Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Working class Unitarians?

Doug Muder has written what is in my opinion the finest UU blog post to date, entitled Unitarian Universalism and the Working Class . Go and read it before reading the rest of this post. In fact, go read it even if you never read the rest of this post.

I am a working class Unitarian, as obviously Doug is. He describes mindsets and attitudes from the working class that the upper classes might not understand, attitudes necessary for survival. He closes by asking, “The question I want to leave you with is whether Unitarian Universalism is bringing the world a message about life, or just a message about our lives? Can we speak in words that make sense both in the high place and in the maze?” This is possibly the most important question ever asked of UUs, and not just for the purpose of recruiting from the lower classes; it is vitally important because if we are not speaking truths that are universal, we’re not speaking truth at all!

Lessons learned from growing up poor are often in direct contradiction to lessons taught at UUA GA workshops. Let’s take a composite poor person’s life, part mine and part several friends- call him “Don”, because he might be a she, spelled “Dawn“- to see what I mean. Don’s parents drilled him in the lesson Doug mentions, “Second chances. Rich kids, professional kids – they get them. The door never completely closes on you. If your parents are doctors or lawyers, you can flunk out of two or three colleges. It’ll work out...In the working class it’s not that way...What if you had one shot? You wouldn’t blow it, would you?” And so Dawn works like a dog all through High School. Because he’s not a natural student, he spends hours every night studying rather than hanging with his friends. he works summers and weekends at the kind of menial jobs a teenager can get because he’s going to need every penny at college.

Don attends a community college or state school because even with a Pell grant and loans, that’s what he can afford. He also works while going to school. Some “Dawns” will earn enough in their blue collar day job that they can’t bear to go on with the dual life- I didn’t have the stamina nor, I’ll admit, the discipline to work full time and still finish school. Upon graduation, or upon getting his journeyman badge if he dropped out of college, he lands an entry level position behind peers with degrees from fancier schools. Don spends the decade of his 20’s, perhaps longer, either working overtime or a second job to cover the crushing student debt load (and possibly credit card debt as well) he picked up in college. Finally, somewhere in his late 30’s or 40’s, he’s down to one job and has time to think about things like re-connecting with a spiritual life; he wanders into a UU church.

Here he learns that he’s a “winner in life’s lottery”, that those with less are “less fortunate”. This is in direct contrdiction to his life experience... he’s been working 50-60 hours per week since he was 13 years old, working his youth away when his peers were having fun, and now learns the fruits of this discipline are considered “good fortune”. His life experience is that anyone who stays away from drugs, finishes high school, and doesn’t have/father a child out of wedlock can earn a decent living; outside of a physical or mental handicap, poverty is the result of bad life choices, usually multiple bad choices... but if he dares say so he’ll be denounced as a heartless Republican and shunned.

At other workshops, he’ll learn that all he has is not good fortune, but the result of “privilege”- either “White Privilege”, or “Male Privilege”, or (shudder) the dreaded “White Male Privilege”! He contemplates his scarred and callused hands, the varicose veins from being on his feet 12-14 hours a day working two jobs for a quarter of a century, and wonders how hard he’d have had to work without all that “privilege”...

In the mainstream Christian church in which he was raised, “envy” was one of the deadly sins. His life experience confirmed this; envy leads only to schadenfreude, and the inability to enjoy those blessing one does possess. Here, he learns that envy is a virtue, not a sin; the problem is not that the poor don’t have enough but that the rich have too much- it is the gap that is the problem. In his parent’s day, the diseases of the poor were kwishiorkor, pellagra, rickets, scurvy- many hundreds of thousands died in the United States before WWII from simple dietary deficiencies due to extreme, the diseases of the poor are diabetes and heart disease from overweight- but the UUA teaches that things are worse than ever because the gap is bigger.

To Don/Dawn, the UUA does not exist in the real world, or at least not in the world inhabited by the bottom three quintiles. Don longs for a church that preaches personal responsibility, because choices have consequences; the UUA teaches that personal results have societal causes. Problems that Don sees as caused by correctable human flaws that should be preached about are seen by the UUA as societal inequities that can only be cured by political action. Oh, well, he shrugs, at least the UUA works with people from both parties- the Democrats and the Greens.

Doug ends his piece with “My hunch, my faith – or maybe just what I need to believe to do what I do – is that we can find such a message, that there can be a truth that encompasses all times and all places, a wisdom big enough for all people.” My faith is that there is just such a message. My sadness is that I don’t believe we have any intention of looking for it- that we would rather surrender the working class to the Religious Right than to admit that any position the GA’s have voted on was wrong.


Chalicechick said...

Great post, though IMHO, the mixed gender makes it harder to read.

I don't know what I think about all this. (Though I will put forth that I think that poor white people do have a simpler maze than poor people of other races, though white people aren't the only ones who create the maze.)


Joel Monka said...

I've decided you're right about the gender thing; I'm going to change it in edit. As to who has the more convoluted maze to run, I still believe that race is merely A factor, not THE factor. I think "lookism" is a bigger factor than racism, for example, that a good-looking black man will score better in an interview than a short or fat or ugly white man. Not in every case perhaps; individuals do differ... but I have witnessed that effect. I'm sure there are a lot of other "isms" just as strong, depending upon the individual.

PeaceBang said...

This is great stuff. I'm thinking about what you said about UUs attributing a comfortable life to "good luck." I haven't heard that so much, but I absolutely agree with you that the assumption in our congregations is that we are all privileged and are constantly in need of being reminded of our "obligation" to help the "less fortunate."

The way I've always seen it, UU privilege isn't about wealth, it's about being intellectually free to discern our own theological beliefs, to question everything we've been taught, and being able to gather in democratically governed societies unhindered by ecclesiastical authority. And yes, I'm a snot about that. I try not to be, but I have to guard against it. So when I preach about "our" good fortune, I really mean it in a more existential sense.

As you point out, there's a real abandonment of classical Unitarian values in our usual rhetoric, though, in that there's not a lot of recognition that ALL PEOPLE, not just the economically privileged, have obligations to grow in the moral sense. We are still caught in the 19th century benevolent philanthropy model, with its attendant tinge of smug piety, superiority and self-centeredness.

Thanks again for a great post. I'll go read Doug now.

Jim said...

Is it just me, or is it possible that what turns off working class people is not so much items that are voted on at GA as it is communications that use words like "Schadenfreude" when something simpler (like "gloating" maybe) would suffice?

Nice, thought-provoking piece, by the way.

I think that we are all fortunate, -- even poor Don/Dawn with the calloused hands, varicose veins, and somewhat fractured attitude. And we all have something to give to and receive from each other.

I do not believe that it is our statements of theology (or our beliefs about the root causes of societal or individual ills) that divide us as much as it is our lack of recognition that we all need a lot of help.

Jaume said...

Well, Liberation Theology shows how "personal results have societal causes" and human flaws are heavily conditioned by "societal inequities", also known as socio-economic exploitation, Pentagon support to cruel dictatorships which counted victims by thousands, destruction of natural resources for short-term profit, promotion of big corporations' policies and low wages, marginalization of the native in favor of the privileged classes, the Army and, of course, the Church hierarchies. And those who want to keep all those privileges with a nicer appearance are now promoting all those Evangelical churches, heavily financed with US dollars, to remove the ground under the feet of those, Catholic and Protestant alike, who only have the Word and the Dream to keep fighting for justice.

Joel Monka said...

>Jim- I doubt that a word like "Schadenfreude" is going to scare off a working class reader, as it was written by a working class writer. Some of us do read.

I agree that it is not our statements of theology that divide us- because we don't MAKE any statements of theology! Have you actually read any of the press releases or public statements that come out of Boston? Any casual observer would think that the UUA Bible reads like "I Corinthians 17: verily I say unto thee, that thou shalt not abridge the Senate filibuster rule; neither shalt thou advise and consent unto Justice Alito, for these things be abomination unto the Lord." I would WELCOME a statement of theology! I believe the working class makes a sharper distinction between the spiritual and the political, and so has a sharper bullshit detector, and therefore less respect for pronouncements from the Washington Office for Advocacy, etc.

>Peacebang- when you're right, you're right- and you're right! There almost seems to be a sense of "Noble Poor" about the working class, as there was "Noble Savage" a couple centuries ago, which makes it impossible for us to "speak truth to the poor" in the way we "speak truth to power".

>Jaume- Yes, many sins were committed by the US against many South American countries, but that's really a different discussion, with no bearing on this one. And I don't see Communism, whether attributed to Jesus or to Marx, as the cure.

LaReinaCobre said...

I will have to think more about this. There are some pieces that resonate with me, such as the stuff about Don/Dawn's upbringing, and some of the criticisms of the UUA, but I also don't know if I agree with the overall assessment - or solution. To preach personal responsibility? Is that the solution? What is the truth that you are saying we haven't found and aren't preaching? I'm unclear if this has been stated not.

I'll go read Doug's post; maybe this will shed some light for me.

Anonymous said...

I think many working class people also really like beauty and liturgy in their spiritual life. Think of the Anglo-Catholic slum priests, for example.