Mark Ward, Lead Minister
With Election Day now in the rearview mirror, we are left with the truth that life goes on. What story shall we tell to guide us?
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil.But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears[a] listen!”
Throw Yourself Like Seed by Miguel de Unamuno
Shake off this sadness, and recover your spirit; Sluggish you will never see the wheel of fate That brushes your heel as it turns going by, The man who wants to live is the man in whom life is abundant.
Now you are only giving food to that final pain Which is slowly winding you in the nets of death, But to live is to work, and the only thing which lasts Is the work; start there, turn to the work.
Throw yourself like seed as you walk, and into your own field, Don’t turn your face for that would be to turn it to death, And do not let the past weigh down your motion.
Leave what’s alive in the furrow, what’s dead in yourself, For life does not move in the same way as a group of clouds; From your work you will be able one day to gather yourself. SERMON
My colleague Victoria Safford tells of a tense meeting at a congregation she was serving held about six months after the 9-11 attacks. The struggling Social Action Committee had called it simply as an occasion for people to share how they feeling in the aftermath of tragic event. But Safford said she was worried that that tender, risky work would quickly be overwhelmed by, in her words, “all those noisy Unitarian Universalist opinions”: all the articles they’d read, the Web sites they’d found, the NPR commentaries they’d heard.
Thankfully, though, she says, the circle held. Instead of getting lost in the dry sands of rhetoric, they found a way to connect with each other and with something deep in themselves.
Sorrow flowed into the room. Rage decades old made its appearance, and silence, as she puts it, “made its holy way.” The group was edging up to the shores of cynicism and despondency, when someone made an observation.
“You know we cannot do this all at once. But every day offers every one of us little invitations for resistance, and you make your own responses.”
He told of a story he’d read recently in Ian Frazier’s book On the Rez. It tells of a time when the girl’s basketball team on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota traveled for an away game. When they stepped out to be announced, the team members were greeted with anti-Indian hostility: fans waved food stamps, yelled fake Indian war cries and called out epithets like “squaw” and “gut-eater.”
The girls hesitated, uncertain what to do, until one of the team members, a 14-year-old freshman, surprised her teammates and silenced the crowd by stepping out and singing and dancing the Lakota shawl dance. Not only did she reverse the crowd’s hostility, but they even cheered and applauded. And of course, Frazier goes on to say, they won the game.
We convened a gathering not unlike the one that Victoria Safford describes here this past Wednesday. We ate a potluck meal together, gathered for a brief vespers service, and took time to talk. Our purpose was not to debate or analyze the results of the 2016 election but to acknowledge the pain, confusion and surprise that many of us were feeling afterward, and to affirm that we are a loving community that remains centered in a hopeful vision for the world.
Now, nearly a week later, the shock has at least numbed a bit and we are being urged to move on. After all, elections come and go; some candidates win, some lose. We’re grown-ups. We know that. We have seen Hillary Clinton graciously acknowledge her loss and wish Donald Trump, well. We’ve seen President Obama welcome a man with whom he traded some bitter words during the campaign to the White House and promise a smooth transition to the next administration. The gears of democracy appear to be working.
So, can’t we move on? Well, on one level, of course, we will. Life goes on, the government transition is already moving, and people will be attending to what the pending changes mean for what they care about. There’s work to do.
But on another level: no. As people of faith, before we go on we need to attend to what this election season has showed us about some of the deeper and more disturbing strains moving through our politics right now and how we are called to respond to them.
To begin with, what this election reveals about the level of misogyny that is not only present but viewed by many as acceptable in this country is horrifying. And here Donald Trump revealed himself to be a chief offender. It’s not just a matter of his frat boy antics at the beauty contests he sponsored, but his own history of sexually assault that he even brags about on TV. Add to it his repeated demeaning of women throughout the campaign, and is it any wonder women worry for their safety?
Nor does it end there, Hillary Clinton’s bid to break what she called “the highest and hardest glass ceiling” by seeking the presidency made plain the double standard that prevails for all women who attempt such feats: hated for their competency, demeaned for their ambition, held suspect for their success. Never before has this disparity in our national life been thrown into such sharp relief, and never was it more critical that all people, but especially men, denounce it and demand redress.
We are also left with raft of racism, homophobia and xenophobia from Trump or his supporters in either explicit language or code phrases that have fueled attacks and acts of discrimination during the campaign and since the election.
They leave millions afraid – immigrants fearful of expulsion, Muslims fearful of discrimination, GLBTQ people fearful of a loss of rights. So, sure, the government transition will go on. But we won’t forget to call out the oppression we plainly see or turn from the work to combat it.
We also but note an interesting dynamic that ran through the election from early on in both parties, a deep sense of frustration that many people feel about the state of their own lives and their inability to control their future. They struggle with economic stagnation, growing debt, social dislocations, and in this election their fury amounted to a kind of tsunami of grief, disappointment and complaint that washed out the structure of politics as we’ve known it in this country.
These were people who looked to the leadership in Washington of both parties and saw an entrenched, entitled class feathering its own nest, but doing little to change their lives. So, in walked brash and boisterous Donald Trump, promising to upset that cozy applecart and “make America great.”
This story is, of course, a trope as old as our republic – the outsider who pledges to turn things around as “a man of the people.” Anyone with a nodding acquaintance with history knows to be wary of such assurances, and what we see of the actions of Trump and his lieutenants so far shows us why. Still, that’s the work of politics, and as citizens it is our charge to attend to it, raise our voices and make our case for the nation’s future.
But how about us as a religious body? Where do we fit in? It’s here that I invite us to return to the parable of the sower that you heard earlier. The metaphor in this parable is pretty clear: if we want to be fed, we’re going to have to plant seed that will give us a crop. And we better be careful where we plant it: Scatter it on the path and birds will eat it up, toss it into poor soil and it won’t grow well, plant it near thorns and they’ll crowd it out, but scatter it in good soil and you’ll get a harvest.
Simple, right? As agricultural wisdom it’s kind of a no-brainer. But there’s something more here, a learning that isn’t as obvious. So, in a month when our worship theme is “Story,” let’s see what this simple story might offer us.
I think that one experience we have had of this election is that it leaves us hungry – hungry for connection, for integrity, for a life-giving way to be that serves us, each other and the world. Feeding that hunger is likely to take more than just scavenging in the landscape. We’re going to have to do something intentional to give us nourishment.
The parable suggests we’ll find it in seed, gathered from a good and trusted place. Then, we must find a fertile place in the world to plant it, then tend it, cultivate it and bring it to harvest. The story doesn’t indicate where we might find the seed, though I have an idea. Our UU tradition suggests that we don’t need to go searching for it. There is ample seed for this life-giving crop among us, and we locate it in our own experiences, in those moments of clarity that we each have had that tell us who we are.
These are moments that glow in our memory, but we don’t often grasp that within them are seeds of ever-renewing hope and possibility that can center and ground us.
And as it happens, we in this congregation are currently involved in a process of gathering that seed. Our Board of Trustees is inviting us to meet in groups where we share experiences of clarity that illuminate those values that are most important to us. We call them “Experiences of the Holy.”
We’ve had several of these hour-long gatherings so far, and there’s another one coming just after our 11:15 service today. I’ve attended a couple of these, and I have to say I find the experience amazing. To center down on our moments of clarity opens us. We clear away the clutter and can find the clearest, most hopeful part of ourselves.
In this process I have heard experiences of gratefulness, vulnerability, awe-inspiring beauty, compassion, and much more. Once done gathering these seeds, your board will sort through them to identify those that seem to hold the key values of the congregation and share them with you.
It will then be our work to give them good soil, plant them and see them flourish. Because the point of this process is not just to gather nice words; it is to help us nourish a life-giving way of being in the world. What we gather won’t be wholly original with us, but it will embody that which fuels the fires, which feeds the hunger in our own lives, and, we hope, take us deeper and root us more firmly in the soil of our being.
All the disruption surrounding this election is a reminder of how hard it is to stay grounded, of all the ways that despair and confusion can distract us from how we need to be. Let us take the time, then, to get clear on our center. Let us winnow and gather our strength and then, as Miguel de Unamuno urges, begin the work of bringing the values we proclaim into being and then throw ourselves into the fields of our endeavor.
Let us, like that Lakota girl on the Pine Ridge Reservation’s girls basketball team, employ the genius of our grounding and offer our shawl dance to the world.
I don’t know what shape this will take, but I know it won’t all come to fruition at once. It will take time and tending to accomplish with each of us dedicating ourselves to what Matthew Fox called “the small work in the Great Work.”
That means living by little acts love and giving ourselves to the challenging task of truth telling, being clear about who we are at our center, resisting and defying that which diminishes us, and beckoning each other to do the same.
We must be ready for disappointment, occasional failure and indignities, but if we are well rooted, if we have planted and tended well we will hold fast.
(And here I introduced and sang Holly Near’s song “I Am Willing”)
As we close, I turn once again to Marge Piercy’s words: Connections are made slowly, sometimes where we can’t see where they go. So we need to keep at it while living a life we can endure, a life that is loving and resilient and strong.
Then, after a long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.
Rev. Mark Ward
As we look ahead to the coming Election Day, our topic today builds on a line from the poem that Elizabeth Stevens wrote for Barak Obama’s inaugural seven years ago. Speaking to our General Assembly in June, interviewer Krista Tippet seized on that line as pointing to a central question that our nation faces. What could that word be and what story does it call us to?
“A true act of love, unlike imaginary love, is hard and forbidding. . . . It requires hard work and patience, and for some, it is a whole way of life. But I predict that at the very moment when you see despairingly that, despite all your efforts, you have not only failed to come closer to your goal, but, indeed, seem even farther from it than ever – at that very moment you will have achieved it.”
It was a blustery, sunshiny day with temperatures hovering around the freezing mark when Elizabeth Alexander walked up to the microphones on a podium constructed on the west side of the U.S. Capitol. Hatless and dressed in a warm, red coat, looking out on what may have been the largest audience ever to attend a presidential inauguration, she set about telling a story of our nation.
It was a story that unreeled far from the TV cameras and dignitaries present on that historic day in Washington, D.C., a story of ordinary people who, she said, “go about our business,” business that had those people “walking past each other, catching each other’s eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.”
Her words echoed those of Walt Whitman, the poet of democracy, a century before, when she spoke of people “stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a hole in a tire.” A woman and her son, she said, “wait for the bus, a farmer considers the changing sky. A teacher says, take out your pencils. Begin.”
But there was a different tone here: a wariness or perhaps just watchfulness that she perceives moving through the scene that Whitman never really picked up. “All about us is noise,” she said. “All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues.”
In this nation of immigrants, there are stories, she suggested, that each of us carries a part of, but that for some is a greater burden than others.
It’s not just the cacophony of busy people, but also thorns and brambles that catch at clothes and tear flesh, all of which speak of some stories told not in the light of day but whispered from one generation to the next, the legacy of hard loss and unrealized hope.
As an African American poet speaking at the inauguration of America’s first African American president, Alexander took hold of the opportunity to lay before the nation the historic achievement before them: “Say it plain: that many have died for this day.” Military heroes, yes, but also, once again, ordinary people who perished in unmarked graves or were traded as chattel, yet who “laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices,” including among them the Capital building before which she stood.
But, the business of the day, Alexander told the crowd, was not recrimination, but praise. Praise “for the struggle” that it took to get there – for each hand-lettered sign of protest brought to a freedom march, for people determined to find “something better down the road,” for people who had the courage to “walk into that which we cannot see.”
What her poem offered in the end was a story of redemption – not individual redemption but the possibility of our nation’s redemption from a troubled past into a more hopeful future, where, she said, “anything can be made, any sentence begun.”
I have to say that as powerful as Alexander’s 2009 poem was, it had pretty much faded from my awareness until this last summer when I heard the radio interviewer Krista Tippett bring it up when she spoke at our Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio. Tippett had just published a new book, Becoming Wise – An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, and she told us she was struggling to come to grips with what she found to be disturbing trends in what she called “our common life” in this country.
Coping with a diversity of interests and identities has always been a challenge for us, but she says in her book that in our current struggles with divisions over race and class she sees something new, what she calls “a surfacing of grief.”
And that grief, she suggests, has come about as a result of the breakdown of cultural coping strategies. Tippett told us in Columbus that she remembered growing up in the 60s, when diversities of all kinds were stretching the social fabric, being taught the virtue of tolerance. It sounded good. Live and let live, right? But in fact, she said, tolerance was too small a word for what was needed at the time.
Tolerance, after all, connotes a kind of cerebral assent of allowing or enduring, putting up with each other. Fine, but in the end the problem with tolerance, she said, is that “it doesn’t invite us to understand, to be curious, to be open, to be moved, or surprised by another.”
Nowadays, in our public dialog not only does the notion of tolerance seem a sham, she says, but “we’ve begun to hold the question of hate in public life, creating a new legal category of crimes (hate crimes) to name the breakdown when tolerances gives out and the human condition at its worst rushes in.”
For those caught in the midst of this, it can be a source of despair, but for the rest of us simple bewilderment. As Tippett says, “we don’t know where to begin to change our relationship with the strangers who are our neighbors.” If tolerance guides our interactions, there is always a distance between ourselves and the other. Now, now, leave them alone. That’s not our business.
Live and let live teaches us hands off. Rather than empathize with or extend our moral imagination to another, the operative guidance is, “Let it be.” And so, the crises that rip apart other people’s lives are starved of the living oxygen of real human drama and devolve into issues that become subject to debate and policy solutions.
And yet, Krista Tippett says, “we know in our hearts and minds that we are bigger and wilder and more precious than numbers, more complex than any economic outcome or political prescription can describe.”
And so, she says, it comes as a surprise that “at every turn, I hear the word love surfacing as a longing for common life, quietly but persistently and in unexpected places.”
Love? Really? In families, sure. In romantic partnerships, of course. But in our common life?
But here comes Elizabeth Alexander proclaiming from the steps of the U.S. Capital. It’s not really so strange, she says. “Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself, others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.” Can you not see a thread through all this?
Beyond marital, filial, national love, a deeper chord sounds of a love, that, she says, has no need to pre-empt grievance, that doesn’t rank one person’s claim as higher than another’s, that instead casts a widening pool of light.
“What if the mightiest word is love?” she says. Not the sweetest word or the happiest word, full of hearts and flowers. What if the word “love” names something elemental, akin to a force of nature, something that, in an interview with Tippett, Alexander called “sober” and “grave”? Such love, Alexander said, “can do more than tolerate dissent in difference. (It) can sit with it, take it in, listen to it, let it stand.” It is guided by a need not to conquer or subdue but to know and connect.
Even more, Tippett says, Alexander’s question “invites each of us out of our aloneness.” Tolerant, tolerable folks are like atoms, bouncing off each other but never engaging. Aspiration for love, she says, “sends us inside” to know and honor who we are, then “coaxes us out again to an encounter with the vastness of human identity.”
In a sense, none of this is new. As Krista Tippett points out, “spiritual geniuses have always called humanity to love.” And still we shy away. There are many reasons for it, but mostly it’s because we don’t get into the habit. And it’s scary, since to use our tender hearts we must come to know them. That means that we must open them, examine them, share them. We’re more inclined to protect them – they are so easily wounded, so easily hurt. Aggression, anger, control – they look so much stronger, even if in the end they only bring us to grief.
There is probably no person who understands this better than the Civil Rights leader John Lewis. Time and again he stood up to violent abuse while remaining nonviolent himself. People examining the movement, he says, puzzled over how he could endure all that, but his answer was simple.
Writing in his book, Across that Bridge, Lewis said that “if you boiled down our intent into one all-encompassing residual word the remaining essence would be love.” Lewis said he would read observers writings about how for this or that reason the campaign of non-violence was an effective tactic. But those observers, he said, missed the point. “It was for us a way of authentically living our lives,” he said.
It’s a way of being in the world that judges our effectiveness not by the results we achieve but by how true we are to our center. And that’s important because on that path achievements can sometimes be hard to come by.
I came upon a story by the writer Mark Yaconelli about his experience helping out at a small church across the street from a college in Oregon. The church had received a grant to start a new prayer service. He had written books on prayer and worked with youth and felt certain he could to it. He persuaded the minister to give him the job. Over the next month he made sure the service was publicized widely, he recruited musicians to play and women from the church to prepare a meal.
Three hours before the first service he came to set up the chapel. He lit up candles, arranged flowers, prepared the bulletins. Fifteen minutes before it started he positioned himself at the door with a broad smile, watching as groups of students walked up toward the church – and then kept walking. Not a soul showed up for the service.
What do you do if you throw a party and nobody comes? Worse, what if you had put your very heart into it, something you felt was a great gift to the world?
Yaconelli went through the service with the half dozen people from the church who were there. As per his agreement with the church he went on with the weekly service for the next nine months. Not a single student ever appeared, though eventually a few more church members began to show. And in time among these a deepening closeness grew. When his contract finally ended, several of those participants shared with him how that simple weekly service had changed their lives.
It was on reflecting on this experience that Yaconelli brought to mind those challenging words from Dostoyevsky that I shared with you earlier: A true act of love is tough and forbidding, requiring hard work and patience. And yet, as Dostoyevsky’s character, Father Zossima, puts it, it may be that at that point when you are most certain you have failed utterly you will find you have achieved it.
There’s no denying it: Love is a hard road. I think this especially as we look ahead to this coming Tuesday. It has been an election campaign full of the filthiest superlatives, and whatever its resolution – and I do have a rather strong preference – we have some serious repair work to do to rebuild our common life.
I think back to the day that Elizabeth Alexander delivered her poem and shake my head. Remember? Commentators speculated that, just maybe, the election of our first black president had turned the tide to a post-racial America. Sure there were issues among us, but perhaps we were ready to reach across the aisle, across the cross the color line, across all that divided us and find solutions. No, not really. Not yet.
Instead, it’s time to get back to work. We can mistake what love is about on a sunshiny day when hope is buoyant. We can wrongly assume that it’s about smiles and good feelings. Sure, it’s nice when we get them. But if love is to prevail it must be more than that. It must be a discipline. It must be, as John Lewis put it, “a way of authentically living our lives.”
It must be a way that we hold to even when nobody shows up, even on cloudy, rainy, stormy days. There will be moments when its demands on us are sober and grave, and yet we stick to it anyway because our hearts will allow no less, because it is the only way we are each invited out of our aloneness.
Once again we stand, as Elizabeth Alexander imagined us, “on the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,” called to “walk into that which we cannot see.”
Praise to the brave souls with open hearts who still see that anything can be made, any sentence begun as we walk forward together into that light.
Joy Berry, Director of Lifespan Religious Education and Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
A beautiful story of a girl and her grandmother forms the center of our annual intergenerational Day of the Dead service. Please plan to bring pictures or memorabilia to place on our altar to celebrate our honored dead.
The Board of Trustees needs your help. Those good folks need for you to attend any one-hour session of workshops they are holding from now through November, and they need you to bring along your UUCA friends.
We need as many of our members and friends as possible to participate in a process to name the values of this faith community. Sure, we are Unitarian Universalists and our CHURCH has agreed that as a member congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Association the church affirms and promotes the principles and sources that we know so well. But these principles are not exactly “values.” (You’ll learn more about that at the workshop.)
We want to distill the values we hold individually into a set of 4 or 5 that are common to most of the congregation. Those values will then be used to re-write a mission statement that will be more of a call to action than our current one (but that’s for a later time).
For now, please pick one of the workshops and attend. I’ve done it and it’s not only painless, but gosh darn, it was even interesting and fun. And I know one more UUCAer better now than I did before I attended.
Choose ONE and attend! (NOTE: no registration needed except for childcare.)
Sunday, October 23, 11:15am-12:30pm: 23 Edwin Boardroom Sunday, November 6, 9:15-10:15am: 23 Edwin Parlor. Childcare-RE for all ages Thursday, November 10, 1:30-2:30pm: Sandburg Hall. Childcare-RSVP Kim by Oct 27 Sunday, November 13, 11:15am-12:30pm: Jefferson House (21 Edwin Place) Sunday, November 13, 12:45-1:45pm: Sanctuary. Childcare-RSVP Kim by October 30 Tuesday, November 15, 6:30-7:30pm: RE Commons. Childcare-RSVP Kim by Nov 1
J.D. Vance says he knew when he was growing up in the coal country of Kentucky and a city in southern Ohio that life was a struggle for the people he was raised among. In his recent book, Hillbilly Elegy, he tells of how his grandparents, the island of stability in his upbringing, scrambled to get by, while he saw little of his drug-addicted mother, and other family members careened through episodes of violence, joblessness, and abusive relationships.
These were people he loved – and still does – but he says they were also people uninclined to foster big dreams, knowing full well they were not likely to be realized.
Vance writes, though, from the perspective of one who escaped that orbit, who found his way into college, then Yale Law School, and now to a position at a Silicon Valley investment firm. But his tale is not a riff on self-congratulation or some up-by-the-bootstraps Horatio Alger myth. It is really a kind of lament for the sad straits in which a huge stratum of American culture finds itself.
He identifies this group, what he describes as his people, as millions of poor and working-class, white Americans of Scots-Irish descent, people scraping by who dispute the notion that many of us are learning to wrap our heads around, that white skin is a ticket to privileges that people of color in this country have no hope of achieving, because they have yet to experience anything like privilege in their own lives.
“To these folks,” Vance writes, “poverty is the family tradition – their ancestors were laborers in the Southern slave economy, share croppers after that, coal miners after that, and machinists and millworkers in more recent times. Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash.”
They are people, he says, with “an intense sense of loyalty” and “a fierce dedication to family and country” but who also remain innately suspicious of outsiders and people different from themselves.
There are historic reasons we can cite for why all that J.D Vance describes should be so – and I want to explore some of them today – but in this chaotic election year when political candidates seem intent to double-down on all that divides us, I also want to take a moment to step away from the fray.
I want to invite us as people who covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person to open ourselves to complicated truths and reexamine some of our own preconceptions so that by careful, compassionate reflection we might in time help blaze a path to fully realizing a beloved community.
All ideas, it seems, have their zeitgeist, and this appears to be a year for “white trash.” In addition to J.D. Vance’s best-selling book, Hillbilly Elegy, we have Nancy Isenberg’s comprehensive study, White Trash – The 400-Year-Old Untold History of Class in America. The title clues you in to the theme.
As you heard in the reading earlier, Isenberg argues that this habit of categorizing some human beings as “waste people” is a direct result of what she calls a “relentless class system” operating across this nation’s history. What confuses this understanding, though, is a national myth from our founding days that, unlike the Europe that our forebears left behind, ours is a classless society.
It’s a free country. Anyone can get ahead, right? All it takes is grit and gusto. And yet, we live in a society with clear evidence of vast economic inequalities. That means, Isenberg tells us, that “rationalizing economic inequality has been an unconscious part of the national credo; poverty has been naturalized, often seen as something beyond human control.”
That’s complicated, but it’s important. So, let me tease out what I hear her saying. If we claim that there are no real class divisions in America, then when we see signs of them anyway – like poverty – we must look for other reasons to explain them. And across our history, those explanations pretty much come down to two factors: sloth and breeding. That is to say, the poor are simply lazy – “shiftless” was the term that was widely applied – or they are genetically deficient.
So, let’s join Isenberg on some of the history behind all this. In her book, she carries us back to the time when the first settlements in America were planned. Leading planters in colonies like Jamestown, she notes, “had no illusion that they were creating a classless society.” Rather, they recruited the poor as indentured servants to work the land, an arrangement that essentially reduced them to “debt slaves.”
Indentured servants were also recruited to serve the Puritan colonies in New England. In both places, there was little economic mobility, and so even for those who completed their indenture, the only way up, often, was out, fleeing their bondage to make their own way, roaming and eventually settling in the countryside.
In much the South, Isenberg says, we see that trend most dramatically. A ruling planter class captured much of the land and took hold of the economy. Where land wasn’t as productive, though, a different ethos evolved. Eastern North Carolina, with its sandy forests and swamps, was one of those. It became a harbor for some of the refugees, making it, in her words, “what we might call the first white trash colony.”
Indeed, one official of the crown who toured the region dismissed it as what he called “Lubberland,” a place of “lazy, bog-trotting vagrants” resistant to any form of government. Why they resisted is plain: government as they saw it largely served the interests of the wealthy, not their own.
As the frontier opened up and settlers encountered these country people, lore grew around them as either folksy sorts who welcomed weary travelers into their humble cabins, or as drunkards, brawlers and highwaymen.
As the Civil War approached, poor whites entered the debates over slavery, with northern abolitionists arguing that they were the victims of a slave economy that closed off the chance for them to advance.
Southern apologists, though, insisted that slavery elevated the status of poor whites by putting them over blacks, even if those whites complained that they had been drafted into a rich man’s war that the poor were called to fight.
After the war, the anger of poor whites at policies that they felt helped blacks but left them languishing built a deep resentment that fueled the growth of the Klan and support for Jim Crow laws that marginalized and disenfranchised blacks.
Meanwhile, the economic shackles that left many poor whites scraping by as tenant farmers remained essentially unchanged well into the 20th Century.
For some time, the rag on the poor had been that they were simply deficient human beings, but after World War with the rise of the eugenics movement it took on a new edge.
As the notion gained currency that what were considered “unfit human traits” could be reduced with controlled breeding, reformers turned their eyes to the South, where lack of education funding and medical care left many illiterate and in poor health. Poor white women became the major target of a campaign to isolate, quarantine and sterilize people declared to “feebleminded” and “unfit for breeding.” In North Carolina alone, for example, from 1929 to 1974 some 7,600 people – men and women, white and black – were medically sterilized.
It wasn’t until Roosevelt’s New Deal, Isenberg says, that class divisions were recognized not as preordained or somehow the fault of the poor, but the result of concrete, mutable conditions that government could alter.
She points to James Agee’s famous Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as making a similar case. The poor, Agee insisted, “are not dull or slow-witted; they have merely internalized a kind of ‘anesthesia’ that numbs them the shame and insult of discomforts, insecurities, and inferiorities.”
This takes our little tour of history takes us roughly to the 1950s and 1960s and the economic boom that did in many ways raise all boats. And along the way as conditions improved the label of red neck, white trash shifted from badge of shame to a cultural trope, with everything from the rise of Elvis Presley to the “Beverly Hillbillies” and “Gomer Pyle.”
Around here, the trope for mountain people is different – the hillbilly with his coon dog, rifle and still. But the pressures are no less real. Ours is a region that has never known much wealth, where land-poor people hold tight to steep mountain acres that bring them no income, and employment is hard to find.
In an interview from 1988, Jim Wayne Miller, author of the poem you heard earlier, said he worries about the effect that this economic instability is having on people in this area.
“Poverty, or the perception of poverty, is often a matter of discrepancy. It’s not a matter, inherently of what you have or don’t have, but what you have compared to someone else. . . . If I had a nightmare, it would be that we will never be able to talk about the last taboo in this country, which isn’t sex or death, but class. Class is the one thing we will not admit.”
And yet its influence continues to intensify. As J.D. Vance notes, recent years have been less kind than previous decades, resulting in increasing numbers of people being pulled into economic instability. As income equality grows, many are losing ground, and once again pundits are putting the onus on struggling people to get themselves out of their messes without any hope of a hand up. Some make it anyway, like Vance cobbling together a series of fortunate circumstances; many others crash and burn into long-term unemployment, broken families, addictions and suicides.
At the same time, Vance says, he sees growing cynicism that nothing anyone can do will make a difference. The feeling is, he says, “We can’t trust the evening news. We can’t trust our politicians. Our universities, the gateway to a better life, are rigged against us. We can’t get jobs.”
Vance identifies himself as a conservative, but says the political right has done his people no favors by “fomenting the kind of detachment that has sapped the ambition of so many of my peers.”
“What separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives,” he says, “yet the message of the right is increasingly: It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.”
And it’s plain how that old bait and switch strategy is affecting our politics. Simmering feelings of disillusion, disappointment and shame are being fanned into blind and feral hatred and rage. All that energy not only does terrible damage to our public life, but it conveniently distracts people from that apparent unmentionable in our politics: class.
Yet, there it is. As Nancy Isenberg puts it, “Class defines how real people live. They don’t live the myth. They don’t live the dream. Politics is always about more than what is stated . . . . Even when it’s denied, politicians engage in class issues.”
So, friends, let’s stop fooling ourselves and name what we see, not as political partisans but as people committed to healing the brokenness of humankind, as people who find beauty and wonder, hope and possibility in every living soul.
Let us abandon the scorched earth of fearful speech and fevered imaginings, the sad hubris of wounded ego, of desperate, predatory disrespect.
A generation ago the New Dealers opened the door with the then-radical notion that class divisions were not preordained or somehow the fault of the poor, but the result of concrete, mutable conditions that people working together could alter. It remains no less true today.
Growing up in his “hillbilly” surroundings, Vance says, there were any number of occasions when because of his own poor decisions he skirted disaster. But he says he was blessed to have family and friends who stuck by him and saw him through.
It’s another reminder that none of us is self-made. Each of us struggles and stumbles and sometimes needs to be called back to the original wholeness that is our birthright.
As in the story that Joy told us earlier, even in bleak and scary times, we are called to see the beauty, the vital energy and aliveness that is present in the world. Even when our lives seem “weathered and old-fashioned,” in Jim Wayne Miller’s words, we have the capacity to leave the heaviness that dogs us behind, let it perish, let it topple like a stone chimney and instead let us live into the lightness that dwells within us like a song.