Christian Pacifism’s Unintentional Martyrs

This post is done in conjunction with the #TheNewPacifism blogathon hosted by our friends at Political Jesus. All the my posts on this series can be found here.

War is not the only – nor, would I argue, the greatest single – form of violence in the world. If we were to take a much wider and necessary lens to the subject of violence, I propose that we consider three primary forms through which it comes: Poverty, sexism, and racism/ethnicism. Because war is special; it is declared; it is relatively infrequent; it is targeted. Yet poverty, racism, and misogyny are underlying and ignored facets of reality and the violence they wage are enfleshed and lived out every moment and in myriad and dynamic ways.

Those who do not believe that poverty is the basest of evils have never had the privilege of meeting poverty and its hunger, want, need, constant fear and worry. Nothing else kills as many people per day. Nothing else cuts the lives of children shorter, reduces men, women and children to mere numbers, consumable goods and numbers. Pacifists who consider war to be a great violence because of sheer lives killed are like anti-abortionists who only care about the life before birth, but not about the quality of life – not about abuse, neglect, health and well-being, or, well, poverty. They focus on lives being killed rather than lives being stolen and impacted.

We cannot look at any form of violence – whether it be poverty, war, or colonialism – without considering the weight of racism/ethnicism within it. What allows us to conquer and conquest a people is the evil internalized machinery that otherizes our fellow human being. We are so callously brutal to our fellow person because the evils of racism allow us to view them as brutes and bugs in need of destruction on the one end, in need of our rescuing on the other – but for most of us who reside somewhere in the ambivalent center, they remain the targets of our pity or the forgotten of our imagination – pushed out to the margins of remembrance. Here is the radical notion: People of color are human and are made in God’s image. The violence that befalls on them – whether through abusive microaggressions such as iconography and words that ostracize or stigmatize or institutional apartheid such as in South Africa of the 1980’s and Chicago of now – is not accidental. And we, White Christians, allow it through nullification, marginalization, and justification. Many Christian pacifists took to the blogosphere when Mark Driscoll said that pacifism is wimpy, but where was the outcry when Christian preacher John MacArthur said that slavery is a neutral good? Or when slavery apologist Douglas Wilson was saying he isn’t racist, but black people need to listen to him.

Misogyny is the premise that half of the human population is not quite fully human – that half of the population deserves to be the object of male sexual, psychological, and physical violence. But yet misogyny is the devil most often ignored or downplayed by Christian pacifists – the overwhelming majority of whom are white, economically-advantaged, and male. It is the physical and sexual abuse of women ignored by a party that largely idolizes a man, Yoder, while ignoring or downplaying his serial sexual assaults on women? Let us be unwavering here: Sexual assault is violence! Christian pacifism follows another man who had problematic statements telling Christians that their sex organs are not theirs* – a familiar Christian teaching with deep roots into Christian rape culture.

White Christian pacifists need to grapple with and antagonize over these demons within their leadership before they find they have much to say among themselves, least over the bodies of underprotected women and children who are taught to sacrifice themselves for the cause of peace.

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It is with disembodied detachment that Christian pacifists imagine scenarios that they have little experience in (“What if I saw a man attacking his girlfriend? How shall I act to not cause harm to the man?”), giving priestly advice to those who very seriously want to follow and honor God, but in the process teaching them to privilege their attacker more than themselves. This goes above and beyond Jesus’ teachings about loving our neighbors.

Christian pacifism needs less theoretical scenarios and more space for analytical praxis. It needs to be based on life lived within and amongst the violence.

Christians – and particularly any Christian men interested in pacifism – need to listen deeply and long to the stories of those who suffer and/or survive domestic – or economic, racial, or sexual – violence before we offer even suggestions for what they should or could do in any given situation. More importantly, we need to reduce sexual oppression that allows for and justifies wife-beating and rape culture.

Middle Class, Male, White Christians are not in a place to forget those who bear the brunt of our social, economic, or sexual sins. Nor are we in a place to put them on a pedestal nor demonize them. No one who believes that all of humanity is made in the image of God can dear afford to Other our fellow God-bearers. Doing so reduces each of us and reduces our God to nothingness.

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*In the Stanley Hauerwas Reader we find this (italics mine):

Christians, to be more specific, do not believe that we have a right to do whatever we want with our bodies. We do not believe that we have a right to our bodies because when we are baptized we become members of one another; then we can tell one another what it is that we should and should not do with our bodies. I had a colleague at the University of Norte Dame who taught Judaica. He was Jewish and always said that any religion that does no tell you what to do with your genitals and pots and pans cannot be interesting. That is exactly true. In the church we tell you what you can and cannot do with your genitals. They are not your own. They are not private. That means that you cannot commit adultery. If you do, you are no longer a member of “us.” Of course, post and pans are equally important.

Because pots and pans and privates are the same, y’all!

How About a Laborer’s Day?

A good many of us poverty workers look at the recognition of Labor Day as a tiny concession to the sacrifices of the working class and the historical rallies of unions and socialist forces. But it’s not much of an honor in reality. After all, if (IF) we get the day off, it’s rarely paid for, particularly if we’re part-time and paid hourly. How could labor be honored today? By honoring the labors and lives of all the laborers.

Previously we had talked about the cray-cray things conservatives do and say to deny even the most basic of wage increases for the poor. And, in light of the anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (over at Forward Progressives where I also occasionally blog, I talked about how job payment and poverty are still vastly unequal for women and People of Color) fell right before Labor Day (a kind of Capitalist rejoinder to the scarier but internationally celebrated May Day) and both are in the middle of the rising fast food and service worker demonstrations, it is high time to talk about not just wage equity, but respect to the worker, respect to the family, respect to the poor, respect to the backbone of this country.

Workers should be allowed to mobilize without being treated like criminals. Should be allowed to petition for livable working conditions without being stigmatized and labeled lazy. Should be allowed to apply for livable wages without propaganda from corporate media that makes us appear lazy, unwilling, and unfit to balance a checkbook. Should be able to redress our bosses for grievances without being lectured to or threatened with termination.

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What kind of a civilization demands everything from you and then crushes your back when you demand fair return? What kind of a civilization says that those at the top with all of our robbed riches deserve our food, blood, children, and bones?

Not only is the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour too low for most that aren’t somehow independently wealthy (say, a teenager living at home that doesn’t need extra income – I’ve had several students in high school who needed to work to bring in extra money for their families), but the idea that the minimum only needs to be lifted a couple of dollars an hour shows how out of touch most of the Beltway is with half of America. Not liberal or conservative, not Democratic or Republican or White or Black America – but with those of us struggling to keep a roof over our heads while feeding and sending our children to overcrowded schools. Those who hope to remain healthy since we cannot afford to take days off work, let alone afford any sort of comprehensive medical coverage. We are not moochers, we are givers, givers beyond ourselves.

When we look at even the efforts of the Lucha Para 15/Fight for 15 people, we see something that seems radical even in a union-favoring state like my own Illinois. And such a wage of $15 an hour, if given the full forty hours through fifty weeks (let us assume a week off for vacation or sick days. Or child sick days. Or funeral days. Or a family member needs emergency help) will definitely help. A single person would make 30,000 a year. Not a tremendous amount and certainly, contrary to what the Fox News Awful Fascist Machine insists, not a ton of money either. Yet, a single accident can wipe that out.  Thirty thousand a year before taxes is 2,500/month. For taxes, let’s assume 500 (more taken away for singles, less for those with dependents).

If we take into consideration that housing costs should be one-third of the total take home pay of a family, then the 2K per month could afford something a little under $700/month. In Chicago, it’s becoming impossible to find a one bedroom or studio for that price. So, the single could room and actually save money.

The single parent, though? That’s not even an option. A typical two bedroom in Chicago runs a good 900/month. That’s almost half of the income before getting to basic utilities, transportation, food, clothing, medication, insurance…

Respect for the workers means more than just fair wages, though that is an important aspect of it. Respect due our workers would call for not just livable wages, but a livable economy, a livable society. It would call for fair and just housing, health care, child care, public transit, schools (from pre-K through grad level), working conditions, maternity and paternity leave.

The US has an official Labor Day, but it seems like an affront to the Labor of the poor – particularly when the lowest paid of the workers are forced to work today. Perhaps it’s time to either give the worker her full rights or stop pretending, US?

Don Lemon, Baggy Pants, and The Culture of Poverty Culture, pt 2

There are many perspectives from which to critique Don Lemon, et als, defense of White, Middle Class Supremacy over the behaviors, dress, language of poor Black youth. The other day, I talked about how White Supremacy narratives supported by Prominent Black Men helps to further embolden White Supremacy myths within White culture (and how that in turn hurts us all, sans the elite). This is in addition to critiques by Black people about how White people never speak out against White-on-White violence or those riotous teens or just how Lemon, Cosby, et al are missing the whole point or how this discourse lacks self-reflection in its blaming. It also recalls, as did talk about what Trayvon was wearing and how he was “welcoming” being targeted by GZ, parallels with Rape Culture and the Christian Purity movement. I want to focus now on the class issue at this time, though, and particularly how Lemon’s idea parallels with the Culture of Poverty Culture – the culturally embedded idea with Middle Class people that Working Class and impoverished people have bad values that perpetuate their poverty.

The idea that Working Class and other poor people remain poor because of their own mindset and values is called the Culture of Poverty, which began when sociologist Oscar Lewis spent time with a poor family in Brazil and couldn’t understand why they didn’t just pull up their bootstraps, grease their elbows, put on a smile and ride the gravy train out of their shantytown. Patrick Daniel Moynihan, that bastion of liberalism himself in the liberal LBJ administration, helped to popularize this idea of an enmeshed “tangle of pathology” that kept poor people – and particularly poor POC – thinking and acting poor and, therefore, kept them entrapped in poverty. To conservatives and liberals alike, the poor are deficient in their thinking, and that is why they are poor. More recently and more into the mainstream of American, and particularly White American, roots, this CoP Culture has infected classrooms through curriculum for teachers – most from middle class backgrounds and unfamiliar with the culture shock they encounter in the classroom – by hack researcher Ruby Payne and her A Framework for Understanding Poverty.

According to the CoP, poor people are poor because of unwise financial decisions. But research shows that everybody makes unwise financial decisions and that wealthy, highly educated people make the same kinds of decisions in similar situations. Go and read that article, actually. All of it. Poor people’s poor decisions are compounded both by stress of having little money in the first place, by being distracted by the stress of poverty, and by having little-to-no margin of error, things that wealthier people do not need to worry about – certainly not to the level that poor people do. I can plan to budget $25 for the entire week, but what happens when I need to get across town for a meeting and I have to fill up the car or the transit card? Or I need a pack of pens and eat out once, even if it’s from the Dollar Menu? What happens when – as happened this last week to me – I plan the forty dollars of usable money in the bank to last until the next paycheck, but two unexpected automatic payments of ten dollars a piece come and surprise me out of nowhere? What happens when the eggs go bad, or my daughter is hungry and I’ve got no food at home? What happens to the family needing to fix their car and is given a choice between getting the car short-term fixed for $250 or long-term fixed for $2,500? What is happening in their minds when they are cognizant of the fact that they only make $20,000 a year and almost all of that is going towards the most basic expenses? There is no savings because there is nothing to save. They can barely think of spending one week’s paycheck without panicking, so blowing ten percent of the entire year’s budget when there is 80 bucks in the bank (if they’re lucky), is unfathomable. Hell, just the thought of spending triple figures on an emergency is beyond the pale. The poor are not poor because of unwise financial decisions; poverty increases to a debilitating level the effects and occurrence of making bad economic choices.

According to the CoP, poverty parents aren’t concerned about the children’s education. An example would be when my daughter’s summer camp program received backpacks and school supplies as an act of charity from a major retailer. The summer camp predominately consists of POC and children at or near poverty. Each of the backpacks came with a note from somebody in the organization. The one for my daughter read, “Make your family proud. Prove to them you are better than they think you are. You can do this by bringing home good grades.” It is a ridiculous assumption, that parents of poor children do not expect much scholastically out of their own children, and it sets up teachers against parents. Yet it is widespread and fairly common among teachers and other middle class people. Poor parents care as much as wealthy parents about their children’s education, with all the various levels of involvement as you find in middle class and upper-class families – when those levels of involvement are possible. For one to think that poor parents do not care about education is to demonstrate one has never spent time in poor people’s houses. Generally speaking, working class families are at several disadvantages here, starting with time, energy, loss of concentration due to poverty and issues related to poverty. Within CoP discourse, there is little mention of the massive disinvestment in the education of poor people. There is little mention of how working class white and non-white schools are designed to operate more like factories than the creative endeavors that their rich counterparts enter into. Little about how the stress of everyday poorness affects the concentration and behavior (and health) of poor people, let alone food insecurity and how diets high in junk and processed foods (iow, what poor people can afford!) affects the concentration and mood of students.

a room full of ideas

According to the CoP, poor people’s attitudes towards work keeps them from being promoted. First off: Promoted to what?? Capitalist systems bottleneck the poor so that the only jobs beyond entry-level for most are as managers of entry-level positions. Most can’t move beyond that, even if they were managerial. Even if they were all awesome and perfect, there are only so many manager jobs and the rest are, in this economic situation, left to fight over the scraps. What the middle class person can’t figure is how hard these entry-level, slave-labor jobs can be.  But if all working class people are supposed to act grateful and happy for every chance to put together a Happy Meal or every table ever waited on, or for the opportunity to fold and put back every garment dropped by a sloppy customer – there is no human being that chirpy and no one should be forced to be. Add in the indignities that are forced upon entry-level employees but never, ever considered for executives – corporate uniforms, drug tests (both the act of pissing in a cup and the question of chemical ingestion never asked about the upper class who use as much as any other intersection), lack of paid sick or vacation time, poor treatment by customers and supervisors for slight mistakes or oversights (or for nothing at all), lack of health care options – and what is there to be in a positive mood about?

According to the CoP, poor people can’t speak properly. Every semester that I teach and a good portion of the tutoring sessions I have, I remind my students that there is nothing wrong with the way they talk at home – that maybe the mechanics for the way they write may be off, but their speech isn’t inferior. And that idea makes some people upset – particularly the Culture of Poverty people. CoP is nothing more than empiricism of Middle and Upper Class cultural values onto the Working Class, and culture is not culture if it is not intrinsically language and language usage. Schools are modeled to make the regional dialect of poor people more palatable to the  ears of those who fancy themselves the normative.  Which isn’t to say that I give my students no hope. Rather, we recognize that language usage provides access to power and opportunities, so we enhance our code-switching – something that is normal and natural for most people. Most people speak and act in different ways towards different means and in different contexts. In our writing classes, we learn how to improve what is considered American Standard English. Notice the term “Standard”. Even though it’s largely understood by linguists as not the “correct” form of English in the US, it is still seen as the normative tongue. Therefore the common speech in Chicago’s West Side neighborhoods or Loredo, TX, or in Appalachia is still considered improper. In fact, any regional dialect or accent not deemed normative or upper-class is assumed in the popular imagination to be the mark of an uneducated, unintelligent person. This is the epitome of the Culture of Poverty Culture – the poor are blamed for being born into their realities and for having cultures that do not align with a certain way of thinking. CoP Apologists like Ruby Payne tell middle class educators of poor students that their students will always be poor if they do not give up their friends or family, their community and culture, their language and identity. The blame is placed on the very existence of people in poverty, rather than the structures – such as culture and language policing – that regularly and overwhelmingly keep people in poverty.

We need to say this again and again: it isn’t comfortable being in poverty, and living in high-poverty areas – particularly disinvested ones with high dropout rates (that being related to how schools function as, despite the best intentions by school staff and administrators, as retention centers in high-poverty/working class areas, particularly in segregated Black USian neighborhoods), high-density poverty, few living wage jobs, with high rates of violence – exponentially expounds the stress, creating neighborhoods full of PTSD survivors who are not paid by the US military nor have the resources to clinically care for their mental stress – who do not have the advantage of time and money that wealthier people do.

But nobody talks about that. White middle class people, particularly, expect poor people to pick up their mores and values and mannerisms with the dangling carrot that the poor can then be accepted into their clubs. It’s more colonialism, “We accept you but only as extensions of ourselves because we can only truly accept ourselves.” This idea is perpetuated throughout by cultural signifiers and iconography – in language, on television and mass media, in dinner and cafe conversations about the “Problem of Poor People,” in public policy.

This isn’t a problem of poor people; it’s a problem of wealthy people and a problem for poor people.

The Turning of the Poor

Not only are the poor blamed for living in that harrowing position of poverty, for not being middle class, for not being what middle and upper class consider “productive members of society”, for being “lazy” despite working harder just to make it through every day, for just existing in a constant state of discomfort that others claim is leisurely and comfortable, the poor are also blamed when we try to leave poverty.

It is perfectly acceptable for a handful to leave poverty at a time. People may reactively cheer for the fortunate few raised in poverty who enter and finish college, who thrive in professional fields, and who join the management or professional class. But those positions and places are open for only a few. The vast majority of the poor are not able to enter the upper classes, are not able to leave the bitter financial insecurity, no matter how hard they may want it or try. Even getting a Master’s degree is no guarantee for a job, let alone a decent-paying one. Escape from poverty is bottle-necked – working harder and smarter isn’t the main qualification, facing a certain type of fortune is.

So the poor are expected to, as a mass, as a significant amount of families, men, women and children, remain poor and suffer the physical and social effects of poverty. While we are blamed for it. What a double damning sword.

And we come to realize that the American Dream is a trap for most of us. We recognize that we are manipulated and conditioned to believe that anyone who wills it will succeed in the so-called Land of Opportunity. And this is all a shambles, a packaged dream. As we unplug, we begin to ask for more for not just ourselves but for our fellow workers. We ask for rights for not just some of us, but for us all.

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We protect collective bargaining rights. But pundits call us thugs and politicians call us thieves while the upper classes spread rumors that we are lazy and seek to shield incompetence. This is not just a Republican tactic anymore, either. For the old people’s party, the Democratic Party, has bought into the lies as well in union-heavy regions like Chicago. We are ridiculed and maligned for wanting to be in unions that will protect us from the billowing whims and desires of a shifting managerial and capitalist class. We are expected to be grateful for the good nature of the managerial and capitalist classes – those who would fire us at a moment’s notice for no reason at all. Those who would give us as little as possible as much as necessary – as they treat their workers in non-unionized Third World nations. While we try to unite, they work to divide us.

We lobby for minimum wage increases. And knowing that the minimum wage – even at full-time hours – is not enough to sustain a person, let alone a family, safely and well we ask for slight increases to ease our burdens. Never mind the fact that, had minimum wage kept up with either inflation or productivity rates for the last thirty years, minimum wage would have increased two- or three-fold; we only asked for a slight percentage increase, a couple dollars an hour. Never mind that the poor are constantly under attack for not contributing enough to the tax base. Never mind the studies that show that raising the minimum wage has a negligible effect on inflation or on the closing down of businesses. No. Never mind those, for we are rebuffed and refused once again.

We pursue the prospect of living wages. Because a slight increase in horrible, unjust wages is still unjust. And yet the ability to work and get paid well enough to live without fear, without being constantly on the edge – this is looked upon by the same class of people as a cruel joke against their vaunted system. If we seek it, we are derided as delusional communists who want to steal and commit warfare against our betters. But if this is what capitalism offers, maybe the entire system needs to be questioned. Maybe it needs to be gutted.

We seek equal pay for equal work regardless of gender, sex, orientation, race, and ethnicity. And we are told there is no such thing as inequalities. And we demonstrate in case after case that these inequalities are real and devastating. And some powerful people who have made it to the top finally agree. But only for those who are at or near the top. The rest are encouraged to lean in – to forsake all for the pursuit of business success in the hopes that that success will allow women to finally share with men. But for the vast majority of poor women, particularly poor mothers, such options are not viable. And again, the shaming continues.

We push for accessible and affordable medical coverage for all. When we do that for the poor, we are mocked and called unrealistic. We are accused of trying to destroy the country and reward laziness. In pure Orwellian tactics, we are accused of trying to kill the poor and infirmed. When we point out that every industrial country in the world but the United States covers all their citizens and for cheaper rates than we have for fractions of our citizens, we are reminded that the US is special. Apparently, that designation is one it shares with its poor. We are ever-so-helpfully informed that ERs are open and free (they are not). And when we remind them that the poor can and often do suffer from chronic issues as they do, we are ignored or told that’s why we need good insurance or we are blamed for our chronic issues.

We seek full health coverage for all women’s bodies. But then we are reminded that the conservative status of the body (read: person) of the female – and the non-cis male – is one of subservience and jilted disdain. Indeed, the very women who abide the brunt of bearing the children of men (and whose bodies pay the consequence of that which men – and particularly, patriarchy – praise them for) are despised for carrying those same traits. The very price for bearing the responsibility of bearing and nurturing children is looked upon as a sign of shame by the same society that so highly declares its value in children and mothers. But particular woe to a woman who is poor, and yet even more to one who is also Brown. Poor women workers do not receive compensations for the price of bearing or raising children, do not receive concessions, do not receive protected time off for bearing or raising children. Have to struggle to make ends meet as they are, as men are not as tied down to the fate of women’s bodies or children as men are. And as such, poor women are also refused adequate birth control and family planning at every turn. They do not have the freedom over their own bodies or over their own liberties as their male counterparts nor their wealthier counterparts practice.

We ask for the simple benefit of maintaining affirmative actions to include People of Color and women in the hiring and registration process in those very places that continue to disregard women and POC. And we are told that we are merely affirming racism and sexism. We have out-of-context quotes thrown in our face by the same type of people who tried to silence the very person they are now quoting. And we are told that to pursue such policies actually hurts People of Color because then co-workers will constantly question whether or not the POC at their workplace are adequate enough workers, are smart enough or qualified enough. Of course it is they who project these very feelings of inadequacy (feelings that are innately racist) onto the Black and Brown workers.

Those very same women and POC who are not only capable and competent, but often come from hard stock as they have had to and continue to work harder than white males simply because of the social handicaps afforded them by the hegemony – by the controlling powers*.

We poor people struggle to unite, but we are divided. And we are divided because we are simply too weak to change such powerfully embedded political, economic, military, social, psychological institutions when we are few. So they divide us on race, on gender norms, on loyalty to baseball teams, on education level. They use our cultural identities – which are good – as tribal markers that mark us as greater than or less than our peers, our fellow travelers.

No! To attain economic equality and justice, we must seek equality and justice in an equitable and just manner. We shall not be divided anymore. We shall not allow cultural differences to keep us from loving each other, even as we respect and recognize cultural differences.

We tire of their tired tricks.

We demand justice.

We are hounded and pursued and ridiculed and silenced and lied to and pushed back and hurt and ignored on every turn, every inch, every corner.

But we will not be denied.

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*As we discussed previously, Black and White servants and slaves fraternized and even rebelled against the powerful elite before, but were intentionally divided to keep the populace under control.

A History of a People Divided by Engineered Racism

During those brief moments that we actually consider the notion of racism, most USAmericans either consider racism to be passé and imagined (particularly White Americans believe that) or as an unrelenting social force that always has been and always will be. Both hypotheses are wrong (they should not be considered theories as they are not shown to have been holding up to various, rigorous tests). The first hypothesis is not true and any social study or study of the criminal justice system or economics among the races can clarify that (“Accidental Racism” notwithstanding). In fact, the old stand-by for White Americans when confronted with the reality of racial economic and criminal justice belies that fact. For when evidence is displayed concerning the disparity of wealth, prison populations, unemployment, etc, between White and Black people and households, White people who don’t study history will often excuse these injustices with some variant of, “They deserve that for their laziness/ignorance/(insert other racist stereotype here)”; “They should stop living in the past”; “They should stop blaming us for their problems.” These statements underline common myths from slavery ages: that the black person is inferior, stupid, lazy.

In other words, these assertions tell us much more about the state of White American animus against Afro-Americans than they have anything to say about Afro-Americans themselves.

But they also underline a division that is not natural but man-made – and particularly man-made by those who benefit from having a divided population that – due to its division – will not and cannot rise to overthrow the shackles of oppression.

They.

Us.

Who are “they”? Who is “us”? Were we always “us”? Were they always “they”?

This brings us to that second hypothesis: that the distinctions are natural and as old as history.

A bit of colonial US history could go a long way to dispel both lies.

When Africans were first brought to the colonies as slaves, they were not the only slaves. Many poor Europeans sailed the Atlantic (though usually by choice, often they were tricked or prisoners) and, to pay off the debt of the passage, worked as temporary slaves (“indentured servants”) with little-to-no freedom of movement themselves. Some even had their children work off their debt – if they were able to have children, that is. And when they finished their terms, they were often hardly better off than when they were servants or when they were in Europe.

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As slavery in the New World and particularly in the English colonies was just beginning, it was going to be refined. And as it was being refined, it would change substantially. The ruling classes recognized the power of a united underclass and so divided them into a higher-underclass (Europeans and their descendants) and a permanent underclass (Africans and their descendants). As time would further develop, nuances would change, but generally-speaking, White Americans would always be treated a few steps ahead of their black counterparts in regards to social class (there being huge distinctions and a largely irrational racial animus among white working class people against Black working class people, and much mistrust and segregation garnered toward the Black professional class), sex (for much of its history, white feminism has largely ignored and/or marginalized non-white women within the movement, as Sojourner Truth and the Womanist Movement have shown and critiques of the new Lean In emphasis by higher-social class professionals also demonstrate), education level, and sexual preference (the idea that there is a monolithic and supportive “gay community” is a media myth for some. Many Black gay Chicagoans find Boystown to be not much more receptive than their home communities, for instance).

And we can say that these distinctions are natural – but they are not. They are intentional divisions wrought by the ruling classes, using tribalism to drive deep wedges between races that may find much in common if not in their cultural signifiers or general understanding of history, then in many of their circumstances – especially concerning how the ruling classes treat us.

From Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States:

[In] spite of special subordination of blacks in the Americas in the seventeenth century, there is evidence that where whites and blacks found themselves with common problems, common work, common enemy in their master, they behaved toward one another as equals. As one scholar of slavery, Kenneth Stampp, has put it, Negro and white servants of the seventeenth century were “remarkably unconcerned about the visible physical differences.”

Black and white worked together, fraternized together. The very fact that laws had to be passed after a while to forbid such relations indicates the strength of that tendency. ..

There is an enormous difference between a feeling of racial strangeness, perhaps fear, and the mass enslavement of million of black people that took place in the Americas. The transition from one to the other cannot be explained easily by “natural” tendencies. It is not hard to understand as the outcome of historical conditions.

Slavery grew as the plantation system grew. The reason is easily traceable to something other than natural repugnance: the number of arriving whites, whether free or indentured servants (under four to seven years contract), was not enough to meet the need of the plantations. By 1700, in Virginia, there were 6,000 slaves, one-twelfth of the population. By 1763, there were 170,000 slaves, about half the population.

And so the controlling factions needed to be bigger, tougher, more strict, and more divisive. Slaves were not allowed to fraternize with servants, and then they weren’t allowed to fraternize amongst each other, freely. Even amongst themselves, they were divided from field slaves and house slaves –  and even some slaves acted as slave drivers to continue with the divided oppression.

African slaves, indigenous peoples, and European indentured servants would work together, play together, learn from each other, have babies and families together, make community together, revolt together. And it’s that last part that scared the crap out of the capitalist class. So while they made it more and more difficult for Black, White and Indigenous workers to get together, they also drew up larger differences in how each group of worker was treated. The proclaimed treatments drew wedges between the commonalities and the communities of shared love, to be replaced with material and social class distinctions of apparent superiority and inferiority. The class distinctions made it so that the White workers would feel comparatively better than their Black counterparts. Where there was love and fraternity, now there was suspicion and animosity.

These wedges will continue to divide us as long as White Americans continue to blame Black Americans for racism, for their conditions, for “driving wedges” by acknowledging the racism they continue to be targeted for, for sitting with each other during the lunch break when we Whites fail to acknowledge their own humanity, history, and shared cultural lives.

Let us all throw off the shackles of dehumanizing each other that so easily entangle and run for the race set before us.

It Isn’t Comfy to Be in Poverty

The poor, by definition, are those who either do not have enough or who live in a state (often constant) of material emergency – always steps away from being wiped out. The poor exist in different contexts and with different stipulations in different towns, states and communities – and one with no cash can in many ways be more well-off than one with a couple thousand tucked away – depending on circumstances and contexts like family and health and need to relocate, proximity and access to education, decent medicine, food, etc.

However it is broken down, though, the state of being mere steps away from imminent disaster can never be described as “comfortable.” There are different ways of dealing with that insecurity – but the point is, poverty is insecurity. It is the opposite of comfort.

Unless you want to speak from a place of experience of being poor (or being near the poor) as Fox News contributor Charles Payne does here in order to highlight how the poor just need a quick kick in the nuts to get their shit together:

There’s this idea that between the food stamps and the welfare and the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit and the local programs, you know, it gets a little comfortable to be in poverty.

Payne isn’t alone in this regrettable observation. This idea that  the poor are here for a free ride and, really, being poor isn’t that hard after all trickles down in scattered showers and barrels against us like vengeful hurricanes through color commentary, enactments, legislation and the general demeanor of the ruling class toward the underclass.

Hammock

In Tennessee, for instance, a bill has been making the rounds that “calls for a 30 percent reduction in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits to parents whose children are not making satisfactory progress in school.” Poor children are penalizedfurtherfor not living up to the standards of upper middle class white legislators – most of whom are male, most of whom can afford to go to a school council meetings because of flexibility with their jobs not often given to hourly workers.

Oftentimes, poor parents can’t make those meetings. They work long hours. They commute long hours. They can’t find a sitter for the other kids – or they have to visit other kids’ functions. They prioritize, but they have other priorities to meet at the time. Often emergency priorities. Because, again, being poor means that one is constantly licking the flames of an emergency state, constantly in crisis.

Or maybe the parents and the students feel like the schooling system isn’t listening to them. Or maybe they’re just exhausted.  Will starving them when they are already undernourished help them in any manner? No. Of course not. Putting the vulnerable at more risk only means that they have more to worry about – and worry and resignation is much of what both defines and defeats the poor as it is.

For when you are poor for a long time, you begin to worry – not just about whether you will eat or pay the rent (two things I constantly worry about), but whether you will ever stop worrying.

When you are poor, you are likely to:

  • Wonder when you’ll eat good food regularly again – or you settle into the idea that that will not be an option
  • Have poor education. Partly because most available education is paid for by local property taxes and the ones who can most afford higher taxes are the ones with the least amount of worry and who can also afford private education
  • Seriously cry over spilled milk
  • Spend every waking hour – and those are many – worrying if you’ll have enough money to last the week, let alone pay off debts.
  • Find it increasingly difficult to live in a safe neighborhood.
  • Be more often victimized and assaulted
  • Be close to those who are victimized and assaulted – and perhaps those who victimize and assault
  • Be uninformed of the options available to get into college
  • Be in an abusive relationship
  • Receive harrassment rather than assistance from police
  • Need police and public services
  • Be denied access to public services as funds are
  • Are more likely to find yourself in social circles with few people who can assist you in a tight financial strain
  • Are more likely to be the victim of predatory lending with exponentially higher interest rates for necessary loaning than the middle and upper classes
  • Pay more in regressive taxes and may pay more percentage-wise than the very rich who can most afford it
  • Can not have your money work for you; since two pennies scratching each other don’t actually do anything
  • Don’t have the privilege of getting your teeth checked regularly
  • Tend to consider the emergency room as your clinic
  • Get used to being associated with criminality and malicious intent
  • Are considered either a criminal or a criminal-in-training
  • Are as likely if not more likely to suffer from chronic health problems as middle class/wealthy, but far, far less likely to receive adequate medical treatment for it – let alone consistent treatment. Let alone able to see for a second or third opinion
  • Are blamed at every turn for fiscal problems of city, county, state, and nation

All of these are circumstances of being poor. Most of these I have experienced first-hand or my neighbors have. I have been accosted. I worry hourly about how to stretch money, pay bills, make more money, and feed my daughter. In addition, the poor are under relentless scrutiny and endless judgment by the upper classes as well as their own class – mostly for that which is not within their power or immediate grasp.

The poor are scrutinized for:

  • Clothes (ever wonder why poor in certain communities buy so much cheap clothing?)
  • Food
  • Weight (“If they’re so poor, why are they so fat?” is a common question that middle class white Americans ask about the food insecure – ignoring the fact that grease is cheaper as well as addictive)
  • Household items
  • Not having stocks or savings (In a Facebook thread I was recently involved in, one White male asked, “If you’re 35, single and without stocks or bonds, where did you go wrong?”)
  • Style
  • Language usage (Middle class, Midwestern speech patterns are considered the default pronunciation and grammar settings in the US. Everyone else is judged for how closely they resemble this “good language.”
  • Hints of dirtiness

And the poor are judged for:

  • Apparent work ethic
  • Values
  • How we treat our children
  • Trying to fit in.
  • For not trying to fit in.
  • Education level
  • Job status
  • Career
  • Performance in public places
  • Whether or not we meet requirements of “genuine” poverty

Field Refrigerators

These poor people have too many fridges!

In fact, long before the Heritage Foundation used universal ownership of refrigerators as evidence that USian poverty is truly a myth, some of my conservative friends would compare the abundance of today’s poorest to the lack of kings during the middle ages (they had castles, but no central heat. It was really cold in those drafty places. Too bad they couldn’t warm up with fireplaces or nothing…). The implication being that the poor in the US these days have it soooooo fekking easy.

But we don’t. There is no comfort in being judged for what we lack. There is no physical or psychological or social comfort in any of this. Whatever comfort is to be found is found by the necessity of erasing the high-bludgeoning tensions through various (and often unhealthy) means, whether they be drug or alcohol abuse or partying or gaming or sports.

They use these methods of escape, when they do, because, once again, there is no comfort in poverty.

Proudly Union Free and Immoral

workers of the world, unite!

From Michael Lind’s article, Southern poverty pimps, at Salon:

The essence of the Southern economic model is not low taxation, but a lack of bargaining power by Southern workers of all races. Bargaining power at the bottom of the income scale is created by tight labor markets; unions; minimum wage laws combined with unemployment insurance; and social insurance, such as Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid. 

Naturally, the 21st-century descendants of Jefferson Davis and John C. Calhoun want to weaken everything that strengthens the ability of a Southern worker to say to a Southern employer:  “Take this job and shove it!” 

Tight labor markets are anathema to Southern employers.  They want loose labor markets that create a buyer’s market in wage labor.  That is why, at a time of mass unemployment among low-skilled workers in the U.S., most of the calls for expanding unskilled immigration in the form of “guest worker” programs are coming from Southern and Southwestern politicians.  Guest workers — that is, indentured servants bound to a single employer and unable to quit — are the ideal workers, from a neo-Confederate perspective.  They are cheap and unfree.

The article is worth a read. But it contributes to the malaise of false dichotomies. As if the North and the Rustbelt weren’t taking on these same practices. Wisconsin, Indiana and even Michigan have elected pro-big business governors and legislatures who are working hard to dismantle worker’s rights to bargain and act as professional organizations to temper corporate malaise affecting both the public and private sectors. Even union-happy Chicago is under attack from our overwhelmingly-elected mayor, a Democrat who was former Chief of Staff for President Barack Obama.

So, yeah, there’s that. Meanwhile, capital created by workers continues to climb back to the top – or rather, flow back to the lowest levels- the ultrarich. But it’s the working poor who are blamed for being poor and demanding anything of worth for their work. Got it.
Oh, and there is this from Lind’s article for my fellow Christians who either hear or peddle the nonsense that charities should take care of the poor, not government (and for whom the words “economic justice” do not ring a bell):

In order to maximize the dependence of Southern workers on Southern employers in the great low-wage labor pool of the former Confederacy, it would be best to have no welfare at all, only local charity (funded and controlled, naturally, by the local wealthy families).

We’ve dealt with that nonsense here and here and here, though

LSR: A Theology of Liberation

Peruvian professor, author and theologian Gustavo Gutierrez wrote a primer on Latin American Liberation Theology, A Theology of Liberation five years after the first conference of Catholic bishops met in Medellin, Colombia to talk about this emerging theology from and of the poor and indigenous of the regions south of the United States. Some years after the groundbreaking work had begun to be cataloged by Gutierrez, the movement thoroughly expanded to other continents, and to other repressed people – including those within Latin America. And Gutierrez recognized this and added a chapter-long introduction called “Expanding the View.” It is from this introduction that we present our Lazy Sunday Reading.

In the final analysis, poverty means death: lack of food and housing, the inability to attend properly to health and education needs, the exploitation of workers, permanent unemployment, the lack of respect for one’s human dignity, and unjust limitations placed on personal freedom in the areas of self-expression, politics, and religion. Poverty is a situation that destroys peoples, families, and individuals; [the Liberation Theology conferences of] Medellin and Puebla called it “institutionalized violence” (to which must be added the equally unacceptable violence of terrorism and repression). 

At the same time, it is important to realize that being poor is a way of living, thinking, loving, praying, believing, and hoping, spending leisure time, and struggling for a livelihood. Being poor today is also increasingly coming to mean being involved in the struggle for justice and peace, defending one’s life and freedom, seeking a more democratic participation in the decisions made by society, organizing “to live their faith in an integral way” (Puebla), and being committed to the liberation of every human being. 

All this, I repeat, goes to make up the complex world of the poor. The fact that misery and oppression lead to a cruel, inhuman death, and are therefore contrary to the will of the God of Christian revelation who wants us to live, should not keep us from seeing the other aspects of poverty that I have mentioned. They reveal a human depth and a toughness that are a promise of life. This perception represents one of the most profound changes in our way of seeing the reality of poverty and consequently in the overall judgment we pass on it.
… 

Various experiences of being a part of the world of the poor have brought me to a less theoretical knowledge of that world and to a greater awareness of simple but profoundly human aspects of it, apart from which there is no truly liberating commitment. The struggles of those who reject racism and machismo (two attitudes so deeply rooted in the culture and custom of peoples and individuals), as well as of those who oppose the marginalization of the elderly, children, and other “unimportant” persons in our society, have made me see, for example, the importance of gestures and ways of “being with” that some may regard as having little political effectiveness. 

In addition, the experience of these years has shown me that generous solidarity with the poor is not exempted from the temptation of imposing on them categories foreign to them and from the risk of dealing with them in an impersonal way. Sensitivity to these and other dangers is part of a human and Christian praxis whose truly liberating effects extend to those also who are trying to carry on such a praxis for the benefit of the poor and exploited. If there is no friendship with them and no sharing of the life of the poor, then there is no authentic commitment to liberation, because love exists only among equals. Any talk of liberation necessarily refers to a comprehensive process, one that embraces everyone.

Isaiah 58 – On Keeping the Sabbath Day Holy

Shout with the voice of a trumpet blast. Scratch the needle on the DJ’s table!
Shout aloud! Don’t be timid.
Tell my people America of their sins!
Yet they act so pious, so righteous, so deserving!

They come to the Church every Sunday and Wednesday,
and seem delighted to learn all about me.
They act like a righteous nation
that would never abandon the laws of its God – they even make laws in my name.
They ask me to take action on their behalf,
pretending they want to be near me.

ArtPrize

‘We have fasted before you! We have committed prayers,’ they whine.
‘Why aren’t you impressed? We sure are!
We have been very hard on ourselves,
and you don’t even notice it!’

“I will tell you why!” I respond.
It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves.
Even while you fast,
you keep oppressing your workers.
What good is fasting
when you keep on fighting and quarreling?
This kind of fasting
will never get you anywhere with me.
You humble yourselves
by going through the motions of penance,
bowing your heads
like reeds bending in the wind.
You dress in sadness
and cover yourselves with ashes. You cry during prayer gatherings. You bemoan presidents and policies.

Is this what you call fasting?
Do you really think this will please the Lord?

Day laborers picking cotton, near Clarksdale, Miss. (LOC)

No, this is the kind of fasting I want:
Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;


lighten the burden of those who work for you.
Let the oppressed go free,
and remove the chains that bind people.
Share your food with the hungry,
and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them,
and do not hide from relatives who need your help.

 Prison Labor in Louisana on the Mississippi River 4a17926v



Then your salvation will come like the dawn,
and your wounds will quickly heal.
Your godliness will lead you forward,
and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind.


Then when you call, the Lord will answer.
‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply.
Remove the heavy yoke of oppression.
Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors!
Feed the hungry,
and help those in trouble.


Then your light will shine out from the darkness,
and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon.
The Lord will guide you continually,
giving you water when you are dry
and restoring your strength.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like an ever-flowing spring, full of veggies and fluoride-free.
Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities.
Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls
and a restorer of homes.

obama-afghanistan



Keep the Sabbath day holy.
Don’t pursue your own interests on that day,
but enjoy the Sabbath
and speak of it with delight as the Lord’s holy day.
Honor the Sabbath in everything you do on that day,
and don’t follow your own desires or talk idly.


Then the Lord will be your delight.
I will give you great honor
and satisfy you with the inheritance I promised to your ancestor Jacob.
I, the Lord, have spoken!

(Slight edits to make it more contemporary. But really, shoot, what hasn’t changed here?)

Under the Brunt of The American Dream: Narcissistic Stockholm Syndrome IV

Essayist and book critic William Dereseiwicz wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times on Sunday called “Fables of Wealth.” It’s worth both lengthy excerpts and a few discussions, because its topic, a criticism of capitalism as a system that benefits psychopaths, is so rarely laid forth so brutally in mainstream press – even in so-called liberal media as the Times, even in an op-ed piece. But here we have it.

A recent study found that 10 percent of people who work on Wall Street are “clinical psychopaths,” exhibiting a lack of interest in and empathy for others and an “unparalleled capacity for lying, fabrication, and manipulation.” (The proportion at large is 1 percent.) Another study concluded that the rich are more likely to lie, cheat and break the law…

The only thing that puzzles me about these claims is that anyone would find them surprising. Wall Street is capitalism in its purest form, and capitalism is predicated on bad behavior

Enron, BP, Goldman, Philip Morris, G.E., Merck, etc., etc. Accounting fraud, tax evasion, toxic dumping, product safety violations, bid rigging, overbilling, perjury. The Walmart bribery scandal, the News Corp. hacking scandal — just open up the business section on an average day. Shafting your workers, hurting your customers, destroying the land. Leaving the public to pick up the tab. These aren’t anomalies; this is how the system works: you get away with what you can and try to weasel out when you get caught…

There are ethical corporations, yes, and ethical businesspeople, but ethics in capitalism is purely optional, purely extrinsic. To expect morality in the market is to commit a category error. Capitalist values are antithetical to Christian ones. (How the loudest Christians in our public life can also be the most bellicose proponents of an unbridled free market is a matter for their own consciences.) Capitalist values are also antithetical to democratic ones. Like Christian ethics, the principles of republican government require us to consider the interests of others. Capitalism, which entails the single-minded pursuit of profit, would have us believe that it’s every man for himself

Wall street solo
Wall St Solo – Montusci via Flickr

And on the “Wealth Creators” and “Shouldn’t the Risk-Takers and the Hard-Workers and the Smartest Earn their Rewards?” fables:

[I]f entrepreneurs are job creators, workers are wealth creators. Entrepreneurs use wealth to create jobs for workers. Workers use labor to create wealth for entrepreneurs — the excess productivity, over and above wages and other compensation, that goes to corporate profits. It’s neither party’s goal to benefit the other, but that’s what happens nonetheless…

MOST important, neither entrepreneurs nor the rich have a monopoly on brains, sweat or risk. There are scientists — and artists and scholars — who are just as smart as any entrepreneur, only they are interested in different rewards. A single mother holding down a job and putting herself through community college works just as hard as any hedge fund manager. A person who takes out a mortgage — or a student loan, or who conceives a child — on the strength of a job she knows she could lose at any moment (thanks, perhaps, to one of those job creators) assumes as much risk as someone who starts a business.

He then ends with a quote by Kurt Vonnegut from Slaughterhouse 5, but I’d like to excerpt a longer quote:

America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves.… It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: “if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?” There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand – glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.

Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say Napoleonic times. Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves.

What Vonnegut says here is complicated and needs a moment to unpack. It has elements of damning truth and yet damning self-defeating lies in it. Throughout the history of the world, the most generous people have been the poor. But they’ve also tended to be those with the most violence inflicted upon them. The first to go to war, the first to be attacked, the first to go hungry or homeless, to last to receive medical attention, the last to be protected and the first to be unprotected. But with what little they have, they share. That’s the nature of hospitality and community. That’s why, when Sodom is condemned in the Hebrew Scriptures, it is for the sin of inhospitality (in both the Genesis and the Ezekiel accounts – both the Law and the Prophets condemned them for being mean to strangers and to their own). That’s why Jesus tells his disciples to go from town to town and just accept the open arms and doors and meals of those they meet in their way. Because, generally speaking, they can expect to find that. It wasn’t a miracle; it was the way of life. And if a town did not accept them? They were to insult them by wiping the dust from their feet.

people on stairs
People on Stairs – Patrick Moyan via Flickr

This level of hospitality is much harder to come by in America. We’ve been trained that being able is to be fully self-sufficient and completely independent. We’ve been trained to believe that if we’re not self-sufficient, there is something wrong with us. We’ve been trained to believe that if we work hard and smart and long enough, we’ll reach that plateau finally, the one we deserve – self-sufficiency and, even more anticipated, luxury. As a friend from the Middle East put it, in the US we are so used to outsourcing everything we are not able to find the assets of our own community.

This isn’t true across the board, even in America. Poor and working class communities of color tend to be more community-oriented than poor and working class white communities – but this culture of outsourcing and consumeristic value has deeply infected much of the African American community as well, which is part of the reason SUVs and items of clothing are symbols of status – are seen as a replacements for the breakdown and rape and humiliation of their history and culture by the ruling classes, who are eased by the social and psychological humiliation they’ve heaped on to lower class whites, many of whom blame other poor people – in addition to themselves secretly – for their status.

It is here where it becomes important to note that we need solidarity, not more division. But without recognizing the sources of our division, we cannot truly unite.

————————————————-
Now, about those studies that purport that the rich are less ethical than the poor?

Abstract:

In studies 1 and 2, upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals. In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals. Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.

Support

It’s like we’re all lost in the supermarket

Putting Mouths Where the Money Is

Well, it seems my conservative Christian friends will finally get their chance to prove how awesome and correct they are if the House has its way. Representative Paul Ryan “aims to empower” those closest to the problem of poverty to do something about it by… Well, by putting the onus of caring for the poor directly and squarely and solely on their lap.

As Bread for the World notes, Congress is planning on leaving such a humongous multi-billion dollar hole (169,000,000,000 smackeroonis, in fact) in food assistance benefits that thousands upon thousands of families will starve. A few members of said Congress whom are proposing these cuts suggested that local religious organizations should plug in that hole. What they failed to mention is that each and every church or religious congregation in the US would have to pony up roughly $50,000 a year just to make up for this shortchange.

April2011 348
Churches like this one in LA. (Lord Jim via Flickr)
This isn’t counting, of course, the staff and volunteer hours needed for this. This isn’t counting the hours to pick-up, deliver, stockpile, organize, throw out bad food, and distribute the food. 
The suggestion that churches rather than government should serve the poor is, in other words, foolishness that comes out of the mouths of people with little direct involvement in the actual work of food pantries, soup kitchens, congregational work (or lack thereof), church finances, congregational politics.

First, it’s not an either/or issue. Local parishes/synagogues/mosques cannot possibly cover this need on their own, but they play an integral part of a much larger whole. Secondly, though there is a lot of money invested in our churches, most of it is centralized and/or tied into real estate which is not so easy to liquidate. 

Which is not to say that congregations can’t put in more than they are currently. Nor that communities shouldn’t be the center of aid. But all of our interactions are, as a friend recently put it, outsourced. Which means, partially, that we need to recover them. Which means that we need to recover property that’s centralized, which largely goes to profit for the benefit of a few. A few of whom go to big churches, where the majority of liquid church assets are apparently centralized.
'Men at soup kitchen, 1971' photo (c) 1971, Seattle Municipal Archives - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
Of course, it’s all much more complicated than the way it appears here. Most churches that I’ve run into – tax-free or not – don’t have that kind of money – even if they weren’t to pay their light bills, heating, and the cost for the essential staff. Certainly not in those areas where the need is great. A few megachurches easily spend that much money and maybe more aiding some of the smaller churches in their sphere of influence. But there’s no way that a Willow Creek – for instance – could possibly keep up with the needs of the most needy of such churches in its metro area, even splitting with other area megachurches.
And that’s just in terms of just the money for the aid. What of workers?

There are good ways to fight poverty locally (I argue for local sustainability), there are barely adequate, problematic ways (relying on a greedy, full-of-itself, centralized US Congress, for instance), and then there are the ways of people who’ve maybe spent a couple days in food ministry and who spot a few people “misusing” food benefits and therefore give the US Congress a justification out of their basic moral obligation. But actual people starve when we say such stupid, ignorant bunk. “Deserving” or not.*

American Christians, join in the efforts of your local food pantry, soup kitchen, homeless outreach for about ten years. Limit your budget to about ten thousand a year for a few years (Oh, what’s that? You got a family, you say? Ok, 18,000, then), while leasing – or trying to pay mortgage (Note: college years don’t count). Evangelicals: Meet up with your local Christian Community Development Association-connected ministry and run your ideas by them. Catholics: I can think of any number of impoverished parishes you could join and assist.

Then feel free to speak up about the “unworthy” poor, or how the government is just getting in the way of volunteer and charity efforts.

Or, think about it in terms of cracks. What do you do when you see people falling through the cracks? You help them out, right? But what if those cracks are too big for you and all your friends to help out the millions of people falling through them? What if everybody around you was poor and in need of basic food? What do you do then? You seek assistance from where you can find it – even if it feels degrading to ask the government to help your family eat because you just don’t make enough.

If this is not news to you, if you believe that the work of TANF is necessary to the survival of families and workers and the unemployed, please sign this petition.

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*It’s beyond troubling that a religion which posits itself on grace and the idea that we are all made in God’s image would allow for such anti-Christ talk.

Poverty Colonialism in Chicago and Uganda

Several years ago, a church that I was heavily involved in spent good parts of its summers bringing in youth groups from White suburban and exurban churches. This fulfilled a few needs. The need for the church to bring in some funds so it could pay its youth pastor full-time. The need for White youth a million miles removed from urban poverty to see it for a few days and feel better about themselves. The need for our neighbors to shake their heads at lost white kids in their neighborhood.They usually did service projects, like picking up scattered trash in the neighborhoods and running Vacation Bible Schools. But, come to think of it, cleaning trash is probably a perfect metaphor for this type of poverty colonialism. White people coming to make a difference, not aware of their surroundings, not aware of who they are coming to serve, involved in futile projects that effectively shame those they are there to help. And then leaving – themselves feeling a little frustrated by the wind that blows all the trash back, by the generational sands of poverty that didn’t recede during the three days of their visit, and by the humiliation of public service.

Although, I hasten to add, as far as these things are concerned, the church learned to take steps to educate their guests in a primer of urban living, using natives from the church for that task*. And I got to sit in during a screening of a local PBS documentary on the decades-long project of tearing down the notorious (but strategically located, prime real estate) Cabrini Green housing projects. The Greens were being shuttled for a mixed-income privatized project of town homes. The idea behind it is that the poor Black families that will remain (after the displacement of hundreds of families) will benefit from having upper middle class neighbors who diligently go to work every day to earn their keep and better their lives.

Some protest arose from the young viewers: How can the residents not want their help. It’s obvious they need whatever help they can get!

Life in Chicago
Cabrini Green, from “Life in Chicago” by Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist John White, 1982. Found on Flickr.

This all struck close to home. After all, gentrification had been happening (and is still happening) in the surrounding neighborhoods and our own congregants were finding themselves unable to live in their neighborhoods anymore nd found themselves scattered from their networks of support and family. To those with plenty of money and who can afford alternatives methods of networking and support, this may not be such a primary need and they may not recognize it for what it is. But that’s the heart of the matter of Poverty Colonialism: Educated white males are trained from an early age to truly believe we know better. This belies the heart of racism. We think we know better because – whether or not we have come to grips with it – we think we are better…

Teju Cole does an outstanding job of laying out the problems of Poverty Colonialism – what he and most others call the White Savior Industrial Complex (page 2 here) – in the Atlantic. I think the article needs to be required reading for all of us would-be saviors.

Some long-ish excerpts:

I disagree with the approach taken by Invisible Children in particular, and by the White Savior Industrial Complex in general, because there is much more to doing good work than “making a difference.” There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them

I am sensitive to the power of narratives. When Jason Russell, narrator of the Kony 2012 video, showed his cheerful blonde toddler a photo of Joseph Kony as the embodiment of evil (a glowering dark man), and of his friend Jacob as the representative of helplessness (a sweet-faced African), I wondered how Russell’s little boy would develop a nuanced sense of the lives of others, particularly others of a different race from his own. How would that little boy come to understand that others have autonomy; that their right to life is not exclusive of a right to self-respect? In a different context, John Berger once wrote, “A singer may be innocent; never the song.”

One song we hear too often is the one in which Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism. From the colonial project to Out of Africa to The Constant Gardener and Kony 2012, Africa has provided a space onto which white egos can conveniently be projected. It is a liberated space in which the usual rules do not apply: a nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied. Many have done it under the banner of “making a difference.”…

How, for example, could a well-meaning American “help” a place like Uganda today? It begins, I believe, with some humility with regards to the people in those places. It begins with some respect for the agency of the people of Uganda in their own lives. A great deal of work had been done, and continues to be done, by Ugandans to improve their own country, and ignorant comments… about how “we have to save them because they can’t save themselves” can’t change that fact…

If Americans want to care about Africa, maybe they should consider evaluating American foreign policy, which they already play a direct role in through elections, before they impose themselves on Africa itself. The fact of the matter is that Nigeria is one of the top five oil suppliers to the U.S., and American policy is interested first and foremost in the flow of that oil. The American government did not see fit to support the Nigeria protests... This was as expected; under the banner of “American interests,” the oil comes first. Under that same banner, the livelihood of corn farmers in Mexico has been destroyed by NAFTA. Haitian rice farmers have suffered appalling losses due to Haiti being flooded with subsidized American rice. A nightmare has been playing out in Honduras in the past three years: an American-backed coup and American militarization of that country have contributed to a conflict in which hundreds of activists and journalists have already been murdered. The Egyptian military, which is now suppressing the country’s once-hopeful movement for democracy and killing dozens of activists in the process, subsists on $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid. This is a litany that will be familiar to some. To others, it will be news. But, familiar or not, it has a bearing on our notions of innocence and our right to “help.”

Let us begin our activism right here: with the money-driven villainy at the heart of American foreign policy. To do this would be to give up the illusion that the sentimental need to “make a difference” trumps all other considerations. What innocent heroes don’t always understand is that they play a useful role for people who have much more cynical motives. The White Savior Industrial Complex is a valve for releasing the unbearable pressures that build in a system built on pillage. We can participate in the economic destruction of Haiti over long years, but when the earthquake strikes it feels good to send $10 each to the rescue fund…

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* Full disclosure, I had an opportunity to go over the script with one of the groups. I laid it in a bit heavy. I try not to be such an arse in public anymore. But anybody who follows me here or on Facebook knows where I put that energy.