In David Brooks’ New York Times Thursday column, he shares the story of Walter Judd, who paid his way through college at the beginning of the 20th century by washing dishes. His father had refused to pay his tuition since he thought that the manual labor would be good for his character. Brooks shares that “people then were more likely to assume that jobs at the bottom of the status ladder were ennobling and that jobs at the top were morally perilous” since they presumed that “the working classes were self-controlled, while the rich and the professionals could get away with things.” He writes that today our values are the opposite: wealth is applauded as the evidence of hard work, while poverty is presumed to be the product of laziness or immorality. Brooks attributes this shift to an abandonment of Biblical values in our culture.
Brooks finds the Bible to be the source of the way that the working class used to be the cultural heroes of America. He writes, “In the Torah, God didn’t pick out the most powerful or notable or populous nation to be his chosen people. He chose a small, lowly band.” And he quotes from my favorite passage in the Bible (1 Corinthians 1:27) about God choosing the weak to shame the strong. Brooks writes that under the old, more Biblically grounded rubric, “Your place is not determined by worldly accomplishments, but simply through an acceptance of God’s grace.”
I’ve never thought about applying the Christian doctrine of justification by grace in quite this way, but it’s very true. Brooks says that all the old models for understanding self-worth have disappeared so that the only one left standing is “the meritocratic hierarchy of professional success.” When Christians uncritically accept worldly meritocracy as the standard for measuring peoples’ worth, it reveals a complete erosion of the Christian belief that God’s grace is what makes people valuable.
It seems like a fair litmus test for evaluating how authentically you believe in God’s grace is to look at your attitude about poor people that you don’t have personal relationships with. If you talk about the poor being lazy and immoral or say that some percentage of the country are “the takers” while others like you are “the makers,” then what you’re saying is that you aren’t a “taker” in the “culture of dependency” created by the blood that Jesus shed on the cross.
Now I’m not sure about Brooks’ historiography. When have the poor ever not been the objects of scorn and presumptuousness about their moral failings? Were they really considered more noble in the 19th century? Wasn’t the fierce anti-Catholicism endemic to American Protestant culture 100 years ago an expression of hatred for the poor immigrants from Ireland and Italy?
The 19th century hated the poor too. Most of Charles Dickens’ 19th century novels about the Industrial Revolution include a miserly villain like Ebenezer Scrooge who hates poor people. One of my favorite Dickens characters is Josiah Bounderby in the novel Hard Times. He’s the notoriously cruel owner of the mill where the other characters work. He justifies his cruelty toward his workers by constantly referring to his own “rags-to-riches” story about growing up in the gutter and having to work hard all his life to get to where he is. This story is revealed in the end of the novel to be a complete fraud (since in Dickens novels, the bad guys always get theirs in the end).
The rags-to-riches story is a very interesting phenomenon. It’s very common for rich people to have a personal rags-to-riches story to justify their wealth. It reveals a need for rich people to imagine themselves to be working class people who “made it,”which would go along with the romanticism of the working class hero that David Brooks finds in our cultural heritage. Of course, the rags-to-riches story reveals a different kind of contempt for God’s grace.
Rich people who actually believe in God’s grace are not going to need to make up a works-righteousness story about how they earned every penny that they have by the sweat of their brow. They will simply be grateful for the unmerited blessings they have received and accept the responsibility of sharing the resources God has entrusted to them with those who haven’t been as fortunate. I wonder how many people who make up rags-to-riches stories about themselves and fill their minds with presumptuous explanations for the poverty of other people have done these things as a defense mechanism against being convicted by the undeserved grace they have received from God.