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by Ron Cebik An old Gallic friend inhabits my thoughts these days as I ponder the American political, economic, social, and religious scene. When barely an adult, he served in the Vichy French Navy surviving the destruction of the their Mediterranean Fleet by the British, wandered the North African Desert for months and ended World War II fighting alongside the British. He taught me about the beauty of things shaped by the human hand, the symmetry of landscaped hillsides, and the irony that is the shadow of human pretension. He once told me that that there are only two kinds of people in the world; whores and pimps. Only now, almost twenty years later, can I really understand what he meant. The reason for my slow admittance of his meaning has been my reluctance to accept that he was sharing an important insight into the human condition. Humanity, in this view, is divided into two classes of people. There are those whose lives are limited to making others rich through their labor, and those who provide a living to those who make them rich. The few, who live their lives outside this bifurcation of humanity, do so in isolation, confined to monasteries, artist studios, or other venues of meager living. Admittedly, this comes awfully close to “forbidden” thinking as it describes the human condition in a manner that challenges the way our culture demands we think of it. To entertain such a view threatens our inflated view of ourselves and our need to ascribe nobility to our lives. We, therefore, live in denial, creating a worldview that leaves us feeling comfortable. The problem with this is that one denial leads to another. We, thus, label realities with false identities. Such is the case with term “middle class”. Most people in modern America think of themselves as middle class. Politicians constantly refer to the middle class as threatened or in need of tax relief. The middle class is referred to as the bed-rock of American society, the repository of its values, and the societal core that third world countries should seek to emulate. What, however, is middle about this class? We live in a society that takes pride in home ownership. In fact, this is one of the hallmarks of being middle class. Home ownership is one of those terms applied to a
condition that masks its true reality. Most of us do not own our own homes. They are, for all practical purposes, owned by lending institutions and entities with which we have entered into an agreement by which we are allowed to live in a housing unit that has been determined to be within the limits of our income. We may exchange this unit when our needs or income change, but it is we who bear the costs of making this change. If there is any doubt as to the true owner of the property, renege on the contract and see who remains in possession of the property. For this privilege of “home ownership”, we end up paying to the institution up to three times the original purchase price. The system forces us into gambling that, in the end, we may have a roof over our heads when we are no longer employed. However, the system has gambled nothing, as we have taken the risk and devoted a lifetime to making the lending institution’s stockholders richer. Perhaps it is worth it to be called homeowners rather than fief holders. The same applies to our automobiles. By the time we really own them, having paid off the loan to purchase them, they are next to worthless. This is only to illustrate how we use terms to describe a reality in a palatable way, even if it distorts that reality. Of what is the middle class in the middle? Members of this class like to think they are here because they are neither rich nor poor, but somewhere in the middle of the wealth spectrum. There are those with more possessions, assets, cash, or luxuries. Then, there is that permanent underclass aspiring to attain the status of middle class. This, again, is another distortion of reality. Wealth is always relative in determining where one is located in the social order. There are members of the underclass who may have more cash liquidity than most us can dream of (drug dealers and the occasional person who squirrels away a fortune while living in seeming poverty). There are persons, living in cheap rents, overburdened by debt, that are never considered a part of the underclass, such as graduate students, interns, teachers, social workers, and all sorts of religious professionals. The middle class, today, is in the middle of nothing. It is a term that refers to another reality to which will be alluded to later. There are only two classes, i.e. the one that controls and the one controlled, another way of describing what my friend described in more colorful terms. If the class that is controlled is what is referred to as the middle class, the underclass is really part of it. Then the so-called middle (controlled) class has more in common with the underclass than with the upper (controlling) class.
Unless, at this point, the reader thinks this is a Marxist argument, it is necessary to point out that this is not about “oppression of the masses” or a call to revolution. It is simply to state that this is a way of understanding the dynamics at work in American society. The average person in this country is more comfortable, economically, than any average person in any time or place. There is more freedom of movement, less drudgery, more work satisfaction, and more opportunity to advance in status in modern society. The same can be said about many other societies around the world. Class is not about relative affluence. People tend to think that having some degree of comfort, the opportunity to consume products, and enjoy a modicum of leisure makes them middle class. When viewed against the backdrop of poverty seen in the third world and in urban and rural enclaves in this country, the relative wealth of most Americans seems to indicate a rise in status. If one were to measure wealth in terms of survivability, then the picture changes. Without an automobile, the opportunity to be gainfully employed is minimal. Comfortable housing is dependent upon a steady income lest one’s domicile be repossessed by the lending institution holding the mortgage. People are no longer equipped with the skills necessary to survive without great amounts of power derived from fossil fuels, innumerable electronic gadgets, and a complex societal infrastructure. Relative affluence is about technology, not class. Technology makes possible a life that is relatively comfortable, but not free of anxiety, the kind of anxiety that has always plagued those living on the edge. Whether it is a feudal lord threatening to drive serfs off his land, or the bank threatening foreclosure on a mortgage, the resulting anxiety is the same. It is the threat of depravation that drives one to “please” the powers that have control over one’s life. In this sense, one making a five or six figure annual income is as vulnerable to the whims of the controlling class as any medieval serf or modern sweat shop laborer in Asia. Jacques Ellul, French sociologist and Protestant theologian, has given technology an interesting theological twist1. In his rebuttal to Harvey Cox’s optimistic Christian baptism of American culture in the Secular City2, Ellul suggested that technology and the urban culture that it has spawned is basically dehumanizing and a trap into which humanity has fallen as a result of original sin. His starting point is the story of Cain and
Abel.3 Cain was a tiller of the ground, a farmer. Abel was a keeper of sheep, someone who followed his animals in search of forage. As the story unfolds, the shepherd is God’s favorite, engendering rage in the farmer who slays his brother, the keeper of livestock. Cain is banished under safe conduct to a place in which he establishes a city which he names after is son Enoch. His descendents include Jubal, the ancestor of musicians and Tubal-cain, the maker of bronze and iron tools. In this sequel to the story of the fall and expulsion from the Garden of Eden we find the founding of civilization, the city enclosed within walls. The arts and the manufacturing of tools and weapons, activities based within the city’s walls, have their origin in jealousy, murder, and alienation from the natural rhythms of life. A hierarchy is established where the city now controls the tillage of the land and the tillers are beholden to the city for working the land, selling the produce of the land, and protection from raiders coveting the land. Farming was based on technology (tools). Commerce arose as a way of making production available to those who did not produce as well as those who did, and “military arts” were developed to protect the entire enterprise. The system by which a small group of the powerful controlled the destiny of many was made possible by technology originating in the dark passions of Cain. The system, in its basic outline, persists to this day. The myth of Adam and Eve is only the beginning of a much longer story of the fall as an ongoing historical process. Today’s “artisans” and “tillers of the soil” are the producers of a far more complex system of production, distribution, and consumption than has ever existed from the beginning. As technology has developed in each of the three domains, the increasing complexity has meant that those within the protective cover of the most dominant cities (now called nation-states) shared in the affluence of the cities to the extent that they are reasonably content to accept this structure. However, producers of the city’s wealth remain dependent on those who own and control the production apparatus. In today’s economy these dependent producers are also the consumers who are enticed into consuming with other’s peoples’ money (credit card debt). This makes them further subject to fear that some intervening event could deprive them of their borrowed wealth and plunge them into poverty. This fear makes them even more subject to the whims of the controlling class. While the sartorial finery of average person today may be little
different from that of the highest officials in business and government, a vast gulf exists between them. The mark of Cain may protect us from the outside, but the truth that dark forces shape our existence remains. To say there is no middle class is an oversimplification. To avoid confusion, we shall call the class in the middle, the intermediate class. It is relatively small and few of us are members of it. This is the group in society that mediates between the controlling and the controlled. The intermediate class expands or contracts as necessary to maintain stasis in any particular society. At the end of the Middle Ages when Europe began to expand with trade to the East and the New World, bankers followed by experts in contracts (lawyers) ballooned into a powerful class. While not owning the means of production or its distribution, this group managed the media of exchange that made increasingly complex commerce possible. Not entirely trusted by either the controlling or controlled classes, they have always walked a tenuous path between the two. From Shakespeare’s Shylock to Kenneth Lay of Enron notoriety, this intermediate class has been mocked by the populace, Donald Trump being such an example. Despite the vast wealth they may amass, they are never the objects of popular adulation as are certain royals (Princess Dianna, Grace Ranier) or sports and entertainment figures. Hatred of this group became synonymous with anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany. Within this group are also the intellectuals, certain media personnel, and educators who move between the upper and lower classes. Income and wealth are, for obvious reasons, not determinative of their status. However, popular movements view the latter with the same suspicion as bankers and lawyers. Current loud and derogatory criticism of the “liberal elite” by radical right politicians and reflects this phenomenon. Whenever economic or social anxiety rises in the controlled segment, anger is deflected toward this intermediate group, especially those intellectuals and pundits articulating the real cause of the anxiety. Technology has brought increasing comfort to much of humanity, but not security. From the city founded by Cain to the modern era, technology is humanity’s capacity to extend and alter the capacity of the human body to impact its environment. The plow is an extension of the hand and arm making more efficient the loosening of soil for planting seeds. The invention of the stirrup fused the human body to that of the horse to make a more deadly killing machine. Firearms made the arm a more efficient hurler of
projectiles. With each increase in the capacity of the human body to do more tasks more efficiently, the organization of human society changed to take economic advantage of these extensions. Technology recently added wings so humans are no longer earthbound. Machines means that warfare is a uni-sex endeavor no longer the domain of a separate masculine warrior class. Within the last fifty years, electronics and their use as means of communication have rewired the human brain and integrated it into the vast matrix of commercial, political, social, and psychological realities that are the world of today. Arguments against biological augmentation of the human body through genetic manipulation seem but another feeble attempt to contain the dark force of technology. Despite this almost infinite expansion of the human body, nothing basic has changed. Under it all, Cain still covets the pre-eminent place, if not in God’s favor, then within the walls of the city where other humans are made to offer him the praise withheld by Yahweh. The dark passions that spawned the first murder continue to divide humans into those who exploit and those who are exploited. Liberals of the last century, including many Protestant thinkers, clung to the illusion that increased affluence, control over the environment, and expanding knowledge meant things were getting better and better. A century of warfare and the unleashing of the atomic demon served only to make their expectations vapid and their influence diminished. Advances in technology have not made things better, only more complex. The Cain story as a metaphor for the origins of civilization only hints at the deeper implications for human life. While Cain set in motion the creation of technology, neither he nor his descendents could control the forces that had been unleashed. History reveals that technology is something that even the controlling class must adapt to in order to survive. However that adaptation is usually at the expense of the vast producing class. A cursory examination of the current debate over the social security system reveals much of how this adaptation takes place. Under the rosy rhetoric about private accounts is the message that Americans need to be willing to takes risks insuring their own security as their employers and government are no longer willing or able to do so. While cutting away the safety nets of the producing class, the future power and wealth of the controlling class is assured. At the same time, the same people are enticed to consume more and more, on credit if necessary, in order to keep the enterprise afloat. The result of
this double-binding set of messages is ever increasing social anxiety. That part of the culture that calls itself “middle class” is “going crazy.” Unable to control the forces of change, society seeks stasis in redefining itself. This is what we see happening today with emergence of a rigid religious sub-culture being used to under gird personal morality and undermine a social ethic of mutual responsibility for the welfare of all. This redefinition of society is leading to a populism that is not patient with dissent. The result is an erosion of minority rights. Such rights are viewed as an attack on the rights of the majority. The majority in this case being not much more than the loudest voice. An example is the attack on the separation of Church and state by the radical religious right. First Amendment rights are in place to protect the minority. Those claiming to be the majority say they are being denied their rights as a religious majority by courts protecting the rights of a non-religious minority. It is these courts that are under fire for protecting the minority. However, the courts are under pressure to change so as to favor economic interests over individual claims for justice. Seeking freedom for a more deregulated sphere of action, what better way than let the radical religious right stir up the populace to bring about a change antithetical to their interests? The focus on moral conformity takes attention away from social injustice emerging as a consequence of technology induced change. Because of the pervasiveness of the media in all areas of the culture, an entire social class is reduced to being a mob. This is all meant to take us back to the Bible, Jesus in particular. While not generally acknowledged, Jesus was an expert on mobs, or crowds to use a more polite term. Actually, a mob is only a crowd turned ugly. Following our assumption that there are only two classes, the controlling and the controlled, we discover Jesus taking a definite tack toward each. In regard to the controlling class, in his case the religious leadership consisting of Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes, Priests, and Levites, he was highly critical and condemnatory. He treated individual persons in this class with respect, but had only negative things to say when addressing them collectively or when referring to them when speaking to a crowd. The crowd is made up of those persons who make up that portion of society having little control, even over their own lives. Jesus never condemned the crowd, but patiently dealt with it as an entity that required patience and
compassion. He preached to it, performed miracles before it, and even fed it. Nowhere does he condemn it like he did the religious establishment. He is compassionate toward it because of its inability to see beyond the moment or its immediate passions. In fact, he expects or demands nothing of it. Even when it turns on him and becomes a mob, he says nothing but asks forgiveness on it because it does not know what it is doing. Within it, however, are those whom he calls out; out of the crowd to be identified by name and to respond. Jesus understood that the crowd was subject to whoever fed it and protected it. It would turn on whoever threatened it. The establishment knew this as well as he did. So did the Romans caught in the middle. The inevitable happened, as he said it would. From this we take our cue in determining our responses as reflective, non-knee jerk religious persons, Christian and non-Christian alike. The demise of traditional liberalism, political social, and theological is not the end of social justice or democracy. In fact, it may make possible a vision and a strategy that is both hopeful and pragmatic. From a Christian point of view, it means taking back the Bible as a definitive map of history. It begins at the point we see it as the most imaginative and consistent explanation of the human condition. As we have seen, the story of the Fall does not end with Adam and Eve, but continues through Cain and his heirs down to the present time. How we read scripture is as important as how we interpret it. The Fundamentalists have backed the liberal and centrist churches into a corner not of their own choosing. If the debate is focused on who believes what and whose faith is the truth, the Fundamentalists hold most of the cards. Being reasonable and explaining away the seemingly irrational leaves the Bible with little but “feel good” psychologisms, questionable moralisms, and a lot of lovely, if archaic, poetry. Its power is in its mythical representation of truth, able to be perceived and understood by the unconscious mind. Imagination takes scripture and turns it into a light on the human condition in its contemporary setting. The one thing imagination will not do is allow the story to be codified into a “one size fits all” interpretation to be frozen into dogma. This is why Fundamentalists dare not risk reading scripture with imagination. The Fundamentalist, insisting on a literal reading of the written word, is confined to a cerebral understanding of the text. Read as myth, Biblical stories are capable of being processed
by the pre-linguistic mind from which comes our dreams. As such, scripture is our story in its vast and awesome complexity. It is just this potential the Fundamentalist fears and engenders his hatred of his more open co-religionist. Imagination takes us far beyond naïve Adam and Eve eating forbidden fruit. It takes us into realm of dehumanizing forces that result from the desire to be more than human, extending our grasp beyond our ability to cope responsibly. Unfortunately, mainline religion has been intimidated by the radical right within and outside its ranks. Assaulted on its flank by those accusing it of betraying “what the Bible teaches” by ordaining homosexuals or countenancing same sex unions, its energy is diverted from the critical battle. The real conflict is in the market place of ideas where truth is being subverted, facts spun until it is impossible to recognize a lie, and dogma proclaimed as creative insight. While this is happening, well meaning Christians meet in endless assemblies arguing about resolutions which no one will read or take seriously. Only real voting blocs are taken seriously by politicians who are ceasing to be the real determinants of what happens in society. Caring for the underclass, the dispossessed among the vast class of the controlled producers, is not the task of the Church, it is the task of society. Buying into the idea that faith based charity is preferable to economic justice is seduction at its most sinister. When the Church is led astray by the few paltry dollars waved at it to turn its meager “feel good” activities into a national “safety net,” it has become a tool of economic interests out to dismantle a just democratic government. Providing for those who fall through gaps is one thing, enthusiastically helping to widen those gaps is another. Even the former activity is a “cop out” substitute for challenging the marginalization of the underclass. Discovering one’s voice is of little consequence if there is not anyone to whom to speak. The radical religious right has taken upon itself to speak for “real” Christianity because it has captured the media. When CNN or MSNBC needs an expert religious opinion on some moral issue, it can be reasonably certain that it will be someone on the radical right. Recapturing that spotlight might now be next to impossible. Only the most imaginative prophetic voice and action can do that. Teaching the Democratic Party to use religious words to give the illusion that its platform is morally superior to that of the
Republicans will be seen as ludicrous as it is. The Church, instead, must become heroic. If the imaginative doings of an English child wizard can capture an entire generation, is it possible that another hero also has the power to reveal the frightening forces threatening us? There is no turning back or arresting the pace at which technological complexity proceeds. Those of sane religious sensibilities need to find their own voice. That means taking a cue from Jesus. Shouting at the fickle mob, or scaring it more than it already is, is useless. Using it to feed self delusional images of relevance ends in one’s being ignored or forgotten. However, there is within that crowd, that amorphous mass of productive people, individuals with imagination who need to be called out. It takes courage to step out of the crowd and proclaim one’s name, the one bestowed in baptism. Such is the stuff of heroes and Christians. Imagination awakening imagination is the key. My French friend was right. There are two kinds of people, pimps and whores. Jesus treated one of these pretty well. But, then, he was imaginative and heroic in doing so.
Jacques Ellul. The Meaning of the City. Erdmans: 1970. Harvey Cox. The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective. Macmillan: 1965 3 Genesis 4:1-26
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