Over the generations, those of us in the Brethren movement have claimed “simple living” as a core value. Of course, as with any socio-spiritual conviction we’ve found vastly different ways of living in ways we might consider simple. It used to be plain clothes and abstaining from anything that might be considered “fancy.” More recently we’ve taken to focusing on living within our means, not falling prey to the prevalent consumer culture that surrounds us, or not relying on consumer credit to buy luxuries we can’t really afford.

Another way that many folks I know have taken to living simply involves trying to opt-out of complex corporate/industrial systems that are seen as working against the common good of all humanity. Yet it seems that such efforts often lead to a lifestyle that is far from simple, at least when judged by our traditional ideas of simplicity.

A prime example of this seemingly-oxymoronic way toward simple living is the attempt to live more locally.

There’s no denying we live in a world where globalization is almost impossible to avoid. Don’t believe me? Then take an inventory from the time you wake up tomorrow morning, recording the point of origin for everything you come in contact with. My guess is you will have traveled around the globe before you even leave your bedroom.

Surely there are advantages to such a system, but there are also ways in which such complexity has deeply impacted how we think about life and the world around us. Let’s take food as an example here. Of all the food you’ve eaten in the last week, how much of it can you say for certain where it was grown? (Remember, even if it comes in a box or can from the grocery store it had to start by growing somewhere!) Do you know who grew it? How it was grown? Whether those who grew it were treated fairly and whether the health of the earth was taken into account? Are these not issues that relate to our faith? The complexity of our corporate/industrial food system (and any other such system) serves to remove us from these questions, reducing our interactions to lowest prices and pretty packages. How can we live more simply, in a way that reconnects us with the neighbors who grow our food and make our “stuff”?

Opting out of such systems may be a way toward simple living, but it’s not all that easy. Last Monday I was attempting to fix dinner for 6-8 people without driving my car or shopping at any store that wasn’t locally owned. It took twice as long and probably cost 25-50% more than simply hopping in the car and driving to the mega-mart. Does that really count as simple living? Is it possible for a lifestyle that intentionally spends more time and money on the necessities of life could qualify as simple? This is a question I continue to wrestle with, but I think the answer is yes.

Living simply, with intentionality and purpose, is often more difficult than simply going along with the prevailing norms and patterns. It’s tempting to take a narrow view of what simple living means and to think only in terms of the things we abstain from doing or how we save time or money by living efficiently. Yet when you get down to it, living in ways that respect and value other people the way Jesus did is not easy – it goes against the systems that prevail in modern life, with their dehumanizing drive for the bottom line.

Simple living is complicated. (Don’t let the name fool you!)

In your own life, how have you experienced this tension between simplicity, complexity, and complicity? How have you opted-out of dehumanizing systems in the name of faithful, simple living? When have you found the challenge to be too great? What wisdom might you share with us as we all seek to travel this journey we call faith – peacefully, simply, and together with all of creation?

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