Follow St. Francis: A good steward leads a simple life
Most of us are familiar with the oft-quoted statistics from Stanford Professor Paul Ehrlich's 1970s-era book, "The Population Bomb:" Americans constitute 5 percent of the world's population but consume 24 percent of the world's energy. Oil consumption data from BP in 2009 reported in the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper seems to confirm that those figures are still valid.
Mindfully.org, a resources analysis website, indicates that Americans eat 815 billion calories of food each day — roughly 200 billion more than needed — and that excess is enough to feed 80 million people in other parts of the world. Additionally, we discard 200,000 tons of edible food daily.
This example of excess reminds me of a parable attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Luke (ch. 16:19-31). He speaks of a rich man who dines sumptuously each day, while on his door step the ailing and starving Lazarus yearns for scraps from his table.
Commentator William Barclay makes the story even more profound, pointing out that at this time in antiquity neither utensils nor napkins were in use. Even the very rich ate with their hands and used bread to clean food from their hands. These are the scraps Lazarus waited to receive — quite literally refuse from the rich man's table. In the parable, the rich man is judged harshly for his failure to notice the plight of his neighbor and share his bounteous blessings.
We are among the most generous countries when it comes to international aid. But there is much more we can do. As Christian Stewards we must ensure that waste like this cannot occur while people starve. This is our responsibility and obligation.
There are several stewardship tenants that can guide us. One is to realize that God has blessed us richly. Another is to be aware of the need of others. The final tenant is to share our blessings generously. Of course, this guidance doesn't just apply to our nation within the international arena. It operates for us as communities within this culture and for us as individuals in our daily lives.
I realize the mindfulness to which CS calls us is counter-cultural. Popular media urges us to "feed our thirst" and "eat all you want — we'll make more!"
A few years ago a popular fast food franchise began a marketing campaign in which the central character declared proudly, "I just ate at … for a little bit of money and I'm FULL!"
I remember how the ad struck me as odd and somehow wrong-headed. Being full suggests reaching some sort of capacity limit. "Full" is beyond need and maybe even beyond want. "Full" doesn't leave much room for generous sharing.
Instead of going through life with the goal of consuming resources to the point of being "full," St. Francis of Assisi advocated simplifying one's life. "This is that simplicity that in all the divine laws leaves wordy circumlocutions, ornaments and embellishments … to those who are marked for a fall and seeks … not the shell but the kernel, not the many but the much, the greatest and lasting good." (p. xiii, Simplicity, J.M Talbot)
Maybe if as a nation, as a culture and as individuals we start to take all we need instead of all we can, and reserve what remains to share, more people in the world — especially more of the world's poor — would have more of what they need. Maybe if we can begin to simplify aspects of our lives, we can find greater capacity for generosity and as Mahatma Ghandi (and later Mother Teresa) is reputed to have said, "Live simply so that others may simply live."
(Walt Sears is director of pastoral studies at St. Patrick's Seminary and University in Menlo Park.)