly lost as we became the church of the affluent, privileged, and comfortable is a tradition of spiritual practices, sometimes referred to as asceticism. Many actually view asceticism as a perverse hatred and punishment of the body which should be rejected by mature and rational Christians. But this is a wild and self-serving misreading of asceticism’s true purpose and value.
I suggest that asceticism actually has to do with
solidarity with the poor and the earth.
Practices such as fasting, sabbath-keeping, making pilgrimage, holding vigils, and having physical attitudes for prayer have been central to traditional Christianity precisely because they identify with Jesus Christ, the poor man of Nazareth. Therefore, they also connect us to the destitute and the earth, as well as our own bodies. Some spiritual practices find their roots among the defeated Judean exiles in Babylon, where they were ways to maintain their distinct communal identity in the face of rigorous pressure to assimilate to the victors’ dominant culture and economy. Some spiritual practices still serve to assert independence from the dominant economy of Empire.
Thus, in asceticism, we identify with the hungry by actually going hungry: we fast. Some would identify with the poor by deliberately living on a lower income, even minimum wage. When monastics subject themselves to prison-like conditions, eg. poverty, chastity, and obedience, do they not identify with the imprisoned? Some of the “new monastics” today — like Shane Claiborne’s Simple Way community in Philadelphia — move into at-risk urban neighborhoods. Celebrating the Sabbath denies one day in seven to the owners and managers of the economy. If we divest from harmful industries, and if we support initiatives bringing benefits to minority communities, are we not reflecting the principles the biblical Jubilee?
While she was exiled in Britain, the philosopher, Simone Weil, reduced her intake of food to the ration received by prisoners of the Nazis. What if we, at least for a time, chose to live like those in Detroit whose water has been cut off? What if we ate like we dwelled in an urban “food desert”? What if we took public transportation even when it was really inconvenient and time-consuming, thus identifying with those who can’t afford cars?
When asceticism means giving up our freedom and declining to use our privilege,
it is a form of identification with the marginalized.
When we take on ourselves the risk, the poverty,
and the pain of disenfranchised and suffering people,
that is embodied solidarity.
Finally, asceticism is the form that repentance takes. It is the practical, actual, physical way the “new mind” of Christ emerges within us, which sees and experiences things differently. We behave our way into believing, says Richard Rohr. Identifying with the marginalized and deprived through embodied spiritual practices has to be a part of this. This identifies us with the Lord Jesus as well.
Of course, in asceticism, these things are freely chosen, whereas for the poor conditions like this are imposed upon them. And some of these practices can become excuses for not engaging with actual poor people. They can even degenerate into masochistic self-flagellation or a competitive endurance. Our human propensity for sinfulness can corrupt anything.
But, if we are to be a church of Matthew 25, as Rick Ufford-Chase suggests, and if the church is the Body of Christ, then we have to be a church that actually, physically identifies with the poor and suffering at least as much as one that ministers to them. Christ’s presence is found on both sides of that equation.