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September 27, 2015: “Personal Economics of Justice”


This morning’s reading is from the book Let Your Life Speak, by Parker J. Palmer

What am I meant to do? Who am I meant to be?

I was in my early thirties when I began, literally, to wake up to questions about my vocation. By all appearances, things were going well, but the soul does not put much stock in appearances. Seeking a path more purposeful than seeking wealth, holding power, winning at competition, or securing a career, I had started to understand that it is indeed possible to live a life other than one’s own. Fearful that I was doing just that – but uncertain whether it was real or trustworthy or within reach – I would snap awake in the middle of the night and stare for long hours at the ceiling.

Then I ran across the old Quaker saying, “Let your life speak.” I found those words encouraging, and thought I knew what they meant. … [But] today, some thirty years later, “Let your life speak” means something else to me, a meaning faithful both to the ambiguity of those words and to the complexity of my own experience: “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you.

Sermon “Personal Economics of Justice,” Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul

I was at my parents’ house a couple weeks ago, helping them with a project they’d been putting off for a couple years. The teevee was on in the background, the banter of CBS This Morning filling the house. The crew was interviewing a doctor who just concluded a study whose results seemed kind of obvious to me: the more you work over 40 hours a week, the higher your risk of suffering a stroke.

I looked up in time to see Charlie Rose looking perplexed. “What defines work?” he asked.

nd he got the answer you’d expect: doing your job. No matter where you are, if you are doing your job, that’s work.

“It seems to me,” he said, looking confused and judgmental, “that you should just have a job you love. If you love doing it, it’s not work.”

Gayle King looked him like [make the face] and I knew she was thinking what I was thinking. “Charlie, please. Not everyone can do jobs they love. Someone has to serve your food and wash your clothes and clean your bathroom.”

It revealed all of the privilege of someone who’s had a lot of success, and has no idea what it’s like to have to work hard just to squeak by. Our economy is pretty unjust, and Charlie doesn’t seem to know it.

A couple days later, John Opie, emailed me an article. It was called “What is Wrong with the West’s Economies?” by Edmund S. Phelps and it was published in The New York Review of Books.

“Many of us in Western Europe and America feel that our economies are far from just, though our views on justice differ somewhat,” he writes. He outlines the beliefs of two different “bands” of economists.

One, adopting the utilitarian view of Jeremy Bentham, sees the west as being in the midst of a second Gilded Age characterized by a huge disparity between the rich and the poor, and would redistribute wealth from the top down.

The other “band” of economists have been more interested in the philosophy of John Rawls, who suggests that “justice requires the state to use taxes and subsidies to pull up people with the lowest wages to the highest level possible.”

Phelps argues that the “Benthamite view has morphed into the corporatist idea that a nation’s government ought to provide benefits, whether in the form of money or tax advantages, or free services, to interest groups … that voice a need.” Until they cross some line and ask for too much. These claims come from corporations, unions and consumers, leaving “little in the public purse for low-wage workers.” (1)

If you ask me, that’s exactly the problem. Economists of all political persuasions spend too much time hypothesizing, and too little time actually doing something about the huge and growing discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots.

When Barbara Ehrenreich began researching her 2001 book Nickel and Dimed, it was the last thing in the world she wanted to do. Over an expensive lunch of field greens and grilled salmon, with her editor from Harper’s, she asked, “how does anyone live on the wages of the unskilled? How, in particular…were the roughly four million women about to be booted into the labor market by welfare reform going to make it on $6 or $7 an hour?” She joked that someone should do the “old-fashioned kind of journalism” where they go out there and try it for themselves. She immediately regretted saying it because, she was the one who had to go out there and do it. Reluctantly, she began doing something I doubt any economist would ever do.

She didn’t want to do it. Growing up, her family lived close to the poverty line. When she met her husband, he was a minimum-wage-earning warehouse worker, and her sister never made much more than minimum wage in office jobs. She valued her comfortable and relatively autonomous writing gig, even if it was fairly low paying for her education level. She didn’t want to be one of those “sixties radicals…going into factories to ‘proletarianize’ themselves and organize the working class.” She felt sorry for them and the people they were seeking to uplift. (2) She didn’t want to be the person co-opting the stories of others to make a point.

She left her home in New York to go to Florida, to Maine to Minnesota, taking successive jobs as a waitress, hotel maid, cleaning woman, nursing home aide, and WalMart clerk.

A lot of people hated Ehrenreich for what she did. A cursory look at the reader reviews of Nickel and Dimed on Amazon will give some idea why.

Becca W. wrote “The lady is a science PhD who becomes a maid (and other low end jobs) and acts like she’s the only educated person who does these jobs.”

Someone identified simply as Chris accuses her of conducting faulty experiments to prove a hypothesis that was nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy. Obviously, he didn’t agree with the premise to begin with, the idea that it takes someone exceptionally driven to overcome poverty on low wages. Chris is the sort of person you’d think wouldn’t even bother to read the book.

Bethany Swezene complains that, “While her account can provide SOME minor insight into what it is like living at the poverty level or consistently on minimum wage it is only one woman’s account.”

And that, of course is the point of the book! People killing themselves at these low-paying jobs – usually more than one of them – don’t have the time to write this kind of book. And if they did, who would believe them? The people who think it’s perfectly possible to live the American Dream on minimum wage don’t get it, and she set out to tell her own story. Yes it was a subjective story, yes she went into it with her own predisposed ideas, and yes she was at times insensitive and even a little whiny, but she did it! She tried to see what it was like, she walked the proverbial mile in someone else’s shoes which is more than you can say for most people, whether they are Benthamites or Rawlsians.

Fourteen years later, that book still has an impact. It’s required reading for most college students. And there’s even a teevee show that puts the CEO’s of corporations on the front lines of their businesses, going under cover as one of their lowest paid workers, to understand the challenges of the jobs. Most of the time it’s humbling for them, and they come to understand the struggles of their lowest paid employees.

Standing for the rights of the lowest paid among us is something I’ve always believed in. And it’s something Pope Francis has made one of the central issues of his papacy, something that has been said about him again and again during his visit to the Unites States this week.

There’s awful lot that Pope Francis stands for, as the head of the Roman Catholic Church, that I don’t agree with. I left that church for those reasons, after all, and I’ve never looked back. Okay, I have had milliseconds when I’ve thought it might be a scoche easier to just be told what to do there, rather than lead here. Milliseconds. Ultimately those philosophical and theological differences make me feel very clear that this is where I belong, but still, I agree with the Pope about some important issues.

So on Thursday, as he made history by speaking to a joint session of congress, I had to put aside what I was doing to watch.

I want to read for you now some of what he said, taken from the transcript provided in advance to the editors of Time Magazine, and published on their website.

Each son or daughter of a given country has a mission, a personal and social responsibility. Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation. You are the face of its people, their representatives. You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics. A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people.

Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion. We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind. ….But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners.

The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us. (3)

What I witnessed in this speech was incredible ministry among 535 Senators and Representatives, of all parties, who can’t or won’t get along; ministry from a humble servant who has lived for decades among the poor, a man who has respect and compassion for those who have to figure out how to survive on almost nothing.

I find myself wondering what the personal stories are of our legislators: are they clueless like Charlie Rose? Or have they tried, like Barbara Ehrenreich, to understand the struggles of those with fewer opportunities than themselves? From my perspective, the Pope was addressing a group that habitually puts politics above the people, with a collective belief that factionalism is righteousness and stonewalling is an act of philosophical purity. They’ve not done well in guarding against “the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil.”

I’m afraid they haven’t even tried.

To all those who asked whether Pope Francis would give a pep talk or a scolding lecture, I say that he did so much better than that. He ministered to leaders in a way that was both pastoral and prophetic. He called them — and all of us — to our best common ideals, while standing firm in the teachings of the church he leads. Every one in that room agreed with him some of the time and nobody agreed with him all of the time, and yet they were moved.

But the whole time I listened, I couldn’t take my eyes off John Boehner sitting behind him. As Speaker of the House, Boehner had the honor of introducing the Pontiff, and remaining on the podium. Boehner is a Roman Catholic, and this visit to congress was a milestone in history that he got to witness from inches away. He was moved, his eyes welling up, his nose running. He seemed to be choking back tears, a lot.

But I couldn’t help thinking that something more was going on, and I found myself feeling a kind of compassion for him that I’ve never felt before.

So on on Friday, I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised when he announced that he would be resigning as Speaker of the House AND leaving his position of Representative at the end of October.

He looked exhausted but also relieved when he made his announcement, in which he said, “My first job as speaker is to protect the institution,” Mr. Boehner said. “It had become clear to me that this prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable harm to the institution.” (4)

His first job is to protect the institution. And there a number of institutions he’s protecting: The office of Speaker; Congress; the United States government; the Republican Party; and the whole nation. Clearly he takes them all seriously. And while he insists his decision wasn’t caused by the Pope’s remarks, he acknowledges that his timeline moved forward significantly because of them, reminded that he and all of congress are “called to defend and preserve the dignity of [their] fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics.” The Pope ministered to him.

He has been fond of describing himself as a “regular guy with a big job.” (5) Boehner has been aware that it’s a job that carries with it enormous responsibilities and power.

The decision Boehner has been faced with is not unlike the decision Parker Palmer had to make. Instead of seeking power or wealth or to win the ceaseless competition of politics – or simply struggling to survive – he has the luxury of being able to choose to live what Palmer calls a life other than his own.

When Palmer woke up to the realities of his life and calling, he started off by listing the loftiest goals he could imagine, then setting out to achieve them. “The results,” he writes, “were rarely admirable, often laughable, and sometimes grotesque. But always they were unreal, a distortion of my true self – as must be the case when one lives from the outside in, not the inside out.” (6)

What Palmer learned over thirty years was a good lesson: no matter what the circumstances of your life, no matter how difficult it may seem or how blind you may be to your privilege, you can live a life of integrity. And THAT, essentially was the message Pope Francis delivered on Thursday. The message John Boehner heard.

We’re often taught that our nature is something to transcend. We often get messages that we are bad and lazy, and tend to be self-absorbed, blind to the needs of others. The old Calvinst message, which lingers in this country with a sometimes alarming tenacity, is that we need the discipline of outside forces to overcome our human nature and accomplish anything. We must work hard, and protect ourselves, with violent force if necessary, from others who may not have any discipline.

But Palmer is suggesting something else: That we can actually live into our lives by just being who we are, aware of the privileges and the restrictions of our context.

For Palmer, who we are at our core is not something to be transcended. It’s something to be celebrated and valued. Our job is to see the goodness we share in ourselves and one another, whether we are popes or ministers, journalists or politicians, engineers or teachers. And our success in that job is how we will be remembered in the future.

My hope is that for John Boehner, humbled by his experience as Speaker of the House, can do more good in the world.

As we move forward, into a future that is becoming increasingly more….interesting….may we all remember that the yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.

(1) Edmund S. Phelps. “What is Wrong with the West’s Economies?” The New York Review of Books. August 13, 2015.

(2) Barbara Ehrenreich. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America. 2001. Henry Holt and Company, LLC. New York NY. P 1-2.

(3) Time Magazine.

(4) Jennifer Steinhauer.

(5) Steinhauer.

(6) Parker J. Palmer. Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. 2000. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco CA. P 3.