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.
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.