As I do at some point every so often in Covid World, this morning I am soul searching. A friend and I have just finished a long conversation about the inexcusable, deleterious impacts that result from—in my view—our biological proclivity to characterize and treat others based upon stereotypes attached to racial and ethnic characteristics; or as we Boomers in the 60s and 70s would have identified it, our too ready reliance upon prejudice. Back then, being labeled “prejudiced” had the same sharp edge of censure as labeling someone as a “racist” does today. (Definition: prejudice)
My friend had been prompted to share his thoughts this morning by what he has been reading in Caste: A Brief History of Racism, Sexism, Classism, Ageism, Homophobia, Religious Intolerance, Xenophobia, and Reasons for Hope. I’m putting the title on my “to read” list, but it was not just the book that fueled our conversation on a topic we have discussed at length on other occasions. Each of us has been exposed to the evils of prejudice and racism: he directly, me from afar. I’m fairly certain that my friend would agree with me: if you are an American, regardless of your race, ethnicity, et al, your life has been touched in some negative way by racism, either by your being a victim of it, or by the erosion of your soul if you are a perpetrator, or if you have inadvertently perpetuated racism because you are someone who is negligently oblivious. This notion of racism’s deleterious effects is something about which most white folks do not soul search because what it means to be white is never having to ask yourself, “What does it mean to be white?”
I do believe the foundational underpinnings of prejudice are biological: the natural tendency of primates to be wary of the other; however, we are the only primate species that has been assigned a scientific name that implies wisdom: Homo sapiens. Karl Linnaeus, the founder of binomial nomenclature, gave the human species this name in 1758 because it means “wise man.” In other words, Linnaeus documented what biologists assumed without question: we are the one species that has the capability of being wise, of using good judgement based upon the consideration of our experience and knowledge. The clear implication of naming our species Homo sapiens is that we are sentient beings capable of rising above our biology, of using wisdom to operate on a plane of morality which likely was not needed to survive in the wild as a species 100,000 or more years ago; however, in modern societies today, we are continually provided with proddings to rise above our biology, the vast majority of which are offered without any acknowledgement of such an intent. One of thousands of such nudges is a part of MLK Jr.’s dream:
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
The implication of the negative power of our primate biology has been understood by prophets, philosophers and messiahs for millennia: they would have called it something else, e.g. “Evil” or “Sin.” Helping us to overcome Evil and to shun Sin has been their primary purpose, which they tried to fulfil by providing road maps out of the world of fang and claw—where Evil and Sin reign supreme—and into the world of wisdom, compassion, tolerance, and love, all of which are contrary to what is somehow wired into our DNA: the likelihood that without intervention and awareness each of our daily lives will be driven by hunger, acquiring territory (or as it can be thought of today: acquiring influence and power), greed, sexual gratification, and fear of the other.
As I wandered along in my soul search—pleasantly soothed by the sweet sounds of my Chet Baker radio station on Pandora—once again, I verified that because of White Privilege most of my life I never once thought about being part of an ethnic or racial caste, at least in the context of how such a thing might have affected me because what it means to be white means never, ever, having to ask yourself what it means to be white. As that conclusion reverberated once again within my skull, it occurred to me that I do have a very strong sense of my being in a specific economic caste, one in which I realize I am deeply entrenched and one that has impacted how I perceive my place in the world and how it is that I relate to my fellow travelers.
I also perceived that the semi-rigid, American economic caste system that crosses racial and ethnic boundaries is seldom referred to except in vague political references to “the Middle Class” or to “the Poor,” likely because of the appropriate and long-term national focus on the immorality of racial and ethnic segregation and to the obstacles to social mobility and economic opportunity that such immoral influences cause. But soul searching, by definition, is personal, and as such, this morning I have come face-to-face with the reality that I have segregated myself from those people I perceive to be in both “lower” and “higher” economic castes than the caste to which I seem to belong.
The first evidence of a manifestation of my prejudice came to my mind when I recalled an expression that was drilled into my being in my formative years by my parents and other authority figures: know your place. At first glance, this injunction brings to mind Jim Crow and every other set of rules and attitudes used by those in positions of power and influence to keep people of color in their place, but know your place is broader in its reach than merely race and ethnicity. It is used to control and confine any one or any group that is perceived to be “lesser than” the group that is controlling and confining. What I am finding disconcerting is how willingly I have complied with knowing my place regarding economic castes.
I am far from a practicing Christian but there are phrases attributed to Jesus that have provided tenuous guard rails for my attitudes about economic castes, a pair of which is relevant :
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. (Gospel of Luke)
My interpretation of these phrases, often repeated in my then church when I was a child, engendered a kind of empathy toward the poor, and I realize that empathy has motivated me to write about and vote for policies that improve the lives of the poor; however, a bit of research this morning has enlightened me: according to a number of sources (including the other Gospels), the poverty and hunger referred to should be interpreted as poverty of spirit and a hunger for righteousness. That said, Jesus did advocate caring for the poor, but in a slightly different context from how my liberal interpretation interprets “caring for.”
The non-canonical Gospel of the Nazarenes explains how someone like me—someone belonging to an upper-middle-class economic caste—should see himself in relation to the lowest economic caste:
The other of the rich men said to him “Master, what good thing shall I do and live?” He said to him “Man, perform the law and the prophets.” He answered him “I have performed them.” He said to him “Go, sell all that thou hast and divide it to the poor, and come, follow me.” But the rich man began to scratch his head, and it pleased him not. And the Lord said to him “How can you say ‘I have performed the law and the prophets’? seeing that it is written in the law ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,’ and look, many of your brothers, sons of Abraham, are clad with dung, dying for hunger, and your house is full of much goods, and there goes out therefrom nought at all unto them.” And he turned and said to Simon his disciple, sitting by him, “Simon, son of John, it is easier for a camel to enter through the eye of a needle than a rich man into the kingdom of the heavens”
The idea is more succinctly prescribed in the Gospel of Matthew:
If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.
In other words, leading a charitable life is the key.
Charity, in Christian thought … (is) … the highest form of love, signifying the reciprocal love between God and man that is made manifest in unselfish love of one’s fellow men … (which is) … most eloquently shown in the life, teachings, and death of Jesus Christ … (St. Augustine wrote that) … “Charity is a virtue which, when our affections are perfectly ordered, unites us to God, for by it we love him” … (and St. Thomas Aquinas) … placed charity in the context of the other Christian virtues and specified its role as “the foundation or root” of them all. (Encyclopedia Britannica entry)
The upshot of what is now this week’s rare foray into religious teachings is that I have soul searched myself into a place that has soured me on mainstream Christianity from the age of eleven: once again, despite the resonating observations of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, I am reminded that the reason why folks are told to follow Jesus’ guidance (that quoted in the Gospel of the Nazarenes and in Matthew) is to obtain entrance into Heaven. Even if I think of Heaven symbolically (as is my usual practice) as a profound emotional state not unlike the Buddhist Nirvana, it seems to me that living a selfless and charitable life is meaningless if one does so in order to attain something that ultimately benefits oneself. Having a self-serving reason to be “charitable” is not true charity, is it? I do not know to whom I should attribute the following quote, but for me, it has always been a touchstone:
True charity is anonymous.
How often is that the case? Darlene Shiley is a case in point: she has contributed millions to many organizations, including PBS. Is this true charity if her self-impressed image greets us at the beginning of many Masterpiece presentations? Is she donating millions out of love for her fellow citizens, or is she donating millions out of love for herself? Jesus made a relevant observation about the offerings made by the wealthy:
(Jesus) sat down opposite the treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents. Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, ‘Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood. (The Gospel of Mark)
If it was necessary to showcase a donor, would Jesus suggest Darlene Shiley, or would he suggest a single mother who valued public television so much that she saved her Dunkin’ Donuts coffee allowance for two weeks and donated it to her local PBS station? Is Ms. Shiley being charitable, or is she responding to her biological need to increase her power and influence within her economic caste? And with my having written the previous words, have I exemplified charity in the broader context of Christian virtue, or am I replicating the hypocrisy of the Sadducees and the Pharisees? It has taken me hours to reach this inconclusive paragraph. I suppose this post is yet another object lesson for me regarding the relative uselessness of soul searching, because I always end up in the same place when I endeavor to search for my soul:
Consider how small you are
Compared to your scream
The human dream
Doesn’t mean shit to a tree*
*From Eskimo Blue Sky by Jefferson Airplane
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