Is the Benedict Option based on Christian principles—or white middle-class ones?
Again and again in his effort to defend the strategic withdrawal that characterizes the Benedict Option, Rod Dreher has emphasized one word: strategic. Yes, there is an element of withdrawal from the surrounding culture, he says, but this withdrawal is strategic. It is not a selfish flight from a sinking ship, he argues, but a withdrawal for re-engagement. Benedict Option communities are supposed to withdraw only so that they can be the kind of communities that produce Christian persons capable of evangelization.
But Dreher’s recent comments about President Trump’s use of the word “shithole” underline the suspicion that many have felt about this strategy: Is it really just strategic? Who gets included? Is its exclusive nature really based on Christian principles rather than, say, white middle-class principles? Although initially condemnatory of Trump’s choice of words, Dreher confessed to second thoughts about his original negative reaction, saying that “the whole thing is more morally challenging than I initially thought.” He attempted to explain this growing ambiguity by way of analogy with housing for the poor, writing:
If word got out that the government was planning to build a housing project for the poor in your neighborhood, how would you feel about it? Be honest with yourself. Nobody would consider this good news. You wouldn’t consider it good news because you don’t want the destructive culture of the poor imported into your neighborhood. Drive over to the poor part of town, and see what a shithole it is. Do you want the people who turned their neighborhood a shithole to bring the shithole to your street? No, you don’t. Be honest, you don’t.
Do I? Would I be able to consider this good news? Maybe not. But here is the thing: The extent to which I do not want housing for the poor in my own neighborhood is the extent to which I am failing to be a Christian. This must be admitted. It must be confessed.
The extent to which I do not want housing for the poor in my own neighborhood is the extent to which I am failing to be a Christian.
We need to confess, confront and be converted from our own reluctance to share in the lives of the poor and to share our own life with them. The difficulty in doing so is one of the reasons why Jesuit formation builds in significant time living and working with people in poverty. That has taken a number of shapes in my own life. I spent years walking the infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago. I lived and worked for three other years with the Lakota Sioux on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation—located in one of the poorest counties in our country. And just last summer I traveled with the Jesuit Refugee Service to the border between Sudan and South Sudan to live and work with the refugees of the incessant war there.
Each of these experiences was hard. I remember how afraid I used to feel that the rusted elevator doors in the Cabrini buildings would not open and I would be trapped there. I remember the boarded up houses and the wild packs of stray dogs and the bitter cold of the winter on Pine Ridge. And I remember the endless sea of gray United Nations tarps under which the thousands and thousands of South Sudanese refugees—the very refugees that President Trump included on his attempted travel ban one year ago—ate and slept and drank.
We need to confess, confront and be converted from our own reluctance to share in the lives of the poor.
I remember how out of place I have felt in these places. I remember that it has taken me years to learn the meaning of the words “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours in the Kingdom of God” (Lk 6:20). And I remember that, though learning to recognize the beauty and grace of these communities has been a gift to me, it does not alleviate the cost and burden of poverty for those who live with them. It is instead a call to work for justice.
So it is not that the answer to Dreher’s question is an easy one. It is not easy. But, for a Christian, it ought to be obvious. Is the arrival of the poor—whether as refugees or a new housing development—Good News? Yes it is. It is Good News because it is the arrival of Christ. The only question is whether we will be ready to go out to meet him when he comes.
The deeper problem is that this is exactly what the communities envisioned in the Benedict Option were supposed to be preparing us for: the welcoming of Christ. The purpose of strategic withdrawal was precisely for the building of communities in which deep Christian formation could succeed.
It is not that the answer to Dreher’s question is an easy one. It is not easy. But, for a Christian, it ought to be obvious.
So this must be said: To the extent that Benedict Option communities do not form persons who are eager to welcome Christ in the poor—who can welcome Christ Poor—they are failing to be fully Christian communities. Not that they would unique in this. We are all, Jesuits and BenOp-ers alike, more like the rich young man who goes away sad than like St. Francis of Assisi. Very few of us can “upon Christ throw all away,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it. But we must confess or at least desire to confess our refusal. We must know our failure to live up to the name we bear, a name that stands above all names.
Alongside its great insights, the great danger of the Benedict Option is that it can be used to excuse, rather than to confront, this exact pattern of sin. The danger is this: that in a community’s concern for coherence, for finding solid ground in our liquid world, the magnanimity of Christ is cut down to the size of their own vision. When this happens a strategic withdrawal is made not from the world but from Christ—whose wisdom surpasses all understanding, and who praised the Father for revealing these things to the simple and not to the wise and learned.
Of course, there are pathological cultural patterns involved in poverty. But every culture has its own patterns of failure. To his credit, Dreher has published a range of responses to his initial post, including one which critiqued the “materialism, the idolization of success, the pride at not being like ‘those’ people, not to mention all the sin that was hidden away under a veneer of respectability” found in respectable middle-class communities. It may be that the characteristic failure threatening the Benedict Option works in this way—which, from a Christian perspective, might well be more dangerous than poverty.
This does not mean we do not need thicker communities. We most certainly do. But these communities are only Christian communities to the extent that they teach us to seek and to find God in friendship with the poor.
If there is anything of value in the Benedict Option—and as I have written, I think there is— then it must be in the formation of such communities. These will be communities that teach us to desire Christ more than comfort. More than material success. More than respectability. More even than our own strategies for the salvation of Christian culture.
Fr. Gilger, Thank you for the thoughtful reflection. All I could think of is the passage from Luke about the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) and how we ignore the poor at our own peril. Besides, I believe secreting ourselves away from those who are poor, different, or in some other way already marginalized deprives us from a richer, more fulfilling life. Further, is it not in the Rule of St. Benedict to open the door to all those who knock as if they were Christ?
N.B.- We were both, in the summer of 2000, in the Six Weeks A Jesuit program in New York City. I remember you and sensed that you were called and a good match to become a Jesuit. It gladdens my heart to see you living that call.
Mark - so amazing that we were together back then! And I think you are right about the deprivation point. Real pluralism can be challenging -- especially in our own times when there is so much difference that it can be hard to know what is up and what is down sometimes -- but it is also such an amazing gift. Many prayers for you and yours.
Thank you for these challenging thoughts. As a father and now grandfather I would simply like to add this thought. Don't be so quick or adamant to insist that the "middle class" desire to live away from the poor is driven by a desire to avoid them. I think you will find that the overriding concern they have is providing for the safety of their children. I know that was the principal concern of mine as my wife and I raised our children. A parent's concern for the safety of a child is not easily set aside or abrogated in service to the poor. It is so visceral that it is somewhat beyond comprehension. It is only understandable in the experience. You have made a great sacrifice becoming a Jesuit. Just as I can't truly relate to your mindset and experience as a priest, you cannot truly relate to the mindset and experience of a parent who desires above all else to keep his children safe. If that seems selfish or materialistic to you I am sorry, but, it is real.
Michael - really appreciate your thoughtful and challenging response here. Although I haven't lived that experience, I hear the struggle you're describing. I think that the key point I am really trying to make is one I think you are also making; that we are faced with real choices that pull us in contrary directions and that we can't always live up to the good we desire (here the good of being close to the poor). The only thing is that we can't let that desire lie fallow, we have to keep striving toward it even when we make other choices, I think. So the key for me is how we find a middle ground, like... in my life, asking my sisters to let me take my nieces and nephews to the Catholic Worker in town. Or something like this. Grateful for your thoughtfulness.
Michael - Speaking of children, how will growing up in the bubble of Dhrer's little Christian communities prepare them to build the Kingdom of God? I don't believe that one can evangelize if one can't speak the language of those encountered. Growing up in a cult where you are taught that you and your group are the 0.001% "Saving Remnant," better than the rest of your brothers and sisters in society is not a good plan for raising Christian children.
Just to clarify Greg, I wasn't advocating Steve's approach so much as pointing out the real fact that parents out heavy weight on the issue of their children's safety when deciding where to live. Personally, I could not see myself living in that type of community because, as you point out it is so intently and intensely isolated. But, my wife and I made a personal choice when we had our children to move from an urban area to a suburban area that we felt was a safer environment and I would make the same decision again. I suspect many parents do the same. I applaud those that do have the courage and commitment to raise their families in more economically diverse neighborhoods. They are clearly faith filled people. But, I've never had any regrets or second thoughts about the decisions we made and why we made them. I'd do the same again.
Sorry, auto correct kicked in. I meant Drehr's approach.
This article begins with a false dichotomy. The only choices are not simply the s-hole or a nice middle class neighborhood. There's at least one other option: Working to improve the existing s-hole into a livable neighborhood is the most obvious. (Plus one must ask: Do the poor themselves want to move into a middle class neighborhood that they can't afford to live in?) Besides the immediate need to improve basic living conditions, the answer also involves educating those who are trapped in substandard living conditions. Certainly burying one's head in the sand is not an answer. But neither is theorizing impractical solutions to complex problems.
To be effective one can have one's head in the clouds but only with both feet planted solidly on the ground.
So you are saying that the Beatitudes amount to "impractical solutions to complex problems"? What religion do you subscribe to? I know which one Dreher subscribes to--I've been reading his stuff for a while now--and it sure isn't that of Francis of Assisi.
I'm printing this and putting it in my "re-read" folder. (Quite the honor!)
One of the most compelling things I read--and then experienced-- about Catholic Worker Communities was the difficulty of distinguishing easily those who came to community through poverty and those who came from middle-class backgrounds.
Much appreciated, Vince!
It seems that the Benedict Option is at heart little more than a super-consciously pious, and therefore perilously superficial, call for the creation of more, and since novelly non-laical arguably new, gated communities for the few– for those few, who, it bears repeating, wish to gather, increase, and protect theirs and themselves in their professed pursuit of ´´abundance or richness´´ of spirit, a sort of jealously protective or indeed apartheidist capitalism of the spirit, i.e. accumulation, protection, and increase of the capital or principal of spiritual richness and/or purity. Needless to say, if the above analysis has any validity it can hardly be called Christianity, or a community or communing with Christ and the Christian spirit of poverty in wealth and wealth in poverty (of the abyssal poverty of jealous and humanistically pessimist apartheidism), the sort that has always been with the Church, as with, needless to say, society as a whole, but has never been of the Church, has never been of the divinely magisterial mysteries of the Same.
While I found much to like in Dreher's challenging book, I was left with the impression that he gave rather short shrift to the role of Catholic social teaching. He wrote about the need for committed communities of faith, but I don't recall, for example, that he mentioned the Catholic Workers, who certainly are examples of people who are living the Benedict Option, and who combine personal spiritual development with a commitment to service and social justice.
I think Dreher's question reflects an attitude toward the poor that should be morally repugnant to people of faith. On the other hand, it does prompt one to do a bit of soul searching. Would my commitment to Jesus Christ lead me to welcome the others even if they were poor? I hope that I -- and other Christians -- would be able to answer "Yes" to that question.
It's an illusion to think one who lives in the environment of the poor lives with the poor. At any given instant, Patrick, your Jesuit community can rescue you from sickness, hunger, burn out, etc. You really don't have to go to bed at night wondering if you'll have a job tomorrow, a sickness that destroys you, a legal issue that you won't be able to get financial backing to confront, etc. Every material lack you endure comes with a safety net which the genuinely poor do not have.. Furthermore, your ability to analyze the social conditions of the poor and available options for remedy depends on the very expensive education your Jesuit community has provided for you. Another consideration is the available gifts that each of us must discern as to whether or not we are called to be directly involved in helping the poor. A research scientist working in a lab might develop new food strands or inoculations that will be of far greater benefit to the poor than food kitchens or clothing drives. The Church recognizes contemplative communities as essential to its mission; as I see it such communities embody the Benedict option and are essential for the Gospel.
Rhett -- you are completely right that I am enormously privileged in any number of ways: my ethnicity, gender, education, family structure, etc. All true. The only point I would make is that my bearing that privilege ought not keep me from friendship with people who are immersed in poverty in ways I will never be. And it's those friendships that are, for me, images of my friendship with Christ poor. So of course I agree that there are multiple ways of serving the Lord and that we have to discern between the goods to which we might be called, but that is actually not a completely exclusive thing -- i.e, it's possible to imagine a middle ground like the one I strive for (and fail to hit) where we respond to research/activism/etc. on behalf of the poor while not pretending that we are poor ourselves. One of the things I am trying to argue here is that failure to be perfectly identified with the poor is not a sufficient reason to not strive for closer proximity to and friendship with those who are poor. Am I am hypocrite in my accomplishment of this because I am immersed in privilege? Of course I am. But I try anyway. And I'm immensely grateful that my friends who are actually poor continue to embrace me and accept my efforts.
I tend to agree with Rhett, your last years will be spent in the comforting Jesuit community. Ours in a secular state run nursing home without daily Mass offered, unless we work hard to make money. We homeschooled (Benedict Option) while living at the Catholic Worker to take our kids to daily Mass. Perhaps a more fitting analysis would admit that daily Mass is the priority. From that flows the graces to have "friendships with the poor", as you put it. Which is not the same as advocating forced cohabitation. The Jesuits don't just let poor addicted people live in their university dorms, why? You set boundaries - we might too.
Margaret, I admire that sacrifice you have made so much. Thank you for doing it and for sharing it here. Just to be clear, I do not oppose at all the setting of boundaries, the criticism I am offering here is that the we have to be exceptionally careful about how we are formed by the practices that we choose within those boundaries. If they begin to elicit attitudes within us that are contrary to the beatitudes then we have a good sign we have a real problem -- that's the problem I was pointing to in this excerpt of Mr. Dreher's.
Dorothy Day of blessed memory discusses this and draws a distinction between the plight of the poor, which she calls destitution, and the deliberate embrace of their state by those following the gospels, which she calls poverty. The world needs less destitution; to achieve it, we need more poverty.
1. “The extent to which I do not want housing for the poor in my own neighborhood is the extent to which I am failing to be a Christian. This must be admitted. It must be confessed.”
Suppose I do not want housing for the poor in my neighborhood because my neighborhood has no transportation that the poor can afford and they would be marooned without goods and services they want and even need. Am I failing to be a Christian for not wanting what would cause the poor even greater deprivation?
2. “Is the arrival of the poor—whether as refugees or a new housing development—Good News? Yes it is. It is Good News because it is the arrival of Christ.”
Suppose most of the arriving refugees or occupants of a new housing development are not Christians and that a substantial percentage are not just indifferent to Christ but scoffers. In what way is their arrival Good News because it is the arrival of Christ?
1) Living in a neighborhood that the poor cannot access is segregating oneself from meaningful daily contact with the poor, whether inaccessible because of lack of housing or lack of transportation or some other reason. There are some very important reasons why some privileged people feel compelled to live in these places, and as pointed out by other commenters, these can be valid and complex reasons. But the choice to remain separate is ultimately, as Fr. Gilger points out here, contrary to the Gospel command of Jesus when he reminds his disciples: "The poor will always be with you." I believe that phrase is not, as many would have it, a cynical statement of the inevitability of poverty in the world, but rather, an instruction for discipleship: "you WILL always be with the poor."
2) A "scoffer" may be one of the ways in which Christ himself appears to us. It is no true test of a Christian to ask whether you can embrace the presence of the easily lovable poor. The true test of whether we've understood the Beatitudes is whether or not we embrace those who seem unlovable. As Dorothy Day (Servant of God) said: "The Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor."
“1) Living in a neighborhood that the poor cannot access is segregating oneself from meaningful daily contact with the poor.”
This is a bald assertion that is false not only in my experience but in the experience of many I know. We leave the neighborhoods where we reside and have meaningful contact with the poor where they are. (By the way, living in the same neighborhood with the poor would not ensure that we have meaningful daily contact with them.)
“2) A ‘scoffer’ may be one of the ways in which Christ himself appears to us.” This is a bald assertion so preposterous on its face that I will refrain from further comment.
Alas, it seems Patrick Gilger and Megan Wilson (and other commenters here) have only tender hearts. An effective advocate for social justice needs some self-critical ability.
I think that Rod Dreher should read some of Thomas Merton's Thoughts on Solitude. Or even Hannah Arendt's idea that one must learn to be alone before one can be with others. Or any of the contemplatives.
I've not read much of Rod Dreher's work. But I think the Christian fingerprint is simple: setting aside one's life to enter into that of the other, to listen, accompany, serve, follow, and lift up - to become true friends, marked by sacrifice. And especially, it is to go into the places where really no one wants to be, but some have to be in, out of a love for those people (and not because I'm obligated to, or paid to, or it's part of my own life advancement, e.g., formation program). So, to me the question is not so much about keeping the "s-hole" - or immigrants from "s-hole" countries - out of my neighborhood, but rather why are Catholics not more active in *going* to poor neighborhoods, states, countries? Anyone would prefer heaven to life here on earth with the suffering, but Jesus didn't stay in heaven and try to keep the "s-hole" or the people from "s-hole" earth out. And he didn't stay in heaven and lay out the welcoming committee signs, either. He actually entered into this world, to live his life, and this "s-hole" becomes heaven ... It seems to me that, outside of reading some stories about saints, I don't see any Catholics that have that courage or spirit, to set aside their advancement and to enter into those places with God, in the painful but deeply satisfying work of turning them into heavens. I've come over the years to this observation: Catholics are most concerned with their own comfort and lives, with lots of liturgies and talks and strategies about restoring the culture around them in the interest of their own comfort levels - rather than taking the risky first steps in following Jesus.
I read Dreher's book last year. I found that his tome was about withdrawing from "community" to segregate himself and his followers, not creating a "community". What I found even more offensive was how he derided and disparaged the LGBTQ community and women. How is it possible that people still sit in judgement of others whose lifestyles do not match their own? We all have one judge, God. I have lived a most imperfect life in so many ways and I expect to have to face the LORD at judgement time.