Friday, July 22, 2005

Materialism, Poverty and Community Disintegration

For most of the past 35 years I have been staring poverty in the face.

I have never been poor. But my professional life has led me into settings where poverty and the problems associated with poverty dominated the social, cultural and economic landscape (or better, wasteland).

At the same time, I have spent most of my time surrounded by religious people--members of the American church bent toward Fundamentalism.

To say the least, the juxtaposition can be very interesting.

Invariably, whenever I visit with religious people about poverty and the work we attempt to do with low-income people, someone will raise the question of spirituality.

Usually it goes something like this:

"So, Larry, how do you evangelize as you do your work?"

Or, "Larry, what role does evangelism play in your efforts?"

Or, "Is there any place in what you do for addressing matters of the soul and spirit?"

Underneath these questions, and often right out on the table for discussion, is the idea that the real problem with poverty is a spiritual one. Thus, the real solution, the only remedy possible must be spiritual as well.

I agree.

The problem back of poverty in the United States today is most definitely spiritual.

Poverty is a problem of the soul.

But, understood correctly, the nature of the problem is not what you would think or normally hear today.

Low-income neighborhoods are fragmented, disconnected, disengaged and largely without collective power or organized class action. There is a palpable resignation to the way things are.

What is the reason underlying this almost intractable reality?

Any viable explanation must include several factors including the general acceptance of the categories of class, wealth and personal meaning as defined by a culture of radical individualism.

This overwhelmingly dominant culture promotes and sustains itself by the powerful use of advertising, marketing and a wide variety of mass communications in service of materialism.

Ironically, poor folks, as a class, are defined by the categories of our dominate consumer culture.

Tragically, most low-income people accept the definitions provided by the dominant culture while holding out hope as individuals in the great American dream (read myth just here) that someday they too will make it to the top.

Community disintegrates all around us as individualism runs rampant and turns cancerous.

Individuals at the top of the class heap promote and enact policies that enhance their own dominance while reducing the capacity of the underclass.

Amazingly, masses of people in the middle and even near the bottom of the class hierarchy join in electing leaders who actually work against the self-interests of these same voters, as well as those of the communities of which they are a part!

All the while, media continues to sell the wares of perceived success to individuals up and down the class spectrum. As individual consumers, we are all in this together!

Unfortunately, this is where the togetherness usually stops.

A powerful, glitzy pseudo-community--shaped by slick ads, great music and messages from every quarter--replaces the real thing.

The power of community and the collective efficacy that once sustained low-income, laboring groups, today evaporates in the heat generated by a pounding media hype that calls me apart to consume and to achieve on my own.

Surveys reveal that most middle class people believe that they are in the top 10% of the population in terms of standard of living. A large part of the underclass believes that they can make it there with enough hard work and a little luck, sometimes mediated by prayer.

The truth is, communities continue to fail.

Frankly, the message of the church today does not help.

Most pulpits deliver messages about individual salvation, improvement, happiness and responsibility. Messages focusing on the power of the group or the importance of solidarity or collective action can seldom be heard.

Individuals sell out to the "values" of consumerism.

Acceptance of the way things are sets in.

The gap between rich and poor widens and, by the way, the numbers on poverty's side of this divide are growing while those on the other side shrink year-by-year.

We do have a spiritual problem in this nation. It needs to be addressed.

However, the correct message to the poor is not "Believe in Jesus and be saved."

The overwhelming majority of the poor in this nation already believe that and have all of their lives.

No. The poor need to hear and struggle with a different message.

One that goes something like this, "Look around at your poor brothers and sisters in your failing community and unite before all is lost!"

We need a new spirituality. We need new marching orders for our souls.

We need to wake up and get together.


Jeremy Gregg said...

In the latter half of your blog, it sounds like you are talking about a community soul, not an individual spirit, when you say "poverty is a problem of the soul."

This is obviously a huge question -- along the lines of CDM's overarching "How do we build genuine community?" -- but how do we develop a community soul? More specifically, how can the disparate economic sides of our community come together around the rallying cry you propose?

Capitalism -- with its overemphasis on rugged individualism and self-reliance -- is fairly entrenched in our community soul. Elitism is entrenched in our political soul. This creates a situation in which those at the top are disincented from being concerned about those at the bottom. Therefore, I think it will take more than a series of personal revolutions.

What we need is systemic change. A perspective-changing values shift. We need cultural reformation. We need spirtual revolution.

Thanks for this, Larry. I can imagine no better way to spend our lives than doing this.

Michael Evans said...

Both evangelism and the building of a community soul require an important first step - building a relationship. I don't mean a relationship of charity or doing for someone else. I mean a relationship of mutual self-respect.
We rebuild community one relationhip at a time.

Disparate economic sides (class) of our community will come together only by intentional relationship building. In community organizing we use the one-on-one meeting and small group meetings to build those disparate relationships.

Larry James said...

Good comments. One thing I have come to believe very strongly is that folks at the bottom of the economic pecking order must begin to act and organize regardless of what those further up the order decide to do. For sure, people further up need to move into relationships of solidarity with those at or near the bottom, but those battling poverty must find ways to build the relationships and connections that Michael speaks of. At one time these relationships seemed easier to establish and maintain--almost automatic. It is here that media, materialism and the false hope of economic success without policy change kicks in and hard.

krister said...

doesn't it seem like the real problem here lies in the inherent relational disconnect between those in the upper echelons of society and those in the lower? sure, we will give to the poor, and we might even spend a whole day at CDM helping out, but the relative impact of short-term contact is slight at best.

Perhaps we would do well to see through new eyes by engaging a communitarian theological perspective that is more concerned with the overwhelming connectedness of everything by focusing on radical inclusivity as opposed to our fundamentalistic exclusivism.

the only authentic and lasting changes that an oppressed community can create are those that are actually started in and by the community. i'm still a bit confused as to what our role might look like in this new spirituality.

it seems that the oppressed must liberate themselves (I'm not saying there should be a hands-off approach to this, but GW has shown us that a more powerful group is not necessarily able to liberate those who are less fortunate), but there has to be a cultural climate that would allow for that type of movement to be carried to fruition. at this point I can see where systemic change is needed. what we really are is just one really screwed up family. where is dr. phil when you need him?

where do we come in? are we simply encouragers on the sidelines, fellow protesters, or liberaters (do we not think our over-involvement might short-circuit authentic change?)? perhaps it is our confusion that prevents many of us from jumping in and being a part of the solution.

at any rate, i can think of no better "evangelism" than the work CDM strives to carry out each day. thank you for being willing to speak the truth to ears that are often inundated by competing noises and voices. shalom!

Larry James said...

Thanks, Krister. I expect that there are many things that middle and upper class folks can do. Establishing friendships and understanding come to mind. More importantly, those nearer the top can advocate for and support public policy changes that seek to equalize, stablize and lift everyone into closer proximity to equity in our currently out of balance capitalistic society.