Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Blessed are the poor

A deadline seem to cause writer's block. I'm not sure what to say about poverty. But, lately I've been thinking about Christianity quite a lot, especially in the context of the elections coming here in early November.

It's really hard to believe something when the evidence you see strongly suggests what you're trying to believe isn't so. As a young man, a freshman in college, a whole list of Christian beliefs seemed hard to believe as hard as I was trying to. I guess that's what is called "a crisis of faith." It really is hard to force yourself to believe, so I just sort of accepted the situation: I really didn't believe.

But I encountered a more prosaic problem then: What should I call myself? I've tried the various names: non-believer, agnostic, atheist, etc, and none really seemed to fit the bill. Something I've discovered about myself, and perhaps Christianity, is that beliefs are only a part of the puzzle. It's easy to recognize those beliefs I don't really hold, but then there is also a way a thinking. People negotiate their way using systems of metaphors. We aren't generally aware of our metaphors and how they shape our view of the world, they are largely unconscious. People can become aware of these sets of metaphors in various ways, including discovering others who operate with different sets of metaphors. The more I've looked at how I think, the more I've discovered that many of the metaphors I use to think are keyed to Christianity.

It really does make a difference what we believe, but that's just part of it. So in some ways I'm not a Christian, but in others I am a Christian. In Germany before WWII there were many secular Jews. Many probably had come to discover, a set of beliefs that didn't fit, and yet were still Jewish. It's even more complicated than that. Metaphors are approximate, so there are contradictions in the sets of metaphors we use. We sometimes try to resolve these contradictions, but we are clever. F. Scott Fitzgerald said:
"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas at the same time being, and still retain the ability to function."
Most of us pass the test.

Poverty is the condition of being poor. Once upon a time the politics of the day waged a "war on poverty." There's a metaphor embedded there, do you see it? The war was not supposed to be against poor people. Indeed, the intent was to make fewer people poor, and the lives of poor people more bearable. Americans got tired of that war for one reason or another. Today the attention has turned to a "war on terror." With this war it's not so clear that it isn't waged against terrorist. Really I think we as a people weren't so sure about who to be against in the war on poverty either. There's something comfortable in oppressing poor people; oppressing poor people is almost tantamount to the definition of poor.

Jesus, it seems had a thing for the poor, famously pronouncing them blessed. I don't have a 401K-- a vehicle for encouraging retirement investments. Some of my friends do and lately they've seen the value of the equities they own plummet along with the value of real estate. The financial crisis is so bad that most people comprehend that it will be years before things get better and they'll probably get worse before they do. People aren't happy about this. Who wants to be poor? A friend of mine was told that she ought to be happy she's poor because he has just lost over half of his net worth in the stock collapse. I think Jesus was getting at something a wee bit different than that. Still, it does seem odd to declare the poor are blessed.

There's all sorts of evidence that plenty of Americans are taking the tried and true response to the present financial crisis and making the poor the scapegoats for it. The cause of all the trouble, we reason, was too many poor people getting loans. Poor people have ruined it for all of us. I'm hearing this and read views of this sort, often with a racist undertone, and it just gets my goat. Why aren't we talking about a 54.6 trillion dollar market in privately traded derivatives? Talking about that, it seems to me will get us further along in figuring out what's gone wrong and what to do about it than blaming poor people. Poor people clearly haven't been players in credit default swaps!

It's not just Jesus, the Bible speaks about the poor throughout. The message seems clear: the poor are part of our communities and rather than to distance ourselves from them we are to extend ourselves to the poor. That's a practical message, but one that too often gets lost when we think in terms of military metaphors. Poor and poverty aren't the same, but there is no poverty without poor people. Our focus ought to be on people and how we add them to the wealth of our community. At least that's how I understand the meaning of "Blessed are the poor." We all can be happy.


Quistorm said...

Hi, J,

I liked your point of view on the poor,but its doesn't point to the solution,what should be done to bring the poor to the next step of our societies?

Should we think of religion when discussing this issue?

Kampala Uganda

John Powers said...

Hi Quitstorm, I don't have the answers about what should be done aside from the obvious ones about meeting the basic needs of people. I don't like the attitude that poor people don't matter. I think we all matter.

As to your question about thinking about religion it seems to me most people think of religion. Some people (a few) think that such thinking only contributes to the problems. That maybe so, but begs the question of how to get people to stop thinking about religion?

My sense is that at least for now people are going to still think of religion. So I want to try to think better about religion.

Some religious people think very carefully and are willing to discuss what they think in the spirit that others might have something good to say. When non-believers also enter into conversations with the notion that religious people have something good to say, that is, people engage in conversations with mutual respect, we all might be improved.

Daisy said...

Comedian Richard Lewis, on Keith Olbermann's show the other night, referred to himself as "a spiritual agnostic" which I thought was kinda cool. Never heard the term before.

You might try that one!