Opulence, simplicity, and the problem of world poverty


Here is a hilarious video by Sarah Silverman (which one should not watch if one is offended by certain kinds of language):

The video reminds of this satirical piece from the Onion with the headline that reads, "Heaven Less Opulent Than Vatican, Reports Disappointed Pope", which includes this text describing John Paul II's reaction to the afterlife:

According to the pope, heaven is merely a place of unending peace and happiness, wherein all the spirits of the Elect live together forever in perfect harmony and goodness, basking in the rays of God's divine love.

"Up here, everyone is equal," John Paul II said. "No one has to go through an elaborate bowing ritual when they greet me. And do you know how many times my ring has been kissed since I arrived? None. Up here, I'm mingling with tax collectors, fishermen, and whores. It's just going to take a little getting used to, is all."

Sure, we all know that the Vatican wouldn't really solve the problem of world poverty by selling its assets. Sarah Silverman is a comedian, after all, not an economist, and her video was a work of comedy.

In a way, though, her satirical piece does strike a chord, at least with me, because I think it does address the question of what it means for any religious institution to own a trove of valuable or even priceless works of art and architecture, or what it means for the leadership of a church to live among such treasures. Although I am a lapsed Quaker, I find that many Quaker values are still a part of who I am. The Wikipedia article on the Quaker Testimony of Simplicity describes the many facets of this testimony, one of which is described as follows:
Like many aspects of Quaker life, the practice of plainness has evolved over time, although it is based on principles that have been a lasting part of Quaker thought. These principles now form part of the Quaker testimonies. Plainness is an extension of the testimony of simplicity and can still be observed today among modern Friends who do not follow fashion trends or purchase extravagant clothing. Simplicity to Friends has generally been a reference to material possessions (see plainness above). Friends traditionally limited their possessions to what they needed to live their lives, rather than pursuing luxuries. Recently this testimony is often taken to have an ecological dimension: that Friends should not use more than their fair share of the Earth's resources.

This testimony is largely responsible for the tradition of plain walls and functional furniture in meetinghouses
The reasons for living a simple life are not because you believe you will magically solve all of the world's ills if you eschew a life of luxury. It really is more a matter of expressing one's self through one's lifestyle, with personal integrity and in a way that is consistent with one's values of equality and justice. It means internalizing the values of justice and then expressing them through how you live. The best testimony to Jesus's life and message are not those who expect others to kiss their ring, but rather those who hang out, as Jesus did, with the "tax collectors, fishermen, and whores."