Sunday, March 11, 2007

Sinning with Class

The text of today's sermon (it's mine, so I have permission to post it). It should be understood that it was bracketed by a short contemplation on the meaning, value, and importance of the idea of 'sin' to religious liberals, and a shorter piece talking about where we might go, what hands-on stuff might be done in response. This because our beloved minister was still bitter about my gnawing my way through Salvation as a useful topic, and wasn't about to let me have the whole pulpit to discuss the nature of sin and then to tackle classism all by myself.

No, she had to hog all the sin for herself.

Brothers and sisters... I want to tell you a lie. We live in a classless society.

Do you believe that? I don't.

Every society has taboos. We've acknowledged that we have some taboos in our own community here; there's an observation that it's easier for UUs to talk about sex than it is to talk about money. There's reality in that bit of humor; we talk about planning sex ed programs for the youth and no one twitches. Talk about how much money we pledge, or make... and people fidget.

There is a strong taboo about class in America. Bringing up class issues results in accusations of fomenting class warfare (which admits there are classes... and pressures the speaker to shut up, now).

It's not that similar sins don't exist elsewhere; India's caste system, for example. It's easy for us to see how the class structure is woven into India's society, it's easy to see how wrong it is, how it damages and injures people. It's easy for us to see how unreasonable it is. Classism is a serious problem everywhere. But we have a myth that says we're a classless society, so we ignore it here. The Biblical admonition to tend to the beam in one's own eye before tending to the mote in someone else's is clearly applicable. To do otherwise is simply self-righteous hypocrisy.

The sin of classism reaches back before the American Revolution. It has shaped, twisted and distorted society from literally the first English settlements here. Gentlemen—the upper class—expected not to sully themselves with work, and did not work, at Jamestown. Work was beneath their dignity. Not until the colony faced starvation and extinction did the governor force them to work, to work if they expected to eat. That egalitarian action was scandalous, and only undertaken with survival at stake.

We know more about class than we admit. Maybe your car suggests something, or your clothing marks you, or the jewelry you wear does. Social scholars generally divide American society into six or more classes—and they note that the vast majority of Americans believe that they're middle class, whether they're below it or way above it.

Note that. Classism makes it uncomfortable, unacceptable, to be other than middle class. Though there is more demonstrable disadvantage in being poor, there's also much social disfavor for being wealthy—and that's an attitude that Unitarian Universalists can easily fall into. Either way, it's classism; a clear violation of our first principle, which affirms the worth and dignity of every person. There is no moral defect or virtue inherent in being poor, just as there is no moral superiority or deficiency in being rich. Your ethical or moral status depends on what you do, not what you have. Discussing the behaviors and failings of a group runs towards stereotyping, demonizing, and dehumanizing people for being “other.” Grappling with classism means struggling with people's fear and misunderstanding.

A class consists of a large group of people with a similar economic position in society based on income, wealth, property ownership, education, skills, or authority in the economic sphere. Class affects people on more than just an economic level. Class is subjective (how we feel) and objective (in terms of position or resources).

Classism is any form of prejudice or oppression based on actual or perceived social class.

Classism isn't necessarily intentional, it can be structural. Some argue that the American electoral system, resting on huge donations and fund raising, is classist—because only the relatively wealthy can really participate. That doesn't mean that the system was designed to be classist, but the lack of intent doesn't mean there's no problem. Lack of intent doesn't mean that there's not a crime—that's the distinction made between murder and manslaughter.

Classism assigns characteristics of worth and ability based on social class. It includes some rationale that supports these valuations and the culture that perpetuates them. (In India, untouchables are what they are because of their karma. In the US, the poor are deemed to be poor because of their inability, weak wills, and personal failings.) It is classist to believe that the poor deserve being poor, and classist to denigrate the humanity of the wealthy.

Classism is a sin that nurtures other sins. In America, class is racialized. A larger percentage of people of color are harmed by the rules of our economy. And racism keeps people whose economic self-interest is similar from uniting to improve their conditions. Racism serves to support a classist society.

Some people are surprised that African American, Latino, and Native American people have rates of poverty and unemployment that are more than double those of white Americans. Other people are surprised that most poor people are white. Classism, racism, sexism, heterosexism; all of them function in ways that support each other. We have to understand how these oppressions are interwoven, because they are—and because we cannot solve any one of them without addressing the others.

Classism truly lies at the roots of racism, in America. In the late 17th and 18th centuries, common English stereotypes of the poor were often identical with descriptions of blacks in the colonies dependent upon slave labor. They suggested the subhumanity of both: the white poor were ‘the vile and brutish part of mankind’; blacks ‘a brutish sort of people.’

Until 1660, indentured servants outnumbered slaves on the Virginia tobacco plantations, and were treated in very similar ways. Poor, bedraggled English men and women were shipped as indentured servants to Virginia, and when their masters put people of another color in the fields with them, the unfamiliar appearance may have struck them as only skin deep. There is evidence that the two despised groups initially saw each other as sharing a predicament. It was common for servants and slaves to run away, steal hogs, get drunk—together. It was not uncommon for them to make love together.

African-born slaves and European-born indentured servants collaborated. Race laws began being passed in 1661, when both Maryland and Virginia passed statutes that forbade miscegenation, mixing of the races—which remained Virginian law until it was struck down in... 1967. Ministers were forbidden to marry mixed race couples—with a stiff fine for violating the law. In 1691, Virginia decreed that any white woman who bore a mulatto child pay a fine or face indentured servitude for five years for herself and thirty years for her child. In Maryland, a white woman who married a Negro slave had to serve her husband’s owner for the rest of her married life. In the British West Indies a law was passed in 1701 forbidding the importation of Irish Catholics, later any Europeans, to the island of Nevis because European servants had joined with African slaves, rebelling against the ruling elite. The Virginia race laws by which plantation masters elevated the racial status of white servants, workers, and other “rabble” were enacted for the same reasons as the Nevis ban—to protect a rarified elite. Making one group superior to another, by law, allowed a wedge to be driven between two groups who had collaborated against their mutual oppressors.

The very pale-skinned Irish were seen as no better than the black Africans, and in fact, there is a record of of a black house slave in the 19th century American South complaining that his master treated him like he was “common Irish.” Racism allowed a slave to feel inherently superior to someone else, someone lower class than even a slave. Racism was actively encouraged, because it was useful as a mechanism for supporting and sustaining a highly classist society.

It's our problem. Ours. Not just America's. It's not a problem that exists just among the people of one class. It's a problem that exists throughout American society. We share it. It's ours.

Very few Unitarian Universalists are among the truly wealthy, the major beneficiaries of the class system, and few UUs are part of the lower classes. If, in coming to the aid of the real victims of classism—or any oppression—we butt in, take over, take charge and become their voice, we have made ourselves beneficiaries of classism. This is simply adopting the mantle of victim status. It is crucially important to support and assist people; it is equally important not to disempower them while helping them. Oppression ends when people are made able, empowered and in possession of the resources to control their own lives.

The idea that our society is classless is absurd—but it is a useful absurdity; it allows people to pretend that economic inequality has no real victims, because... after all, we are all middle class, right? The entire middle class is generally defined as being about half of all Americans. That middle class shares a one-fifth of the nation's wealth with all of the lower class and with what we call the upper middle class. Think about what that means. Think about the social and economic inequality implicit in the fact that four fifths of the population—everyone from the upper middle class down, shares a fifth—a shrinking fifth, too—of the nation's wealth.

Classism is the first monstrous child of the sin of othering people, of affirming that some group is less than truly, equally human. Once you subscribe to that seductive notion... it seems to me that classism is an inevitable result. Having defined our own group as the standard of what being human really means, then other lesser groups are—almost must be—subhuman. They don't reach the standard, they don't make the mark. That thinking seems to mandate some form of classism, and it allows for all kinds of other -isms; racism, sexism, and heterosexism.

In order to deal effectively with classism we need to deal with racism and sexism. And in order to deal effectively with racism or sexism, we need to deal with class.

Bill Fletcher, president of TransAfrica and a former union leader, has written, "Class is the fault-line of US society, and race is the trip wire."

Rev. Bill Sinkford, the president of our Unitarian Universalist Association, has observed “For persons of color, class always needs to be seen in the context of race . . . . (and) race needs always to be viewed through the lens of class.”

Classism violates the ideals of America, where we affirm that every human being is created equal, that no one is entitled to a life of ease, comfort, privilege and power because of their birth. That violates our principles. It violates our affirmation that every person is someone of worth and dignity. It violates our affirmation of justice, equity and compassion in human relations. It mocks the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.

It's not going to be fast or easy to correct. There have been many revolutions over the centuries rooted in class conflicts, and most of them have resulted in bloodshed... and the redistribution of the advantages of class to a small elite of the victorious, creating a new elite class. Revolution is not the answer; violence is not the answer. Solutions rooted in fear, hatred and dehumanization will not be the answer.

What might work is striving for the beloved community, where no person is dehumanized, where no injustice can be ignored, no evil is tolerated. What can work is seeing past our superficial differences, building bridges—treating each other, in our community and beyond as equally valuable human beings, worthy of our respect, appreciation and love.


ScottMGS said...

Good! I like it. It shows just how useful sublimated classism is.

Re: "Solutions rooted in fear, hatred and dehumanization will not be the answer. What might work is striving for the beloved community, where no person is dehumanized, where no injustice can be ignored, no evil is tolerated. What can work is seeing past our superficial differences, building bridges—treating each other, in our community and beyond as equally valuable human beings, worthy of our respect, appreciation and love."

(bold mine, obviously)

I'm sure you've heard of this case. I've been thinking a lot about it since I read it earlier today. I whole-heartedly agree with your quote, above, but wonder how I would apply it in this case. I would like to think that our congregations would rise above that but I wonder....

ogre said...

Hard case, Scott.

Which doesn't mean it doesn't need to be addressed, only that it may not be the best place to start developing rules from (the legal axiom being "Hard cases make bad law").

Fortunately for me, the issue was raised--though not with our board (one more freakin' project...) a year or three ago by one of our members, in conversation.

As I wrote, sin is not what you own, it's what you do. Transferring over the idea, I'd affirm that one's thoughts are not evil, or sinful; one's actions are (well, can be).

In this case? I think that they should let him worship with them. I think that they--and he--should ensure that he's not left alone, that another adult be present with him when he's on their campus, for any purpose, at any time. That's essentially the same idea that we have with Safe Congregations, in having two unrelated adults in any children's Religious Education class. It's a buddy system, protecting everyone, making things safer and more transparent.

(Perfect? No. Nothing is.)

I'm horrified by child molestation; we've both been too close to that in reality to ignore it. But I'll distinguish between the sinner and the sin. I know that one had no control over what one is attracted to, or by. What one has is control over one's actions. This fellow failed in that obligation, and understandable can never be relied on, trusted, in that regard, ever again.

But the community reaction is interesting. The church and congregation are acting very, very appropriately, I think. The school parents are--at least some of them--hysterical. I can understand their fear and trepidation.

But their reaction is irrational. There are molesters. I'll quote the moron-in-chief; "We don't know who they are, but we certainly know they're there." This man has identified himself, in an effort to be honest and to help people act appropriately, and to make sure that kids are safe. He isn't the danger. The danger is the teacher, or parent, or friendly bystander... who hasn't been caught. Or the sex offender who hasn't registered... and is lurking. Or the one who has registered, and is coming to the church and is a member... and has kept that dark secret from the pastor and everyone.

In focusing on someone who has sinned and actively is working to sin no more, who is not pretending, hiding... everyone is looking in the wrong direction. They should be alert to the risks they don't see. Ask the church--insist that the church--establish appropriate and certain clear standards about how this fellow will interact with the rest of the community, how he'll be monitored, how he'll make sure that he is never in a position where people fear what he might do or have done. Put some of the responsibility on him; you may be here so long as you abide by these rules and limits.

The evil is the action; I won't tolerated it. But he's human, and unless the society determines that sex offenders will be executed, out of hand (something I won't support), then we have to figure out how they can re-integrate into society, and how we and they can make sure that we're all safe.

All are welcome. All.


That doesn't mean that there are no limits and no rules. Community demands and insists on rules and their being honored. Here, a particular rule is called for.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you found the definitions and information on class and classism on our website useful. We would have appreciated being credited. Felice Yeskel, Ed.D. Executive Director, Class Action,

ogre said...

You are of course correct, Felice. Given the number of resources that I took into my reading for the sermon, there was no way to cite them all in its oral form. But I should have considered the fact that putting the same thing up in written text, online, is a very different thing, and figured out how to provide appropriate citations.

My apologies.