Recently, Salon interviewed Marilynne Robinson, author of, among other works, Housekeeping—a wonderful book that I first encountered as brilliant a film in the late 1980s. In the interview, Robinson, who leans left politically while at the same time being unapologetically religious, is asked whether she is a radical. Her response is telling:
I consider myself a radical more or less in the sense that Bernie Sanders considers himself one–i.e., I am old enough to remember that we were not always like this. If radicalism means going back to roots, we have very strong roots for things that are done to benefit society.
That line—“I am old enough to remember that we were not always like this”—resonates for me in a way that few words do. I am old enough (barely) to remember the 1960s, when it felt like we were making progress. We were sending people to the moon; we were carrying out a war on poverty. We were seeking the Great Society. Unfortunately, we were also tied up in a war that tore us apart. And it was the war that we lost, that won.
Though I have nothing but anecdotal evidence, I think it’s reasonable to say that the war in Vietnam was also the genesis of the war on drugs. Not the genesis of drugs—although we won’t admit it, those have been around forever in the form of alcohol and tobacco—though a contributing factor, perhaps, there as well. Nixon and company saw rising drug consumption as one of the reasons for the “ineffectiveness” of the drafted American military (forgetting that the iniquitous draft made many of the people who had gained the least and suffered the most from this country already into its cannon fodder). So we lost a war in Vietnam, and we lost a war at home.
And gradually, gradually, we started rolling up the tent. Great Society went away; the notion of “a hand up” became the idea of a “handout” and we knew that people shouldn’t have that. Prisons stopped being places where people could be reformed and became glorified spankings. We put people in prison now for retributive reasons—for vengeance. Here’s a question: ever visited someone in prison? It’s an eye-opening experience. Things changed.
But let me tell you something about handouts. They work. I spend two or three Saturdays each month helping out in a food pantry that gives out a bag of groceries each to between 200 and 350 people. And I have seen it change lives. More than one of the people who started out coming for food now comes every week to help people out.
That’s not just a handout. It’s a hand up, and now this person is giving a hand up to other people who need assistance. That’s the way things are supposed to be. That’s the way we were.
But we’re scared now, because there are new people moving into our neighborhoods and they don’t all look like us and they don’t all speak the same language as we do and…they’re scary. Donald Trump wants you to believe that all the people who look different from you are criminals and rapists. By extension, he’s saying that people who do look like you aren’t criminals and racists.
Except some of the people who look like you and me are criminals and rapists. You think the folks who ran Lehman Brothers into the ground were Latinos/Latinas? Nope. They had names like Joe Gregory, Erin Callan, and George Herbert Walker Bush IV. Enron? Nope.
It’s always tempting to blame your ills on outsiders. Lots of people do it; it’s far easier to draw a line around a group and point a finger than it is to examine the system for its inherent problems.
But it wasn’t always like this. We weren’t always like this.
Religion didn’t always mean pie in the sky and salvation by faith only, that’s it. Jesus taught that we were to love God and love our neighbors in the same way, and drew the sheep v. goats line based on what people did. Feed the hungry and thirsty? Clothe the naked? Visit those in prison? Probably sheep. None of the above? Likely goats.
Dorothy Day founded the Catholic Worker, which “was aimed at those suffering the most in the depths of the Great Depression, “those who think there is no hope for the future”, and announced to them that “the Catholic Church has a social program…there are men of God who are working not only for their spiritual but for their material welfare.” It accepted no advertising and did not pay its staff. Like many newspapers of the day, including those for which Day had been writing, it was an unapologetic example of advocacy journalism. It provided coverage of strikes, explored working conditions, especially of women and blacks, and explicated papal teaching on social issues.” (Wikipedia)
Mary Harris Jones (Mother Jones) may have said it best: “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”
At some point we changed our minds and hearts, and decided that the trappings of religion were enough. We grew fat and content. The time for that is now past.
We must be again what once we were.