The Least of These

Despite criticisms to the contrary, the pre-Reformation church did have concerns about the average person. About the poor. In those days church offices commanded a good deal more esteem than they currently do among the populace, and being a priest was a position of power. The concern for the quotidian human—at least of the Christian variety—was demonstrated in All Souls’ Day. Although the date migrated around the calendar before settling on November 2, it came part of one of the very serious (days of obligation) annual celebrations along with All Saints’ Day, November 1. It was recognized that not everybody could be a saint, and all the faithful departed deserved a special day of commemoration. Through a complicated history this two-day celebration came to be associated with Celtic beliefs about the crossover day between worlds, samhain, giving birth to Halloween. It seems appropriate on All Souls’ Day to think about the poor.

An article in the Washington Post reports on findings that poor children, in their words, “that do everything right don’t do as well as rich kids who do everything wrong.” There are indeed deficits that attend the poor all their lives. Those of us who began in such circumstances can sometimes break through in a system that favors the upper classes, but it is rare. Good paying jobs are reserved for friends of the wealthy or to those who might pay them back in some way. The poor have little to offer beyond their souls. Our system, the so-called “free market” deals in souls. The poor are, make no mistake, chattels. Even in higher education, where we’d like to think thinkers think, positions are granted based on privilege. The loftier music and liturgy is, after all, reserved for All Saints’ Day.

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Like many raised in humble circumstances, I grew up hearing about the American dream. If you work hard you can succeed. But that really depends on who you know and how much they’re willing to help out. Stats are now beginning to back up what those of us who have lived experience in the lower register already knew. Having faced it throughout my career, I know I’m not alone. Just the other day I met someone else who grew up poor who’d hit the bullet-proof ceiling carefully installed by children of privilege. Not ambitious beyond desiring the basic comforts of a job that covers the bills and allows for some reasonable amount of surplus against lean times is, it seems, more than the wealthy are willing to grant. After all, All Saints’ must come before All Souls’, for even Heaven has its hierarchies.


Buying the Kingdom

Who doesn’t admire the presidential wannabe who can take a personal hit without flinching? We are, after all, a nation of tough-minded individualists who think they know quite a lot about God and the way the universe works. So Donald Trump has been, according to Steve Benen on MSNBC, been saying the Bible is his favorite book. As Benen notes, when asked to point to some specifics, the ultra-rich contender prevaricates, recently saying that of the Testaments, he liked both equally. I wonder which verses are really his favorites? I’m guessing Proverbs 11.28 must be among them: “He that trusteth in his riches shall fall; but the righteous shall flourish as a branch.” Or 28.22, “He that hasteth to be rich hath an evil eye, and considereth not that poverty shall come upon him.” Or maybe Ecclesiastes 10.6, “Folly is set in great dignity, and the rich sit in low place.” It could be that the New Testament has a slight edge over the Old. “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven,” (Matthew 19.23) must be right up there. Or Luke 6.24, “But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation.” Maybe James 5.1, “Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you.”

Actually, a near constant vexation to those who try to take the Bible seriously is it’s refusal to take one position on wealth. Written by many people over hundreds of years, it is clear no single viewpoint emerges. Wealth is considered both a blessing and a curse. One thing, however, that the Bible refuses to countenance is the presence of great wealth while poverty still exists. Those who have riches are expected to make sure everyone has enough before enjoying their surplus. Who among the one percent, no matter how much they claim to give away, can ever honestly claim the Bible as their favorite book? There are places where the rich are let off easy, but they are few. Wealth corrupts, and those who have riches in great abundance don’t come off looking good. Still, you can’t be a presidential candidate without the Bible. And money.

I can think of no better use of the Bible as an iconic book than Trump’s claims to valuing it as his favorite, if private, book. This is a Bible containing no words. It is a hollow leather shell that can be used to buy votes—spiritual currency of the highest market value. When is the last time someone could be a non-religious candidate for the highest office in the land? If you can buy your way into the White House, you can surely buy it into Heaven as well. Every god has his price. If I were a rich man running for the presidency, I’d put my money in needles. If I were a literalist, I’d have one cast so large that I could easily walk through. This would be my best chance to inherit every possible kingdom through the use of money.

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Underrepresented

Underrepresented groups, I am told, are eagerly sought by academic institutions. The white male establishment has begun to develop a conscience, it seems. If I appear more credulous than an academic should be, it’s because I grew up poor. While I have no doubts that the entrenched power structures need to change, in an unguarded moment I wonder about the obvious overlooked financial demographic. What of the poor? I’m told by my friends with academic posts that universities are eager to find authentic poor folk—working class people who’ve worked they’re way up. To me, as one such person, this is another academic myth. Even a “white” man can struggle. If you’re born into an uneducated, blue-collar, paycheck-to-paycheck family, getting ahead is often sublimated survival. Those who’ve had me in class may not believe that I grew up with red-neck family values. Duck Dynasty? Well, in my case it was more a case of Deer Destruction, but I lived in a small, industrial, rust-belt town on the edge of the woods. From middle school on I worked to buy my own clothes for school which, I could always tell, were bargain rack compared to other kids who’s parents struggled less. In times of stress (and they are many) I find myself slipping back toward my blue-collar days and wondering just what is wrong with privileged America.

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I don’ t pretend to have grown up in abject poverty. My wife, from a middle class family, was, however, a victim of culture shock when she first visited the house I grew up in. (I still end sentences with prepositions from time to time.) And that was after the improvements. College was my choice and was paid for by my own work since parental contributions hovered somewhere around the zero line. Along the way I learned to act like others. I even became Episcopalian and most of my “peers” had no idea I didn’t really fit in. I say all this not for pity, but because of a deep conviction that the poor are the hidden demographic. We, as a society, need people to take away our garbage and plow the snow from our streets and dig our ditches. We don’t really want them educated since, well, they would be overqualified. Disgruntled. Our institutions may say they want to hire them, but they lie. The poor make the affluent uncomfortable even as they make them comfortable.

In my campus experience (which, all told, comes to over 25 years) I always found talking to the grounds or maintenance staff more comfortable than the academic staff. I understood where they were coming from. Even now as I wonder how I’m going to afford to get the car fixed, I recall conversations around the more practical matters of life with which I grew up: how to make sure poorly insulated pipes don’t freeze up in winter. Eating venison, or coming home to find carp that a neighbor caught swimming sluggishly in the bathtub were not unknown. While I didn’t go to bed hungry, the food available made me wonder what was in front of me in some fancy restaurants in San Diego. If academe is serious about understanding the poor, they’re going to have to start listening to them. And when they form a department of red-neck studies, they’ll hire someone from an established academic family with an Ivy League degree to lead it. I’ve always been more credulous than I should be.


Parable of Jericho

It had been there my entire life. I hadn’t really noticed it, but it was a powerful symbol—not in the way that it was intended to be. Given the Teutonic nature of many of my musings, it probably occasions little surprise that much of my ancestry is German. I first heard about the Berlin Wall in German class in junior high school. It was a wall to ensure inequality. Then, while studying in Edinburgh, my wife and I came across a friend from Germany. He was standing outside a window, staring in at a television showing the Berlin Wall coming down. Younger than me, he couldn’t believe that this obstacle that seemed so permanent was finally, and suddenly gone. The next summer when we visited him in Germany, he took us to the former border between east and west. Bridges eerily stopped half-way across rivers. Sudden changes in affluence and outlook once you drove across an invisible line that separated us from them. It was all so surreal.

Photo credit: George Louis, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: George Louis, Wikimedia Commons

This week heralds the quarter-century mark on the fall of one of the starkest symbols of the Cold War. People hating people. And as the wall in Berlin came down, walls were about to be erected in other states around the world. Not-so-Great walls intended to keep them from getting to us. We stubbornly refuse to learn from history. Those who have have little patience with those who have not. The borders are all only in our minds. Even as the wealthy elites within our system refuse to admit that crime largely comes from unequal distribution of resources, our own nation looks at others and makes the same tacit refusal to acknowledge the obvious. If wealth is so good, why not share it?

Of course, you can buy a piece of the Berlin Wall. Anything from a fist-sized chunk to several tons. The websites say that the wall is of limited quantity. Buy your piece before it’s all gone. I’m afraid their fears are misplaced. The wall pieces may not come from Berlin, but there will always be pieces available, some day, from the West Bank Barrier, or the Peace Walls of Belfast, or the Green Line in Cyprus, or Operation-Hold-the-Line in the Lone Star State. There are many walls that eventually must tumble. Ironically the prophets of the biblical world declare that every hill will be brought down and every valley lifted up to ease the way back home. Of course, once you arrive at home you naturally lock the door to keep the other out. And now, a quarter century after the embarrassment of Berlin faltered, we continue to erect new follies rather than trying to learn to get along.


Blessed Art Thou?

blessed“Con man” derives from the disparaging use of the term “confidence man,” as applied to those whose promised deliverables never appear, if they ever existed at all. History is filled with roguish con men who populate movies and popular biographies. Among their ranks have been hawkers of spiritual wares, but the institutionalization of religious profiteering is fairly new. Even growing up in a Fundamentalist setting, I don’t recall ever hearing of the “prosperity gospel.” Although I can’t in good conscience accept the distorted theology of the literalists, at least I can say that they are mostly an honest bunch with a high threshold for supernatural interference in daily life, if sometimes rationally challenged. The prosperity gospel is far more insidious.

Kate Bowler’s Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel was my first attempt to deal with the phenomenon academically. Bowler traces the movement to strains that appeared earlier than I might have guessed. Nevertheless, its fruit is rotted on the tree of greed, and it has nothing to do with historical spiritual seeking. One of the few things over which the Bible doesn’t equivocate is the corrupting influence of wealth. The needle has been jammed into the eye of the gospel in this confidence scheme. “Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.” How did this become transformed into “bring your family jewels if you don’t have cash; our accountants can liquidate your heritage for the extreme comfort and obscenely expensive lifestyle of your ‘pastor’”? In a church of 10,000 how much does your pastor care for you? I would never join a church where the shepherd did not know my name.

Bowler does an admirable job maintaining academic neutrality in Blessed. She explores the central concepts, copied from the very entrepreneurial ledger of the root of all evil. Nevertheless the prosperity gospel remains terribly hollow, shallow, and callow. The mere suggestion that wealth equates blessing in a world where millions suffer for lack of basic needs is unconscionable. One could even be justified in saying “wicked.” What kind of god takes food from the mouth of a hungry child to give it to those who have more than enough? I grew up knowing some want. I also grew up knowing that my grandmother had religiously supported a millionaire who said, “expect a miracle” week after week and then claimed the Lord would take him if he didn’t raise 8 million dollars in the first three months of 1987. Meanwhile the Evangelist still enjoyed great wealth for two more decades when he heeded the call home. All the while those far more worthy perished for lack of bread and clean water. This is neither prosperity nor gospel. Of this I’m utterly confident.


Two Sparrows

Once I found a baby bird blown from its nest. Many future priests had walked by already that morning, not even noticing. At first I thought it was dead, but then it lifted its head weakly and opened its beak in a soundless cry for its mother. Afraid to touch it, I pulled on some gloves, took it home and called the local animal rescue center. With my daughter keeping the chick warm in the backseat, we drove down the country roads hoping the little thing would survive at least long enough to get professional help. When the trees leafed out and the air warmed up that summer, I received a call from Animals in Need. The bird had survived and was ready for release—would I like to let it go near where I found it? They had worked hard to prevent habituation, and I brought the bird home in a paper grocery bag that it occasionally tested to see if it could find its way out. With my daughter, I opened the bag in the woods and the bird was gone in a flash. We barely saw it as it flew to freedom.

If I were a rich man, well, I guess I would run for president. Perhaps it was being overseas for a week, but the presidential race seemed to fall from the news with Santorum’s demise (if ever I believed in divine intervention, it was on the day he dropped out of the race). Of course, those in Britain who knew me wondered about the carnival characters running for the “most powerful man” job. So we’re now left with a very wealthy man who’s just like the rest of us. Ironically, I’ve been thinking about the Bible—an occupational hazard—and wondering when the ideal of Jesus’ teaching was forgotten in the haste to become the richest Christian on the block (or empire, as the case may be). The disconnect couldn’t be sharper between the man who said that if you wanted to please God you had to give all your material goods away and a man running for public servant has more money than the last eight presidents combined. And Reagan was no slouch on the financial end. Where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.

I can’t remember the last time I felt valued by a politician. At least the Democratic candidates attempt the lessen the suffering of the poor a little bit, but I still see people sleeping in the streets. The roller coaster that is the economy demonstrates its unfeeling course as some get rich then plunge to the depths only to soar out of them again into sunny spaces. According to the Gospels, Jesus said not a sparrow falls to the ground without God knowing it. Apparently that little bird I was privileged to rescue was part of the divine plan. That guy sleeping on the subway grate over there trying to keep warm? Well, the politicians apparently can’t see him, and I wonder if the God who watches the sparrows has noticed either.

Not a sparrow (golden pheasant)


Brother, Can You Spare a Term?

Last Friday the Chronicle of Higher Education had a blog post asking how NTT (Non-Tenure Track) faculty pay the rent. In the light of recent news stories about the nascent gathering of data on the forgotten generation of scholars, universities are finally starting to scratch their heads and wonder, like Frankenstein, what they’ve created. Well, the article asked a question and invited responses. I couldn’t help myself—six scary years of my life were spent in that dark chasm of no security—and since I offered a few sentences about my experience, email reminders popped up for the next several hours when other comments were added. It made for a depressing day. All day long stories appeared of women and men with PhDs who live on food stamps, fall behind in their rent, and even cancel the classes the unsuspecting parents pay so much for because they can’t afford gas for their cars. Meanwhile, let’s build a new stadium.

Education is the most important invention of all time. Without it we’d still be warming our toes around the fire in our cave, wearing smelly animal skins. The natural enemy of education is sometimes the institution. Institutions, especially those that continually turn an envious eye towards corporations (often among the least enlightened of human ventures) as a model for emulation, are steering a sinking ark. Both church and university have become poster children for the corruption that creeps so insidiously into organized structures that have lost the way of pure intentions. The call of the wealth is far more savage than the call of the wild. The wolf pack does not devour its own.

Well-paid industrial analysts, I’m sure, are being offered handsome sums to figure out how to make universities more efficient. University presidents and sports coaches drawing down six-or-seven figure salaries shrug their flummoxed shoulders—what could possibly be the problem? Perhaps we need even more upper-level administration to sit and think this out. Meanwhile parents stressed to their financial wit’s end are slowly beginning to learn that the ones teaching their daughters and sons are the adjuncts who now make up well over half the teaching force in higher education. I would not presume to guess which direction higher education is going. It does seem entirely probable, however, that when the wolves are done with this meal, a scattering of bare bones will be all that’s left. After all, in the wild a lone wolf is a dead wolf.

The corporate emblem.


Sheep, Goats, and Preferred Customers

The American dream, at least for many idealists, includes a classless society. Class has less to do with individual wealth than it does with a sense of entitlement or importance. During an election year we hear politicians advocating such utopian ideals, at least until they get into office. When is the last time you’ve seen a politician flying coach? I have had to fly quite a lot lately, and nothing underscores the rampant sense of self-importance as flying. First class passengers are pampered and fussed over while those of us of more humble means—or who work for more frugal companies—are treated with such condescension that Amtrak actually starts to look pretty good. Nowhere is this more evident than the mythical construct of “boarding lanes.” Anyone who has flown knows that, like in death, we all have to pass through that same narrow jet-way to get to our destination. There is one door and we all walk through it—even the flight crew. I’ve flown several airlines that now offer preferred customers the dubious advantage of boarding the plane through some kind of special “lane” that is in reality a ratty looking carpet that reinforces that some passengers are more equal than others.

Even religions that began as egalitarian enterprises soon constructed their own stratified societies. When’s the last time a bishop came calling, or even deigned to look your way? It’s not leadership that is at issue here, but the sense of superiority that comes with it. Can someone lead without the need of putting others in their place first? I have known some wealthy people, and occasionally met some very wealthy people, who have laid aside pretension and confessed that they were lucky enough to get a good deal. Such people, it seems, are rare. The fact is that hard work sometimes only leads to backaches and headaches, not personal advancement. And yet we literally roll out the red carpet for those who want to board first. If the plane goes down, we all go down together.

I realize that airline gimmicks are merely strategies to get some people to pay more for basically the same services as those in economy class. Oh, maybe your first class meal is complimentary, but it is still airline food. The pressurized cabin air we breathe we breathe in common, even with a thin curtain between us. Some of us have thinner wallets than others, and perhaps even thinner skin. But still we can dream. Looking down on the towns and cities of this great egalitarian experiment from 40,000 feet, everyone looks pretty small. Rich and poor alike are so tiny that you can’t even see one single individual even if you tried. That is the metaphor that perhaps sums up best the experience of flying. My sole has never touched the special carpet of privilege, I am frisked and prodded by strangers while first class customers are above suspicion, and I hear very wealthy men braying why I should elect them to lead this classless society. Time for a reality check. Step this way, sir, and spread your feet a little further. This will only take a minute.

Who's who?


Tolerance, Princeton Style

Princeton is an idealistic kind of town. A seat of great wealth, the town is dominated by the university and yet it manages to retain a sense of genteel quaintness that so often accompanies the aura of financial security. Even with my distrust of money, I love to wander its streets and imagine what the world could be like. My ideal world has bookstores, and so I always stop at the Labyrinth, the current incarnation of the university bookstore in town. Last time I was there I found an overstock sale copy of Ian Buruma’s Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents. Well, both the price and the topic were right, so I read it this week. Buruma is actually a scholar of democracy, human rights, and journalism, not religion. One of the key identifiers of religion is that there is no central, unifying topic that ties all religions together, and therefore scholars of many disciplines have much to say about it. Buruma offers three chapters illustrating the way that religions interact with society, often violently. He then tenders suggestions for how this violence might be curbed.

Commenting on tensions of Islamic growth in a nominally Christian Europe, Buruma notes that one of the Enlightenment core values is a belief in universals. If truth is truth it is universal. This, he notes, often conflicts with religions since most religions also tend to make universal, often exclusive, claims. Here is precisely where human culture is brought to its knees by religion. Due to their revealed nature, western religions cannot be challenged on any rational grounds. This is as true of Mormonism as it is of Judaism. If God said it, and there is no empirical proof, people have no choice but to obey. Problem is, God can’t make up “his” mind about the final word on the subject. New religions sprout constantly, growing into inevitable conflict with their neighbors. Not to mention those who have reasoned their way out of religion.

What is the limit of religious tolerance? As Buruma notes, tolerance necessarily includes tolerating intolerance. Some religions are constrained to be intolerant of others, and how do we allow them to be part of our little tea party? (The metaphor is intentional. Think about it.) Buruma suggests, as many have, that the rule of law should settle the situation. People must learn to separate civil law from religion. But can it be done? I have serious doubts. I’ve heard this suggested before, by minds far greater than mine. Having grown up as a religious kid, however, I know that rule of law has its limits. It stops once God opens the door to direct revelation, whether to people today or thousands of years ago. Religion is not bound by the rule of law. It is its own highest authority. Many, many people throughout the world believe that. Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, all are noted to have had clashes with civil authorities of one sort or another during their lifetimes. The pattern is set. So even here in Princeton, with an engaging, thoughtful book in my greedy little hands, surrounded by great wealth, I realize just how idealistic all of it can be.