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 On Poverty, Chastity and Obedience

On Poverty, Chastity and Obedience

Alastair McIntosh

Published (and slightly expanded here) in A Living Quaker Witness to the Earth, produced by “The Earth: Our Creative Responsibility Group” of Quaker Peace and Social Witness, Quaker Books, London, 2003, £5, pp. 18-19.


I grew up in a “green” context - a rural community in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. But as I have shown in my book, Soil and Soul, it was not until we started to lose providential resources like our fisheries that we realised what we’d taken for granted.

It can be like this not just with the environment, but also in our relationships with one another, and even with God. “Familiarity breeds contempt”, said Mark Twain, and it is often not until we suffer loss of the familiar that we appreciate its value, and perhaps too late.

Twain’s is a cynical, depressing and ultimately a Hellish insight, but it is one we don’t have to remain stuck with. There is an alternative, and it’s called “spirituality” - the study and practice of all that gives life; of life that is grounded in love made manifest.

Spirituality means entering into “the sacrament of the present moment”. It’s about becoming more and more present to what’s all around us, seeing how everything is interconnected as branches on the Vine of Life.

The vine, we might imagine, has three branches. Each expresses right relationship - with nature, with society and with God. Such is the fullness of community.

Much of my work in recent years has been expressed through Scotland’s Centre for Human Ecology. It has included land reform on the Isle of Eigg, advising Muslims on countering Islamophobia, helping unemployed Glasgow youth to recover their cultural roots, and annually addressing 400 senior officers at military staff college on nonviolence.

I think of such work, which is for social, ecological and religious justice, as being “spiritual activism”. I draw from many religious traditions and integrating the femininity of God is particularly important to me. I also love looking at old stories and traditions with eyes to suit our times.

For example, I find a direct parallel between the three temptations of Christ in Luke 4, and the temptation to violate the three branches of community. To change stones into bread would have short-circuited nature’s providence, and gradually destroyed it in much the same way that industrial agriculture is now doing. To succumb to landed power by accepting kingdoms would have violated social right relationship. And to put God to the test by jumping from the pinnacle would have been to abuse spiritual power.

Each of these temptations is about breaking one of the three branches of community – with soil, society and soul. They are powerfully relevant to the witness of Friends (Quakers) today and, indeed, to all whose spiritual traditions are grounded in the transcendental love that renders community a consequence of interconnection.

A related theme I’ve been exploring in order to seek from them fresh meaning, are the so-called “Evangelical Counsels” of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Poverty, as we see from Jesus’ own life, is about living in simplicity but with “daily bread” sufficiency. It means neither grasping at wealth nor refusing the wise men’s gifts, or the loving woman’s perfumed attentions or the wedding feast’s abundant wine when they providentially come our way. True sufficiency is the paradox of rich poverty.

Obedience (from ob-audire – to hear or listen) is about discerning the way of God within. It has nothing to do with obeying parents, church hierarchies, or any other external authority, unless we’re moved so to do. Rather, it’s about being true to our innermost selves. Earlier English usage of the term better captures a Taoist sense of its meaning, as when, for example, Shakespeare spoke of ‘floating … obedient to the streame.’

And … chastity! It is a common error to confuse this with celibacy. Chastity simply means “purity” – as in “chaste friendship”. It should be equated with celibacy only where sex is inappropriate. To live chastely is to base our relationships on radical psychological honesty. Without this, a lasting and richly fulfilling love life is quite impossible.

The Evangelical Counsels thereby sustain the three branches of community. They protect against abusing natural power, social power and spiritual power. We have here a lay monastic ethic suitable for our times. What hope, and what fun!  


The Triune Basis of Community – In 3 x 3 Summary 

1st Temptation  


Turn stones into bread

2nd Temptation   


Acquire kingdoms

3rd Temptation  


Put God to the test

Abuse nature’s power, so violating community with the Earth

Abuse social power, so violating community with one another

Abuse spiritual power, so violating community with God

The protection of Poverty – living the richness of simple providential sufficiency

The protection of Chastity – living “chaste friendship” in psychological honesty

The protection of Obedience – living in accordance with the voice within


Alastair McIntosh is a Scottish Friend and a Fellow of Edinburgh’s Centre for Human Ecology where he teaches on the Open University validated MSc degree course. His book, Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power (Aurum Press, £12.99) has been described by George Monbiot as “a world-changing book”. Many of his papers are available online at www.AlastairMcIntosh.com.


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10 July 2003

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