Kelly S. JOHNSON, The Fear of Beggars. Stewardship and Poverty in Christian Ethics. Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans, 2007, pp. 220. $20.00. ISBN 978-0-8028-0378-8.
Reviewed by Mary ELSBERND, Loyola University Chicago. Chicago, IL 60611.

Living and working in Chicago, I began this book anticipating a treatment of involuntary begging as evidence of the poverty resulting from unjust economic practices and structures. Johnson’s introduction clearly articulates other purposes in writing this book. First, she is interested in exploring Christian life as a pilgrimage which seeks throughout ever changing historical contexts to negotiate the meaning of encounter with poverty as embodied in beggars. For Johnson, pilgrimage and beggars locate her Christian ethics study in concrete social and historical narratives rather than an abstract question such as: What is the good life? Second, she investigates Christian response through the lens of voluntary beggars, i.e., those who have chosen poverty as a Christian practice of discipleship. Third, she does not deal with the question, “Should Christians today give to beggars?” Rather Johnson chooses to focus on why Christian ethics does not even address this question.

Toward these ends, Johnson weaves together the thought and practices of beggar saints, Christian thinkers and classical economists around the meaning of property, stewardship, humility and dependence in church and world. These threads are fascinating and thoroughly resourced, although the relationship of the threads in the final tapestry appears loosely woven at times.

Chapter One surveys a wide variety of voluntary beggar saints who embraced “public dependent poverty as part of their attempt to live the good life.” Their begging reveals multiple meanings: daily survival, challenge for a community to see rightly, silent preaching, an occasion for gift-giving, penance, and exercise of humility. Chapter two delves into the darker side of devotional begging, with a particular focus on Franciscan mendicancy. Johnson concludes that Franciscan religious poverty initially exposed the violence of the emerging mercantile social order. Over time Franciscan voluntary poverty occasioned new questions: did gift-giving for forgiveness of sin commodify religious practices? Is voluntary begging the most effective means to address the needs of the involuntarily poor? What might the public responsibility be toward those marginalized by market economies? How does one use and control property without rights of ownership?

Chapter Three explores a history of the meanings and practices of stewardship. This history of stewardship shifts wealth from churches to the laity, whose philanthropic disposal of their wealth as stewards of God’s good gifts to them did not interfere with economic systems or property rights. The virtue of stewardship critiques selfishness of the rich and promotes frugality for the poor. Chapter Four treats the thought of Adam Smith and Thomas Robert Malthus as well as the practices of Benoit-Joseph Labre. Smith and Malthus marginalized the poor in their approaches to wealth. For Smith the dependence of the poor was built on an anthropological lie that the other can actually share in the suffering of poverty. In Malthus’ world of scarcity resources given to the poor effectively swallow up a giver into the very poverty they are trying to alleviate. For Labre, the personal vocation to prayer and trust in God through begging uncovered an alternative community of dependency on mutual care and need. His life further critiqued the social system of institutionalization of the poor as well as professionalization of the works of mercy.

The final two chapters look at twentieth century stewardship and voluntary poverty. Chapter Five discusses the USCCB pastoral letter on stewardship and its accompanying manual as well as John Douglas Hall’s work on stewardship and John Milbank’s thought on gift-giving. Chapter Six extensively treats the pilgrim economics of Peter Maurin, which is built on a good economic order (not an adequate or effective order) and a pragmatic centrality of concrete persons in their present moments. The conclusion develops these two foundational dimensions of pilgrim economics while weaving in recurring themes of humility, eschatology, Eucharistic Christology, and ecclesiology. In pilgrim economics the joyful hope of voluntary beggars makes them comedians in the “humorless business of achievement and fairness.”

This book is a creative narrative foray into the arena of economic ethics, (voluntary) begging, poverty, property, stewardship and humility. As such it is well worth reading. The abundance of the resources on which it draws as well as the breadth of its components contribute to ongoing discussions around the meaning of wealth and poverty.

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