01/15/2014 01:22 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2014

Poverty Is Not the Enemy


"Poverty" is not all that bad; in fact, I took a vow of poverty when I was 20-years-old and became a nun. Nuns and monks have always embraced the vow and practice of poverty as a way to detach from material values and pleasures and to devote oneself entirely to God. Poverty was understood as admirable. To be followers of Jesus who had nowhere to lay his head, we were to live simply with as little of the world's goods as possible. We were to be free of attachments in order to be free to serve the people of God, especially the poor.

So I find the War on Poverty a misnomer because poverty is not the enemy, even though I understand the metaphor as used by President Lyndon Johnson when he launched the attack on the poverty of the indigent and the dispossessed in 1964. Johnson knew he could sell the concept to a culture which glorified military might and conquest, so he framed the condition as a battle and challenged us to win the battle and the War on Poverty.

As many commentators have pointed out recently on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, the results are mixed. Some have said that poverty is worse than it was in the '60s, and that Johnson's Great Society failed.

In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristoff, however, said, "Let's drop the bombast and look at the evidence" and points out that poverty rates have fallen one-third since 1968, and that "...the premise of so much of today's opposition to food stamps and other benefits -- that government assistance inevitably fails -- is just wrong."

This discussion is shaping up as a political one, with each side using data to support its own contentions.

The discussion of poverty and the poor should go beyond the political, I believe, because it is basically a discussion of justice and morality. Even though I took a vow of poverty, I was never really poor. I did not have any personal possessions, but I had a place to live and sleep, food, clothing and the necessities of life. I never had any anxiety about paying the bills or knowing where my next meal was coming from or wondering if I would be treated when I was ill. I had perfect security. I had community. These are what separated me from the really poor, from poverty.

If we lived in a just society, everyone would feel the security and safety that I did then when I had a vow of poverty or that I do now when I try to live a simple, stable and safe life. "Poverty" isn't a dirty word -- we don't need a war to eradicate it. We need to see that poverty is a good way to live an honorable life and that poverty demands justice. We need to live simply so that all have access to the world's goods, necessities, and even its pleasures.

When I took a vow of poverty and when people today live simply, we are practicing poverty. We have choices, but the really poor do not -- their poverty is imposed while ours is intentional. It is patently not fair that some have much, much too much, and others have nothing. We can blame the poor for their laziness and their lack of incentive and their dependency, but we can just as easily blame the rich for their greed and their lust for power. It is immoral not to build a society where the excesses at either end are mitigated in order to serve the common good.

People who practice intentional poverty do so in order to practice justice, to make sure everyone has a chance. We can justify justice -- we can make the margins of society just. We can make access to jobs, services and equality available. We can create a culture where security and stability give people a chance.