Down And Out In Christania

Today, let us board the Ship of Imagination and take a journey to the Kingdom of Christania. A small nation in a far-off corner of the world, Christania is a perfectly Christian land: its inhabitants, including its leaders, are entirely believing, churchgoing Christians who, after an honest day’s labor (except on Sunday, of course), come home, sit by the fire, and read the Holy Bible with their families (with a little Tolkien, Chesterton, or Lewis thrown in there for fun every so often). The spirit of the Savior is strong in the hearts of the people of Christiania, and everything they do in every aspect of their lives, both public and private, from the King and Queen to the humblest plowman, flows from their faith.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any problems in Christania, however. As Jesus reminds us in Matthew 26:11, the poor will always be with us, and indeed the poor are there in Christania, as well. Being the sort of people they are, the Christanians have established in their country a response to poverty that they have striven to ensure is perfectly Christian and fulfills every obligation that their religion places upon them in dealing with the needs of the poor. Here we must be perfectly clear: the Christanians are a smart, sensible people who know the Bible better than they know their own names and who don’t suffer charlatans easily, and are quick to point out that when they say that their approach is based on their faith, they mean that it is based on Christian scripture, Christian custom, and Christian philosophy – what it is decidedly not based on is any desire to make those things conform to the postmodern theories of Marxists, socialists, welfare-staters, liberals, social justice warriors, equality fetishists, sociology majors, utopian dreamers, or non-Christians (though they bear no hatred for people with other religious views, Christanians are notorious for their bluntness in making clear that they are not interested in the opinions of non-Christians on the subject of how Christians ought to conduct themselves in the practice of their faith).

In word and deed, the Christanian approach to poverty is 100% based in actual Christian teaching, and thus is unique in the world and worth a bit of study.

The first thing we must look at if we are to understand the Christanians’ approach to poverty is their definition of what exactly poverty is. For this, we turn to the works of Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn (whose works every Christanian schoolchild has read, in the original German, by the second year of middle school). On the subject of poverty, Kuehnelt-Leddihn wrote:

Whoever lives in real abundance has a Christian duty to assist those living in wretchedness. Before we proceed, however, let us affirm that the notion of misery is different from that of poverty. Péguy has already drawn the distinction between “pauvreté” and “misère”. To live in misery means to suffer genuine physical privation: to know cold and hunger, to have no proper dwelling, to be dressed in rags, to be unable to secure medical attention. The poor, by contrast, have the necessities of life, but scarcely any more. They can borrow books, no doubt, but cannot buy them; they can hear music on the radio, but cannot afford a ticket to a concert; they cannot indulge in little extras of food and drink, but should, by self-discipline, be able to save a little. The poor have, therefore, the normal material preconditions for happiness — unless plagued by acquisitiveness or even envy, which has become a political force in the same measure as people have lost their faith.

The Christanians (many of whom believe, as Chaucer did, that a state of humble pauvreté is what is most conducive to living a genuinely Christian life) take the view that they have every obligation to relieve the misère of their fellow man, but none to relieve their pauvreté. They never allow themselves to lose sight of the fact that the Corporal Acts of Mercy laid out by Christ’s teachings are: to feed the hungry, to give water to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, to care for the sick, to visit the imprisoned, and to bury the dead. Nowhere in any of this is there the slightest mention of things like free cell phones or college tuition, nor of subsidies to be an artist or to live in expensive parts of big urban centers. They are an industrious people who have built a developed nation out of nothing; they understand that the Christian rules of charity were developed for – and in – a time and place that any modern person would consider dirt poor; a time when even kings sweltered when it was hot, shivered when it was cold, and agonized when they had a toothache, and when “clothe the naked” had to be included in the list because society had a nontrivial problem with people who literally walked around naked because they couldn’t afford a scrap of cloth to cover their private parts. The way the Christanians see it, while there may be pauvreté in developed nations in the present day, there is very little genuine misère, and particularly there is virtually none that is not to some degree self-inflicted.

This brings us to the other thing that must be understood, which is how seriously the Christanians take II Thessalonians 3:10. In this passage, St. Paul writes: “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him also not eat”. The Christanians draw a hard line between those who can not work – the aged widow, the young orphan, the sick and disabled, the mentally ill – and those who will not work. For the former, there is great sympathy and charity; for the latter, there is none. Those whose inability to work can be traced to their own poor decisions in life – drunkards, addicts, those who are morbidly obese or otherwise unhealthy by choice – are seen as something in between; it is understood that such people should be cared for, but that the care they are given must lead them toward repentance, reform, and renewal of their lives – physically, mentally, spiritually, and morally. Those who are not willing to take that journey will find themselves placed in the category of those who are not willing to work, and (as we shall see), their pleas for assistance will avail them little.

In short, the Christanians see themselves as having the obligation to provide basic survival necessities for those who, for some reason beyond their control, are incapable of working to earn them on their own, and no obligation to provide anything beyond that to anyone, most especially to idlers and layabouts.

That tells us all we need to know about their attitude toward poverty, but how does that manifest itself in practice? Let us turn to a detailed examination of the system that His Majesty the King of Christania and His Excellency the Bishop of Christania have put in place in order to deal with the problem of poverty in their land. While it may seem a bit spartan by the standards of a Western welfare state, it must be emphasized that great pains have been taken to ensure that it meets or exceeds every requirement and obligation placed upon it by scripture and by Christian tradition.

* * *

The poor of Christania find their way to Charity Centers (hereafter referred to as CC’s) through a few different paths. Some seek them out themselves, which is easily enough done at any outpost of the government, from police stations to post offices, all of which can arrange a referral for the needy person. Others are sent there after defaulting on debts (which is rather rare, as Christania has strict anti-usury laws) or for non-payment of bills (they are free to refuse to go, but if they do, they remain liable for the money they owe). Many end up there after being picked up by the police for vagrancy or panhandling. No matter how they may have ended up into the system, after a day or two in a temporary shelter, they are put on a bus headed out into the countryside, where all CC’s are located.

It is worth remarking before we proceed any further that the name “Charity Center” was very carefully chosen. It is meant to emphasize to those who go there that what they are experiencing is, in fact, charity – provided to them by His Majesty and His Excellency, who jointly administer the CC system, and ultimately by the taxpayers and parishioners of the kingdom, whose taxes and contributions at the collection plate are what are paying for the CC’s to exist. It is not an entitlement which they may demand (the Christanians are notoriously impatient with those who are possessed of the delusion that the universe owes them anything at all); it is a gift which they are expected to receive with humility. The point of this is twofold: to keep those receiving this charity realistic about their situation (and therefore eager to get out of it), as well as to prevent them from coming to resent those who have come to their aid via the mistaken belief that the list of things they are entitled to can and should be expanded indefinitely and that those in positions of power who do not provide them with every last thing on that list are somehow doing them wrong. The Christanians strongly believe that to do otherwise would be to undermine social harmony and to give the poor illusions which, in their situation, they cannot really afford to indulge.

As for the CC’s themselves, they are scattered around rural areas, as far from any towns as they can be reasonably be situated. One can recognize them from a distance; the multiple clusters of whitewashed dormitories standing in the midst of farm fields are unmistakable (some of these dormitories were, in fact, once army barracks, but it hardly matters which, as even the ones that weren’t have been constructed to the same plan). Most CC’s are surrounded by fences, but these are almost invariably low post-and-wire affairs designed to keep animals on the right side of them; CC’s are neither prisons nor are they slave plantations, and it is emphasized to those entering them that nobody there is either a prisoner or slave. The dormitories (with some exceptions, such as those designed for the disabled or elderly, or those with children) are filled with basic, but perfectly comfortable double bunk beds, with a locker for each inhabitant located next to them. Toilets and showers are communal, though separated into stalls for the sake of Christian modesty, and located at the end of each dormitory building. Heat is provided by wood stoves, and cooling by ceiling fans (as Christania has a temperate climate similar to Ireland or the Pacific Northwest, these are felt to be perfectly sufficient). In addition to the dormitories, each cluster typically includes a mess hall, an administration building with staff quarters, a chapel, an infirmary, and an equipment shed. Clusters dedicated to female residents (male and female dormitories are, of course, kept strictly separate; male children under twelve may stay with their mothers, while older ones are assigned to a male dormitory) will also normally have a child care center in their midst.

On the rare occasion that a foreigner (no Christanian would ever say any such thing themselves) remarks that these arrangements suffer from a lack of amenities, they may count on being told that not only do they meet Biblical standards, but are at least as comfortable – if not more so – than those in which recruits in Christania’s army live. And if the conditions on offer are good enough for the realm’s honored defenders, then they should be good enough for anyone.

An incoming resident can, on their first day, count on a thorough medical examination provided by the medical staff at the CC. Here, multiple findings are made regarding their health. One, of course, is overall condition. If serious problems are found, they may be sent to a hospital for treatment, and if it turns out that they require medication, a prescription will be issued and an order placed for it. The signs of drug or alcohol addiction are checked for, and if found, a treatment regimen is arranged for them. Though virtually everyone who arrives at a CC does so with some share of emotional issues, the seriously mentally ill are also identified, and sent on to facilities where the staff is trained to provide them with the care they need. Finally, disability status is checked for; the doctors at CC’s keep their own counsel about who is and is not genuinely disabled (and just how disabled they actually may be), and are very, very good at telling the difference between them and work-shy bellyachers who simply don’t want to get their hands dirty. Those who are afflicted with a self-induced medical condition that makes them unable to do any useful work (i.e. the morbidly obese or the weak and underweight “basement-dweller” type) are sent to fitness training, which is a much gentler iteration of that given in basic training to army recruits who need a bit more work to come up to standards.

New residents then attend an orientation, following which they are offered a sturdy, comfortable set of work clothes to replace whatever they showed up wearing (which is, understandably, often in terrible shape and reeks horribly). Though wearing these around the CC is not technically mandatory (residents may work in other clothes so long as they are practical for the task at hand), it is highly recommended and most people do end up in them (after, perhaps, a few days’ worth of resistance). They are then assigned to a work crew, given dinner, and shown to their bunks to rest up for the next day.

The understanding at a CC is that everyone must work to the best of their ability to do so. The able-bodied mostly work in the fields surrounding the clusters, in which the food that the residents eat is grown. (After harvest season is over, they keep busy chopping wood for heating, shoveling snow, rebuilding tools for the next planting season, and performing other such tasks as are common on any farm during the wintertime). Those in wheelchairs or with other mobility issues are mostly given office work in the administration building; the elderly are usually assigned to the child care centers; the blind do tasks that do not require sight, which can include anything from answering telephones to husking corn. Only those whose disability is permanent and total – quadriplegics or those with advanced Alzheimer’s disease, for example – are exempted from work entirely.

Though some people from Western welfare states may consider the practice of requiring the able poor to work as a condition of receiving help as barbaric, Christanians (after they’ve finished quoting II Thessalonians 3:10, which they are wont to do) will respond that it was not long ago that this was the norm even in those welfare states – they will cite the examples of the WPA, CCC, TVA, and other such New Deal agencies, which not only required real manual labor of those who participated in them, but used that labor to build valuable infrastructure projects such as the Hoover Dam or the electrification of the rural south and west. Which liberal, they ask, is willing to cast Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a cruel exploiter of the impoverished? And if they are not willing to do so, then how can they criticize anyone else for doing no more than what FDR did?

It should be pointed out here that work in a CC, while moderately demanding, is hardly backbreaking drudgery. The pace of life, like that on any farm, is slow and steady. While some labor-saving devices are intentionally absent from CC’s in order to ensure that everybody there has enough to do, there are machines there (operated by trustees, about whom we will hear more later) to do all the truly heavy or dangerous tasks. The Christanians also understand that most of the poor who find their way to a CC are urbanites with no experience of farm life; it is expected that they will have to be shown the ropes over the first few weeks or months (and that this will teach them the skills they would need to perhaps settle down on a few acres of their own someday). The point is not to punish them with Gulag-style hard labor (Christanians will eagerly remind you that Gulags were a project of atheistic communism), but to give them the pride and purpose that comes of labor, to teach them skills that will help them to fend for themselves, and of course to emphasize that freeloading is good for neither the person who allows themselves to sink to it nor for the larger society around them.

If it should happen that a resident in a CC who has not been found to be unfit for labor simply refuses to work, then trustees (or, if necessary, a constable on staff) will bar them from entry into the mess hall until hunger changes their mind. “He who will not work, let them also not eat”.

It cannot be restated enough that CC’s are not prisons, and that the people in them are not being punished for anything. The Christanians are an industrious people, and any claim that the mere necessity to work in order to earn one’s bread is any kind of punishment will be met with the indignant question “Which queen gave birth to you?” – a Christanian colloquialism which amounts to an inquiry as to what basis one might have for the idea that an honest day’s labor is beneath them. Furthermore, those who find themselves in a CC are frequently reminded that they are free to leave whenever they wish; the next bus bringing people in can just as easily take them away. However, they are also reminded that in Christania, public begging on the part of anyone who has either walked away from a CC or been expelled from one for violating its rules is a criminal offense. The reasoning here is that if someone was offered help and then either explicitly refused it, or implicitly refused it by refusing to follow its rules, then begging on their part is a species of fraud, in the same vein as running a fraudulent charity. As for anyone who has left a CC and finds themselves in need again, it is assumed that one trip through the system was enough to teach them how to avail themselves of its services should they require them. The doors to a CC are always open, while the doors that lead to crime or to becoming a public nuisance are slammed tightly shut.

While almost all residents end up leaving a CC after a stay of a few months, there are a relative handful who find that the structure and stability provided there suits them, and who choose to stay indefinitely. (Typically, these are people with a history of addiction or an unstable family life on the outside.) While mildly discouraged, this is not forbidden, and those who have been there (and displayed good behavior) for a few years and who have no plans to leave typically find themselves appointed as trustees. In addition to being given more demanding tasks such as operating (and training others in the operation of) the CC’s complex tools and machinery, they take a position as a sort of community leader. They are expected to act as foremen of work squads, conduct orientations, provide counseling, help resolve disputes, handle minor rule violations by residents, and otherwise help keep life in the CC running smoothly. Small as it may be in the great scope of the world, it is still a position of esteem and responsibility, and those who were the lowest of the low on the outside often find a place and a purpose in it.

Now that we have a solid picture of overview of the structure and operation of a CC, let us examine the typical day-to-day life of those who find themselves in one.

Wakeup time for most residents comes at a half-hour before sunrise, rounded to the nearest ten-minute interval. After showering and dressing, residents go to the mess hall for breakfast (work in the mess hall itself is one of those jobs generally reserved for the able elderly or mildly disabled, but also involves an earlier wakeup). Then there is a short morning prayer (like all religious activities at a CC – of which there are many – it is strongly encouraged, but not strictly mandatory), after which the residents head out for their work assignments. For most of them, this means the farm fields. The labors of the day begin, at their typical slow-but-steady pace (only during planting and harvest season can it be said to have any real intensity to it). For safety reasons, as well as to discourage residents from retreating inside themselves instead of acting as part of a team, headphones are forbidden while working, but the foremen leading the work squads often bring a “boom box” style radio with them, and tune it to some music, a sports broadcast, or religious programming so that all can hear while they work. At midday, a truck arrives from the mess hall with lunch, which the squad eats together, picnic-style. Work then resumes, and continues until dinner or dusk (whichever comes first at that time of year). After dinner in the mess hall, residents may attend Bible study, or whatever therapy or rehabilitation sessions they may need, or avail themselves of one of the many job training courses offered at CC’s. For those who would rather relax in their off time, there are a few options available as well. While there is no television, internet service, or cellular service at a CC, residents are encouraged to read, or to play cards or other games, or may listen to their own radios using headphones while in the dormitories until lights out, which is at 9PM every night.

(As for children who end up in a CC with their parents, they are placed in child care if very young, then in a school located on the grounds of the CC until they have reached an age at which they can join the adults in their labors. This is typically much younger than one would see in a Western nation, but it reflects the Christanians’ rather skeptical attitude toward the view of formal schooling as a guarantor of prosperity and panacea for social ills that has been so common in the West for the past century or so.)

This is the pattern six days a week (excepting, of course, a few national holidays such as Christmas or His Majesty’s birthday). On Sundays, the Sabbath is observed, and there is no unnecessary work (a few, such as mess and medical staff, must of course do their jobs on Sundays, but they are compensated with other time off). In addition, married couples who find themselves in the CC (of course, each husband and wife will have been separately sent to the appropriate male or female end of the CC upon arrival), on Sundays are allowed to spend the day together (though conjugal visits are not permitted, as anyone in a CC is not in any position to bring another child into the world). After breakfast, church services are held, and are attended by virtually everyone. These tend to be very long and very traditional, as befits the temperament of the Christanians. Once that is done, a long and leisurely lunch is served. Alcohol is generally prohibited in CC’s, however after Sunday lunch, residents (except those with a history of alcoholism or other relevant health problems) may have two pints of lager (this must be consumed in the mess hall, in order to prevent hoarding or having it end up in the hands of problem drinkers). Following this, a social event is held – for example, a movie (approved by His Excellency the Bishop, of course) may be screened, or a sporting match may be held between teams of residents, or a talent show put on.

Though great care is taken to keep all of these events wholesome, there is one variety of them that is seen as unfortunate, but unavoidable. It happens more often than one might hope that two residents find themselves in an irreconcilable conflict, to the point where preventing them from violent altercations with each other proves impossible. Where this happens, every attempt is made to resolve the conflict peaceably, using methods from counseling to mediation to moving residents from one dormitory to another. Should all of this fail, however, male residents are allowed to challenge each other to a boxing match in order to settle things between them. (Once again, this is in line with Christanian culture; specifically their long history of dueling, which by tradition has thankfully been limited to nonlethal practices.) When this is the case, the utmost care is taken to ensure that it is a fair fight. First, both men must be cleared to fight by the medical staff. Second, it must be mutually consented-to; both parties are interviewed separately by staff to make sure they want to go through with it, and if either says no, then some medical excuse will be concocted in order to cancel the fight without loss of face. But if both are able and willing, then they are permitted to face each other in the ring, with a referee (another trustee duty) and a doctor present, under Christanian Boxing Association rules of conduct. This too, will be scheduled for Sunday evening, and though (of course) His Majesty and His Excellency would prefer that such confrontations never come to pass, they are frequent enough that the large audiences of residents that are attracted by them rarely go very long between opportunities to see one.

With the sole exception of this outlet for male aggression, physical violence of any kind is strictly forbidden at a CC. Furthermore, any crime of any sort committed by a resident will be referred to a constable, who will arrest them and make sure they are remanded for trial by the proper authorities. Other than that, the rules at a CC are straightforward: no illicit intoxicants or sexual activity (The Christanians are upright people, but hardly naive about what can happen when people – especially men – are brought together in close quarters without access to the opposite sex. They are also of a decidedly non-modern mindset when it comes to the subject of sodomy.), no intimidation or hazing, no general troublemaking, and no loafing. Trustees may come up with methods to deal with minor violations of these rules, but severe or repeated cases will result in expulsion, which is the only real punishment on offer at a CC.

While the residents work in the fields, the staff (including residents restricted to office duty) will be busy finding work and housing for them so that they can leave and become independent again. Every effort is made to place residents with, or close to, friends and family, and often the staff manages to connect with those on the outside who are close to a resident in order to find a placement for them. For those without addiction or mental health problems, and who found themselves destitute only through unfortunate circumstance, stays are typically short in duration. Though the recidivism rate at CC’s is higher than anyone would like to see (the ideal rate, of course, being zero), it is low enough to convince the Christanians that their system is the most effective at actually lifting people out of poverty of any nation on Earth.

Thus does the pious, prosperous, peaceful, and orderly Kingdom of Christania face the problem of need within its borders. And while the Christanians would never presume to impose their system on any other people (nor ever will they suffer a foreign system being imposed on them), they are not shy about recommending its virtues to anyone who may inquire about it. Perhaps here in the welfare states of the West, we consider our system to be such a success that no other should be considered, and yet – and here I beg the pardon of the many generations of credentialed experts with degrees from the likes of Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, Harvard, and Princeton who designed our own antipoverty programs from atop their ivory towers, secure in the knowledge that their understanding of economics and human nature far exceeded that of not only the benighted ancients, but of the very living God Himself – I cannot help but wonder whether those backward, old-fashioned Christanians might be on to something after all.

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