God bless the Acton Institute. I don’t agree with everything they say. But how can I stay mad at a group that, when I email them a proposal to send me to England for a summer conference to the tune of $3,000, emails me back within 5 minutes to say “you’re funded!”
Here’s the proposal, and my dream trip (minus the boring budget stuff):
Public solutions to poverty and illness: the medieval witness
This grant proposal is in support of a paper, teaching case study, and two book chapters, all related to faith, economics, and public service in the medieval period. The research for these materials would be conducted during a trip this summer to the International Medieval Congress in Leeds, UK, whose theme this year is wealth and poverty. I believe a more balanced perspective on the medieval church’s record in public service to the poor and ill is needed, given the current stereotypes of the Christian Middle Ages as barbaric and heedless of the value of human life (in light of the Inquisition, the Crusades, witch hunts, etc.) and as “Gnostic” about the flesh (extrapolating incorrectly from early and medieval asceticism).
The paper will be suitable for presentation at Acton University or other venues concerned for Christian witness in the public (especially economic) sphere. I will also seek journal publication and, in modified form, publication in Christianity Today, where I have often published before. The chapters will appear in my forthcoming Baker book, Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians and a projected book, Resources for Radical Living. The teaching case study is for a course of the same name (Resources for Radical Living) that I teach in both the MDiv and DMin programs at Bethel seminary and will also contribute to my Medieval Wisdom for Modern Ministry course, in that course’s focus on a usable medieval Christian ethics.
The paper, “Public solutions to poverty and illness: The medieval witness,” will focus on the following:
- Elements of medieval theological anthropology that underwrote the period’s compassionate ministry to the poor and sick, for example as these appear in the following:
- The medieval tradition of the “seven corporal acts of mercy” (feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting/ransoming the captive, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, and burying the dead) and the hermeneutic of Matthew 25:31-46 from which that tradition drew
- Benedict of Nursia’s influential legislation on hospitality to the poor, the stranger, and the sick in his Rule.
- Thomas Aquinas’s ethical thought
- The application of such traditional and theological commitments in compassionate public service to the poor and sick:
- Service to the poor: e.g., confraternities, poorhouses, the use of parish and monastic finances on behalf of the poor
- Service to the sick: e.g., Benedictine hospitality, the crusade-era hospitallers, and the medieval roots of the modern hospital.
The relevant chapter in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians is chapter 5: “The moral fabric of medieval faith,” in which I examine medieval theological understandings of human dignity and the application of those understandings in such traditions as the “seven corporal acts of mercy” and “seven spiritual works of comfort,” with a special focus on medieval attitudes and actions related to the poor and ill.
The relevant case study which appears in both the course and the book titled Resources for Radical Living and, in modified form, in the Medieval Wisdom for Modern Ministry course, is “Compassionate living: The Christian history of medical and physical-social ministry”. This case begins by observing that through the ages, Christian involvement in public health has impacted both national economies and discussions of what constitutes a free and virtuous society. Many U.S. hospitals were founded by church-related groups, and the nation continues to acknowledge the role of Christian agencies in care of the suffering through legislations on “charitable choice” and “faith-based initiatives,” even as major universities sponsor centers and research initiatives on the intersection of healing and faith. Clearly health and healing continues to stand as a key area of intersection between theology and the principles of such a society (and thus an apt subject, along with the history of Christian public solutions to poverty, for a presentation at a future Acton University).
Each period of Christian culture—ancient, medieval, early modern, and modern—yields up edifying examples of Christian contributions to public welfare in the area of care for people’s medical and other physical needs.
This case looks at the ways such public activity has typically been grounded in theological and philosophical commitments to the dignity of human beings—especially in the early and medieval periods. It unpacks Christian contributions to public health during those periods, and their grounding in a tradition in Christian thought that has understood all human beings as made in the image of God, with bodies, as well as minds, declared “good” by God in Genesis. Jesus healed and empowered his apostles to heal, and in his story of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25) seemed to mandate care for others as necessary for salvation.
The case study uses examples from the ancient and medieval periods. Ancient examples include the writings of Roman opponents of Christianity upset that the early Christians took care of not only the sick and orphaned of their own community but also those of the pagans; Basil of Caesarea and his hospital; John Chrysostom’s sermons to wealthy urban Christians on their duty to the suffering; and Jerome’s account of aristocratic women involved in healing ministry. Medieval examples include Gregory the Great’s thought and action on the church’s duty to the suffering; Benedict’s Rule on the dignity of all people and the concomitant imperative of hospitality and physical care; the involvement of Francis of Assisi and the early Franciscan in leper colonies; the development of hospitals and confraternities; and the tradition of the “seven corporal mercies.”
The International Medieval Congress at Leeds, July 11 – 14, 2011
The “economic” side of the research—on medieval Christian responses to poverty—I intend to research and develop at the eighteenth International Medieval Congress, Leeds, UK, July 11-14, 2011. The theme of the 2011 conference is poverty and wealth in the medieval world. Here is the conference description, along with aspects of the topic listed by the organizers that seem particularly helpful to my project:
How uneven was the distribution of wealth in medieval communities and polities? How was the distribution of wealth affected by environmental and commercial cycles of paucity and plenty? How was wealth amassed and then redistributed? What were the topographies of wealth and poverty? How permeable were the physical and symbolic boundaries between rich and poor? In what ways did both church and secular authorities attempt to deal with the moral and practical problems arising from poverty and the uneven distribution of wealth?
Areas of discussion could include:
—charity, macro- and micro-economic studies
—vagrancy and homelessness
—the rich and the poor in literature
—religions and religious orders and their approach to poverty and wealth
—tax structures and their effects on the distribution of wealth
—social value of (manual) labour/work
—sumptuary laws, health and treatment of the sick
—moral attitudes towards individualism
—excessive living, gluttony, avarice, envy, and begging.
Here is an example of the sort of session the conference will feature, drawn from the call for papers:
“‘Representing poverty in the middle ages: Charitable piety and holy models’: From administering hospitals to visiting prisoners and feeding the poor, a sense of collective obligation permeated medieval life. Holy figures, either recently deceased or long dead, reinforced these objectives and served as models for charitable behaviour. This panel seeks to explore how images contributed to this process. For example, saints and *beati* founded hospitals (Blessed Andrea Gallerani), provided dowries for underprivileged brides (Saint Nicholas of Bari) and clothed the poor (Saint Martin), and such acts were frequently memorialized in images. We invite paper proposals that address the ways in which monastic, mendicant and lay communities used images of the life and good deeds of holy figures to direct their charitable aims. To what extent did images of exemplary individuals serve as a means of advertising corporate activities? Did representations of actions such as distributing alms or feeding the hungry merely serve to reflect or reinforce behavioural norms within a given community, or might they also have been intended to incite participation? Moreover, in what ways were these artistic commissions directed at the poor themselves? We especially invite paper topics that deal with holy models in less-studied areas of medieval Europe.”
Well folks, I can’t wait to get to Leeds next summer and sink my teeth into this fascinating topic. Again, thank you Acton Institute.