Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Culture of Poverty

The term "culture of poverty" was introduced by Oscar Lewis in his seminal 1959 book Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty. (If you don’t know about Lewis, 1914-1970, as I didn’t until very recently, he was the son of a Jewish rabbi, the husband of Abraham Maslow’s sister, and a noted anthropologist and university professor.)
Michael Harrington used that same term in "Our Fifty Million Poor," a piece he wrote for the July 1959 issue of Commentary, the monthly magazine founded by the American Jewish Committee in 1945. (Some of you will recall that I mentioned Harrington in my previous, as well as my March 5, blog article.)
In his article, Harrington argued that American poverty constituted “a separate culture, another nation, with its own way of life.” Consequently, he argued, a “comprehensive assault on poverty” on the part of the federal government is needed if the problem of poverty is to be solved.

Harrington’s analysis of the problem of poverty in USAmerican society was further developed in his highly-influential book “The Other America” (1962), which is credited with being one of the main works that stimulated President Johnson to declare the war on poverty in 1964.
The Food Stamp Act and the Economic Opportunity Act, both enacted that year, were major parts of the “assault” on national poverty. But that attack weakened during the presidency of Richard Nixon and declined even further after the election of President Reagan in 1980.
Moreover, according to Maurice Isserman, “neo-conservatives took [Harrington’s] notion of the ‘culture of poverty’ and, turning it on its head, used it as an argument against pursuing a federal war on poverty” (“The Other American,” p. 305).
In the early 1970s Harvard University professors such as Edward Banfield (1916-99) and Nathan Glazer (b. 1923) wrote disparagingly of those who were a part of the culture of poverty and of government programs designed to help such people. These ideas affirmed by the neo-conservatives were endorsed by Nixon and have largely been the position of the Republican Party ever since.
Quoting Isserman again,
The trouble with the poor, as the neo-conservatives saw it, was that they had adjusted to a condition of permanent dependency. . . . Those who professed to be interested in aiding the poor by means of expanding the welfare state were, in effect, the poor’s worst enemies . . . (p. 306).
In her book “My Invented Country,” which I recently read, Chilean author Isabel Allende tells about visiting the squatters’ settlements around Santiago when as a young woman she had a job as a journalist.
Allende comments, “That’s when I discovered that social climbing was a middle-class phenomenon, the poor never gave it a thought, they were too busy trying to survive” (p. 127).
To the conservatives of the past and maybe even more in the present--and especially to the strident voices I hear on “talk radio”—the victims of poverty are to blame for their own plight. They could do better if they tried.
But maybe they are just trying to survive.
There has been much talk about the culture war(s) in American society, but little regard for the “war” against those who live in a culture of poverty—although in 1995 Herbert Gans wrote a significant book titled “The War Against the Poor.” (The first chapter is here.)

Surely we need to be understanding of and sympathetic with those living in a culture of poverty--seeing them as neighbors who need to be loved rather than slackers, or enemies, who should be condemned.

Friday, May 15, 2015

God's Funeral

It was reading part of Michael Harrington’s book “The Politics at God’s Funeral: The Crisis of Western Civilization” (1983) that got me thinking about the provocative words used as the title of this article. (I am still reading, and increasingly impressed with, Harrington’s book.)
Come to find out, “God’s funeral” has been used several times in the past 100+ years. Between 1908 and 1910 the English poet Thomas Hardy wrote a 17-stanza poem with that title.
Hardy’s poem is introduced, and printed in full, in A. N. Wilson’s 1999 book titled “God’s Funeral: A Biography of Faith and Doubt in Western Civilization.”
In contrast to Hardy and Wilson, who were agnostics/atheists, David Tyler, a Baptist pastor and “biblical counselor,” has more recently written “God’s Funeral” (2009), a book which deals with psychology and “trading the sacred for the secular.”
Although I don’t know that he said anything about a funeral, perhaps the best known statement about God’s demise was made by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who declared “God is dead” in his 1882 book “The Gay Science” (with “gay” being the translation of the German fröhliche=cheerful, happy).
Actually, though, according to Harrington, “God’s death has been announced in every generation for about three hundred years (p. 11).
Many of us remember that in 1966 Christian theologian Thomas Altizer penned a book titled “The Gospel of Christian Atheism.” And in April of that year Time magazine published a provocative issue with the cover having only the words “Is God Dead?” in bold red letters on a black background.
In my previous article I referred to a book by Harry Emerson Fosdick. Most of you know the story of Fosdick’s talk with a young man who came to confess that he could no longer believe in God.
The young man was a student at prestigious Columbia University, a short walk from Riverside Church, where Fosdick was the legendary pastor from 1925 to 1946.
Fosdick said, “Tell me about this God you don’t believe in.” After hearing the young man’s explanation, Fosdick remarked, “Well, son, I don’t believe in that God either!”
So perhaps God needs to be buried—at least some understandings of God, such as the God of imperial Christendom, the God of “manifest destiny,” the God of exploitative capitalism, and the God who supposedly sanctions male supremacy and who condemns all homoerotic activity (even between consenting adults).
But there are other, truer, concepts of God. And there are many who remain thoroughly convinced that there is a God who is certainly alive and well today.
For example, think about the current Pope, who reportedly has some fairly close ties to God. He seems to be in tune with a living God who is quite different from the dead God that Harrington wrote about.
Pope Francis appears to have considerable concern for God’s “preferential option for the poor,” a phrase that Harrington did not use, to my knowledge, but one he would have fully affirmed.
And now Pope Francis is also calling on the world to take action against global warming. And that pro-active position is based, of course, on his unwavering belief in the Creator God.
Even though it came out before this week’s Pew report on the serious decline of religion in America, an earlier article this week advised, “Don’t plan any funerals for religion just yet.” (The Baylor conference covered in that article referred to the worldwide situation, not just the 5% of the world’s population in the U.S.)
And it is also still far too early, and far too presumptuous, to be talking about God’s funeral.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

How Should We Read the Bible Today?


Although he wrote it back in 2001, eminent biblical scholar Marcus Borg declared, “Conflict about the Bible is the single most divisive issue among Christians in North America today.” We don’t know if he would say the same thing now, for, alas, he died in January. (In March I wrote about him here).

Today, though, it seems to me that the most divisive issue among Christians is same-sex marriage—but that squabble is largely because of opposing understandings of how to read and interpret the Bible.

Borg’s book is titled “Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally.” In many ways it is similar to another good book written three-quarters of a century earlier: Harry Emerson Fosdick’s “The Modern Use of the Bible” (1924).

Recently, I have looked through another excellent book on this subject: N. T. Wright’s “Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today” (2011). And then there is a new book which I haven’t seen yet: Harvey Cox’s “How to Read the Bible”—but I have read Jonathan Merritt’s informative interview with Cox about his book. (That interview was published last month here.)

If more people had read and heeded Fosdick’s book, many of the needless “Bible wars” of recent decades could have been avoided—and maybe the newer books would not have been necessary.

Fosdick wrote about two parties in the churches: one which thinks that “the essence of Christianity is its original mental frameworks; the other party is convinced that the essence of Christianity is its abiding experiences” (p. 102).

There are some who still today see the Bible as a rulebook. That seems to be their primary “mental framework.” The issue of same-sex marriage, for example, is decided by the rules, the prohibitions, the condemnatory words found in the Bible and considered binding at all times and places.

Others of us see the Bible as a record of God’s grace, a book abounding with the good news of life, love, light, and liberty—the 4Ls that I have emphasized for years. Those are the “abiding experiences” that we find in the Bible and seek to live by today.

When I read the many anti-gay or anti-same-sex marriage arguments from conservative Christians, I see that they are legalistically holding on to the mental framework of the past, but I have trouble seeing how they are upholding the abiding experience of a gracious God.

Certainly the Bible contains condemnation of sin, that which destroys a proper relationship with God and which injures others as well as oneself. That is, the Bible condemns such sins as pride, greed, idolatry, and injustice.

All human actions that devalue others—treating people like things, exploiting them, using them for one’s own selfish ends, etc.—are all expressions of human sinfulness. It is most likely that the only type of homosexual activity condemned in the Bible were those kinds of actions. And there was, no doubt, that kind of activity then.

And there still is. But that certainly doesn’t mean that all homosexual activity is of that nature.

The Bible’s condemnation of the sinful treatment of others is not a reasonable basis for rejecting same-sex marriage between consenting adults who seek to live a life of covenanted commitment to each other.

The abiding experience of God’s grace for all people, including those who wish to be in a committed same-sex relationship, should surely not be defined by people who read the Bible with the mental framework of an era long past.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Bourgeois for the Proletariat

In Marxist theory, society is divided into the bourgeois and the proletariat. The former are members of the property-owning class, also known as capitalists. The latter term refers to the class of workers, who do not possess capital or property and must sell their manual labor to survive.
It’s a bit ironic that a man whose family name is Bourgeois has lived his life as a passionate advocate for the proletariat and others who are part of the “underside of history” (Gutiérrez).
I don’t remember hearing about Bourgeois before 2011, when I read Deena Guzder’s book, "Divine Rebels: American Christian Activists for Social Justice" (2011). Guzder (b. 1984), a non-Christian human rights journalist, writes very positively about Bourgeois and other Christian activists.
Ever since reading Guzder’s engaging chapter about Bourgeois, I have wanted to learn more about him, so recently I read James Hodge and Linda Cooper’s “Disturbing the Peace” (2004), a detailed and well-written book about Bourgeois.

Roy Bourgeois was born in Louisiana in 1938. He was reared in a conservative working-class family, and after graduating from college he spent four years in the U.S. Navy, including a year in Vietnam where he was injured and received the Purple Heart.
His contact with a Catholic priest who operated an orphanage in Vietnam was one factor that led Bourgeois to enter seminary and, consequently, to be ordained as a Catholic priest in 1972. But he certainly hasn’t been a stereotypical priest.
Freshly ordained, Bourgeois began the work as a priest working with the poor in La Paz, Bolivia. In 1975 he was deported from that country, accused of attempting to overthrow dictator Hugo Banzer, who had come to power with the help of a U.S.-supported coup d’état.
Bourgeois found out later that Banzer had been trained by what came to be known as U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA), and whose official name since 2001 has been Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
The precursor of the SOA was begun in Panama in 1946. From 1961 until long after it was moved to Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1984 SOA educated several Latin American dictators and generations of their military supporters. During the 1980s the SOA included the uses of torture in its curriculum.
Following the release of the U.N.’s Commission on the Truth for El Salvador in 1993, Bourgeois became increasingly opposed to the SOA, which he began to call the School of Assassins.
The 203-page report of the Truth Commission reported that 47 out of the 66 officers in El Salvador who had committed major atrocities were graduates of SOA.
The report also identified two of the three responsible for the assassination of Oscar Romero in 1980 as SOA graduates. One of those was Roberto D’Aubuison, whom I mentioned in a previous article about Romero (here).
SOA graduates were also responsible for the December 1980 rape and murder of Bourgeois’s friend Ita Ford and three other nuns in El Salvador.
Most of his work against SOA for a decade is summarized in Hodge and Cooper’s book, whose subtitle is “The Story of Father Roy Bourgeois and the Movement to Close the School of the Americas.”
In 1990 Bourgeois founded the SOA Watch, and it is still a very active organization. (Check out their website here.) He continues to be an active ally of the proletariat.
In recent years, Bourgeois has been involved in the movement to ordain women as Catholic priests. For that involvement his credentials as a priest were withdrawn by the Church in 2012—but that is a story for another time.