by Brayton Shanley
It was Sunday afternoon, and we at Agape were hosting students from Harvard Divinity School for the day. We were having a discussion about nonviolent lifestyle and simplicity as I was describing some of the physical toil that goes into a life choice of operating a rural Christian Community: housebuilding and repair, gardening for food, landscaping the homestead and cutting and hauling wood for heat. Although these are no simple or easy tasks, I was emphasizing the life-enhancing experience of hard physical labor as a human necessity and a joy.
Coming from economic privilege, I emphasized that I was not reared or educated to value physical work; rather, I was trained and educated to manage others while sitting at a desk, moving upward in the ranks of a professional career. From this privileged height, the advantaged would hire the poor or laboring class to do our so-called menial work.
A woman student interjected: “I am from Mexico, and my father was a laborer working hard, back-breaking jobs at poverty wages. He nearly worked himself to death. You are talking about the importance and satisfaction of hard work. We never saw any beauty in hard, physical work where we came from.” She fought back tears.
Immediately I was face-to-face with a race and class divide; in particular how one’s socio-economic status is determined by physical labor. I have made life choices out of my freedom determined by the financial security made possible by a base of supporters, who enable us to live simply—voluntarily.
I attempted to explain that in choosing to leave an upwardly mobile niche of financial security, we found ourselves in a downward path that included the choice for hard, physical work, literally building the community from the ground up. We traded in our previous surplus income for demanding yet life-giving toil of growing food, building community dwellings and offering hospitality.
I agreed with my sister from Mexico, that the attempts of the economically deprived to climb out of poverty limits their freedom to choose anything but what might be called beast of burden labor at a poverty wage. Therefore for Suzanne and me as a couple and in community, moving downward became a moral necessity. We did this, I said to my friend from Mexico, in a seemingly small and inconsequential way, so that “your father and others like him could move up, out of oppressive poverty that we have created by our privilege, acquisitiveness, and racism.”
It is apparent that the money in our pocket has value because the poor person next to us has none. In addressing this disparity the economically privileged must provide opportunities for the economically oppressed to gain the dignity of fair wages and equal access to financial security. In spite of our good intentions to go down a voluntarily downward path, empowering the poor to rise up, people of color may not relate to our lifestyle choices because it seems to them that we live on different planets.