Basil of Caesarea (330-379) was a highly influential leader in the Early Church, who laboured and wrote extensively for the rights of the poor. His stance on wealth and poverty is blunt and uncompromising. It is also very relevant to today, where consumerism has achieved almost god-like status.
This piece shows that Basil was also a keen and unflinching observer of human nature – and human excuses. The writer identifies ‘the human tendency to adjust the definition of “need” to fit one’s current level of income.’
Basil was on to this 1600 years ago. His homily (practical sermon) on the man in Jesus’ parable, I Will Tear Down My Barns [and Build Bigger Ones], treats the barns not so much as symbols of wealth but rather as representing our definition of needs based on our circumstances.
‘In effect’, continues the article, ‘Basil says that if we never have any extra to share, this is due to the fact that whenever we find ourselves in possession of a surplus, we immediately adjust our definition of need to fit the new situation.’
(You say) “I will pull down my barns and build larger ones.” But if you fill these larger ones, what do you intend to do next? Will you tear them down yet again only to build them up once more? What could be more ridiculous than this incessant toil, laboring to build and then laboring to tear down again?
In his sermon “To the Rich”, Basil sees this as a form of madness. “Those who have acquired wealth and have great possessions, desire more of the same, nursing the sickness by perpetual accumulation. Having so much here and now fails to bring them happiness, since they grieve over what they don’t have, and convince themselves they’re lacking. ‘We’re poor!’, they say. And it’s true, because a poor person lacks much, and much are you lacking because of your insatiable desires! What was it that killed Naboth? [1 Kings 21] Was it not King Ahab’s greed for his vineyard?”
And so, Basil concludes, you commit injustice to so many when you could have helped them – which applies to any level on the scale of wealth.
The issue of varying levels of need came particularly to a head in the monasteries. After all, if you live together, perceived inequality can be a death-knell. So Benedict of Nursia (480-c.545) had to address the matter in his Rule (which still governs Benedictine houses today, 1500 years later). He does so with great wisdom, rooted in scriptural principles, in Chapter 34:
“Whether All Should Receive in Equal Measure What Is Necessary: It is written, “Distribution was made to everyone according as he had need” (Acts 4:35). We do not say by this that respect should be had for persons (God forbid), but regard for infirmities. Let him who hath need of less thank God and not give way to sadness, but let him who hath need of more, humble himself for his infirmity, and not be elated for the indulgence shown him; and thus all the members will be at peace.
Above all, let not the evil of murmuring appear in the least word or sign for any reason whatever. If anyone be found guilty herein, let him be placed under severe discipline.”
I get the feeling that if this sentiment was more universally accepted and applied, a good measure of stress could be removed from our lives today.
One definition of a social entrepreneur is’someone who finds a solution to an intractable social problem of his or her culture, pioneers its implementation and sees it to fruition.’ Given the far-ranging social, economic, political and spiritual impact of his life, Hans Nielsen Hauge (1771-1824), pronounced Ho-ger, deserves much wider recognition outside his native Norway.
It all began in 1796, when the 25-year-old farmer’s son was ploughing a field. He suddenly felt an overwhelming experience of the presence of God. ‘My mind became so exalted that I can scarcely express what took place in my soul’, he wrote later. ‘I asked Him to reveal to me what I should do. The answer echoed in my heart: “You shall confess My name before the people; exhort them to repent and seek Me while I may be found and call upon Me while I am near; and touch their hearts that they may turn from darkness to light”.’ He burned with love for Jesus and for mankind.
He first shared the good news at home, then set off as an itinerant evangelist. He developed a pattern of walking great distances every day, holding three or four meetings in villages and reaching large numbers of ordinary people. In the 8 years he was free to do this, it is estimated he covered 15,000 km. He often knitted as he walked; the gloves and socks were then given away to the poor who needed them. Many people came to saving faith in Jesus as a result and then they themselves went out to preach the gospel. A grass-roots revival began to spread among the rural communities.
Hauge was a humble and practical man, full of initiative. He saw the need to educate and equip the common people as well as save their souls. He had an amazing capacity for work, which, combined with his pioneering spirit, made him an entrepreneur to rank with the best.
For Hauge, running a business and preaching went hand in hand. He started a company in Bergen in 1801 to secure a sound economic base for his gospel activities. Thereafter, there was no stopping him! Over the next eight years, he founded fishing industries, brickyards, spinning mills, shipping yards, salt and mineral mines, paper mills and printing works. These created jobs for people who needed work and taught them how to make a living for themselves. He delegated the daily management to those he thought were the most capable, but he was the strategist who planned and motivated the whole enterprise. The profits were always used to invest in new activities.
Hauge became an inspiration to all who wanted to take Norway out of the ‘middle ages’ and into a new day. New agricultural and industrial methods were developed, and literacy rates rose. A new confidence led to greater economic freedom as Christians were challenged to rebuild society. Norway began to change.
Hans-Nielsen Hauge’s time as a travelling evangelist were busy and fulfilling. A magnetism of God’s love seemed to draw people to him. He collected some of their testimonies and published them as tracts, to reach out to others. He made friends in many places and groups of followers formed. One particular characteristic among them was love.
It is something that God’s children have among them by the Spirit, Hauge wrote. They know each other from the first moment of meeting. It shows in their spiritual talk, their gentle and humble character and moral, simple and faithful words. One of Christ’s shepherds easily recognises his own, and they recognise him.
Some young ‘Haugians’ were entrusted with local leadership, preaching tours and the sale of books. These men had very different backgrounds and education, but all of them were stamped with Hauge’s burning decisiveness for Christ.
Alongside this, Hauge encouraged representatives of the rural population into politics, launching what has been described as the first Norwegian democratic movement. This was enough to gain him enemies. Norway had strict laws regarding sectarian preaching and ‘vagrancy’; both of these were now used against him.
In 1799, notices were read in churches warning against unauthorised preachers. Some Haugians were chased out of churches, beaten and imprisoned. Altogether, Hauge himself was arrested ten times. He once spent nine years in prison before his case was even heard! The sheriff of Hallingdal thought it would be fun to send a prostitute to Hauge’s cell; he looked her in the eyes with compassion and she began to sob and confess her sins!
His final imprisonment lasted 10 years, 3 of them in total isolation, first in an underground cell reserved for drunks, and finally in a small cell that has now been reconstructed at Norway’s Open Air Museum outside Oslo. He wrote to his friends:
If I had 100 lives, they would all be willing for chains. Prison does not last for ever. I wish you well on the road of salvation. It is my prayer, my longing, my burden of care and my joy to find you in life eternal.
However, Hauge was by now a national figure on account of his entrepreneurial business enterprises on behalf of the poor. His long imprisonment was becoming a scandal. What’s more, the authorities still needed his business and industrial expertise. Once, they freed him for a time because they needed his advice on a marine desalination project!
Finally, his sentence was commuted to a fine, which his friends paid. Hauge was free, broken in health but filled with God’s vision. He was ready for the final stage of the adventure.
Hauge spent his last years on a farm near Christiania (modern Oslo), bought for him by his friends. Years of imprisonment had weakened his body but not his spirit. His home became a centre for Christian life, visited by many. Spiritual and secular leaders alike came to him for advice.
He wrote a number of books and articles, mainly spiritual but some economic. Two years before his early death, he gave this testimony to God’s faithfulness and dealings.
I am 52 years old and have tasted Christianity’s joy and strength, which had enabled me to leave my father’s house and to offer up my body’s peace and my worldly goods. I have put my life in danger of death many times, wandered alone through and over many wild woods and fells. I have seen many loathsome forms of sin. But in all this, nothing has been able to disturb the peace and the divine joy I have through the teaching of Christ.
My consciousness is at one with it, and I only want to live according to its command. In the darkest of prisons, where I have sat for my testimony’s sake, I have had spiritual joys that exceed all the world’s glory and joy. In a miraculous way, power is granted to all those who receive it in their inner being, such that their souls become sanctified by His reconciling grace. From this flows that purity and that friendship that far exceeds all other morals and friendships in the worlds. Let it happen!
At the end, Hauge was bedridden – but still preached. His last exhortation was: “Follow Jesus!” He died, his face radiant with joy, exclaiming, “Oh, You eternal, loving God!”
That was by no means the end of the story! Some of his followers held important positions. Three of them took part in the first Norwegian Parliament in 1814, when Norway became independent from Denmark after 400 years of Danish rule. The whole nation felt the effects of Hauge’s influence – spiritually, politically and financially. It can truly be said that he fathered the new nation.
Hauge’s pioneering work in economic justice and ethical business continue to inspire today. Journalist Sigbjorn Ravnasen has written a book (very hard to find, even on Google) on Hans Nielsen Hauge’s Ethical Framework for Business and Management. He writes:
“When Norway became an independent nation in 1814, these kingdom values were integrated into the rhythm of daily life and were institutionalized into laws, school curricula and business practices in Norway. Economic conditions improved and led to the eradication of poverty in the land. Today, Norway continues to be the best country in the world in human development for the seventh year in a row. Norwegians have imbibed this spirit of volunteerism and have stretched their sense of responsibility from involvement in their local community beyond to the global community of nations. So Norway has the highest ratio of missionaries per capita, and (most unusually) in holistic and transformational servant-leadership roles.”
In 2005 the Hauge Institute was founded. Its aim is to raise awareness about the person Hans Nielsen Hauge, his ethical thinking and topicality; to bring inspiration to the business community, to leaders, research, education and society. Based on the thinking and practice of Hans Nielsen Hauge, the Hauge Institute focuses on the ethical dimension in three main areas: Leadership, Entrepreneurship, and Trade and the Environment. Meanwhile, the Norwegian Lutheran Mission has adopted his name and his principles and still operates today as the Hauge Missions.
The Shepherd of Hermas is an anonymous early Church writing, probably composed in Rome around AD 140. It consists of a series of pictures or revelations made to a character named Hermas, which are then interpreted to him by an angel (called the Shepherd) or by an ageless woman, representing the Church.
One of these pictures is an allegory of generosity and how it benefits both the giver and the receiver in equal measure – which is what God intended in the first place. I have abridged it slightly, as the original is rather wordy, and modernised some of the phrasing to make it more readable.
As I was walking in the field, I observed an elm and a vine. As I considered them and their fruits, the Shepherd appeared to me and said: “These are intended as an example for the servants of God.
“The vine produces fruit; the elm is an unfruitful tree. But unless the vine is supported by the elm, it cannot bear much fruit, and the fruit which it does bear is rotten because it trails along the ground. Therefore, when the vine is cast upon the elm, it yields fruit, both from itself and from the elm.
“This is a similitude for the poor man and for the rich.” “How so, sir?” said I; “explain the matter to me.” “Listen,” he said: “The rich man has much wealth, but is poor in matters relating to the Lord, because he is distracted about his riches; he offers very few intercessions to the Lord, and those which he does offer are small and weak, and have no power above. The poor man, with fewer distractions and greater needs, is often in prayer, and his intercession has great power with God.
“So, when the rich man refreshes the poor, and assists him without hesitation in his necessities, the poor man (being helped by the rich) intercedes for him, giving thanks to God for the one who bestowed gifts upon him. This moves the rich man to continue to interest himself zealously for the poor man, that his wants may be constantly supplied. For he knows that the intercession of the poor man is acceptable and influential with God, and by it he (the rich man) is blessed.
“Thus, both accomplish their work, and it is a great work, acceptable before God. Poor men, interceding with the Lord on behalf of the rich, increase their riches; and the rich, again, aiding the poor in their necessities, satisfy their souls. Both, therefore, are partners in the righteous work.”