There is a growing interest in Christian community living. Online, there are definite signs that Christians are reaching out for particular strands which, together, make up community.
One of these is sustainability: the belief that there are enough resources on earth to provide for its population, if only these resources could be used wisely and equally. The Breathe Network is “a Christian network for simpler living, connecting people who want to live a less consumerist, more generous, more sustainable life”. Watch their video ‘Enough’ for a better idea of who they are.
So, is sustainability in the New Testament mandate? It is certainly the thought behind 2 Corinthians 9:8: “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.”
But there is a much stronger tie-up with the monastic community vision. Basil, bishop of Caesarea (c.330-379), wrote at some length on this issue. In his sermon ‘To the Rich’, he writes:
“But how do you make use of money? By dressing in expensive clothing? Won’t two yards of tunic suffice you, and the covering of one coat satisfy all your need of clothes? Is it for food’s sake that you have such a demand for wealth? One loaf is enough to fill a belly.
“If you have been blessed with more money and goods than others, it is so you can meet the needs of those others, he argues. ‘It takes wealth to care for the needy; a little paid out for the needs of each person, and all at once there is sharing. Whoever loves his neighbour as himself [as Christ taught], will not hold on to more than his neighbour has.”
Basil protests against those “who leave grain to rot but will not feed the starving”, who choose ivory sofas and silver tables when ordinary wood is just as suitable. This is more than cheap swipes at material wealth. For Basil, a man steeped in the Christian community vision of the Desert Fathers, the inherent sin of such behaviour is its refusal to accept simplicity for the sake of sustainability. It is as much a sin against the earth as it is against the poor.
He wrote this sermon sixteen centuries ago, but the context was strikingly similar to today.
“Those who have recently grown rich desire more of the same,” he writes. “They ought to be happy and contented, but immediately they yearn to be equal with the super-rich.” Meanwhile, the hungry poor huddled in misery in doorways.
A time of crisis had struck in the form of a great famine. Everyone was afraid of what might come. Social structures were under threat, established patterns of life could not be trusted. Not unlike the global threat of terrorism today.
Basil used the opportunity to press for justice, mercy and equality, but above all for simplicity.
“The soul becomes like the things it gives itself to,” he writes in his Homily on Humility, “and takes the character and appearance of what it does. So let your demeanour, your dress, your walking, your sitting down, the nature of your food, the quality of your manner, your house and what it contains, aim at simplicity.”
Most of all, Basil pressed for a voluntary redistribution of wealth and resources, as in the first Church at Jerusalem. To Basil, a refusal to embrace simplicity and sustainability is a crime.
“Someone who steals clothes off someone’s back is called a thief. Why should we refer to the one who does not clothe the naked, while having the means to do so, as anything else? The bread that you have belongs to the hungry, the clothes that are in your cupboard belong to the naked, the shoes that are rotting in your possession belong to the barefooted, the money that you have buried belongs to the destitute. And so you commit injustice to so many when you could have helped them.” (Homily I Will Tear Down My Barns)
This is the context in which Basil in his day saw the devious lie of consumerism and turned against it, and concerned Christians like the Breathe Network and the Jesus Army do so today.