The other night I went to a meeting of the local group of progressive Christians. We heard a lecture on the subject of what we can know about the historical Jesus and what this means for progressive Christianity. The thesis put forward was that progressive Christianity supports inclusivity. Jesus believed in inclusivity — he hung out with tax-gatherers, prostitutes, and other disreputable characters. This is all very good, and very much to the point, because the presence of gays in the church (and the ministry) is very controversial in some circles.
But it doesn’t go nearly far enough. What would Jesus say about the spectacle of the richest country in the world wantonly destroying the environment and polluting the atmosphere, conducting aggressive wars which kill hundreds of thousands of people, and rescuing the rich during a financial crisis the end of which we cannot foresee? And what would Jesus think about a society that allows all this to pass without apology, remorse, or accountability, or a church that thinks that this is too controversial a topic to speak about openly?
From a historical viewpoint, did Jesus advocate “simple living” or anything like it (voluntary poverty, rejection of wealth, that kind of thing)? To me the answer is obvious: of course he did.
While it is most obvious in Luke, with sayings like “Blessed are the poor” and “whoever does not renounce everything he has cannot be my disciple,” it is found in universally accepted stories like the rich young man who is told to sell everything he has, give it to the poor, and follow Jesus, in the Sermon the Mount in the counsel “do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or drink,” and elsewhere. It is implicit, in fact, both in the command to “follow me” and in the name “Ebionites” (the community of Christians which followed James and the primitive church), which literally means “the poor.”
Progressive Christianity needs to have more than just a negative message of saying what they are against. It needs to have a positive message of what it is for. And here is a message which is the most basic layer of the original gospel teachings, that obviously addresses the most important issues of our time. Simple living is a difficult teaching, but it cuts to the core of the key crises of our time. Churches can encourage simple living by such things as:
1. Bike to church day.
2. Vegetarian cooking classes, or a “soup Sunday” with vegetarian soups after the church service.
3. Meditation study so that people can slow their hectic pace.
4. Discussion groups using books or sacred texts concerning distinguishing wants from needs, recognizing deceptive advertising, or reducing our ecological footprint.
5. Starting a church garden to grow vegetables.
Many things that churches do to help the poor (homeless shelters, meal programs, etc.), already foster the basic idea of sharing. Simple living takes this one step further — not just helping others make do with less, but to encourage this in one’s own life. There are probably some more dramatic things churches could do if they set their minds to it; we are reminded that the early Christians actually held all their possessions in common. But the first step would be to encourage consciousness of simple living as a liberating idea both in the life of the congregation and in one’s personal life.