Internally Displaced Person
By: Roberto Rivera|Published: August 15, 2011 7:14 PM
According to the most famous account of Christianity’s contribution to the rise of Western capitalism, Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, it was the psychological impact of the doctrine of double predestination that led Reformed Christians to seek worldly success.
Weber’s counter-intuitive thesis ran something like this: A system where your salvation -- or worse, damnation -- was completely out of your hands might make perfect logical sense but was psychologically unsustainable. People needed some reassurance. They also needed a way to recognize the elect (and the reprobate) when they saw them.
Since God wasn’t in the habit of taking men into His counsel on the matter, a series of proxies emerged. To over-simplify matters, these proxies were related to success in worldly endeavors. Success in these endeavors was seen as a sign of God’s favor and, thus, of one’s election. For Calvinists, success at one’s calling begat confidence in one’s election.
Not surprisingly, Weber’s thesis has many critics. Some disagree with his economic history and others think that his description of 17th-century Calvinism is a caricature.
While I think that the criticisms are warranted, Weber was right about one important thing: We judge people’s worth by how successful how they are, and Christianity, despite ample reason to reject this standard, has bought into this notion, often enthusiastically.
In God’s Fury, England’s Fire, Michael Braddick’s “New History of the English Civil War,” the author describes how both sides of the conflict interpreted the misfortunes of the other side as proof of God’s favor of their cause and disapproval of their enemies. They persisted in this thinking despite their own numerous misfortunes and ample biblical warrant, e.g., Job, the teachings of Jesus, etc., against this kind of thinking.
(We shouldn’t be too hard on the Cavaliers and the Roundheads: As the Scriptures demonstrate, this kind of thinking goes back a long way, and it’s a hard habit to break. I suspect that it was present in what evolutionary psychologists call the “environment of original adaptation.” Our ancient ancestors would blame the failure to bag a mammoth, and even somebody’s getting gored or stomped by one, on some personal failing: “Grog got impaled! What a loser!”)
Three hundred years later, the fruit had not fallen far from the tree: in Bible Belt to Sunbelt, Purdue historian Darren Dochuk chronicled the migration of evangelicals from the western South -- Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and southern Missouri -- to southern California. This migration not only created southern California’s vibrant evangelical subculture, it also planted, watered and nurtured the seeds of what would later come to be called the “Religious Right.”
These evangelicals saw their prosperity as vindication of their religiously derived values and folkways. Not surprisingly, they viewed the misfortune of others as rooted in moral defects and opposed “government handouts.” Missing in this self-congratulation and criticism of others was any acknowledgment that the prosperity they saw as God’s vindication of their “plain folks” ways was, in fact, largely based on federal government spending: the Cold War build-up of Southern California’s aerospace industry.
It is commonplace to characterize America as a “post-Christian nation,” but one thing hasn’t changed: We still think that success (or failure) is a function and indicator of virtue (or the lack thereof). When Rick Santelli spoke about helping those “who might have a chance to actually prosper down the road and reward[ing] people who actually carry the water instead of [the ‘losers’ who] drink the water,” he tapped into attitudes and beliefs that are as old as America itself.
The flip side of our beliefs about success is, of course, that we have trouble with weakness. That’s a problem, because weakness, not success, is a defining attribute of the human condition -- it’s the unavoidable consequence of our finitude. Even those we think of and label as “strong” or its functional synonym, “successful,” are weak in many, if not most, ways. Their weakness is simply obscured by our admiration for some of the things they do.
Before I continue, some definitions are in order. By “we” I mean that slice of humanity I am most familiar with: educated, reasonably prosperous Americans, in particular, American Christians.
By “weakness” I mean more than frailty, vulnerability, and powerlessness: I’m referring to how we account for other people’s failures, shortcomings, and misfortune.
To get a feel for how we account for failure, look no further than the American obsession with “self-help.” As of this writing, a search for “self-help” in Amazon’s book section yields nearly 130,000 results. I don’t have to read all or more than a few of them to know that virtually of all them subscribe to what I, in honor of Matthew Yglesias, will call the “Green Lantern Theory of Personal Success.”
In this theory, all that stands between you and success, however you define it, is right thinking and the sufficient exercise of will. Just as the power ring, when combined with sufficient will and imagination, can render the Green Lantern Corps virtually invincible, there are techniques -- a word whose etymology is the same as the one for “technology,” techne -- that when properly applied will yield the desired results.
To once again quote Yglesias, this may be an “okay premise for a comic book,” but as a guide to life, especially judging other people’s lives, it is less realistic and even more rotten than the Ryan Reynolds vehicle. It is simplistic and reductionist in the extreme. It does a grave injustice to human diversity and the variety of our experiences. It turns us into machines to be programmed, instead of flesh and blood human beings trying to negotiate the context in which we live our lives.
Christians are not immune to this kind of thinking. Case in point: I recently read a piece on the “preferential option for the poor” by someone whose work I have long respected. While he did pay what can justly be called “lip service” to what are called “corporal works of mercy,” his almost exclusive concern was the social pathologies that are often associated with poverty in the United States, such as drugs, crime, and the collapse of marriage.” As he put it, “the sheer brutality and ugliness of the lives of many of the poor in America is shocking.”
His remedy for that “ugliness?” The best thing that the better-off can do for the poor is to be better role models: Get married and stay faithful. “Put on a tie. Turn off the trashy reality TV shows. Sit down to dinner every night with your family.” The restoration of these constraining “forms of moral and social discipline,” according to the author, “offer the poor the best, the most effective and most lasting, way out of poverty.”
“Put on a tie”? I’m not going to argue in favor of out-of-wedlock births, infidelity, and watching Jersey Shore. Of course you stand a better chance of escaping poverty if you are disciplined in your habits. But there are problems with this argument that go beyond the not-insignificant question of how exactly your being a role model for people who are as unaware of your existence as you are of theirs is supposed to help lift them out of poverty.
One of those problems is the confusion of correlation with causality. There is no doubt that poor communities in the United States have high incidence of social pathologies such as out-of-wedlock births, drug use, crime, etc. The doubt lies in whether what the author calls the “sheer brutality and ugliness” is a result of their poverty or the cause of it.
While it has become a kind of bipartisan received wisdom to insist to insist that it’s the latter, there is no shortage of evidence that points to causality flowing in the opposite direction. In “Methland,” Nick Reding’s account of the demise of Olwein, Iowa, the loss of family farms and good-paying jobs -- the kind that allow a man without a college education to support a family -- sent the town into an economic tailspin that left it vulnerable to the meth scourge. The latter fed on the former, which in turn made any economic recovery even less likely.
Lather, rinse, repeat in countless small towns across the heartland. Not only in the heartland, but also in many inner-city neighbors, as well. Somewhere, a “tipping point” was reached and a decent, but vulnerable, way of life yielded to brutality and ugliness.
The point isn’t so much arguing about the causes and effects of poverty -- it’s acknowledging that there’s an argument to be had, especially before we start assigning blame, which is what most of our explanations for weakness and failure amount to.
Like Job’s “comforters,” whose counsel boiled down to “you used to have 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, not to mention all those donkeys, and now you’re sitting on an ash pile, scraping your sores with a broken vase, ’fess up!” we assume that other people’s misfortune and failures are their own doing. Like the self-help gurus, we act as if success is a matter of the right information coupled with sufficient will.
This is only one example of our trouble with weakness; there are many more. What they all have in common is that they represent an attempt to set right side up what God in Christ has turned upside down.
The Gospel is an explicit repudiation of our ideas about strength and weakness, power and powerlessness. The One who was equal to God didn’t grasp His equality but emptied Himself, came down from heaven, took the form of a slave, and died in the most humiliating and painful way the powers and principalities could come up with. “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name . . .”
God chose the weakest ancient Near Eastern people to be his own and become the line through which He would become one of us in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire.
Inspired by this inversion, St. Lawrence, when the Prefect of Rome demanded that he turn over the Church’s treasure, sold it, gave the proceeds to the poor and needy, and presented the poor, sick, crippled, and blind to the Prefect, saying, “Here is the treasure of the Church.” The Prefect, who clearly would have been more at home in our world than in Lawrence’s, had the deacon grilled to death.
I can understand why unregenerate men like the Prefect and his modern descendants resist this inversion, but I am troubled at how we join them in the resistance. I think it’s because, for all the talk of “worldview,” we don’t see the world the way God does. I’m not talking about omniscience: human finitude and all that jazz. I’m talking about looking beneath the surface and trying to understand the whole picture, or at least as much of it as we reasonably can.
I’m talking about actually meaning it when we say, “There but for the grace of God . . .” I’m talking about remembering that no matter how smart we may be, we are not nearly as smart as we think we are.
Most of all, it means being able to say the words “it’s complicated,” because people are just that, complicated. They -- and we -- succeed and fail for reasons we don’t fully understand, no matter how much we pretend that we do. If we don’t “get” this, we don’t really love our neighbor -- we love a simulacrum of our neighbor. We certainly don’t love him as we desire to be loved ourselves, weaknesses and all.
Roberto Rivera is senior writer for BreakPoint.
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