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Pagans and voluntary poverty

A few weeks ago I wrote a post inspired by a conversation I had with an indebted Pagan, and one idea that came out of it -- that of a Pagan credit union -- really caught fire.  The level of interest made writing a follow-up post on your reactions to the idea of a Pagan credit union the next logical step.

Comments are a double-edged sword in the blogosphere, but I've learned a lot from the ones I have received here.  In pointing out what he or she thinks is the fatal flaw in any plan for Pagan financial infrastructure, Kveldrefr got me thinking about one of the underlying beliefs about Pagans, that they want to be poor:

"I would think that part of the issue regarding credit unions in particular is that many Pagans make a virtue of poverty, taking pride in their lack of concern for "material things." While anyone should be allowed to make such decisions for oneself, all too often those same individuals insist that others should share that attitude, and attack those who are successful.

"Until and unless the 'virtuous poverty' syndrome is dealt with, Paganism will not be able to mature in the ways you suggest, because it quite simply won't have the resources to do so. You can't pay mortgages for temples and hofs [sic] with piety and selling handmade soap."

Virtuous poverty -- although I never heard it phrased so succinctly, it's an idea I have been aware of in the Pagan community since I was a teen.  Pagans don't have money, and it's often by choice.  However, I realized that it's an unchallenged assumption, too:  I have never really questioned the truth beneath, and I am no expert in poverty in any form.  My financial life could be characterized as ranging from periods when money was in very short supply to others when I felt I had more than I knew what to do with, all of which falls comfortably into the variations of the American middle class.

So I turned to someone who knows a whole lot more about poverty than I do, homeless advocate and Pagan blogger Alley Valkyrie.  As illustrated in the diagram she drew for me, she sees virtuous poverty as a small part of a larger range of voluntary-poverty options some people choose for themselves.  She had a lot to say on the subject of poverty -- far more than I have included below, and this post is much, much longer than I typically publish.  So long, in fact, that I will defer analysis of what Ms Valkyrie has to say, and simply let her words speak for themselves.

Dirty Money:  would you say that any of the Pagans you work with are poor by choice, religious or otherwise? And to be fair, do you find any indications of virtuous poverty in the entire population of people you work with?

Alley Valkyrie: Yes and yes, but there are many different categories and divisions. I don't know if I'd group all people who engage in voluntary poverty as trying to act "virtuous." Some are, naturally, but the motivations behind such practices often reach in directions that "virtue" doesn't always capture. In my mind, "virtuous poverty" is one category or descriptor of a much bigger tent of "voluntary poverty". But I also could just be parsing words too much.

I know a few people who would self-identify as Pagan who practice varying degrees of voluntary poverty, but I definitely see it more often in people who don't identify as religious pagans per se, but who do strongly identify with pagan values. (Which is an interesting contrast to Christians, as the majority of Christians who engage in voluntary poverty do it based on deep religious values, as opposed to the majority of people who culturally identify as Christian but are not deeply religious, where practices of voluntary poverty are very rare.)

A different kind of much more hard-core voluntary poverty that I do see from Pagan-identifying individuals is within the environmental/forest defense movement. Earth First-ers, tree-sitters, etc. Many of them religiously identify as Pagan, all of them unilaterally culturally identify with pagan values, and many of them have literally given up everything they have in order to illegally live in federal forest blockades to protect old-growth forests. They are completely reliant on community support and volunteer donations, and some blockades last for several years. The Pacific Northwest has a long history of these types of folks.

Another type of voluntary poverty can be seen in folks who oppose capitalism and don't want to participate in "the system," and often choose to live off the land or off the refuse of everyone else. There are several related subcultures of anarchists, punks, travelers, activists, "homeless-by-choice," etc., some who identify as "freegans," and many of them who also identify as Pagan. They are ethically/philosophically/religiously opposed to participating in an extraction-based oppressive system that is raping the planet, and they pretty much opt-out of "society" as most people would define or experience it. They live off the grid, off the books, off the radar, off the map. They drift, they barter, they get by. They are the actual "homeless-by-choice," as opposed to the population I work with, of which the vast majority did not choose to be homeless.

An important point that needs to be stressed is that any sort of virtuous or voluntary poverty, with perhaps the exception of entrance into certain traditional religions orders, is an act of privilege that one really cannot practice or achieve if they are ACTUALLY poor. (Look up "post-materialism" on Wikipedia... Inglehart's 'scarcity hypothesis' is one of the main factors behind this distinction). People who practice voluntary poverty tend to romanticize actual poverty (as do most liberals), and they often don't see a significant distinction between the everyday experiences within their lives of voluntary poverty and the lives of those who are truly poor. One of the things I experience constantly on a personal level are well-meaning liberal hippie pagan types who make (kind, soft, PC-esque) judgments and criticisms about the working poor based on their experiences living in virtuous or voluntary poverty. It makes me want to scream. I could write a book about everything that's wrong with that, and how damaging that is.

It's easy for young, attractive white people to hide behind bohemian ideals of poverty and avoid the kinds of judgment that other poor people face. The "starving artist" is noble. Most folks don't think that you're "abusing the system" if you're busting your butt as an artist but you need food stamps to get by. But the black single mother working part-time at McDonald's does not get the pass that I get all the time without asking. Her situation is not romanticized by society. She's just a welfare queen.

These are things that people who practice voluntary poverty do not experience, nor do they usually understand it at all as it relates to the truly poor. And that brings me back to Inglehart's theory. When one is in survival mode, materialism is of the utmost importance. When one has all their needs fulfilled and is not experiencing material scarcity, detaching oneself from materialism can be a healthy spiritual/ethical choice. But there's nothing spiritual or ethical about involuntary poverty, and those who romanticize poverty really don't grasp that.

The view from conservatives that poor people aren't motivated to/don't want to "pull themselves out of poverty" because they can rely on government benefits relies on not so much an ignorance as to the psychological effects of poverty but conflates the effects of poverty with the cause. This is an issue I see constantly in conservative opinions and theories around poverty. It's not that poor people don't "want to" pull themselves out of poverty. NOBODY wants to involuntarily live in poverty. That's what the voluntary poverty folks don't get. Poverty sucks, poverty is a trap. Poverty is a crushing toll no matter how large the heating subsidy or welfare check. But the effects of poverty combined with the constant judgments and messages directed at someone who is in poverty so often leaves a person feeling helpless and not believing that they can ever improve their situation. It's internalized oppression at its finest, which I can't help to analyze from a magical perspective as well as a sociological one. You eventually become what people believe you are, even if for the longest time you refuse to believe it yourself.

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Terence P Ward is a business writer and journalist who blogs under the rather cumbersome moniker of True Pagan Warrior.  He can generally be found at home, tending to his gardens and the many demands of his cats; in the alternative, follow TPW on Facebook. 


  • Amarfa
    Amarfa Monday, 24 February 2014

    It's hard to say whether i'm voluntarily poor; I give my energy to a job that satisfies me emotionally and spiritually, but not very much financially. I am scared to ask for more than what I have; It is so easy to lose jobs in this world that I don't want to tread upon the line by being flip or callous. I've asked for more, and received it, in jobs in the past, but for whatever reason, when it has happened, my carefully built life has crashed around me because of my overwhelming anxiety, which is triggered when life circumstances change. I am so grateful to have an employer that is willing to let me slowly dip my feet in.

  • Aleah Sato
    Aleah Sato Wednesday, 26 February 2014

    Wow, so much to say in response. This is a very succinct post on such a complex issue and I support Alley's response, with some differing opinions and views.

    I have lived experience in both areas: voluntary and involuntary. I have been the kid in dirty used clothes and the free lunch line, and the adult who chooses to opt-out of career in favor of a gentler life for myself, others and the planet.

    I agree that anyone who romanticizes poverty has not been forced into this condition, but I also don't believe all who choose poverty are naive or out of touch with the societal form of capitalistic oppression and the distinct differences in being a cute white kid vs a person of color working at WalMart. But then, those differences are not exempt from privilege either: there are many facets of oppression, but most tend to be more glaring in class matters.

    However, all this said, I don't think that measuring degrees of poverty and poverty "worthiness" is helpful in the larger discussion of class, race and capitalism. I would be considered poor, but it isn't my measuring stick that's being used. I am reducing my impact in a thoughtful way. I don't feel guilty about that. Quite the opposite; I would feel guilty about participating upward mobility. Yes, now, as opposed to when I was a child and had no choice, this is a choice I make. I embrace this. I, too, work with those who are homeless and severely poor, often lacking basic needs. I believe their poverty is not amplified by my own, but by a society that creates class systems that require people to suffer. To take the voice of the Capitalist, I could teach the man how to get a job, promising some kind of end to his condition, but the reality is some people are unable to work, or the work they could get would result in continued poverty and a discontinuation of disability and healthcare benefits. The glaring obvious is that we, when suddenly poor, are poor within the context of affluent, consumption-based America. We do not know how to grow food, make shelter, make a fire, use plants to heal ourselves, etc.. So poverty becomes a death sentence. It is the value system not the lack of money that kills us.

    I believe this is an opportunity for informed voluntary simplicity folks to help those who are in involuntary poverty create more options for living freely and independently, or at the very least, gain some dignity in being empowered to have a voice in their treatment, social services options, etc..

  • Dver
    Dver Wednesday, 26 February 2014

    I wouldn't describe myself as voluntarily poor, but I fall somewhere between that and the usual materialistic approach in this culture. Basically, I'd love to have more money, and the security and opportunities it would bring (health care would be nice! travel would be great!), but I'm not willing to give up the bulk of my life like so many people do in order to have it. I'd rather work less, make less, and have more time for the things that really matter to me (since none of those happen to translate into a profitable career). And if I did make more money, it would not go into the materialistic machine of American culture, in other words I would not just buy "stuff", I would not live in a bigger place, I would probably not even buy a car which I don't have now. I think there are probably more people in my situation than those who are voluntarily truly poor (I feel poor many days, and I don't have much, but I am not on the edge of starvation or freezing to death, so I have it relatively good). I guess it's what the poster above called "voluntary simplicity."

  • Mariah Sheehy
    Mariah Sheehy Wednesday, 26 February 2014

    I am both poor & privileged- I work retail, but I have a bachelor's, and the social connections & cultural knowledge/capital of a middle-class upbringing. As much as I flinch at clueless things middle-class white liberals say, I know I used to sound like them in college and I am mindful that I have more options in life than many of my co-workers. This was the first job offered to me after a long job hunt, so it wasn't really "voluntary poverty". There are probably places that would pay more, require more hours, but probably also be much more stressful.

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