When Memes Are Unworthy of Christ

I always come down hard on memes and other click bait shares, but I hesitate to get down in the weeds. I worry that readers will get distracted by the specifics of a particular issue and miss the bigger picture. But the other day when I was praying about whether to respond to something I saw online, it came into my mind that I should blog about it instead. It’s easy to miss the ways in which the things we share conflict with Gospel values. Maybe a concrete example is in order.

Today’s example:

Those of us brought up on the idea of raising ourselves up by our bootstraps are conditioned to leap to our feet and applaud sentiments like this, but it’s not a Christlike reaction.

Problem One: The Question of Living Wage Has Big Implications

The assumption here is that minimum wage is actually just fine where it is, that the problem is with the person’s motivation. But it’s been well documented that minimum wage is below a living wage in many parts of the country. (That link comes from investopedia, which is rated “least biased.”)

Why on earth would a follower of Jesus Christ champion a belief that there are, in fact, workers who do not deserve to earn a living wage? That would be like suggesting that there are, in fact, people who do not deserve to be born. I know a lot of people will protest the analogy, but human dignity is human dignity. Either we’re all made in God’s image, with the same basic dignity and the same basic needs, or we’re not. People who believe in the dignity of the unborn should be more, not less, protective of the dignity of human beings who are between womb and tomb.

There’s another abortion connection here. According to the above article, fast food workers tend to be low-income women, and this Market Watch article shows 75% of abortions are obtained by low-income women. (Market Watch is labeled “slight right bias,” so this is no liberal conspiracy.) If we want to help mothers choose life, the Christlike thing to do is advocate for higher wages, not belittle workers in low-paid industries, as this meme does.

Photo by Pictures of Money , via Flickr

Problem Two: Who Deserves a Living Wage?

The underlying assumption of this entire post is: the work done by people in fast food industry is, of and by its very nature, not deserving of earning a living wage. What makes a roofer or a surveyor so much more valuable than a person who prepares and serves your food?

Those who commented on that post kept saying fast food jobs are for high schoolers. But high schoolers are in, y’know, high school. Who’s supposed to work the breakfast and lunch shifts?

The reality is, as long as we, the American public, insist upon the convenience of fast food, fast food will always need adult workers. We want fast food to be cheap, and one of the easiest ways companies achieve that is by paying low wages. As long as we support that system by visiting the golden arches or the bell, we’re a big part of the reason it exists.

Side note: I’m really struggling with Amazon for the same reason. But that’s a whole different post. The point is that blaming the workers for being victims of a system we willingly and eagerly participate in is not Christlike behavior.

Photo by 401(K) 2012 , via Flickr

Problem Three: The Big Picture

Christians should have another problem with this post: the assumption that people are only in these jobs because they’re lazy. “Get a better job, if you don’t like your wage!”

This is an example of middle class (and probably white) privilege. I worked fast food, and this is precisely what I did. But I worked fast food while I was getting a good education to prepare me to trade up jobs, and while I was safely housed at home by people paying for my food, lodging, clothes, utilities, and everything else.

In other words, I had a lot of help pulling myself up by my bootstraps. For people like me, the “get a better job” argument works just fine.

But it should be eminently clear that in America, opportunity is NOT equal. For example, in education. How often do people pack up their entire lives and move because the school boundaries change and they think they’re about to get sent to the “bad school”? If that isn’t a tacit acknowledgment that educational opportunity is vastly uneven, I don’t know what is.

There are rich schools and poor schools because there are richer and poorer enclaves. Higher socioeconomic classes work very hard to avoid ending up on the wrong side of that equation. We work hard to avoid “bad” neighborhoods and suburbs and the people within them. We won’t live near “them” and we definitely won’t let our kids go to school with “them.” So our schools get the boost in funding that comes with high property values, and “their” schools don’t. Uneven, unequal. Done.

And for a lot of kids growing up in homes where life itself is a struggle, it’s a generational problem. It’s not that a kid can’t break out of that cycle–but they have to work a whole lot harder than you or I do to get half as far. Judging them for their failure is completely contrary to the Christian call.

Problem Four: The Big Picture, Part B

Finally, let’s talk about that theoretical guy who was theoretically challenged to get a theoretical job and theoretically said he wasn’t interested. Maybe this really happened, maybe it didn’t. But even if it did happen, leaping to the conclusion that this guy is just lazy is still unworthy of a follower of Christ.

Let’s say this man is 25 and has a wife and kid. He’s working 30 hours a week at McDonald’s (because jobs like that are rarely offered full-time, because full-time means offering benefits, which would raise costs). According to what I found when I searched “how to become a land surveyor,” the author was wrong; this job does require training–and a license. And is vastly helped by a solid educational foundation. When is this theoretical training? Is he going to have to ask off work for it? What if he has a second job, working 25 hours one place and 25 hours in another, and the training overlaps both? Is the training paid? If not, can he afford to ask off work to take it?

Where is the training? Is it far enough away that he’d have to work out transportation he doesn’t have? What if his wife has a job, too, and they work opposite shifts to avoid the cost of child care? What if both of them have to skip shifts in order to make this work? And if they’re living close to the bone, are they going to be able to survive until the training is done?

Then there’s the roofing example. What if he has foot problems? Equilibrium problems? A debilitating fear of heights? What if he’s not in good enough physical shape? Sure, he should get in shape, but that too requires time and very likely money (gym membership, anyone?). The author is presupposing that this man is exactly like him, and the only thing separating them is the motivation.

The point of this extremely long post is that these glib, judgy things we like to put hearts and thumbs-up on and share are way more complex in reality than they look on social media. As Christians, we should be looking for the total picture of justice, not pointing at the easy target while we are active participants in the systems that make upward mobility so hard on anyone who isn’t already above a certain threshold.

“Judge not, lest you be judged.” (Mt. 7:1)

A world in peril

Context is important…Gaudium et Spes was published in 1965, during the cold war, and no doubt the bishops who wrote it, as well as Pope Paul VI, were thinking about the threat of nuclear war. But it’s interesting how much these words resonate today, isn’t it?

Globalization

I don’t think the word “globalization” was in use yet in 1965 (though I don’t know that for sure), but that’s exactly what this is talking about. Nationalism has surged as a backlash against the reality that we’re all connected, but it doesn’t negate the reality. We are all connected. Nowhere on earth is more than a commercial plane ride away. The bombs can drop anywhere. We can Skype with someone in Thailand or Malaysia or Ukraine or Antarctica instantaneously. Parts for our technology may be made in one country and the whole assembled in another, and get shipped to a third.

We are inextricably tied together. We can’t deny that reality, no matter how threatening it feels. In fact, the overwhelming majority of us buy into it implicitly by the way we depend on smart devices and online purchasing.

We are tied together now, and if injustices and suffering in one part of the world cause conflict, the ripples will spread outward and hit us, too. That’s what we see in the refugee crises of the last few years–Syrians fleeing to Europe and Central Americans to the U.S. border, to name the most obvious. We have to recognize that the history of U.S. involvement in Central America over the past decades contributed to the suffering there (a topic I only know a little about, but enough to be aware that cold-war-era anti-Communist efforts are a factor***, and the fact that MS-13 originated in L.A. and its members were deported; now they’re a big part of the mayhem now happening). Ergo, we can’t just close up our border and say “Nope, your problem.” First, because we helped create it, and second, because this is the reality of an interconnected world. Your problems are my problems, whether I like it or not.

And the thing is, this is what Jesus called us to do voluntarily, as part of the Christian call. Jesus’ response Cain’s flippant protest, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” was this:

“Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Mt. 25:41)

Well worn, but hard to embrace.

And isn’t it amazing that Pope Paul VI and the bishops of the second Vatican Council could see all this in the mid-1960s, before any of this had taken place?


***I tried to do some good research on these contextual factors this morning so I could share reliable sources about them. What I discovered is that a) Fox news doesn’t talk about it at all, only left- and left-center-leaning sources; and b) it’s too complex for me to dive down the rabbit hole to understand fully in one morning when I have deadlines pressing. What it tells me, most of all, is that we as Americans (myself included) are sinfully negligent in understanding the conflicts and sufferings outside our own borders. So for today I am relying on the understanding of faithful Catholic friends who actually know about these situations.

Go Beyond the Surface

Background image by analogicus from Pixabay

Whether we are talking about the justification for raising or lowering taxes, the question of Dreamers and refugees, whether “voting prolife” must mean voting Republican or whether it can or should incorporate a larger view of the total life issues, or arguing over musical styles in worship, one thing is pretty much universally true: conflict gets ugly because we focus on issues instead of people.

Am I talking about the dignity of the person on the opposing side of the debate? Yes, but also the dignity of the people who are impacted by whatever issue we’re talking about. It’s much easier to look at issues as black and white, with no room for discussion or working together, when they are looked at in the abstract, rather than considering the real life people involved. When you start thinking about the dignity and well-being of refugees and Dreamers as beloved children of God, and of the Biblical call to be “our brothers’ keeper,” it becomes a lot less defensible to chant “build a wall” and tell Dreamers to go to the “back of the line.”

When we consider the dignity of the people involved, we have to look for solutions that take into account everyone, not just our own well-being. If we want to be a Christian nation, this is what we must do. It’s unsatisfying. Every one of us would be happier if the world laid itself out neatly in exactly the way we think it should. But we have to recognize that the world is flawed, and we’re not God. We can’t see the whole picture, and the only way we get anywhere close to seeing the big picture is by looking through the eyes of everyone else and figuring out how to set up the world to meet their needs as well as our own.

This is a lesson we learn as children: walk a mile in another’s shoes, see the situation through their eyes. Why do we stop thinking it matters when we reach adulthood?

Dignity vs. comfort

Over the years I’ve fussed a lot about religious platitudes. In liturgical composers’ circles, we’re often urged to take out all the religious clichés and see if there’s anything left. (Often, there’s not.) In my own writing I’ve talked a lot about deadly generalizations in how we talk about the faith. When you talk big picture, everybody can get on board, because it doesn’t actually challenge us. It’s when we get into the nitty-gritty specifics that we start feeling defensive, which is not a guarantee, but at least a warning sign that we might be guarding an idol.

“The dignity of the human person AND THE COMMON GOOD,” Pope Francis says, are more important than coddling the comfort of the privileged people of the world.

I doubt most of us recognize ourselves as those privileged people, but I can just about guarantee that every person reading this right now is a member of that group, just as I am. I know my audience is basically white American and middle-class or higher. We don’t see ourselves as privileged, but we are. Living with oceans to protect us from the vast bulk of outside violence is a privilege. Living in a place where we have the right to go to church is a privilege. Living in a place where we have a government willing to step in and rebuild our homes in the face of increasing climate events is a privilege. Living in a place where we trust the police to be on our side is a privilege (and that one, not even all Americans share).

Giving up “comforts” could mean any number of things. It could mean paying more in taxes so as to better support education, social security, or a host of other things our faith calls us to support. It could mean curtailing certain gun rights so as to better protect the common good. It could mean something as simple as turning off your car while waiting in grocery store parking lots and pickup lines, and thereby accepting that you may have to sit under a tree and be hot in the heat, or turning off your car and just bundling up in the winter. It could mean being willing to live in proximity to people who make us uncomfortable. (People of different races, people of different education levels, people with disabilities, people who are poor or even homeless…you get the idea. Someday I’ll do a post about solidarity.)

I’m aware that everything I listed there is a challenge to conservatives. Anyone who would like to comment and leave parallel comforts to those who lean left, please feel free. I am trying to cram a lot of things into my days right now, and I don’t always have time to do real justice to these reflections. 🙂

“Irksome!”

I love this passage so much. It makes me chuckle, because it’s so dead-on, and it’s not couched in airy-fairy language. “Irksome,” indeed! That’s a dead-on assessment of the reaction these concerns usually get. People are irked at having to think about them.

This whole section of Evangelii Gaudium is talking about economic systems and the need to make sure they are truly equitable and provide for the poor. It’s a procession of plain-speaking, conscience-pricking paragraphs: welfare should be considered a temporary solution, the dignity of the human person should shape all economic policy, inequality is the root of social ill, we can’t trust the market to do this work, and on and on. It’s so good. Take time to read it!