Wednesday, October 17, 2012


Nobody can come to grips with the drama of history unless he recognizes that most of the evil in this world is done by people who do it for good purposes. Evil is not that popular. If one gathered together a lot of people and said, "Let us be evil together," it would not go over very well. Thanks be to God!....

Thus the question is not to balance judgment and mercy. Whenever one reads the Bible or theology, what I would call the "who-is-who" question always arises. Who speaks to whom and for whom? The mighty message of God was often heard in a wrong way because one listened in on the wrong message. There are many examples of this. Jesus did say, "Man does not live by bread alone," but he never said that to a hungry person. When he was faced with hungry persons he fed them--4000 or 5000. And he mass produced wine in Cana just to prevent the wedding feast from turning into a fiasco. It was to Satan that he said "Man does not live by bread alone," speaking for and to himself. The church, however, often quoted Jesus in the wrong direction--to the hungry, in defense of the well-fed.

Who speaks to whom? For whom is judgment mercy? That is the question, and unless one understands it, even the most glorious dialectical understanding of theology becomes not only counterproductive but evil.
Krister Stendahl, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia: Fortress Press 1976), p. 105-06.

I have to say, I appreciate just how much attention has been paid in the last three debates to the problems of the poor in America.

 [That silence is being filled with the sound of crickets.]

 Of course, all that has been said so far is the travesty of how many people are on food stamps. We still can't seem to decide if that's a sign of a weak economy, or of an overly generous government which refuses to teach the hungry how to fish. So now Paul Ryan visits a soup kitchen  in the fifteen minutes he has between campaign events, an act that can most charitably be described as pointless.  And while it only merits a blog post, even that post merits the careful annotation that Brian J. Antal, president of the Mahoning County St. Vincent De Paul Society, has voted in Democratic primaries for 17 years.  As Charles Pierce points out, if you don't think that nugget of information came from the Romney campaign, you shouldn't be allowed out in public without a handler.

Ryan cleaned pots that were already cleaned and met with volunteers who stayed to talk to him.  And the point of this, besides the photo op?  Probably to be sure he stayed away from the patrons of the kitchen, as much as anything.  Mitt Romney made much of the people asking him for help in the last debate, and his answer highlighted the question Stendahl is asking above:  Who speaks to whom, and for whom?

Mitt Romney speaks to the middle class, to the people presumably not on food stamps, but afraid they soon will be.  He at least speaks as if they were different classes of people., and as if food stamps were emblematic of economic policy failure.  He's careful not to mention food stamps (which, really, no longer exist, any more than "welfare" does) as something we are paying for with money we don't have, but that's only because it may not be only "the poor" who need them right now.

Who speaks to whom, and for whom?

Barack Obama?  He was careful to conclude last night that free-market capitalism will save us all, if we're just patient enough.  But what does that say to the 5-6% who will still be unemployed in even the best of economic times?  Social mobility will save you?

No, apparently it won't.

"If I just know that you share a rare surname with someone who was wealthy in 1800, I can predict now that you're nine times more likely to attend Oxford or Cambridge. You're going to live two years longer than an average person in England. You're going to have more wealth. You're more likely to be a doctor. You're more likely to be an attorney," Clark says.

The point is underlined a bit further on in the article:

"We can't predict the individual aspects of where you'll end up, but if we want to rank you overall in society, maybe as much as 60 percent of the outcome is determined at the time of conception," Clark says.

And if Clark is right, that number is almost impervious to change. The Industrial Revolution didn't change it. Neither did the communist revolution in China, World Wars I or II, or even social policies like the GI Bill. Clark says he's still working on exactly how to interpret that information.

But it's clear he has growing doubts about whether public policy can really help people move up the social ladder.

So it may be true that, as Jesus says to Pilate in "Jesus Christ Superstar:"  "Everything is fixed, and you can't change it."  Which means that when we talk about economic inequality, we really are talking about class warfare.

This, by the way, is what is at the heart of the affirmative action case before the Supreme Court.  The issue is not race, but class.  The plaintiff's parents went to UT, but she couldn't get in.  Clearly, she thinks, she deserves better; clearly someone of a lower class took her place.  Mitt Romney said much the same thing last night when he claimed that illegal immigrants "take the place" of people waiting patiently for legal permission to enter the country.  The legal process, of course, is not held up because "illegals" are filling up the spaces alloted to legal immigrants.  The very idea is so silly it's ludicrous, yet it was passed over without even commentary this morning.

I suppose he meant the "illegal" (i.e., 'brown') immigrants are taking jobs from American (i.e., "white") citizens, but how many American citizens are flocking to Alabama to bring in the harvest?  As even John McCain pointed out 4 years ago, "You can't do it, my friend."  Especially at the wages such work pays.

But don't mention that aloud, it might scare the children. 

In America the poor are not just poor, they're subhuman; if they're visible at all.  I've asked before why no one is photographed anymore with poor people, as Bobby Kennedy was.  Paul Ryan wasn't concerned to be photographed with them.  He preferred being seen with clean pots and pans.  NPR and other news outlets have at least begun to recognize that the poor have completely disappeared from our national discourse, which is probably just as well since the subject of the poor makes the discussion coarser by the day.  Jon Stewart makes me feel better about Ryan's photo-op; but only just.  I remember that the questions asked last night were selected by Candy Crowley from questions submitted by those chosen to even ask questions.  Either nobody asked about the poor, or Ms. Crowley filtered out such questions as intemperate or irrelevant.

Who speaks to whom, and for whom?


  1. Sherri2:36 PM

    Sure, there's been talk about the poor, RMJ. "Have we no emergency rooms?"

    We've become a very stratified society. When I was growing up, I knew people across a broad spectrum of socioeconomic levels. Now, almost everyone I encounter regularly is a college graduate, and most have post-graduate degrees. As a result, my daughter is growing up in a different environment than I did.

  2. Romney was right in the debate when he claimed that Obama does not understand how to create jobs, etc. Obama, almost as much as Romney, really does seem to believe in

    self-reliance and individual initiative and risk takers being rewarded. But I also believe that everybody should have a fair shot and everybody should do their fair share and everybody should play by the same rules, because that's how our economy's grown. That's how we built the world's greatest middle class.

    The part about doing your fair share and everybody playing by the same rules is good as far as it goes, but Obama should know better than to think that is how we built our middle class. And he should also know better than to think that the middle class is the only issue at hand class-wise.


    OTOH, my experience is slightly different than Sherri's: I grew up in what was largely an upper-middle class bubble in suburbia, although there were the kids from "old town" and the military base on one hand and some relatively rich yuppie-types on the other. It wasn't until I went to college that I met people in my generation who were from the working-class background that I only knew from my mom's stories growing up the daughter of a sheet-metal-worker. And certainly my classmates were from a higher socio-economic place than are many of my current students.

    Meanwhile, my daughter has friends ranging from working class kids in the Bronx to the kids of some truly rich people at our synagogue.


    That being said, (upward) socio-economic mobility seems to be decreasing in my experience.

  3. My personal story is not unlike Sherri's, though I grew up in a very white suburb and among people of far more privilege than they realized. (Although, to be fair, all Americans live in more privilege than they realize. Dr. King thought he knew what poverty was until he traveled to Asia.)

    And yes, it has gotten worse since I was a child; far more stratified. I don't remember "homeless" people or people living under highway overpasses in my youth. That does seem to be a consequence of closing mental hospitals (which in some cases was not the worst idea; all solution are fraught with new problems) and generally starting to shred the social safety net. But it is also a consequence of "Blow you, Jack! I got mine!", an attitude that has reached its selfish apogee (or is nadir?) with the Tea Party, not all of whom are old people who want government to stay away from their Medicare.

    There is a scene in "The Dark Knight Returns" (I am a child of my environment; I'll quote Frank Miller as readily as Dostoevsky) where Bruce Wayne laments the world he has lived into, a world run by gangs and sociopaths. They are, he realizes, purer, uglier, less humane, than the criminals he fought as a young man. Sometimes I think Miller was right about the future we're living into, although he laid the fault on the wrong people. It isn't the criminals on the streets I fear; it's the lawlessness of those who would rule. Not that we are plunging toward Miller's dystopia; but I don't think the problem of evil is coming from the bottom up.

    Which is probably very Christian of me, truth be told.....

  4. Hatred of the poor is probably the most widespread vice, it is everywhere. There is no more radical concept than that poor people can be good people and frequently are.

    I think the media are responsible for making people fear and despise poor people. While sentimentality about poor folks is not really helpful it's not as destructive of the cynical, class and educationally based hatred and disdain for the poor that has replaced it. Elite education is, in large part, an education into the validation of deserving more than those who don't get one. I think that is the primary attainment of those who successfully finish at an elite university, even more than any actual knowledge. It is a tacit ennobling of an entire line who are often obviously not the brightest though having that lineage and access to legacy admission obviously is also a tacit entitlement as being part of "the best".

    This has a very, very real consequence in the whole of society and the world. The Best and Brightest, with full support of the scientific, legal and other apparatuses of the loftiest reaches of reputable society are engaged in plunder and despoliation not much different from that attributed to the most backward, ignorant and, worst of all, vulgar forces in the world. It's just a matter of keeping their hygiene up and their soft hands removed from the blood and grime. They are probably far more of a danger than any poor rabble, even the most vicious and backward of it. As so often, reading Marilynne Robinson on the topic, Mother Country, has had a decisive effect on my thinking about that. Equality is an absolute necessity for defeating those forces. Without leveling life will never be more than brutal and immoral.

  5. You sound radically Christian, you know. First and greatest of all will be last and least and servant of all, etc. :-)