I mostly read “churchy” books (ones on theology, biblical interpretation, pastoral leadership, ministry, and the like), so this recent “history” one I finished was quite different. Historian Nancy Isenberg explores how American society, even from its earliest days, has not taken kindly to the poor. “White trash”, “redneck”, and “hillbilly” are often used humorously or in a self-depreciating way today. But there’s a dark history behind such words. In year’s past, people at the bottom of society were frequently labelled waste people, refuse, rubbish, crackers, and clay eaters.
America is often envisioned as a place where anyone can get ahead from their hard work and grit. This has not been historically accurate, Isenberg argues, as we clearly separate ourselves on the basis of class—working class, blue and white collar, business owners, and the poor. She examines some lesser-known writings and ideas from the founding fathers, who would often speak of humans in terms of breeding, just like with livestock. The overall implication was that some people are inherently admirable and hard working, and other groups of people are disposable and beyond hope.
Near the time of the Civil War, many Americans (both north and south) believed that the rural poor literally ate mud and dirt. This kind of thinking also gave rise to the eugenics movement, where many thinkers proposed sterilizing poor people for the sake of the common good. Just as people like Thomas Jefferson had spoke of the poor as unfavorable “stock” and “pedigree”, the early 1900s brought the belief that some people and families are simply better dying off rather than helping.
There have been several efforts to raise people out of poverty, including programs such as the New Deal. But even in America’s most charitable interventions, an underlying pride never seems to disappear. People often view the poorest with contempt, believing that someone is ultimately to blame personally for their problems, as opposed to structural issues. Americans commonly struggle with feelings of resentment, especially if they feel like someone else is getting too much help.
To paraphrase one of Isenberg’s central observations: It’s not enough for Americans to get ahead in life, we often want someone to look down upon. The poor usually fit this mold, living in run-down homes, rural areas, and lacking educational or employment opportunities.
Isenberg definitely does not dismiss the issues America has faced regarding race, but argues that this form of class oppression ought to be considered a problem as well. We have a stain in our country’s legacy for how we have historically handled racism. We also have a stain on our legacy for how we’ve treated the poorest of the poor, and she writes to shine a light on this problem and its lasting effects.
This book provided a unique take on American history, particularly our shortcomings. To tie this in with matters of faith, I would argue that humans continually struggle with the sin of pride. We sure love thinking boastfully about ourselves, which means we usually think less of some people. I frequently hear others complain about and criticize the poor for receiving “handouts.” It’s not uncommon to hear people gripe about another receiving a tax credit for having children. “Work ethic” is something we often judge others by. Cities and towns frequently ban structures like mobile homes, leaving the poorest citizens to move to the outskirts. Rural areas tend to lack adequate or maintained infrastructure. If you ask me, these are all subtle ways we put others down and continue to oppress our poorest neighbors. In the more explicit ways, you will hear folks on social media or TV talk about how other people are “undeserving” poor, entitled, good-for-nothing, or trash.
Journalist Brooke Gladstone once put it this way: “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor. If you’re poor, you pay more for public transit because you can’t afford a monthly pass or you rely on old cars that break down and cost more to fix, while paying gas prices that have outrun your wages. You pay more for car insurance because of where you live. You pay more for rent than your place is worth. If you’re poor, you’re unlikely to eat healthy meals because healthy food costs an average of $45 more a month–tough on a minimum wage. You can’t buy any food cheaply because it costs more in poor neighborhoods and, without spare cash, you can’t even save by buying in bulk. You’re less likely to have a bank account because of soaring fees and penalties, you cash checks at places that take a cut. You also pay a higher percentage of your income in state and local taxes than the rest of us do, and so on. It’s death by a thousand cuts and no way to staunch the bleeding.”
How do you treat the classmate who probably cannot read this blog post, because his house doesn’t have internet, and the internet provider won’t install it unless his family pays thousands of dollars in costs because they live in a rural area?
How do you treat the senior who lives entirely off social security checks, all while she cares for other family members who are also in tough times, sometimes forgoing meals herself to feed others?
How do you treat the homeless man on the side of the road who has dealt with a myriad of problems?
Are you loving to all these people? Do you seek their welfare? Or in Jesus’ words, are you loving that neighbor in the same way you love yourself? Do you see them as a brother or sister?
God cares for all people, and we are called to do the same. We also have the opportunity to live in mission, providing assistance to those who need it, whether that be preaching the gospel with our words, or through our actions like with a food box or serving a meal. In fact, I would say the two (spiritual and physical wellbeing) have to go hand-in-hand. The church has an opportunity to welcome people from all walks of life into God’s family.