Church bells have been ringing since the 7th century to mark the hours for prayer, day by day. In 1188, the leaders of Tournai, Belgium, got permission from the king to build the first belfry designed to use for town business — like calling assemblies and warning of invasion. Before long, like I found out down the road in Bruges, the church and town had a competition for who had the highest tower. If you look at Philadelphia, it is easy to see who won that contest around here. We got our annual shooing at the Comcast Center during Holy Week, as a few of us dared to to bring up Jesus at the foot of the master’s tower.
By 1309, Milan had installed the first mechanical clock in the basilica to chime the secular hours of the day so we could all conform to a machine and get to work on time. So the modern age began. In 1863, Karl Marx wrote to Friedrich Engels to say, “The entire theory of the production of uniform movement was guided by the clock.” What’s more, the clock represented the essence of science: precision. Societal change followed the mechanical clock like a landslide, burying the holy seasons of the church year. Soon the civic year started on January 1 and everyone had a standard calendar. Now the clock’s descendants define our days — ATMs dispense our money and phones tell us when to get up.
Subverting the first sprouts of capitalism
All this change began in the century of Francis of Assisi. Part of his great inspiration and genius started with instinctively refusing to go along with any of it, starting with his own father. It is hard to follow one’s heavenly father unless you turn from the earthly one — especially if the earthly one is enthusiastically contributing to the town’s bell tower! Bernardo di Quintavalle and Chiara Offreduccio were right in step with Francis, all of them feeling disquiet about what was going on. Capitalism was being born; and they weren’t having it. When the first Franciscans did the opposite of the new capitalists their parents were becoming, they felt joy. They gave away instead of hoarded, they served instead of paying as little as possible to their servants, they looked toward getting less than getting more, they shared instead of competing. They suffered, but they felt a kind of joy they had only dreamed of.
After Francis “stole” a bolt of cloth to pay for repairs he felt commanded to make at the church in San Damiano, he came out of hiding a month later to face the consequences. That’s when he gave back everything he had from his father, including his name, and walked out of Assisi naked. His father cursed him every time he saw him from then on. When Francis went to town, he asked a beggar to go with him. Should his father see him and curse him, the beggar made the sign of the cross over him to provide a fatherly blessing. People thought he was nuts.
On my retreat in Assisi, I realized I had rejected my father’s capitalist dreams for me at about the same age Francis did. He said he would no longer pay for my room and board if I did not get back on course to becoming a lawyer. Instead, I threw it all away to build the church. My father did not curse me, but he certainly thought I was a fool. I felt inexpressible freedom.
Francis was a fool. And even though he is still loved by millions, the Comcast Tower looms over us. Capitalism and science have transformed the world and we are afraid to raise our children to be actual Jesus-followers because it is like sending them into the wilderness. Who will marry a Christian? How will they get food? Will they be happy if they feel guilty for having a Cuisinart while thousands of Africans are about to starve to death this week? If they don’t line up with Eurocentric supremacy, will they be rejected and impoverished? Don’t they need to get the best schooling so they can keep up with the process of death-defying nanotechnology?
There are many good examples for our rebellion
What do you think? Have you ever rebelled against your parents, who are very likely ancestors of the first capitalists who called Francis (and maybe you) a fool? Jesus needed to rebel against his family, and they wanted to follow God! It says, “The crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind’” (Mark 3:20-21). Much more do we need to rebel against a society that follows Mammon, evaluating every minute as to its profit or loss.
We have many good examples of how to rebel. I think Francis of Assisi is still a great example. But you could just visit Jess and Josh Mints for a lesson on urban farming over in Kensington. Or look at our thrift store directors: Martha Grace for our Circle Thrift stores and Christina Saritsoglou for Philly AIDS Thrift, who work for lower than normal wages to serve their cause. Talk to any number of the social workers and teachers among us. Or investigate the community houses like the Simple Way. Get to know the foster parents. Get to know the Debt Annihilation Team. Befriend an MCC worker. Imagine what it is like to be your pastor working for a relatively low wage, trusting the body to take care of his or her family. These are all rebellious choices against capitalist ancestors. Every time you create community in your cell, use the Share Board and create a Common Fund, you are also creating an alternative.
Your phone might have been beeping your next obligation to Big Brother while you were reading this. We are being watched over by a huge web of technology. But every beep is another opportunity to do the opposite, in some joyful, subversive way in order to freely follow Jesus!