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When abundance means having less

Commentator Christopher Carlisle wonders whether he can do more than give lip service to this adage.
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Commentator Christopher Carlisle wonders whether he can do more than give lip service to this adage.

In this time of harvest, I remember the weekend I came home from divinity school to the words of a fourth century monk on my parents’ refrigerator.

When someone steals another's clothes, we call him a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.

I averted my eyes as quickly as I glimpsed that tattered piece of paper on the fridge. What I couldn’t avert was an impending truth, for all my eloquent defenses. Thanks to my life of “thinking left” and “living right,” I am part of the problem.

Two thousand years ago, the Roman Empire dominated the Western world by engineering an ingenious system of hierarchical power. It was a triumphal time of extraordinary wealth not unlike the one in which we’re living. Among its victims were millions of slaves — tortured, beaten and killed. The assumption was as clear as it is today: Privilege, sustained by an underclass, is the way to an abundant life.

At the same time, in backwater Palestine, a revolution had begun. An outlier named Jesus paradoxically turned empire logic upside-down, to suggest that abundance comes not by possession, but by sharing what one has with others.

If it is true that our current system depends upon keeping some people out, one has to ask if it is capable of rendering fulfillment to the whole. Isn’t it like playing musical chairs, where someone’s always left without a chair? Doesn’t the system have to be changed to change the outcome when the music stops? I fear if it doesn't, we’ll succumb to the end that befell the Roman Empire.

So when I return to the memory of that visit to my parents’ house, I'm left to ask, can I overcome my impulse to possess?

Commentator Christopher Carlisle is an Episcopal priest who lives in western Massachusetts. He recently published the novel, "For Theirs Is the Kingdom," based on his work ministering on the street.

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