Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Congratulations, you poor!

God's domain belongs to you!  And you can have it at a bargain price!

My only disagreement with Charles Pierce's observations here is in the last sentence:

Read the whole thing and realize how detached from the actual country our politics have become.

"Have become"?  The concern for the poor expressed in the 1960's by Lyndon Johnson and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, was an aberration in American history.  I've said before I can't think of a politician actually photographed (or otherwise publicly connected, if you want the pre-photographic world) with poor people except for Bobby Kennedy, himself an extraordinarily rich man.

Tell me about a public figure who has expressed concern for the poor since.  And yet he's better remembered for being JFK's brother, or for the speech he gave the night Martin Luther King was killed, or for being killed himself, that same deadly year of 1968.  Nobody wants to remember King's work for the poor.  Nobody wants to make a public hero out of Dorothy Day.  No one in this country wants to pay attention to the poor at all.

As TC was noting this morning, if you want to court popularity on-line, post about how wrong some public figure is.  Post "hate-talk," and watch your numbers soar.  Discuss materialism at all (the subject of TC's post), and who will pay attention?  Poverty is in no small part about materialism; but it is actually about spirituality.  It is about humanity.  It is about common decency (which is neither common nor decent, but that's yet another dull topic.). And the problem of spirituality and poverty, of humanity and poverty, of common decency and poverty, is the problem of those conditions and issues among the non-poor, among those who's lives and conditions keep the poor impoverished, marginalized, invisible.  It is the fact that our comfort rests on their misery, that our surplus is the direct result of their deficit.  It is the fact that Jesus lived among the ptochoi, was himself ptochoi, and yet modern American Christianity extols the virtues of wealth and materialism.  And I don't just mean the purveyors of the odious "Gospel of Wealth."

The fact that life expectancy tied to economic standing is actually declining should be front page news in this country.  Am I exaggerating?

The journal Health Affairs reported the five-year drop in August.
The last time researchers found a change of this magnitude, Russian men had lost seven years after the fall of the Soviet Union, when they began drinking more and taking on other risky behaviors. Although women generally outlive men in the U.S., such a large decline in the average age of death, from almost 79 to a little more than 73, suggests that an increasing number of women are dying in their twenties, thirties, and forties. “We actually don’t know the exact reasons why it’s happened,” Olshansky says. “I wish we did.” Most Americans, including high-school dropouts of other races, are gaining life expectancy, just at different speeds. Absent a war, genocide, pandemic, or massive governmental collapse, drops in life expectancy are rare. “If you look at the history of longevity in the United States, there have been no dramatic negative or positive shocks,” Olshansky says. “With the exception of the 1918 influenza pandemic, everything has been relatively steady, slow changes. This is a five-year drop in an 18-year time period. That’s dramatic.”
An increasing number of women are dying in their 20's, 30's, and 40's.  For them, the 21st century is more like the 19th.  But it's only poor people.  We can't afford 'em anyway.

Rather than scold, as is my wont, let me put a question to the assembled:  what if we were to take the Beatitudes of Luke seriously as performative language, and pronounce a blessing on the poor, as Jesus did?  Not an eschatological blessing, that in the sweet bye and bye the poor will have some kind of kingdom of God (where presumably the rest of us will be, too; thus making equal in the afterlife what we dare not equalize now), but a performative blessing, one present in the very act of stating it.

As I said a few years ago:

The problem with saying the familiar Beatitudes are actually unfamiliar "performative language" is that it means we don't know what to do with them. The problem with saying they are not performative language, but simply address the question of meaning within language, is that we do know what to do with them: smile politely and take our comfort from their familiarity, and move on.

What would it mean to live as if such blessings were enacted rather than described?
What, in other words, if we quit relying on words to do things for us, and starting just doing something?  How radically upended would the world be?  How decisively different would our lives be?


  1. I think Marilynne Robinson - a good Congregationalist, by the way - said the most insightful thing about the motives of the elite in declaring themselves too smart to be religious, they wanted to be free of the justice aspect of The Law, in its original form and as strengthened by Jesus. They were freeing themselves of the obligation to do justice, especially economic justice. I think that's especially true of the British atheist tradition bound up with its class system in which even the "socialists" were the putrid Fabians who, as Robinson also points out, spent most of their energy in making the lives of the very poor ever more desperately awful so they wouldn't be spoiled by aid.

    I think I mentioned recently that I don't recall that great humanitarian, Bertrand Russell being nearly as interested in abolishing the horrible Poor Law and the death camps that the work houses still were well into his adulthoood, as he was in mocking religious belief. It shouldn't be forgotten that Russell was also a very rich man with about as elite an upbringing as could be had. All of which makes so much of what he said rather empty and void of substance. It's that thinking that informs contemporary atheism in the English speaking world.

  2. Russell mocked Wittgenstein's concern with sin. However, his life's work basically proved 1+1=2.

    In the end he didn't contribute much...

  3. And Marilynne Robinson is right.