Du Bois, Martha and Mary: The Message of Work We Perpetuate

15268-hard-work-doesnt-guarantee-successLately, well at least the last few days, I have been meditating on the concept of rest and play. Lord knows that I work too hard, every day, all day, and hardly leave enough room for the two in my life. As I spent time in my Word just this week, I mediated on Jesus’ words in Mark 6 – “Come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest a while.” I told myself that this is what I needed and then spent the next 48 hours doing anything but, thinking that I simply had too much to do to rest.

Before going to bed last night, I pulled out a book I had been reading for a least a month – the Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B du Bois. Most of what I read, I could barely make sense of because I was just too tired and exhausted. But du Bois’ prophetic writing got my attention as I read these words:

“Among this people (black people) there is no leisure class… here ninety-six per cent are toiling, no one with leisure to turn the bare and cheerless cabin into a home, no old folks to sit beside the fire and hand down traditions of the past; little of careless, happy childhood and dreaming youth. The dull monotony of daily toil is broken only by the gayety of the thoughtless and the Saturday trip to town (or Friday night outing to Barnes and Noble). The toil, like all farm toil, is monotonous, and here there are little machinery and few tools to relieve its burdensome drudgery. But with all this, it is work in the pure open air, and this is something in a day when fresh air is scarce.”

In one paragraph, du Bois summed up my life and my family’s life up to this point. The moments of leisure and rest are few and far between and we usually force ourselves upon them, feeling utterly guilty (at least me) when we are not toiling that cursed soil (Gen. 3). Unable to find a fulltime permanent livable wage job, my husband pieces together work here and there, sometimes working between 70 – 80 hours a week. I recently took on an additional seasonal job, in addition to my fulltime work, just to earn a little extra money to pay outstanding hospital bills from last summer’s c-section. All of this does not speak of the time that we spend strategizing how we will get beyond this current point, looking for jobs, filling out resumes, networking (for my husband), or just cultivating relationships with family and friends, cooking, cleaning, writing, and the list of duties, responsibilities, and work goes on and on and on.

I know my family’s experience is not unique – many families of color and low income families spend their lives doing the same. Working. Toiling. Laboring. Just to barely thrive. Just to put food on the table, gas in the car, and clothes on our back. We are not living lavish lifestyles, neither do we wish to. We just want to get to a point where our income exceeds our expenses. It seems like a fleeting pipedream.

In spite of our hard work, the message that we keep receiving is that we are not working hard enough. Politicians, policymakers, government leaders, and generally that impenetrable 1% alike keep saying that the proof is in our lack of means, and blame our inability to make it on our lack of education, training and sexual habits – all untruths that misdirect the culpability of this inequity and place blame on the victim instead of the perpetrators of injustice.

After all of this, I go to pray. Mostly because its bed time and I need to say something to God before I go to sleep even if it was a few unintelligible words. But as I pray and reflect, I think about the passage in Luke 10 on Martha and Mary. I think about the cultural demands on women in that time (and throughout time) that forced them into a servant class, waiting on men left and right, cooking, cleaning, being the sole responsibility of their children and other things. These expectations, not Martha’s type-A personality or need to please, was what drove her to opt for keeping house as opposed to resting at Jesus’ feet like Mary did. In fact, we have to realize that Mary took a risk, placing herself among the men, positioning herself as if she was their equal in intellect, status and class.

Martha expected Jesus to rebuke Mary for her insolence. I am sure that any other man would have done that. Instead, Jesus challenges cultural norms and expectations and gives Mary permission to rest. His example invites Martha, and people bond to cultural demands everywhere to do the same. Rest. Shed the burdens and expectations of the society that surrounds you. Play and don’t feel guilty doing so. Just be and resist the demand to do.

The reality is that we live in a society that day in and out gives us a different message that is contrary to Jesus’ invitation to rest. People of color, immigrants, low income people and all of those who are economically vulnerable in any way, hear on a daily basis that they are not working hard enough.  And then society and powerful structures reinforce the need for people to work harder by keeping wages abysmally low, arguing that raising the minimum wage to even $9.50 an hour (mind you this is NOT a livable wage) will hurt job creation. In Minnesota, a family cannot subsist on minimum wage working a regular 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. No, that family will have to work upwards of 80 hours a week, oftentimes more than 90 just to afford a two bedroom market rate apartment. This is not rest, nor does it give room for people to rest. Its craziness.

I guess what I am trying to say is that our society needs to get to a point where rest and leisure is not just for the rich but for everyone. We need to get to a place where we are not driven by work 24/7 and make space to enjoy this beautiful creation that God made for all of us. Travel, art, museums, books, music, and sports, are all expressions of God’s creativity and reflect His glory throughout the world. We all should be able to access this simply for pleasure’s sake.

But of course rest has other benefits. Longer lifespans. Decreased stress and disease and better health outcomes. Higher quality of life. This makes rest even more important and likewise demands that we do something about the messages of work that this society perpetuates.

Quick Reflections on Money, Greed and Race

greedIn America, we tend to often operate between two extremes. On one side of the spectrum, we are driven by austerity, Pharaoh-like ideologies, feeling like there is not enough. On the other side of the spectrum, we are driven by mass consumption, Solomon-like dreams hoarding more and more and doing so by any means possible. Both ideologies drive racial and socioeconomic inequities to a large extent mostly because the underlying principle that governs this broken society is that money needs to be made.

To understand this principle, we must remember our history. We have to remember that racism, a myth and human concept that has only existed since the last couple of hundred years, came about to justify the maltreatment of African Americans and American Indian people. White people needed a reason, a biological reason, to point to why it was okay to steal labor and land for the sake of growing the economy and making this “new” nation prosperous. And it worked and has been working for centuries. This is why even in the absence of slavery and Jim Crow (at least the Jim Crow of the early 1900s), racism is still alive and kicking our behinds pretty hard. It doesn’t need these institutions to thrive – it thrives because of greed.

The love of money is the root of all evil.” This is a biblical truth that has continued to be true from the beginning. But of course, God knows what He is talking about and has always known what He is talking about. Still, we don’t trust Him. And we think He is kidding or is only half serious when He says that this mammon thing will destroy us. And it has. Literally. Millions, if not billions, of lives have been lost through slavery, colonization, war, genocide, and so many other vices all because of the love of money (although it often gets masked differently.)

To be clear, money in and of itself is not the problem; it’s the love of it that causes all of these horrible things. But the human heart is incredibly weak, we fall in love way too quickly. And that love leads us down a thousand paths, all of them leading us to destruction and away from God.

If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell.” Jesus’ words may sound extreme but once again, He knows what He is talking about. If money and all of the possessions that it brings makes us stumble, we must cast them off. It would be better to be broke (not that I am advocating for monasticism) then to lead millions of people astray, including ourselves, because of ungodly material pursuits.

But if we have food and covering, with these we shall be content.” According to the Apostle Paul, this is all we need (and of course housing and a job, too). If we have any hope of ridding this place of racism and other socioeconomic inequities, this is what we need to get to. These are the terms that we need to redefine our society by, and even our churches by – basic human necessities that provide for all of us because contrary to common perception, there is enough for all of us.

In God’s economy, there’s no need to denigrate or marginalize each other to compete for what should be equally accessible to all of us. In God’s economy, this idea is simply ridiculous and so far from what He had in mind. He designed this world to be a place for all of us to enjoy. It’s a shame that because of greed so many people haven’t.

There Shall Be No Poor Among You: Maybe Capitalism Doesn’t Work Afterall

poor handsOne of my New Year’s resolutions is to study the book of Deuteronomy. If I break all of the other things that I have on my list (which exists in my mind, not on paper by the way) I really want to see this one through. As I have grown in my social justice awareness, if you will, Deuteronomy has increasingly become one of the most important texts that I lean on and come back to. In this book I find a prescription of what a community, or nation, is supposed to look like. It outlines how people are to be treated, and how those who have little resources are to be looked after and provided for.

In this community, in fact, there are not supposed to be any poor. Poverty does not exist because people are not being exploited, manipulated or oppressed. Debts are cancelled. Land that could have been sold off to pay for debts is returned to the original owner. Slaves are released and not only are they released but they are given abundant resources for making a fresh start so that they do not end back up in servitude.

The needs of orphan, the widow and the immigrant – or to those whom life happened – were also met. According to Peter Vogt, an OT professor at Bethel Seminary, they were not to be considered poor but rather people who due to their circumstances should be provided for differently. This wasn’t welfare or charity but rather the normal means by which the needs of vulnerable people were met.

The parameters of economics and justice that Moses proposes are quite radical. It is an economic vision where the premise is oriented toward both serving and blessing others. Growth is not mentioned in this vision. The national GDP is not a thought in this vision. Surely financial blessings are a part of this vision but even then Deuteronomy makes clear that the blessings that flow into this community are to naturally flow out to others. What’s more, the blessings that come are not as a result of exploiting others.

Yet, from the time that the Israelites entered into the Promised Land in Joshua 6 until they were taken into exile, they failed to live up to this standard of justice that God had prescribed. They were not the least bit concerned about the poor. In fact, in many cases those in power regularly usurped resources from those with little to add to their heaps of growing wealth and prosperity.

Understanding that God’s vision was not carried out in the Old Testament, and surely has not been fulfilled to date, I believe that we should consider how our society is supposed to make sense of this text in our present reality. Clearly it has aims that are quite ambitious, perhaps even nonsensical. Still, there is something strangely compelling about this economic system that God has in mind especially when we compare it to how our economy is driven today.

Today the economy in the United States is market driven. It is thrives on capitalism, in fact, this is the only way that it functions. A handful of people at the top, economically speaking, control and hold most of the wealth in this nation and this is okay (so the argument goes) because these are the people who are stimulating the economy, buying goods, and creating jobs for the remainder of the population. Since growth is the nation’s guiding principle, it is perfectly legit to do whatever it takes to get that growth even if it means exploiting others.

Capitalism has created a permanent underclass for the sake of the people at the top. Since the nation’s inception, that class has largely been determined by race meaning that if you were a person of color, you were more than likely to be poor and underresourced. However, the recession has pulled the blinders off of the middle class myth, showing us the unsustainability of propping up a lifestyle built on credit, so that we see more white people a part of this class as well. 5 years after the start of the recession, we still have high levels of unemployment, foreclosure, homelessness, food insecurity and so much more. Even so, food assistance programs have taken a deep cut and extended unemployment benefits have expired. Ironically, or perhaps not so much, the nation’s defense budget is just as large and powerful as it ever was and top level executives and CEOs are still making bank.

Where is the room for justice? Where is the room for the economic vision that God outlined for the people of Israel which surely have implications for us today? Because capitalism is the nation’s god, the fact of the matter is that there is no room. Economic justice and caring for vulnerable populations in the way that God envisioned is simply not feasible in a nation that cares more about the bottom line than anything else.

If Deuteronomy is the standard, and God is serious when He says that ‘There shall be no poor among you,’ then we are way off the mark. Capitalism and economic growth cannot be our aim when God has made it perfectly clear that He is most concerned about the way we treat one another and provide for each other’s needs.  While we might never see the totality of what God has in mind on this side of eternity, we should be growing into this vision as we become more and more like our savior and put to death the sin nature. The sin nature is obsessed with wealth and money; frankly these aspirations have no business being present in the life of a believer.

In truth, we may not be able to change the way the society functions. We may not be able to challenge the country’s economic system and prescribe a whole new way of doing things based off of what Deuteronomy outlines mostly because this is not nation that is oriented towards the ways of the Lord. However, as believers, we can change the way that we operate in it. Understanding that capitalism is not the way, we can denounce it and instead operate in such a way that our lives are oriented toward serving and loving others. We can cast off our own obsession with the American Dream and instead adopt a new dream, a Deuteronomic dream that looks toward a day where there truly are no poor among us.