poverty is the key
credit cards and internet Catholicism
One thing I haven’t felt in years (literally, since I quit my job two years ago), is the existential anxiety of earning one’s keep.
I have felt the anxiety of trying to make rent, of making ends meet, of getting bills paid. I have felt the anxiety of “where is the money coming from”? or the sadness at missing out on outings or adventures. There are no spontaneous cross-country flights in the budget. But I haven’t had the anxiety that has dogged me for most of one’s adult life: “how should a Christian work?”
One item that I have been trying to divest from, as it is both a facet of wealth and a creator of poverty is the credit card. I got my first real, corporate credit card in 2018 after a friend informed me that her credit card points were paying for her roundtrip to Korea.
Credit cards=free travel was an equation I could easily solve for. And, lo and behold, my first Delta AmEx bought me a ticket down to Denise’s delayed wedding reception in the wake of Hurricane Florence and in the midst of a move from South Bend to New York City.
I’ve realized one of the ways that my sweet partner lives simply is that he only has cash. Not having a bank account or a credit card allows you to see clearly what you have (which isn’t much), and not spend more than that. I can do things I can’t afford because the credit card allows me to separate spending and cost. I can spend today, the cost is borne not by Renée and her impulses in the moment, but by Renée tomorrow. And, trust me, that has been causing Renée tomorrow a lot of stress.
So I canceled the accounts (or at least the most extraneous—baby steps to divestment here), much to the chagrin and confusion of the nice ladies on the Delta AmEx customer service line. Given that there is less money to move now, the move from Wells Fargo bank to a credit union should be coming shortly.
All this to say, one of the spirals of anxiety I haven’t felt recently is the question of “am I doing what I ought to be doing?”
And I think part of this is that that question always came with a coda: “I don’t have enough money to be doing what I ought to be doing.”
I wandered onto Elizabeth Bruenig’s Twitter the other day (something I used to do more often) and found this response to her most recent Atlantic article. I don’t know anything about the financial situation of either dialogue participant, so it is not my intent to comment upon them! But it’s the words of MacIntyre that caught my eye, so often invoked in middle-class professional spaces as a roadmap to a more virtuous and just society.
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">great piece by <a href="
15, 2022</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
And I was struck by how hollow those words of MacIntyre’s are if they are not accompanied by poverty. How is a network of uncalculated giving and grateful receiving possible or why is it necessary if we are not poor so that we need our neighbor? What is the point of decorative mutual aid or optional interdependence? Either we need each other or we don’t. And the problem is that most white American Catholics who write theology don’t need their neighbor. Emotionally, spiritually, and existentially, they acknowledge that they need their neighbor. They pay homage academically and theologically to our nature as communal, relational beings, a mystical body of Christ.
But we are not academic or theological beings. We are material, fleshy creatures. If we do not need our neighbor materially and physically, what good is our relationality? How much root can relationality and mutual dependence “uncalculated giving and grateful receiving” actually take in our lives?
How can we ever break the isolating forces of American capitalism, which offers the tantalizing liberty of self-sufficiency, but in fact cuts us off from our humanity? Why do we imagine that the ultimate freedom is needing no one and nothing from no one? We are in horror of finding ourselves beholden—perhaps because the world is full of examples of people abusing those in their care, those dependent upon and beholden to them—but there is no other option. We come into the world dependent, and we do not just leave so—it is dependence, all the way down.
And even when we intellectually envision our need for mutual dependence and care, we have a hard time fighting the economic imagination that keeps us trapped in individual self-sufficiency, because we are not willing to be poor.
So I will now put my money where my big mouth is and cancel another credit card.