And the eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you"; or again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable….
Taken from the book of Corinthians, this picture has impact in so many situations.
The voice of the weak, the less honourable, the less presentable….that is the voice of such basic and fundamental truth, based as it always is on a rather unvarnished examination and experience of reality, unpolished and even uneducated, untainted by the salons, the lecture halls, the sanctuaries and the board rooms. There is a story that has meandered through our family history. It concerns the Baptist clergy grandfather who, upon being confronted by his congregation with the demand that he dismiss, exclude, drive out the ‘unsavoury presence’ of the poor, the illiterate, the contemptible and the underclass from the congregation, faced them down, categorically refused their demand and faced his own dismissal, a firing on behalf of those voiceless, that continues to echo today, a full century later.
There is a refreshing candor to the world view, and the language used to relate to the world that flows from each and every utterance, unencumbered as it always is by pretense or the need to put on a face of sophistication, from the people who have struggled, scraped, gone hungry and even had to beg for much of their survival. They know when the politician and the bureaucrat, for example, resorts to obfuscation, or change the subject, or when they embellish their ‘story’ for their own personal aggrandizement and they are unimpeded by fear of rejection when they call a spade a shovel.
They have already been stripped of any vestige of status, social standing, political power and economic stature, those symbols of power and sophistication to which many have committed themselves, especially those who have entered the vaunted middle class, and seek to climb even higher. Their residence is often on the wrong side of the tracks, often without the normal conveniences of clean running water, access to a steady supply of energy for heat and light, thereby depriving their children of even the basic food and heat and light needed to engage with their homework, no matter how much or how little, in order to pursue the kind of education that might provide some hope and opportunity for a more sustainable life for any future family.
And while the political class and the policy developers consider the “poor” needing physical amenities like water, food, housing and work with dignity all of them legitimate, worthy and needed, there is a poverty of the spirit, a poverty of the range of options available to them, especially in situations of trauma, sickness, loss and even deeper depravity than most of us will ever know or experience. The poverty borne of a complete deprivation of travel, of books, movies, foods from foreign lands, of opportunities to explore various belief systems, political ideologies, and the opportunities to discuss experiences with those whose world view differs from those of the local community is infrequently mentioned when discussions develop on the needs of the poor by those with power to make changes in their lives.
There is a cultural condition that can be depicted as intellectual, emotional and even physical isolation, a hunkering down to the kind of life patterns that making a living demand. Early rising, sparse nutrition, hard labour, an even more intense fixation on the kinds of aphoristic perceptions and beliefs that characterize the history and the tradition of the neighbourhood are just some of the cultural pen strokes that tend to depict the thousands of growing ghettos in towns and cities around the world.
Historically, the ethnicity of peasant communities often comprises one or at best two cultures, leaving the rest of the world to be thought of as “foreigners.” I once met this bigotry, born of the poverty enshrined in fear, when I purchased a Japanese-manufactured car: “Oh you got one of those ‘slanty-eyes’ eh?” The speaker drove one of the muscular North American half-ton trucks, complete with tonneau-cover, the pride of his life.*
Little ‘kingdoms’ or ‘empires’ of highly restrictive and restricting clusters of mores and expectations fossilize attitudes in these towns and villages where the lives of everyone are open books to the people living there, exposing the big and the small indiscretions as worthy of condemnation, alienation and even ostracizing the miscreant. Often, underlying these judgemental attitudes is a kind of religion that can be characterized as literal, fundamental, judgemental, hard-edged, and imposed on all as a kind of template of moral and ethical rules. Sometimes, too, the religious leaders in many poor and rural communities hold inordinate power over the lives of their adherents, bleeding from the personal ‘code’ to the political party to vote for.
Naturally, those whose mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers were born in the community, are considered “insiders” and all others, even those who might take up the challenges of community leadership are, and will remain, “outsiders” who will never really belong. Their ideas, their recommendations, their honest and honourable contributions will forever be considered “suspect” and “snobbish” and “pretentious” and non-conforming to the “way we do things here.” This attitude pervades not only the towns and villages, but the churches, schools and the various organizations within the communities. There is a ‘natural’ preference of those ‘insiders’ to build (sometimes unconscious) walls of ‘tradition’ and ‘convention’ and ‘acceptability’ that greets newcomers and potentially even with conscious “exclusion” efforts, has the result of keeping newcomers and their attitudes, perspectives and suggestions ‘at bay.’
So in the spirit of John Donne who loved James and Mary and George and Jane, (individuals) while at the same time hating the “whole” community, or the group or the ‘gestalt’ of the edifice of public attitudes, perceptions, practices, and fears we each have the burden of discerning the values of individuals when they are often embedded in the public “myth” of the stereotype of the community.
And we each have the obligation of sifting through the experiential baggage of all the people we encounter, seeking to discern the unique individual character from the community “values” that have been imprinted on the individual. I was told, as an adult, that I was born in what had been known for a long time as “the most conservative town in the province.” On reflection over the ensuing decades, I have come to agree and to give witness to the rebellious attitudes within my being both to fundamental, literal and suffocating faith beliefs and practice as well as to the arrogance of politicians inside the establishment who resist and refuse to open to and to integrate new science, new ideas and new possibilities. As the inveterate “outsider” I share the mantle with those who have very little, who identify with the outcasts, who enjoy poking our fingers in the eyes of the “establishment” and who hold the “power structures” of all institutions under the most powerful microscope, scepticism and suspicion.
Doubtless, this “attitude” and perspective of scepticism, suspicion and doubt, like an “irish-spring deodorant, pervades every encounter I have with people in positions of power and responsibility. And in my own narrow perspective, I hold strongly to the position that power by definition overcomes all of those who seek and who find it. Power demands its own language, belief and the willingness to maintain its superiority, through the presentation of unbalanced pictures of reality, pictures that favour the reputation of the originator of the picture, whether those reputations are of corporations, presidents, principals, prime ministers, bishops, bank managers and presidents. Power, too, has the capacity to seduce even the most honourable, the most moral, the most disciplined and the most religious of men and women. And this attitude of scepticism, suspicion and doubt of the powerful emerges from a very small town, where I was able to witness the excesses of wealth, the excess of political control, the excesses of moral/religious superiority, and the excesses of insularity, isolation and resistance to the world itself.
Rather than share the power and the wealth of the insiders, and the entrappments, stereotypes attitudes and beliefs that inevitably attach themselves to that power and wealth, I honour the spiritual wealth of the truth, unvarnished, unsophisticated, and unfettered by the fear of being rejected by the powerful. That rejection is baked into the cake of the underclass, to which I proudly proclaim adherence…. It is a gift from the “poverty” and the culture of my home town. And it is a gift I have and will treasure so long as I breathe.
*Of course, this sounds patronizing, demeaning and insulting. Rather, I felt sad and anxious that such attitudes or dependence on the “bling” and the “bobbles” were so deeply embedded in the culture of the rural, isolated and relatively vulnerable community in which I was working.