Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Failing the Poor

This blog is, at least for now, principally about the art of Norman Rockwell.  (And, by the way, postings have been sparse recently because I've been incredibly busy and simply unable to make time for blogging.  I hope to be able to find a bit more spare time soon!)  This post, however, is not principally about Norman Rockwell (though we'll get there eventually).  Reader beware.

The president has condescended to offer some helpful advice to us Catholics.  (Thanks, Mr. President!  How did we ever get along without you?)  The gist is that we ought to be doing a whole lot more to fight poverty, and doing a whole lot less to fight abortion.

Ross Douthat has written a suitable reply to the president's remarks, so I don't need to.  But Douthat goes beyond criticizing the president's remarks, and actually takes the trouble to try to use them as an occasion for a bit of real soul searching.  It is not the case, of course, that the president's actual remarks are helpful in any way.  No, his critique is ridiculous.  You can't paper over it and help make sense out of it.  But something can be drawn from it, at least, given a fundamental transformation:

" actually save the critique, you have to transform it completely. There is a case that churches are failing poorer Americans. But the problem isn’t how they spend money or play politics. It’s a more basic failure to reach out, integrate, and keep them in the pews.

This is the striking story of the last 30 years: Despite the stereotype of religion as something that people “cling to” (to quote a different moment of condescension from this president) in desperate circumstances, actual religious practice has collapsed more quickly among Americans with weaker economic prospects than it has among the college-educated upper class.

Mere religious affiliation has weakened for the poor and working class as well. The much-discussed rise of the “nones” — Americans with no religious affiliation — has been happening in blue -collar America as well as among the hyper-educated.

From a religious perspective, this a signal failure: A church that pays out to help the poor, but doesn’t pray with them, looks less like a church than what Pope Francis has described, unfavorably, as merely another N.G.O."

Here is a common phenomenon, at least in parishes I've belonged to: there will very regularly be some kind of outreach to the poor.  The parish will collect canned food for the local food shelf (which, of course, will often be run by the parish).  The parish will send high school students off on a summer mission to somewhere in Appalachia or whatever, and will ask for financial help to cover the costs of the trip.  The parish will put together work crews to volunteer at Habitat for Humanity or some other such charity.  The parish will take up a collection to help a visiting missionary, or to help with disaster relief, or for any of a hundred other things.  It seems like there's at least one additional collection per month at my parish, and often more.  And of course the collection of non-perishable food is ongoing, quite apart from our pledges to the Diocesan Support Appeal and other such churchly charities.  Parishioners are constantly being asked to volunteer time or, more commonly, money to help the poor.  Occasionally, the call to help is put in very emphatic, one might even say prophetic, terms.  This is as it should be.  

Generally, there is a disclaimer added--"of course," we're told, "if you can't give any money [time, food, etc] at this time, we fully understand!  Please keep this effort in your prayers!"  This occasionally comes across as "I guess we'll take your prayers, if that's all you've got," but that's clearly never the intention.

Nevertheless, I've been increasingly aware of a sort of presupposition in many of these appeals for help.  The presupposition is unspoken, probably unrecognized.  It is the presupposition that we in the parish are called to help them--the poor.  And it's true that we Christians are called to help the poor!  But we Christians--the people in the pews--may very well be the poor, too.

And yet, as I say, there's this sense, this unspoken feeling, that we are not the poor.  The poor are out there, needing our help.  This is sort of an atmosphere.  It's hard to be very clear about why I feel it, and I don't know if others do, as well.  But my parish is full of what seem to me to be fairly well-to-do people.  I imagine a genuinely impoverished person coming into that parish, seeing the relative riches of the parishioners, and smelling that atmosphere--that sense that the poor are out there--might be quickly driven away.  

"The poor you will always have with you," perhaps, but not in this parish.  

I have no solution to this perceived problem.  But if I may bring our attention to Rockwell for a moment, I can see something similar in his work.  This is a study for a mid-60's picture for Look magazine, called "How Goes the War on Poverty?" 

He doesn't look down on the poor, obviously.  But despite his relatively humble origins, there's no doubt that the poor--the really poor--were others, just as they were for Johnson.  

Early in his career, he painted some very poor people, always sympathetically, but one might say unrealistically.

These hobo pictures were common during the 20's, but more or less ended during the Depression, when hobos were far less likely to be thought of as a comical, even cute, bit of nostalgia and more a terrible reality.  But there is at least one picture where Rockwell triumphantly aligned himself with the poor, not from the outside, but in absolute solidarity.

I've written a little bit about this picture before.  The story is fairly clear--this family has been displaced because of the new dam, the march of economic progress.  Although the family is in the foreground, it seems to me that we're not being invited to look at them so much as looking with them.  This picture isn't a middle class white guy offering a lament for the plight of the poor.  (OK, well, it's that too.  But it's not mainly that.)  If it were just that, it would be of limited interest, like "How Goes the War on Poverty?"  But in fact this picture doesn't make this family an object of pity.  Rather, it helps us see the dam as they might--an invader that has stolen their way of life.  You can preach or rant about that as much as you like, from the outside, but Rockwell has managed to get at it from inside.

This is, in a sense, where we need to be heading if we wish to put an end to the atmosphere in our parishes that the poor are out there.  We need to stop seeing ourselves as a hand coming from above to aid those poor souls reaching up to us.  We need to start seeing ourselves as the poor.  Poor sinners, at the very least, even if we're financially well off.  And what greater poverty can there be than the poverty of sin?  Evil, after all, is mere privation.  But I ramble.

Let me return to where we started.  The president made a claim that is obviously untrue.  All one needs to do in order to see its untruth is to actually look at the facts for ten seconds.  And yet, somehow, he managed to largely get away with it.  Conservative writers like Ross Douthat (or whoever) have corrected him, of course, but it's not like he's going to step up and say "I spoke stupidly."  People heard what he said, didn't look at the facts, found his comments matched their foolish prejudices, and so counted it as true.  

The same thing happens with Norman Rockwell.  The common critical claims about Rockwell are simply false.  This has been one of my most common themes here on this blog.  See here, for just one example.  But critics keep making these claims, and people keep swallowing them.  If you take a minute to look at the pictures--not just some of the early Post covers and the cute calendar images and so on--you'll see the falsity of these critical claims.  As in other areas, politics included, one must not uncritically swallow the conventional wisdom.

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