Monday, May 11, 2009

Jesus and Marx

    During a recent holiday, I visited with both my own family, and the family of a close friend. It was exhausting for some reason, and it made me remember why I dislike holidays. Many people do. What bothered me most this time was the realization that I am the poor relation. In my day to day activities, I can forget this unpleasant fact. Every family has a poor relation. I never thought it would be me. I didn't work and strive my whole life for this. No one grows up thinking, "I hope I'll be the poor relative when I grow up. What fun!" Becoming the poor relative is something that just happens. Since sad country music songs often serve as the backdrop for my life, I found the song "Lazarus" in my mind. You probably know the old tune. It's about Lazarus at the rich man's gate. "He was some mother's darling, he was some mother's son/ Once he was fair and once he was young/ Some mother rocked him, her darlin' to sleep/ But he's only a tramp found dead on the street." Cheery.

    The story of the rich man and Lazarus is a problem. Poor Lazarus (not the Lazarus who is raised from the dead) begs for crumbs from the rich man's table. The rich man, of course, denies him. After they both die, the rich man is in a very warm place, and begs for cool water from Lazarus, who is vindicated after death. Jesus is sometimes flippant about poverty--- he tells a disciple "the poor you will have with you always." Even Jesus' more radical teachings, "blessed are the poor," are diluted in later gospels to read "blessed are the poor in spirit." The idea of justice in the world to come may offer hope. This pie in the sky by and by approach is why Marx calls religion the "opiate of the people." If the poor are taught to accept their lot there can never be social change.

    The poor, it seems to me, are naturally Marxists. They, or should I say, we, understand that it is all about economics. We have understanding of the inequity of wealth. Some rich people may be convinced they are special, they have worked harder, they deserve more money. That may be true. Certainly Reagan's radical right wing philosophy taught that the poor chose to be poor. Reagan believed in blaming the victim.

    The causes of poverty are many. There is illness and bad luck. In my family there is a sad old saying that when poverty and babies come in the door, love flies out the window. Wealth, it seems to me, is more singular in causation. The poor can cite reasons for poverty. Some of these may be justifications, rationalization, whatever. No doubt many are poor due entirely to personal weakness. But people are wealthy not so much due to virtue or intelligence, but because the system is rigged.

    In her interpretation of Jesus, Dorothy Day concluded that when Jesus advocated for the poor he wanted people to question the status quo. According to Day, in helping the poor, we come to question a system that ensures a very few are rich, and the many are poor. The group she founded, Catholic Workers, tries to marry Jesus and Marx.

    In my lifetime, the gap between rich and poor has widened. Bush's tax cuts for the uber rich have privileged the wealthy beyond all measure. What Reagan started, Bush pushed farther. Justice in the after life or a future messianic age is small comfort. Revolution has rarely worked. The solution, if there is one, is to work for slow, incremental change. Consciousness of the fact that the system is rigged may help us to avoid blame, self-pity and resentment.

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