God and the Devil. Good and evil. No discussion of the lower-class or working poor can be complete without considering religion. Countless personal accounts in book and articles on poor Americans, as well as my more limited personal experience, makes it obvious that religion is a powerful factor in their lives. My personal views on religion are irrelevant here. What I care about in this context and plan to discuss here is the impact religious concepts have on the lives of poor Americans.
Of course we have all seen the athlete praise Jesus when he wins a championship game. He'll often admit that his team played great and usually praise his opponents, but it is Jesus who he seems convinced brought the victory. (That's beyond my area of expertise.) I have never heard the Devil mentioned by the losing team. But the poorest people in America often do see the Devil at work. Many poor individuals discuss drugs and alcohol as the work of the Devil. A drug problem comes from the Devil. A drug problem especially difficult to "kick" is the fault of a tricky Devil. And the ability to get off drugs and back into a more meaningful lifestyle is the work of God. Progression and advancement in that lifestyle often seems to be His work as well.
What I find most interesting is how infrequently I hear such logic amongst the successful. A lawyer plagued with alcoholism rarely seems to fault the Devil. And a CEO commenting on a record year rarely passes credit on to God. Surely the CEO's success is not so unlike the success of a minimum wage worker in breaking a drug habit or getting a promotion at work. Surely the rich lawyer's alcoholism is as much or little to blame on the Devil as the poor woman's drug addiction. Yet we see a massive difference in the way the two individuals think and speak about their problems and successes. I generalize, but fear the truth is not too far off.
Let's start with the Devil. What troubles me here is that the Devil takes the blame for something more likely found in this world. The problems of the poor are not necessarily caused by the Devil, but also not necessarily caused by themselves. If the Devil takes the blame then society and government can act with impunity. Everything is simplified in the present post, but the underlying point remains: people are more likely to blame the Devil then the government for a problem. This troubles me no less when I think of the frustrated, poor worker coming home and hitting his wife or child. He would more accurately smack the target of his frustration if he hit an elected official or a rich business person. If the Devil is to blame, then let's recognize that he works through mechanisms in place in this world.
More troublesome is the praise attributed to God or Jesus. Religious organizations are responsible for so much social assistance and their social benefit cannot be over-emphasized. Much of the time the religious influence is subtle. Alcoholics Anonymous is not immediately considered religious--yet it is. The YMCA's meaning is becoming about as little known as GEICO's. Social commentators loudly voice concerns over lack of empowerment amongst the working poor. Attributing everything positive to an act of God does nothing for empowerment. A tornado and a job promotion cannot be viewed as the same. God's influence need not be diminished in the minds of the poor by pushing a view that God alone does not bring about positive outcomes in our lives.
An old religion professor of mine taught that there are three ways to view the Bible. One is to view man writing the text with alone--basically like any other book. Another is to view man writing with God whispering in man's ear. We don't know exactly what man hears. Maybe it's dictation, maybe it's commentary that man summarizes. Either way, it's interpretation. And finally you have man writing the text with God's hand guiding man's. To believe that God is responsible for every positive change in life is to take the last in interpretation of the Bible and apply it across the board. Yet the last interpretation is the least popular when considered in the biblical context. More common is the view that God whispers in man's ear. God may be speaking to us but it is still our hand. We can still color outside the lines if we choose.
People trying to overcome drug addictions--especially at low income levels, and those seeking to move above the bottom rungs of society, are amongst our most delicate individuals. To mindlessly push religous concepts of the Devil for all evil and God for all good is to push a cult on the vulnerable. Its truth is unrelated to its power to influence. It therefore must be used with caution and balance.
And for the rich, we forget our roots. The media discusses crime like it is as much part of our days as breakfast, lunch and dinner. I am not a religious person but most Americans are. I have previously mentioned the concept in Buddhism that every individual must be treated as though he or she may be the Buddha. In other words, you never know when a high powered individual just happens to look homeless that day. You treat the man in the suit the same as the homeless man in crutches, because how we appear in this life is irrelevant. And Rabbi Hillel reiterates this concept in saying "Love thy neighbor like thy self; all the rest is commentary." Christian commentators have seized upon this statement as well -- though sometimes adding "Love God, love thy neighbor; all the rest is commentary." I'm young, but I think I can confidently say that we have lost this belief in society. Or perhaps what we have lost is the true concept of neighbor. The biblical definition of neighbor is actually anyone in need of your help or kindness.
Whether you believe in God and the Devil or not, one thing remains certain: the fortunes of man are not constant. Some men are "blessed" with more fortunate periods (or lives) than others. Yet we truthfully never know when our luck will change. I have come to believe that we must go back to an ancient concept and help our neighbors. Forget the guy who lives next to you. What is meant here is helping those who lack the luck and support system you may have through perhaps no "fault" of your own. What if every wealthy American sponsored one poor American? Not enough? How about one poor American family? Asked what they want to do when they grow up, a shocking number of poor American children I've read about state some profession where they can help others. One child who goes to bed hungry hopes to become a lawyer so she can help needy people. A boy who will continue to grow up poor wants to own a company so he can give homeless people money. This represents something I was amazed when I first read about, and continue to be impressed when I see it in accounts of poor Americans: poor people want to help other poor people. This is leverage. You help one poor person and that person will help another, and he another. I'd urge religious organizations and religious Americans to remember what truly matters. Succeed at work or school, but if you go to bed without having helped someone in need you've accomplished nothing. As I said, I'm not religious, but my existentialist take on all this will have to wait for another day.
On a general note:
In the future I plan to start covering concepts more comprehensively before moving on to another issue. The first topic I plan to consider in depth is tax. Sometimes I meet law students who claim they LOVE tax. I think they are insane. They may know this depending on my facial expression. Yet tax law, as boring as it may be to the vast majority of humanity, is extremely important in social policy. So get excited -- or at least pretend.
[On a personal note, I want to thank my readers as this blog has now received over 1,000 (non-unique) hits since its inception on December 31, 2005. Please continue to comment and remember that you can email me about the blog at firstname.lastname@example.org. And thank you Tom for your constructive comments. I plan to post more frequently and keep the posts shorter in the future.]