The Souls of Poor Folk

January 16, 2005
Rev. Victoria Weinstein


READING  from Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos Or Community?  
Martin Luther King, Jr.  (1967)

We have come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will.

The poor are often less often dismissed from our conscience today by being branded inferior and incompetent.

The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our [economic] distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity.  If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity. It is not only moral, it is also intelligent. We are wasting and degrading human life by clinging to archaic thinking.

The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.

THE SERMON         The Souls of Poor Folk              Rev. Victoria Weinstein

Every year around this time, we are reminded of the life and death of the Reverend Martin Luther King, born on January 15, 1929. We see archived footage of King preaching to the multitudes, we see him walking with crowds of tired but determined peaceful protesters, we see him sitting deep in thought, we see him shooting a game of pool in a rare moment of leisure. We hear audio segments of his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, and then we see clips of him lying lifeless on the balcony of a Memphis hotel where he was shot in 1968, the tragic end to a great life of service and leadership.  

We are invited this time of year to consider and to honor King's work on behalf of the civil rights of African-American people, a cause for which many of you marched and worked. This is the King we admire, and rightly so, but if we look closely over the whole spectrum of Dr. King's life and commitments, we must come to realize that while we are confident to lift up some aspects of King's social justice commitments, there are others that were distinctly uncomfortable to middle-class white liberals in his day, and which have never been fully retrieved from the shadowy corners of his contribution to history.  

You may notice, if you are paying careful attention, that the footage of King we are generally shown this time of year highlights his 1963 battle for desegregation in Birmingham, his dream of racial harmony expressed at a 1963 rally in Washington, the 1965 march on Selma, and then- his death three years later, in 1968.

We're missing three years there, and why? Martin did not go on an extended sabbatical at the end of his life, although he often fantasized with his friends about leaving the movement that was breaking his heart both spiritually and physically (the autopsy performed on the 39-year old King revealed that his heart was that of a 60 year-old man).  Cultural commentators Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon provide an interesting explanation for King's so-called missing years. In their article, The Martin Luther King You Don't See On T.V., they say that the national news media has never come to terms with what Martin Luther King, Jr. stood for during his final years. And here I will quote,

"After the passage of the civil rights acts in 1964 and 1965, King began challenging the nation's fundamental priorities. He maintained that civil rights laws were empty without human rights -including economic rights. For people too poor to eat at a restaurant or afford a decent home, King said, anti-discrimination laws were hollow.

In his last months, King was organizing the most militant project of his life: The Poor People's Campaign.  He crisscrossed the country to assemble a multi-racial army of the poor that would descend on Washington - - engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience at the Capitol, if need be until Congress enacted a poor people's bill of rights. Reader's Digest warned of an insurrection.

King's economic bill of rights called for massive government jobs programs to rebuild America's cities. He saw a crying need to confront a Congress that had demonstrated its hostility to the poor appropriating military funds with alacrity and generosity- but providing poverty funds with miserliness."  (http://www.fair.org/media-beat.950104.html)

A prophetic voice indeed. When Martin Luther King wrote those words in the late 60's, this country was struggling through the quagmire of the Vietnam conflict. Today, we are struggling with a similarly expensive, troubling war in Iraq, spending $177 million a day to fight it, while this administration has made it clear that it regards poverty at home as an issue best tackled by private organizations, individual philanthropists and faith communities.  

Dr. King would likely have had strong words for us today, choked as we are in America with a ravenous consumerism he knew was dangerous for our souls and degrading to creation. It was his way, however, to preach and live from a place of hope and possibility, and to acknowledge that because human progress is so slow, patience is a central virtue in the work toward justice. It must have been in this spirit of hope and patience that he wrote in 1967, as was quoted in our earlier reading, "The poor are less often dismissed from our conscience today by being branded inferior and incompetent."  

Does that feel true to you?

It doesn't ring true to me, as my experience of the public conversation about poverty is that it is heavily characterized by blame and debilitating guilt and greatly hampered by unsophisticated and inflammatory rhetoric about the twin social evils of classism and racism. Actually, poverty is not something that Americans examine in public discourse very often at all lately. We have largely given up (in exhaustion, perhaps) and privatized poverty in America, expecting-- or perhaps hoping-- that specialized organizations of poverty experts will both analyze its causes for us, and provide its cure. I wish I could say, in King's words, that the poor are "less dismissed from our conscience by being branded inferior and incompetent." I would have to say instead that today, the poor are just dismissed from our conscience, period.

How does this happen? Why does it happen?  

As I said, the twin poisons of classism and racism are major contributors. Many White Americans still honestly believe that it is their superior work ethic and not centuries of privilege and access to better health care, education, housing, social capital and institutions that influence policy and hold power in this country that give them the economic leg up on their non-White countrymen and women. A fact that can illuminate this for us: A Black kid who graduates from high school has a much better chance of being unemployed than a White kid who drops out of elementary school.

Classism has much the same roots: it whispers in our ears that people who are not doing well economically in this country are just not figuring out how to take proper advantage of the great land of opportunity. If someone is poor, in other words, it must be a character flaw. If someone needs help, it must be that she is a greedy vampire of the welfare state.

And there is something else, and it is a spiritual issue. It is my sense that poverty has become an image, almost an icon. This is hard to explain, but it is my sense that poverty  -- rather than being an issue that we talk about, that we learn about, that we hear about, and which stays uppermost in our hierarchy of concerns poverty has become for us a picture of a child with flies in his eyes, looking at us over a swollen belly and imploring us to send a few dollars to save his life.  

This child upsets us but not too much: he is not angry, he does not indict us, he does not mock our middle-class illusions, as did the homeless man in Boston Friday night who asked me for a dollar and teased me for carrying a fancy little purse and wearing fancy shoes. That starving child is not hostile and accusing, as he might be if he was one of our own children he is far away in Africa, or India, and he keeps a safe distance from us. All he asks is a few pennies a day. He does not, as he might, knock on our doors and give us a good dose of hell for needing so much, for consuming so much, and for exploiting his and his third world brothers and sisters labor so much.  

I think of that child as an image of poverty, and I think of poverty these days as an image we do not know how to interpret.  Neither are we asked to. The child is an image a poster boy, an icon he is not a real person, whose story I should ask to hear over a meal, and whose personal dreams and fears I would think to care about.  His function is not to live, but to be a symbol. And by allowing him to function as a symbol, I don't have to be a neighbor and an ally who would fight to protect his interests, but am just asked to be a nice white lady who is willing to help him all for the price of a cup of coffee. Meanwhile, I can still drink my expensive coffee and he never demands that I consider about my own complicity in the systems that keep him starving.  

This idea of poverty as image came to me with shocking force a few weeks ago, when I was discussing the tsunami disaster with a friend. We were talking about the quality of life for some of the peoples hit hardest- how they had so little material comfort to begin with and now even less. We were trying to imagine what it would be like to be them. My friend hesitantly asked, "Do you think that maybe because their lives are so tenuous in general, do you think that maybe they're more accepting of these tragedies? I mean, maybe dying doesn't seem like such a monumental loss when life is such a hard struggle to begin with."

It was a sincere question. We were on the phone at the time, and I was looking at my computer at an image many of you have seen lately, the profile of a brown-skinned Indian man with protruding teeth, bent over a small, lifeless hand that he is holding and weeping in obvious agony. I sat in silence, considering my friend's question and simultaneously wondering what this man in the photograph's name was, did he know that this moment in his life had become an iconic image of poverty and suffering? Whose hand was he holding, and how many other loved ones had he lost that day? Was his image being exploited? If it got people to contribute to relief efforts, did it matter?

Do you think they're not as sad about dying, because they have so little and life is so hard? My friend meant no insensitivity. He was being honest about his profound sense of spiritual difference from the world's poorest people, and I appreciated that someone had finally said it out loud. I thought, my god, it has come to this. We actually begin to doubt that we have the same exact soul needs, and the same exact passion to live. The really poor- whether far away or right next door -- are now so wholly other, so distant from a life we can relate to, that even well-meaning, educated and thoughtful people actually doubt that poor folks cherish their lives as much as you and I cherish ours.  

We must wake up. When poverty is condensed into one heart-wrenching image from which it is relatively easy to look away, there is something very sinister moving through us that threatens to deaden our souls. The poor are not a category - they are not other. [I agree with a congregant who remarked after this sermon was given that many of us are a just one health crisis or bout of unemployment away from poverty ourselves, but that seemed like another entire sermon. V.W.] and poverty is not something we can leave to the experts. The poor are human beings whose inability to contribute fully to our shared life is a tragedy and a loss for all of us.

Let me close with this little anecdote. When I taught in the inner city in Chicago, many of my students were very poor. They came to class with rancid breath because their stomachs were so empty they were digesting nothing but acid. I was an English teacher and one of the books we read was Ordinary People by Judith Guest, about a wealthy white family living in the suburbs of Chicago, experiencing tremendous grief following the drowning death of one of their sons. The matriarch, Beth, cannot tolerate weakness or displays of emotion, and the whole family suffers terribly, locked in their private chambers of mourning. The remaining son, Conrad, is in so much pain that he attempts suicide. The story focuses on Conrad's slow climb back to health and the will to live, even as his mother's cold-heartedness is never thawed.

I remember that my students found it hard to believe that a "rich, white family" (their words) could be in so much emotional pain.  "Why don't they all just talk to each other!?" they would cry. And "Miss Weinstein, that is messed up!" and "What kind of momma is that?" They resolved to appreciate their own emotionally effusive mothers more. They were experiencing the sense of spiritual difference going in the other direction.

I explained that, in my experience, it was not at all unusual for "rich, white folk" to live like this - estranged and suffering their own dysfunctions of perfectionism and the inability to unconditionally love and accept each other. My students were shocked by this revelation - they hadn't thought about it before, and then one of my students said something I will never, ever forget. He said,

"I guess rich white folks got their own ways to starve to death."

In his own lifetime, middle and upper class people were very uncomfortable with Dr. Martin Luther King's evolution from civil rights leader to a warrior against poverty. Of course they were: our attitudes about poverty are closely tied to some of our most cherished delusions, and those are hard to hold to the light of truth and even harder to give up. But give them up, we must, as it is - in King's words -- not only moral, but intelligent. "I have the audacity to believe," said Dr. King, "that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits." We should see to it, you and I, and make it our highest calling, or it may be that we all starve together.  

As Martin would have said, Lord have mercy, and amen.