I forget that what nearly always motivates the average voter at least in America is their sense of well-being. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve heard the phrase that Americans vote with their wallets. It is the constant drumbeat of pollsters every election cycle: “Are you better off?” They want what is called in biblical terms “blessing.” We want to survive and thrive.
Everyone wants blessing, to survive and thrive. There is nothing wrong with that. God wants that. The human problem and most certainly an acute American problem right now is not so much the “everyone” or the “blessing” part of the formula, but the appropriate verb. Does the fact that all people want to survive and thrive mean that they should or better yet deserve to?
The answer to that question depends on the story line we are telling ourselves.
I would venture to guess that most people in America would acquiesce to wishing well-being on all humans, if perhaps only to avoid looking selfish. For certain, there are some, whether a minority or a majority right now I am not sure, who unabashedly believe that well-being for all is dangerous, wishful thinking. One should simply seek one’s own blessing. The well-being of others is only a concern to the extent that it impinges on my own.
The results of the recent election indicate something very clear to me. The Republicans own the story line. Without a change in story, there will be little progress, reversal or revolution. This may not sound like much, but from my perspective as a lifelong participant in “religion” and a scholar of ancient Mesopotamian and Israelite history, I understand how critical “the story line” is to civilization.
The story line is an over-arching narrative that is collectively upheld to glue together the fractious and competing elements within a society. In the ancient world and for thousands of years the story line was mythological. It was decidedly religious even though the ancients would not have labeled it as such since there was no such concept or category as “religion.” There was just the cosmos, gods, and humans and the story of how all that fits together.
However organic the story begins in a community, it sooner or later is propagated and controlled by ruling elites. This is not bad in and of itself if they manage the communal resources for the community’s benefit. Unfortunately and inevitably, the communal story line powerfully gravitates toward self-justification. The story line not only justifies inequity, but perpetuates it. Its effectiveness can last a long time and is “believed” by most in the community so long as 1) most within the community are doing well and/or 2) coercive force is applied to convince the doubters.
Although there was a considerable range of variations on the theme, the ancient mythological story line was basically the same. A community degenerates into chaos due to internal conflict, loss of resources, natural forces, or outward threat. Someone restores order almost always through war. The victory is proof positive of the gods’ approval, and the warrior becomes ruler. The ruler appears to be in the right network of powerful forces that determine and influence prosperity.
The temple is established to maintain the approval rating of the gods and their human representative and to propagate the story of how all this came to be and works to maintain order. However fantastical the plot or characters in the story are, the story is decidedly economical. Economist Thomas Sedlacek reminds us: “All economics is …the telling of stories by people of people to people…our effort to (rationally) grasp the world around us.” Critically, the story line mediates the anxiety of the community especially over the disparate distribution of resources. The story line appeases the community by explaining the logic of disparity, why some enjoy an abundance of resources and others a scarcity. And again, a bit of lethal force goes along way toward persuading doubters.
Currently, we do not use the word mythology or story line. We opt for less religious sounding terms like ideology or platform, but functionally it is the same.
It is difficult and a little presumptuous on my part to articulate the essence of our nation’s story. After all, the variations on the theme parade before our monitors, billboards, and signs. The prosperity prescribers besiege us endlessly. And after all, there is a great ideological divide within our country, which indicates opposing story lines. But as I said earlier, I believe that one side of that ideological divide controls (exploits or manipulates) the story line. Their story line is able to convince large swaths of the country that their best chance at well-being, whether they have it already or not, resides in the absurd hoarding of wealth by a controlling elite who selectively meet out meager portions and especially enjoy watching the masses quibble over scraps and which lives matter more than others.
The essence of our story line revolves around “freedom.” All of us who have lived in America are indoctrinated by this allusive value. Our nation, the story goes, broke from tyranny and declared independence from the enslavement of monarchs. Above all else, we are a “free” people, and we aggressively attack or defend against anti-freedom forces. We have a Declaration of Independence.
Nothing should obstruct our ability to pursue happiness. Our mutual embrace of “freedom,” however, must out of necessity by defined, and it is here where the ruling party in our nation has cornered the market.
Here are a couple of sound bites from the dominant story line:
“I will support government when it promotes freedom and justice, and I will oppose it when it stands in the way and makes the life of an individual, a family or a business more difficult.”
“If I am elected (said while holding a rifle in hand) I will work to get the government off our backs and out of our way.”
A sizeable minority of Americans believes at this point that freedom cannot be promoted, facilitated or generated by government. Government, for the most part, can only obstruct or not obstruct our freedom. Above all else, government must be policed lest it steal our freedom.
However the story line spins, I think a good chunk of Americans embrace this notion of freedom as the absolute starting point for prosperity. From here, the story develops. Our emphasis on freedom makes us exceptional. After all, nobody else in the world has thought of this. Out of freedom, we can go out and get what we want, and we work hard, really hard for what we want.
Our notion of freedom also helps us articulate the negative consequences. One is equally free to become poor as to become rich with all that it entails. In essence, freedom means the freedom to gamble your blessing. And again here is where a certain part of the story line has won the day: obtaining wealth is the best expression and evidence of one’s freedom. Ironically, the indicator and the value get turned around. Wealth becomes the means to freedom.
To whatever extent a person deserves his or her wealth, I still come back to the problem of “everyone.” Everyone wants well-being. The dominant story line explains our disparity in this by saying that freedom is the opportunity for well-being, not the guarantee of it. The issue to which I am in the minority at this point is the extent to which the ability to survive and thrive includes others. I forget that most people don’t let this concern bother them.
My political drive comes from this: I want well-being for everyone, mainly because after spending a good portion of my life studying the Bible, I am quite convinced that God intensely desires it. Most assuredly, if there is a divine will coaxing us humans, He desires all to have “daily bread” and for debt forgiveness to be a regular practice. He desires His kingdom to be “on earth.”
I don’t think the label we put on desiring well-being for all humans matters much. If “conservative” accomplishes this, then I would be fine calling myself that. No matter which political or ideological name we go by or how well off we think we are or not, we all have a terrible tendency to stop caring about others as soon as our own well-being is secured. Everyone one wants justice, just-as soon as I get mine.
I boldly proclaim this as fact: the closer people are to financial security, the less they are concerned and are even out right hostile toward those who are not. Conversely, those who struggle financially have a much broader concern for the well-being of others. The odd and rather loud exception to this are the one’s struggling financially who blame other struggling people for stealing their deserved portion. For reasons that still baffle me, they very much believe the story line.
Our current version of the American myth needs a transformation if we want to break our gridlock, but story lines can be stubbornly resistant to revision especially from those who most benefit from it.
I can confidently say where we can start. For one, stop worshipping wealth. Resist the false notion that possessions, whether mansions, guns, or cars, measure freedom. Amassing more than one needs is greed. It should not be admired or desired. Instead, desire well-being for all of creation, a world attended to by God.
Second, we must resist the false connection between wealth and intelligence, competence, wisdom, or concern for the common good. The measure of a “righteous” person (biblically, righteous most often refers to ruling elites) is the extent to which he or she is in solidarity with the poor. Solidarity goes far beyond a little philanthropy here and there. It means taking full responsibility for the weak and dispossessed, even at the risk of losing one’s own wealth.
Third, we must get realistic about what freedom means and how it is secured. No one who is impoverished is free, nor anyone with unmanageable debt. We cannot measure freedom by, as a friend of mine put it, “Don’t touch my stuff and don’t tell me what to do.”
Along these lines, then, let us rid ourselves of the notion that only the government can restrict freedom, all the while being enslaved to the unbending will of corporations who perpetually sing the mantra of self aggrandizement. It is absurd to bemoan taxation without representation all the while increasingly and unquestioningly paying “fees” and taking on debt. Whether one works for a corporation or does business with one, rest assured, one does not have an ounce of representation.
Governments are not the only ones, nor the primary ones who restrict freedom. Governments can and should protect and promote freedom, especially from economic systems that seize it and hold it ransom.
My political bottom line is solidly grounded in the Bible and in Christian tradition—no more poor. It is not normal for someone to struggle with the most fundamental essentials of survival while others are at ease.
It is also not okay for someone/anyone to only have the basic essentials in a context were they can not thrive. When Cliven Bundy captured media attention for resisting federal regulators, he opined his fantasies for a just society, saying that African-Americans would have been better off left in slavery. Yes, a slave does have his/her basic needs met, but no one thrives in an environment where one is only valued in economic, quantitative terms. Blessing is both surviving and thriving, but neither can be measured solely by the amassing of things.
Much of my theological work focuses on the economic convergence with “religious” constructs. This has been a neglected and indeed nearly avoided connection. Here, I work a tension between combating the very real operative assumption of many that “money is everything,” while equally affirming that economy and spirituality are inseparable.
This is where I boldly claim to be congruent with the prophets of the Hebrew Bible and with Jesus. Wealthy people do not get this. They perpetually convince themselves that anti-blessing is okay, that poverty is acceptable, undesirable or sad, yet unavoidable.
This is bunk. There are now and has always been enough resources for all to be blessed. We just need to tell the story to ourselves that best embraces that. I suggest that the Bible and Christian tradition is a major contributor to that grand story.