04 October 2014

Middle Class Values and the American Church

I've worked for and mingled within upper class circles at many points in my life. The funny thing about the wealthier class is that they don't have anything to prove. You have some that are certainly conceited and smug, others are downright eccentric and thankfully well off because otherwise they're basically dysfunctional.
I've worked for the poor and that certainly is the class to which I belong. I say this as one who grew up fairly well off. I was sent to private schools at different times. One was rather exclusive and geared toward future Ivy Leaguers. There were a lot of very wealthy kids at that school...BMW's and a Ferrari... and I learned a lot of lessons about values and money. I remember being really disgusted with some of the other kids who judged others in terms of clothes or vehicles and yet these boastful adolescents had done nothing in life and their judgment was bred only by their blood ties and the class they believed themselves to be. Living in San Diego and knocking around the streets of Tijuana I saw very hard working but desperately poor people... people I had far more respect for than these spoiled brats of the upper class.
America's story for so long has rested in the values and worth of the middle class. Indeed we had a whole generation of people who grew up in poor slums or on farms with outhouses. These people worked hard and went to school and became the people of suburbs and the new middle class.
Security and Respectability are their chief values. For many Americans this was the dream they aspired to. Money to pay your bills, send your kids to college, have a good home, some savings and a vacation. To be viewed as a respected member of society, a citizen, one who took pride in house, car and clothes.
There are some good values there in terms of manners as well as some dangers. This class can and did quickly fall prey to 'Keeping up with the Jones'. Consumerism only made this worse as they became subject to every fad and corporate manipulation. It's not just gadgets. It's cars, kitchens and vacations. In my part of the country everybody who is trying to be somebody makes sure they have an 'OBX' sticker on their car to declare they've vacationed in the Outer Banks.
It's right that we care about how our house looks vis-a-vis the neighbourhood and that we dress decently to show respect. That doesn't have to mean pleasing everyone or meeting their standards.
I recall once several years ago we were dining at one of the few decent restaurants in the area and one of our friends showed up in torn jeans and muddy boots. It looked bad, was quite noticeable and was disrespectful. We were a bit embarrassed for him to be sitting with us. He wasn't poor. Far from it. He was just basically disdainful of the area. The poor rubes of Northern Appalachia weren't deserving of his respect.
That said, there's nothing wrong with being poor and having poor clothes. I certainly meet this description, but I don't wear things that are dirty and full of holes... and yet no one looking at my wardrobe for a moment thinks I have any money. Most of what I have comes from secondhand stores. It's one of the advantages to being poor in a decadent society like our own. People throw away things that are still perfectly functional. My wife often finds things that are brand new on the rack in Goodwill or at the Salvation Army.
Anyway my kids have a hard time understanding that the middle class and in particular the upper end of that class makes value judgments about you based on your wealth and success. The poor don't judge you unless they think you're crooked. The rich don't because they have nothing to prove. They might look down on you but it's not moral... it's more a sense of class. They don't expect you to be like them and thus even though there's a barrier some of them can actually be quite cordial and even empathetic.
But the middle class will judge you in moral terms. They've 'arrived'. They 'made it', and if you haven't then there's something wrong with you. Your character is flawed. You're lazy, lack ambition or perhaps are not smart enough.
This is the class of people above all that I hate to work for. I often am forced to. They have money and they are certainly a discontented lot and that means work for me. Little of the work I do is really about function. There are the hot water tanks that need replacing, faulty wiring, a rotten deck. But more often than not my projects are about vanity and aspiration. I spend a lot of time remodeling kitchens and bathrooms that still have a lot of life left in them. I can't tell you how many people think that redoing their bathroom will make their life better and make them happy.
They are a miserable lot and I have to confess I despise them. I'm not saying that's the right way to think but I'm being honest about my feelings.
Of all the people I work for this class is the stingiest, the most judgmental if you're different, and sometimes the hardest group to get to pay you.
I vacillate between being reserved and open. I don't like to 'cash in' or  market my Christian faith and really think poorly of those who do, but at the same time I feel like if the door opens... walk on in. Let Providence guide the conversation.
Often I'm asked about my family and because we live in a rural area the question of school almost always comes up. With regard to homeschooling the response has been interesting. The poor are intrigued, daunted and sometimes jealous wishing they could get up the courage or if their kids are grown they almost all wish they would have done it. For most of them socialization in the school context proved disastrous.
The rich are captivated and at times encouraging. The response from the middle class is rather mixed. Some of course are very supportive though often for different reasons but the greatest hostility also comes from this class and I have actually lost work over this issue.
Some find the very notion offensive, some find it subversive and anti-social. They are the class most invested in the social institutions and some seem to intuitively realize that by homeschooling I am rejecting their values. In addition you wouldn't believe how many people have either worked in the school system or have a family member that does. They are a spoiled, conceited and entitled lot and very jealous of their grip on society. It's slipping away from them.
Historically the middle class was the most heavily invested in the schools. It was middle class Protestants more than anyone who pushed for compulsory public education. They wanted right-thinking citizens and resented Catholics who created parochial schools. My how times have changed!
To some being a homeschooler means I'm a kook, a nutter and not someone they want to deal with. I'm always quick to qualify that I'm not a member of the Christian Right but these are subtle trivialities to many people. Others I've offended by distancing myself from the Right and in that case I have no regrets whatsoever. I do have one client whose shelves contain the works of William Bennett, Barry Goldwater and Curtis LeMay but somehow we manage to get along.
I live in an area where we have many 'camps' and cottages. People come from cities a few hours away and have summer/weekend places. They range from the primitive to the near palatial. The nicer homes often will become retirement homes. They'll sell their home in the city and then come out to the forest to spend their summers, and then turn into snowbirds after Labour Day. There are many Florida license plates in these parts.
And yet I lament working for this class of people. They have money but won't part with it. I do work for them, push to get it done but then they'll take their time to come out and look over the work and pay me. They think nothing of leaving me hanging for weeks as if I were some large utility company that can float money and bills for months at a time.
Oh, I am careful to spell this out beforehand. They're contractually obligated but they don't care and they know that in the end there's little I can do about it. They have no qualms about breaking their word.
What, am I going to take them to court over a couple of thousand dollars...especially when they're only a few weeks late?
I don't believe in taking anyone to court and would never do so but that doesn't mean they're morally off the hook.
How many times have I arranged my schedule because one of these people is 'coming up' the following weekend, only to change their mind and leave me in a dilemma... no income for the week and scrambling to come up with something else.
And yet as I drive up in my rusty old van they judge me. If they see where I live, in my dilapidated old farm house, the judge me. It's a moral judgment. I'm a bad person of dubious character. I got rid of my work vehicle and just use our family van... very shady indeed.
My wife stays home... she must be lazy. It's even worse for her because she was the valedictorian of her class and many of the people in her hometown look at her as a fool who has wasted her life. People have even said some pretty disparaging things to her.
Many of these out-of-towners work for corporate American and are little more than criminals and racketeers in my book and yet they will judge me and people like me because we're poor and don't have the resources they have... or the values for that matter.
I don't care that my house and car don't look like theirs. Even if I had the money I wouldn't do the things they do. I'm not going to spend thousands on landscaping and yard care. That's a value judgment coming from my end. That's a waste of money and immoral. The values of that entire class are immoral and I have to say in the end it is that class that I detest the most.
To my disappointment not a few of my old friends have aspired to and moved into that class. We've gone separate ways. The Christianity that grew in our hearts at the same time has produced a rather divergent harvest.
I'm not quite saying that to be a faithful Christian you have to be poor.
Almost, but not quite. There are exceptions and variables but generally speaking if we're getting on well with society, if we're secure and respectable then I am quite comfortable saying that we're not following Christ and we're willfully blinding ourselves to what we do and what we're supposed to be about.
Of course these middle class values are the default in the American Evangelical Church. They are the values you hear expressed when you turn on Focus on the Family or listen to the preaching coming out of most pulpits. Middle class worries are the fare of most of Christian radio. The anxieties and desires of the middle class are foreign to Scripture and it seems that many ministries do little more than employ catch-phrases and borrowed strategies from the consumer world in order to rationalize their values. The theologians have proven to be very accommodating.
The Church will never reform until its people are willing to rethink these issues in their entirety and reject the great lie and blasphemy that is the American Dream... a dream that has sanctioned theft and deception and the exploitation of people at home and abroad in order to maintain dominance. People are dying and countries are being laid waste so Americans can heat their big plastic houses, drive their SUV's and feel good about themselves.
Those that think this country has some kind of godly heritage have never examined its history through the lens of Scripture and in many cases they are naive and misguided in their understandings and interpretations of present cultural realities. Most worldview teachers do little more than affirm the ideals of the middle class and not a few are happy to be sponsored by the corporate world that benefits from these same values.
I pray to God that I am never middle class and never adopt its values. I rejected them as a young lost man only to temporarily re-embrace them upon my conversion. Being a good Christian is being a proper and respectable patriotic American right? At least I thought so until I actually started to earnestly read the Bible for the first time.
And then ironically as I've grown in Christ and as Providence has guided my life I've come to realize that as a lost long-haired rocker teenager I had more wisdom than many middle class Christians do. I was on the right path with the questions I asked. I just didn't have the right answers. And yet as lost as I was, my rejection of the Establishment was closer to the truth than most of the Christianity I have subsequently encountered.

Since then I've realized there aren't answers to society's problems... but there is a solution that transcends them. The Gospel of Christ that translates us into the Kingdom of Heaven. It has an ethic and a 'dream' for our lives that is incompatible with the most fundamental of American middle class values.