What Has Been Overlooked?

[1] It is not an original thought. I heard one of the TV pundits discussing the point after the last debate; but it struck home. Over these past weeks of campaigning, the middle class has been front and center. People are losing jobs and health care. The elderly can’t get the prescription drugs they need. We’ve been encouraged to look at our own lives and at the lives of our next door neighbors for evidence, and for political motivation to better our present situation. But where are the poor? No, not the newly poor of the ‘middle class’, but the really, really poor. Why are we not hearing about life in the inner cities this year? The malaise of poverty, unemployment, drugs and gangs, may be creeping up the social ladder, but surely the challenges faced by the urban poor have not disappeared.

[2] And if the social problems associated with the urban poor have not gone away, then what does it mean that we are so focused on the needs of the middle class, so engaged this year with our own particular challenges? Are we turning a deaf ear to the cries of the really poor, the really hungry, and the really destitute? Of course the fate of social security does matter to millions of us; and for those who face the outsourcing of their job, the future no doubt looks bleak. Still, there are those among us with no social security to lose, no jobs that are threatened with outsourcing, and no thought of a future beyond the immediate requirements for survival.

[3] I emphatically do not want to suggest that there is anything wrong with caring for ourselves and our families. But when self concern obscures our ability to see and appreciate the pressing needs of others, then it seems to me, that we have lost our grounding in God, and the courage and care that flow from faith. Our present campaign rhetoric encourages the narrowest sort of self-concern, and we are often complicit. “We have seen the faces and heard the voices of struggling middle-class families” Kerry and Edwards tell us. “And help is on the way!” Relieved to have been heard, relieved that our real, day to day challenges have been acknowledged, we eagerly want to learn just exactly what they are going to do for us.

[4] It is true that this that kind of promising resonates with a more noble precedent. “I have observed the misery of my people, and I have heard their cry” says Yahweh. “I have come to deliver them from the Egyptians…[and to bring them] into a land flowing with milk and honey.” What, then is wrong with the middle class focusing on its own deliverance? After all, the people were persuaded to follow Moses under the promise of a future home “flowing with milk and honey.”

[5] We have to notice what’s left out here. Remember it was the absence of the really poor-the silence about the harshest urban poverty-that called forth my initial concern. Yahweh was, after all, making direct promises to the slaves-the lowest of the low. And in our own day, they are precisely those who struggle to survive (on less than whatever constitutes ‘middle class’ status) who seem to be left out of the equation this year. And most notably this is not only from the side of the politicians, but also from the side of the citizenry-that is to say, us.

[6] This is not a question of self against neighbor, but rather a matter of the common good. Our question should not be, “What’s in it for me,” but rather, “what serves me and my neighbor!” In our ELCA Social Statement on Economic Life we have affirmed our common call and destiny. And there we have specifically called ourselves to a broader consideration of need. “While a market economy assumes people will act to maximize their own interests, we acknowledge that what is in our interest must be placed in the context of what is good for the neighbor.” In the heat of this campaign season, caught up as we are in the political rhetoric of our candidates, let us not forget our commitment to the common good.

Mary Gaebler

Dr. Mary Gaebler is Associate Professor in Religion; Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies; and Peace Studies at Gustavus Adolphus College, Saint Peter MN.