Liberal guilt-why I don’t have it

I have finished Michael Fishbane’s Jewish theology book, Sacred Attunement.

There is left only to write a couple posts summarizing the end and evaluating the whole.  I am thinking about it.

In the meantime I had an insight yesterday that I want to share.

My denomination (Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), like a lot of Protestant Mainline denominations, has its strongest presence among upper-middle class people.  One of the beefs of clergy has been that clergy have not received upper-middle class level compensation.  My family, as long as we had children at home, always qualified for food stamps,  We never used the program, but always qualified.  Compensation levels are rising now even as the denomination is declining. But many seminary educated clergy are unable to find positions at all.  I do not know how to explain all of this.

What I do know is that what happened to me during the 1980s says something important about the religious landscape of America.  I spent half of that decade working in one of our few lower-middle class congregations.  The people were coal miners, factory workers, small farmers, seamstresses and so on.

I went from that congregation to a congregation where the people were lawyers, bankers, business owners, high school teachers/administrators, college professors, and federal employees.  They hired people to do work on the church that volunteer handymen from the congregation would have done at the other church.  They didn’t ever have pot-luck dinners.  All their fellowship dinners were catered.  This  was in spite of the fact that a downturn in the local economy meant that most of them were struggling because of taking on too much debt in the more prosperous years.

I did not really understand what was happening at the time.  I experienced major culture shock.  The people in the second church seemed like snobs to me.  One of the reasons they called me was that they could take pride in my new doctor’s degree.  They wanted to tout their highly educated pastor.  But I had a natural tendency to downplay my credentials.  That did not go over well.

How to motivate or inspire these people was a mystery to me.

The colleague who followed me at the working class church had the opposite problem.  He talked to me sometimes of his frustration that these people were not like the people in other churches he had served.  They did not respond to his leadership the way others had. We both eventually moved from those congregations after disappointing ministries.

The insight I had yesterday was that a kind of economic guilt motivates prosperous folks. Many upper-middle class people respond strongly to a social justice message based on guilt over their privilege.  Many mainline pastors are masters at playing on that guilt.  You can get people to give money, volunteer time, and become activists by playing on the notion that these things somehow make up for their privilege.

An article here quotes Nigel Nicholson, a psychologist at the London Business School as saying that the growing gap between rich and poor makes this motivational factor even more powerful today.

“We live surrounded by stories of people who’ve ‘made it’ and images of things to buy that leave everyone unsettled. . . .If you don’t have money you’ll feel envious. If you do you’ll feel guilty – and paranoid you’re a target for that envy.”

This is what I call liberal guilt.  In my experience, people in the lower-middle class or working class don’t feel it so much.  They often feel that they don’t have much privilege and that what they do have, they have earned.

America is moving from a manufacturing and materials based economy to a service and information based economy.  We still need manufacturing and materials, but many see a future where the trend puts these things even more in the developing world and in the realm of robotics.  But–and this may just be my off-the-wall opinion–I think professionals in the service and IT fields have a harder time conceiving that they have earned their prosperity.

Here is my perspective:  I grew up on a farm.  I could literally see how the work we were doing was feeding people.  I started participating in that work when I was in grade school. So I never felt I was a burden on my parents.   I contributed.  They shared in my education expenses. But I did not see that as a privilege that I had not earned.

Farm life did not give us much in the way of creature comforts to feel guilty about.  We lived without any more amenities than the Amerinds on the nearby reservation. Indoor plumbing and electricity came to us about the same time they did to them.

This perspective may have handicapped me in my ministry.  I never had a very high standard of living and I never felt liberal guilt.  So I never appealed to it in my work. Apparently I missed out on a powerful tool.

Mine is a strange enough perspective among colleagues that I sometimes feel (in the colorful language of a Texan friend) like the bastard at the family reunion.  But I am retired now and can afford a sense of humor about it all.


About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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