Two Americas

“If profit is your only metric, man, where …do people stand?”

David Simon, a reporter, author and television producer, asked that, and says that in America there was a class war between the working class and the rich …and that the working class lost.

His words stunned me. There is something about hearing stark truth spoken out loud. If you don’t hear the words, you can pretend that things are not as bad as they are. If you’re in a relationship that’s over, you tend to do better, feel better, pretending that things are not as bad as they are until your significant other says, “I don’t love you anymore.”

Once that’s said, pretense is shattered.

That’s what Simon’s words did to me – jostled me into an uncomfortable reality. In America, something has gone horribly wrong, and much of it is because of our economic system which has pushed too many people to the brink of despair.

Simon says that democracy was supposed to be, or is supposed to be, about sharing. Yet, in the grip of capitalism, the notion of sharing has gone missing. If one talks too much about income inequality, or people needing to make a living wage, cries of protest – yelling out “socialism,”   “communism” or worse are heard in full force.

If you keep on and push the argument further, suggesting that Jesus believed in sharing, (some have suggested that Jesus was a socialist in his world view) then you will surely be shot down as a heretic.

And yet, it is clear that something horribly wrong has happened. The Congress, points out Simon, is full of people with good wages and health care; they have lost touch and do not care about – cannot, in fact, relate to – those who work hard and still cannot support themselves and their families …and who do not have health care. They cannot hear the cries of the growing underclass because their quest for more comfort for themselves and their families takes front and center.

Was capitalism supposed to turn out this way?  Conservatives like to quote the Constitution as the reason for all of their beliefs …but do they understand the spirit of that document …or, for that matter, do I? Did I get it wrong? Wasn’t “democracy” supposed to be a form of government that insured some type of equality for all its people?

If I listen to Conservatives or Libertarians, the answer would be a resounding “no.” All of us who have interpreted the Constitution as a document of, for and about economic parity and  “fair chance” of all people would be criticized as being constitutionally ignorant.

Simon says America’s government is a “purchase government.”  Capitalism worked, he says, when more people were, in fact, able to “purchase.” That is not the case anymore; too many people can purchase little to nothing …and from what I’ve learned from listening to economists, our economy cannot be at its best unless large numbers of people can purchase things that they need and some things that they want.

Big money, notes Simon, has purchased much of government. Consider Art Pope, who is said to have purchased much of the government of North Carolina and the result is that the poor, the almost poor …and the “gonna be poor” are suffering and struggling like never before. Simon says there are “two Americas.” Damn if he isn’t spot on. One only has to open one’s eyes to see it. The poor are getting more and more numerous. It’s not just people of color, either. Plenty of white people are in the “poor” category.

I am just beginning to deal with this on a gut level. And it hurts…I think I wanted my government to be better than all governments. I liked living in the myth that justice and the tenets of the Constitution would ultimately prevail.

Apparently, that is not so.

A candid observation …

He With Gold Rules

“He with the gold …rules.”

That is a line spoken by Bill Moyers in his documentary: “State of Conflict: North Carolina.”

It is a fascinating but troubling documentary, exposing the right-wing takeover of government in North Carolina, bankrolled by one Art Pope, among others …which is resulting in an extreme erosion of rights of people in that state.

Specifically targeted are voting rights, women’s rights, and public higher education.  There are consistent “snips” to social safety nets in the state. Medicaid was not expanded in the state, seriously affecting “the least of these” and compromising, if not outright preventing, the very poor to have access to health care.

There is a minister, Rev. William Barber, president of the state chapter NAACP and a key coordinator of the multi-issue, multi-ethnic movement  which has taken on the state. Barber began his public protest with a small group of people last year; that number of people has swelled to thousands, gathering in cities all over the state, protesting and fighting what is going on.

There will be a mass rally on Saturday, February 8, in Charlotte.

Those are the facts of what’s going on. Here is my gut-wrenching reaction about what’s going on.

This sucks.

I have long thought that “justice” comes most readily to those who can pay for it. What’s going on says that “government” is defined and shaped by those …who can pay for it.

At the end of the day, is there such a thing as a democracy, where, theoretically, there is “liberty and justice for all?”  Is the notion of government “of the people, by the people and for the people” a pie in the sky? How can a select few of wealthy people be so cavalier about the lives and welfare of the masses? How can legislatures so blithely cut away services that will make live more bearable for so many people?

Somehow, a small group of wealthy people, and a larger group of not-as-wealthy-but-wanna-be people have gotten the notion that if one is poor, it’s because he or she is lazy. They have bought into the notion that in America, anything and everything is possible if one is willing to work hard.

Scores of people would refute that, people who are working two, three jobs to make ends meet and who still can’t make those ends meet. Scores of people who do have low paying jobs but with no benefits would refute that as well, stating for the record that they work as many hours as possible – at minimum wage, many of them – and are still living below the poverty level.

That the wealthy cannot see this, or perhaps more stridently, do not believe this or care about the truth of what’s being said and experienced, is troubling. It pulls at the very seams of a nation that prides itself on being morally superior to other nations.

A nation which forgets and exploits its poor cannot be said to be moral, not in any shape, way or form.

A candid observation …

Mercy and Justice, Defined

English: The Poor helping the poor
English: The Poor helping the poor (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

In a recent interview with Theresa Riley of “Moyers & Company, Joel Berg, of NYC’s  Coalition Against Hunger said that 50 million Americans live in “food insecure” households. That means, simply, that many Americans just do not have enough to eat. Berg made the point that in this, the wealthiest country in the world, such a number is morally unacceptable.  People are “rationing food and skipping meals,” and the most adversely affected by this dire situation are children.  (http://billmoyers.com/2013/04/05/going-to-bed-hungry/).

 

Riley asked Berg what could be done about it, and Berg responded that Congress could pass legislation to give people a “living wage,” i.e., enough money to actually survive and live with some dignity. Berg said that the situation costs America $167.5 billion a year. That’s a staggering figure. Berg explained that hunger causes a plethora of problems, adding to health care costs in this nation, and ultimately has a negative impact of America’s economy overall. He said:  “Food insecure children experience a broad range of problems that affect their health, development, well-being and school performance. Poorly nourished children have lower school test scores and require far more long-term health care spending. Hunger also reduces the productivity of workers, which reduces their earnings, which, in turn, reduces their ability to purchase nutritious food for their children. In this vicious cycle, malnourished children do not do as well in school, are more likely to drop out, and are less likely to go to college than children who are properly nourished. Consequently, malnourished children earn less as adults and are less able to help America build a 21st-century high-skills economy. In order for the nation to build the best public education system in the world, bring down health care costs, and rebuild our economy, we simply must end hunger”

 

The entire interview was sobering and depressing. We do not want to see what is real in our world; it is much more comfortable and easy to reside in myth. If we do not see hunger, or the effects of hunger in our own country, amongst American citizens, it is easy not to think about it or to understand how dire a condition it is. Riley’s report, coupled with a documentary shown on HBO recently, American Winter, have made me think about, again, the difference between mercy and justice.

 

To give the poor and the needy food and clothing is showing mercy. Religious and non-religious people find it relatively easy to help people in this way. It is always gratifying but a bit troubling to see the outpouring of mercy gifts during the Christmas season. I have always wondered why the need to give seems so important only during that season, when in fact, hunger and poverty know no seasons. One of the major problems for poor children is that they do not eat well during the summer; the food that their parents are able to afford is often that which is least healthy, and so obesity, or the possibility of obesity, is much higher for those children …but the thought that some children in our country cannot and do not eat well in summer is sickening.  To give the poor the food they need, however skewed it seems that we think most about them only during the holidays, amounts to giving or showing mercy.

 

The more difficult work, however, is the work of justice. Berg said that the way to curb hunger in this country would be for Congress to pass a living wage. Berg said that the President and Congress ought to concentrate not only on creating wealth on Wall Street, but on making it possible for people to make a living wage; he also said the Congress should also move positively on President Obama’s request for the minimum wage to be raised to nine dollars, and then “index it to inflation.” (http://billmoyers.com/2013/04/05/going-to-bed-hungry/)

 

That seems simple enough, and it seems humane. It also seems economically wise, as hunger causes so many other problems that adversely affect the American economy. And yet, lawmakers in general seem hesitant to pass legislation that would let people have a living wage or get some decent money for the work they do. That sort of legislation only comes through the voices and actions of the people; getting Congress to hear the cries and see the needs of the poor and act on them is what constitutes justice work.

 

Power concedes nothing without a struggle, noted Frederick Douglass. When justice is being sought, there is always a struggle. One need only to look at the current fight for justice being waged by the LGBT community on marriage, or look back to struggles for basic rights waged by women and by African- Americans. Unfortunately, it appears that wanting one’s “country back” is equal to having a country where the scales are not in balance. Apparently, that, to many, is how America is supposed to be.

 

But the God of us all would not agree, not if the holy books of all religions are to be believed. The God in the Christian Bible,  Yahweh in the Hebrew scriptures, demanded justice, and grew angry when such justice was not forthcoming.

 

Once, a member of my congregation said to me, “Why are you preaching about the poor? There are supposed to be poor people. The Bible says it.” She was referring to a statement in the Bible where Jesus says, “The poor you will always have with you.” Are we to draw from that that God wants us not to worry or fret about the poor? I think not.

 

Susan Thistlewaite, a professor at the Chicago Theological School, author of Occupy the Bible,  and a regular contributor to The Washington Post, urged a group of us in a recent presentation she gave, to read the parables from the bottom up, from the perspective of the poor and not the wealthy. The outcome of doing that was personally very revealing.

 

We are not eager to do that, however. The bulk of us are not eager to seek justice, though the Hebrew Scriptures soundly advises us to do so. Justice work is difficult. It has to be so powerful that stony minds can be penetrated, and the needs of others can be put in front of political aspirations. The current struggle for gun control is a justice issue; what is being sought is not the prohibition of Americans to own guns, but, rather, a limitation on the kinds of guns that can be purchased, and the size of magazine clips as well. All that the gun control movement is trying to do is make it more difficult for anyone to shoot up an office or school full of people. That is justice work.

 

People don’t want justice for others, however, or maybe it is more accurate to say they don’t want to put the work into it. Justice work is hard and tedious; the fights against justice are just as focused as are the fights for justice. One who fights for justice has to be in it for the long haul.

 

It would be nice if the Congress would really think about the vast numbers of Americans struggling and pass a living wage and raise the minimum wage. But unless there are soldiers on the fields fighting for that, it “aint’ gonna happen.”

 

And so, the wealthiest nation in the world will continue to engage in seasonal mercy offerings. That’s good, but mercy without accompanying justice can come off as efforts in futility, because in spite of the good-intentioned mercy, the root of the problem is being ignored by those who could make a more long-standing difference.

 

A candid observation …