I was riding on MARTA (Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) the other day and noticed a man reading a cheaply produced pamphlet-ish looking book with a title that amounted to a get rich quick scheme. The typical rider on MARTA is a poor ethnic minority so it’s nice to actually see some people different from the ones I normally hang out with each morning and afternoon on my rides to and from work.
You know the type of book I am talking about. It looks like something published twenty years ago and found recently in the bin of a used book store. But I don’t think anybody’s reaction to this sight would have been one of mocking his financial acumen, but rather as mine was, empathy or the feeling that I wish I/we could do more. For me, it was an eye-opening experience for another reason as well.
These types of people, i.e. the poor, the black, the Mexican, are often criticized as lazy, as if we’re just not reaching them with this message of capitalism. The common assumption when we see someone who is poor is that because we have a free market where anybody’s dreams can come true, this person must be poor due to his or her own choices. Well, I think I got a glimpse of a different story that day.
Here was a person who appeared to want what we all want, that is, the American Dream. He also appeared to take personal responsibility for his situation and found a manual on how to achieve that goal. He knew what the Dream was all about and was thirsty for the knowledge to get him there. But, as far as I can tell, he did not have the tools to get him there.
You’ve heard it said that if you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for life. The first statement is always true whether we think it is good practice or not. The second statement can potentially be true but may not always work out in reality. What if the rod and reel is broken? What if the fisherman can’t afford line? What if the bait is unattractive and the fish don’t bite? What if the pond’s fish population is dying out?
Fair enough, we have taught everyone that the key to wealth is hard work. But have we given them the tools to make that hard work pay off? Out of my 17 years of education, I spent 11 of them in private schools (one year Catholic, 2 years Baptist, 4 years Non-Denominational, 4 years Presbyterian). These educational resources I was given combined with the tools I used combined to make my fishing pay off. Notice that it took a combination of things given and things used in order to achieve what little piece of the Dream I have obtained so far.
This man on the train didn’t lack the ability to fish. He didn’t lack the sense of personal responsibility or work ethic that we so often espouse as the solutions to poverty. He certainly appears to be using every tool at his disposal to fight poverty. What he is lacking is the tools given to fight poverty. Why isn’t financial education a yearly part of our public school curriculum. Imagine every inner city school requiring yearly classes from K-12 on financial literacy, investing, and career advice.
I am convinced that no matter how hard this man tries to use the tools around him, he will not dig his way out of poverty. Sadly, we have focused to much on teaching the poor how to use the tools but haven’t pulled the plank first out of our own eyes and given them the resources. Let’s remember where we came from. I am not successful simply because of hard work and honesty, although that is one half of the whole. I am successful in large part because for 17 years, especially the first few years of my life, I was given a hand out and a free ride. In fact, I was given a fish, plain and simple. A big fat fish with no strings attached. I think the best approach is not one of either extreme, but simply to pay it the fuck forward, to loosely quote Haley Joel Osment.
The following story told by Jonathan Kozol in Amazing Grace says it best.
“‘If poor people behaved rationally,’ says Lawrence Mead, a professor of political science at New York University, ‘they would seldom be poor for long in the first place.’ Many social scientists today appear to hold this point of view and argue that the largest portion of the suffering poor people undergo has to be blamed upon their own ‘behaviors,’ a word they tend to pluralize.
Alice Washington was born in 1944 in New York City. She grew up in Harlem and the Bronx and went to segregated public schools, not something of her choosing, nor that of her mother and her father. She finished high school, studied bookkeeping at a secretarial college, and went to work, beginning at 19. When she married, at the age of 25, she had to choose her husband from that segregated ‘marriage pool,’ to which our social scientists sometimes quite icily refer, of frequently unemployable black men, some of whom have been involved in drugs or spent some time in prison. From her husband, after many years of what she thought to be monogamous matrimony, she contracted the AIDS virus.
She left her husband after he began to beat her. Cancer of her fallopian tubes was detected at this time, then cancer of her uterus. She had three operations. Too frail to keep on with the second of two jobs that she had held, in all, for nearly 20 years, she was forced to turn for mercy to the City of New York.
In 1983, at the age of 39, she landed with her children in a homeless shelter two blocks from Times Square, an old hotel in which the plumbing did not work and from which she and David [her son] and his sister had to carry buckets to a bar across the street in order to get water. After spending close to four years in three shelters in Manhattan, she was moved by the city to the neighborhood where she now lives in the South Bronx. It was at this time that she learned she carried the AIDS virus. Since the time that I met Mrs. Washington, I have spent hundreds of hours talking with her in her kitchen. I have yet to figure out what she has done that was irrational.”
I suggest as followers of Christ that we quit looking at fixing the problems of others as the solution to what ails the world. Instead, let’s make their problems our problems, their poverty our poverty, their crime our crime, their dangerous neighborhoods our dangerous neighborhoods. Perhaps they are already know how to fish and are trying to fish, to beat a dead analogy in to the ground. Perhaps they are already holding up their end of the bargain. Whether they are or not, I think we are far from holding up ours.
On a side note, I do believe the American Dream is the carrot on the stick that makes capitalism work. It is the mechanical rabbit at the greyhound track that the dogs never catch, yet that makes a lot of money for those that own the dogs.
N.T. Wright is fond of saying that Jesus was the true Lord of the world of which Caesar was just a parody. What is the true Christian Dream of which the American Dream is just a parody? What is the white picket fence of the Christian life? What is the 2 kids and a dog of the Christian life? What is the suburban neighborhood, SUV, and retirement package of the Christian life?
I’m not looking for a one-to-one mapping to the effect of heaven equals retirement package or anything like that. What I am getting at is that when you think of the drive inside yourself for any aspect of what you consider the American Dream, think of what aspects should drive the Christian Dream. Any comments on what the Christian Dream looks like?