A Family Affair: Class, Race, Theology - by Tex Sample
The white working class is a complicated people. The great majority of them bust their tails working at hard jobs that rack their bodies and don’t pay enough. They support their families and draw dignity from protecting the people they love. When war comes, they are among the first to enlist and among the first to die.
These are hard times for many. Several dynamics account for a kind of free-floating rage among many working people – an anger based in declining wages, stereotyping and scapegoating, inequalities of wealth and income, the prostitution of politicians to economic power elites, with hypocritical tax giveaways to the rich and wage depression for workers.
These are also times for engaging working-class people, their convictions and ways of thinking, and responding to their pain through grassroots movements that offer a new direction. Those of us who talk for a living must especially learn to listen.
Meanings Behind Words
This is not to suggest an uncritical approach to working-class life. But listening does not begin with diagnoses of their false consciousness, their failures to follow their self-interest, their bad faith, or their hegemonic commitments. It is listening to learn the tacit meanings behind their rhetorics and the ways they name and deal with social wrongs.
It is vital to note that white working-class people think in terms of family and other primary relationships. They seek cooperation among key groups like family, school, church, and other traditional institutions. They do not stress self-interest, especially of an individualistic kind, because it is corrosive of family relationships. This is especially so in the case of the man, provided there is one, as the primary breadwinner. If he pursues his individual self-interest, he may walk out the door, leaving poor families devastated and near-poor families poverty-stricken. The greatest fear of these families is moral corruption, and this for a basic reason. James Ault makes the case that morality in this culture serves to support the structure of family relationships in order to cope and survive.1
Thus political and economic positions on social issues are not at the base of the lives of these working families. More foundational are the commitments and practices that enable these families to deal with a world that does not come out right. This means that their political attitudes can vary significantly depending on how a given question relates to their lives. Most of these families do not listen to the National Organization of Women or to Focus on the Family or turn to Fox News or to the Ku Klux Klan, not even the American Legion and the National Rifle Association, though, of course, these influence some.2 They are far more likely to tackle problems by thinking about how they affect their families, the cooperative institutions upon which they depend, and the morality that enables them to manage and to make it through the night.
Blame on Government
It is important to say the great majority of the white working class is made up of conservative traditionalists, not free-market conservatives. Studies show that in the abstract white working-class Americans support the free enterprise system, and they tend to see that system from a small business perspective. They have strong anti-government opinions and blame government mainly for what has happened to the economy.3 (When asked about more concrete issues like support for Social Security and Medicaid, they are far more positive about government, though not in a systematic way.)
They deeply mistrust big business also, but they believe it is the role of government to prevent abuse by corporate America. They believe big business has too much power and that the current maldistribution of wealth and income is wrong. However, they believe there is nothing ordinary people can do about it. Hence there is great despair in their views.
Calling on Theology
Any theological understanding of working-class conditions should begin at this point of people’s pain, alienation, and fierce anger. The task is to name the principalities and powers, as the New Testament calls them – the fallen forces that determine economic and social conditions – and trace their impact on real lives.
This demands from us the sharpest kind of theological critique. Today’s enormous imbalances in wealth and income simply cannot be defended morally. Scripture speaks to this authoritatively. Isaiah 5:8 says: “Doom to those who acquire house after house, who annex field to field, until there is no more space left and only you live alone in the land.” In Ezekiel 22:23-29, the word of the Lord denounces the conspiracy of princes, the unholiness of priests, the corruption of officials, the violations of important people who “have practiced extortion and have committed robbery. They’ve oppressed the poor and mistreated the immigrant.”
Such biblical testimony is immense. Behind this is a view of human nature that regards the human being as created in the image of God and who is called to live out a life of love and justice for the other. Contrast that to the free-market notion of the rational economic individual who pursues selfinterest in a competitive open market.
Any discussion of working-class life must grasp the power of family rhetorics. A way to address racism down on the ground with white working people, for instance, involves encountering the stories of black families and how they struggle, the commonalities they share with white working people during hard times. These stories can build common ground. I have seen this work many times in community organizing – blacks and whites and browns standing up and telling stories of their families, of working more than one job because an employer won’t pay fulltime, parents trying to manage work schedules, child care, family time, and just rest and sleep, doing their level best to be good providers.
These are hardcore narratives and they can have surgical impact in cutting away certain images of prejudice. I have seen this with my own eyes – people who were antagonists but who through the ongoing power of story came together to struggle for a justice that transcends individualist or racist ideology. When the conversation turns to the families of people who are politically or ethnically different – real mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, with struggles similar, at least in some ways, to their own – then the logics of their thought can shift, energizing coalitions across class, race, and gender. This is not a fail-safe practice, but it is far more effective than the rationales that come out of the management-speak of the upper-middle class.
Blessing and Beauty
Theologically speaking, it is a very short step from talking about the families of others to encompassing them in the family of God. It is hard to reduce other people to “them” when they are placed by a family idiom in the household of God, and all are caught up in the grace and love of God.
This is where a church model as extended family takes on major importance. Most white workingclass people in the US are Christian, at least nominally, yet millions of these are alienated from church, in no small part because they feel like strangers without a home and people without an invitation. Transformation requires community. When a church uses familiar family language or adopts practices that people know “in their bones,” there is a sense of being home, of welcome, belonging, and affirmation. When these are lifted up in the presence of God’s blessing and beauty, they make a priceless gift. The experience of being swept up in the acceptance of God in a family-like church can provide redemptive strength to face one’s struggles in a postindustrial world.
For a good many years I described myself as a liberal, but the more I realized how much that term was wrapped up with certain views of the nation-state and too accommodated to certain economic positions within capitalism, the less the term fit. When many of my friends became “progressives,” I never could quite accept the name. Quite frankly, it had an elitist ring about it that gave me discomfort. It carried the connotation of being literate, highly educated, and professional. I felt like it left out a whole bunch of people. Many of my friends who are people of color do not describe themselves that way, and even more of my white working-class friends would not be caught dead using the term. I have not used it to describe myself for some time.
Increasingly the term that speaks to me and describes the aim I seek in both my academic study and my community work is that of the common good. It is found in inchoate form in Scripture. I think of Jeremiah where God speaks to the people of Israel to “promote the good of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare” (29:7). I think of the apostle Paul, who in every one of his authentic letters urges the people of the ecclesia he organized to seek the good of all. We know Jesus crossed lines continually to heal, teach, and make alive. Notions of the common good abide in Augustine, Thomas, Luther, Calvin, as well as contemporary Catholic and Protestant thought.
The Great Discovery
One clarification seems to me desperately important: We do not know ahead of time what the common good is. I find it to be a decidedly grassroots, bottom-up process. Abstract notions like social justice, distributive justice, and democratic participation require a very concrete embodiment in the down-on-the-ground lives of people. I am suspicious of progressive agendas developed by elites who then go out and attempt to mobilize people on their behalf without much consultation. Also suspect is the use of fine-sounding language to promote the unjustified and viciously self-serving aims of libertarian billionaires and their congressional proxies in tax policy and legislation.
The common good is a discovery, a find. It emerges from listening, conversation, building relationships, and trust. It is local without being parochial. It transcends individual or group self-interest taken alone. It grows out of a search for what people truly need and profoundly love.
Visionary Scut Work
My friend the Rev. Sam Mann says that moving toward, moving onto, a common ground is an act of love. In community organizing it is the moment that makes a turn toward a relationship, generating a commitment, moving diverse people onto a singular journey. The character of that journey is not all “glory hallelujah mountain time,” an uninterrupted time of high emotional expression and joy. Rather, it is about the discipline of showing up, of being there, of staying the course. It’s doing the scut work of detail and follow-up, making phone calls, and touching base. It is a response to the pain of others but also to their hopes and dreams. It’s sorting out the pieces of life and putting them together in new configurations. This may sound lofty, but it is hard work. It’s digging on hardscrabble ground. It’s staying with it long after you want to quit.4
In Christian understanding, it is born not of optimism but of hope – a confidence that God bats last.
Tex Sample is a lecturer, workshop leader, preacher, author, and emeritus professor of church and society at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City. This essay is adapted from his forthcoming book, Working Class Rage, with permission of the publisher, Abingdon Press. His other books include A Christian Justice for the Common Good (Abingdon, 2016) and Earthy Mysticism: Spirituality for Unspiritual People (Abingdon, 2008).
- James M. Ault Jr., Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church (Knopf, 2004), pp. 189-200.
- Ault, pp. 186-217.
- Andrew Levison, The White Working Class Today: Who They Are, How They Think and How Progressives Can Regain Their Support (Democratic Strategist Press, 2013), pp. 171-203.
- I am indebted to Stanley Hauerwas for understanding the common good as a discovery. See his Vision And Virtue (Notre Dame, 1986), pp. 235- 240, and War And The American Difference (Baker, 2011), pp. 140-150. For the notion of the common good as local but not parochial, see Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got The Light Of Freedom (California, second edition 2007), p. 101.