On Wealth and Freezing to Death
Jimmy Fulmer used to frequent the Co-op for lunch on a daily basis. He was quiet and kept to himself. I didn’t know him very well, I just knew who he was. After his death, I contemplated that I really only knew him through his quiet demeanor and physical addictions. If I were to die, I would hate to be known only through the worst of what people saw in me. In life, many still ‘name’ people based on the worst of their actions, stripping them of their humanity, they merely become ‘drunkard,’ ‘prostitute,’ or ‘homeless.’ Jimmy’s friends refused to let this happen in his death. They continued to tell stories of Jimmy’s companionship on the streets. Jimmy would share whatever he had with those who needed it, even though he himself was homeless. That is, until he froze death on the stairs of an East Nashville church.
The fact that Jimmy died on the steps of a church ought to bring pastors to their knees in anguish. Churches used to be a place of sanctuary to criminals, rest to pilgrims, and shelter for the poor. Now, every urban church seems to worship behind locked doors for fear of the vagabonds. But we don’t hear many pastors donning sackcloth and ashes for the deaths of these invisible people. And when there is no mourning, one realizes we have removed ourselves from all responsibility. Indeed, it seems the commandment to love our neighbor gets an exemption if the neighbor smells. Or perhaps we’re only called to love our neighbor if they don’t pose a type of physical threat to our family. And, because “stranger danger” is imbedded in our collective conscience, every stranger is a potential threat. So, yeah, loving our neighbor has its limits when we’re talking about the “poor.” Better be safe and secure and let someone freeze to death.
The same week that I held a memorial service for Jimmy, I began reading St. Basil’s Sermons on Social Justice. In his sermon To The Rich, St. Basil expounds on the narrative of the rich young ruler in Matthew 19. He preaches, “You seem to have great possessions! How else can this be, but that you have preferred your own enjoyment to the consolation of the many? For the more you abound in wealth, the more you lack in love.” For St. Basil, there exists a direct correlation between the rich and poor. That is, because some are wealthy many go with out. Wealth is an unwillingness to share with those in need. In this way, Basil’s argument does not fall on an individual’s relationship to mammon but rather locates the sin of wealth as a direct negation of Jesus’ call to love our neighbor. In I Will Tear Down My Barns, Basil continues with a similar theme, “For if we all took only what was necessary to satisfy our own needs, giving the rest to those who lack, no one would be rich, no one would be poor, and no one would be in need.” While to some this may sound like class warfare, to the Christian it ought to sound like a portion of the Kingdom of God embodied.
I have heard the argument that the possessions I have and the money I have saved is because of the hard work I put in. That’s highly reminiscent of the past Republican National Convention in which the “I Built That” slogan became an ironic theme. For to claim ownership over something and to describe something as mine negates the social and communal factors involved in said building, saving, and working. But even beyond that, the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. Or in the words of St. Basil,
“If you say that you acquired [your belongings] by chance, then you deny God, since you neither recognize your Creator, nor are you grateful to the One who gave these things to you. But if you acknowledge that they were given to you by God, then tell me, for what purpose did you receive them? Is God unjust, when [God] distributes to us unequally the things that are necessary for life? Why then are you wealthy while another is poor?”
For Basil, the commandment is crystal clear. To sell our possessions and give to the poor is a fulfillment of the law of love. Furthermore, this commandment isn’t directed toward a select few, the ascetic saints. Its application is disseminated among the Christians who wish to follow after the crucified Lord. Simplicity and shared possessions in a common life mark the new community of believers. This type of holy simplicity points to St. Basil’s simple moral premise: “The world was created for the common benefit of all, and given by God to humanity for their shared use (Paul Schroeder, 31).” So, when it comes down to the churches in Nashville, one can only hold them completely responsible for the death of Jimmy Fulmer. So in the words of St. Basil, “For whoever has the ability to remedy the suffering of others, but chooses rather to withhold aid out of selfish motives, may properly be judged the equivalent of a murderer.”