Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry


I started reading Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry based on the recommendation of someone I respect, but only know through Facebook. She is the mother of a friend of my daughter's. She has opened a classical Christian private school. In short, I want to be her when I grow up. So when she says she is reading a good book, it goes on my list.

I had no idea what to expect. With a name like, "Jayber Crow," it could be anything. I didn't know if it was fiction or non-fiction, biography or philosophy, historical or modern. It turns out to be the sweet fictional "life story of Jayber Crow, barber, of the Port William Membership, as written by himself." 

We learn he is old and near the end of his life at the beginning of the book. It is unclear who he is telling his story to or why. He is never famous, he never accomplishes anything that would cover him in glory. He lives an ordinary bachelor life as a barber in a tiny town. However, he is thoughtful and reflective. Being a barber gives him access to all the townspeople and their secrets. He watches and remarks, but never really gets involved. He is a consummate outsider all his days, yet he is in the middle of life in the small town like no one else.

I'm not sure if the book or its author is supposed to embody Christian values. Jayber considers going into the ministry for a time, but has to give it up due to serious doubts. Yet the book does not mock faith, and Jayber's life's journey seems to be finding answers to the doubts he expresses early in life. In fact, a respected theologian tells him that it may take his whole life, and possibly longer, to find the answers Jayber is looking for. 

However, the real heart of this slow, meandering story is Jayber's love for Mattie Chatham. He is a little older than her and he arrives in the town as the young barber, watching 14-year-old Mattie walk home from school. She eventually marries the town's basketball star, who, in Jayber's opinion, is wholly undeserving of her. After seeing her husband, Troy, out with another woman, Jayber makes a solemn, yet unsanctified, vow to Mattie, alone and in his own mind. He will be the faithful husband she deserves. For the rest of his life, while never telling her of his undying love, he sets out to prove that someone like Mattie can have a man who will sacrifice all for her, who will love her until the day she dies. 

This odd, but achingly beautiful, love story begins to parallel Christ's love for us. This message is so subtle, it can be missed, but I believe it to be the theme of the book. By the end of the book, Jayber is at peace, he has developed a secret, yet very chaste and innocent, relationship with Mattie when they meet accidentally and randomly from time to time at a secret spot on her property. When her husband sells the land she so cherished to developers as she lies dying the hospital, Jayber mourns with her in her hospital room. It is the closest they come to acknowledging any feelings for each other. 

I believe there is beauty hidden in this book. It is a slow tale, told in small vignettes. I think if I re-read it, I would see even further into the author's purposes in writing it. I believe his argument is that "while we were yet sinners, God loved us..." Jayber experiences and displays the most unselfish kind of love imaginable. He is faithful to a "wife" who barely acknowledges of his existence. He loves with no hope or expectation of it ever being returned. Along the way, Jayber describes the beautiful nature surrounding him. I'm sure there is meaning in this. He tells of the townspeople with all their faults and foibles. Yet despite the hurt and harm some of them cause, he can never bring himself to hate. Even Mattie's brash, selfish, and arrogant husband earns Jayber's sympathy. 

I suppose Berry is saying that we are all fallen and flawed, but we are all loved. That love is undeserved and beyond comprehension or even full knowledge. The townspeople never knew the depth of Jayber's feelings or insights into their lives. He was outside. Of but not in. Yet he knew them more intimately than they knew themselves or each other. 

If this is a Christian work, it is perfect in its subtlety and nuance. 

The Triumph of William McKinley by Karl Rove

I heard about this book when Dennis Prager interviewed Karl Rove about it on his radio show. Rove is not my favorite person, and I long ago swore off books written by conservative celebrities, but I do love history. Plus, my American History teacher in high school was William McKinley's direct descendant. So I felt a connection. The Triumph of William McKinley also came highly recommended by people I respect all over the front and back covers. How could I not love it?

Unfortunately, I didn't finish the book.

I'm sure it is fascinating to political insiders and those who love the horse race aspect of it. But it was too "inside baseball" for me. Too many names, too many nuanced policy positions, too many players to keep up with.

McKinley seems like a great guy. He seems to be a political genius. I just wish we got to know him more and less about the minutia of the process.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Toxic Charity

After having read When Helping Hurts, I noticed that a book called Toxic Charity by Robert D. Lupton, was also mentioned frequently alongside the other. So I put it on my list. Of the two, I think When Helping Hurts is the one I would read if I had to choose one, but they go hand in glove. In addition, I would recommend Poverty.Inc, a documentary to round out the course. 

While acknowledging a good heart behind charity efforts, the book starts off with a counterintuitive statement, “The compassion industry is almost universally accepted as a virtuous and constructive enterprise… Yet those closest to the ground — on the receiving end of this outpouring of generosity — quietly admit that it may be hurting more than helping?” (p. 2-3) The obvious reason for this is the dependency it creates. “When we do for those in need what they have the capacity to do for themselves, we disempower them.” (p. 3) Boom. There it is, right there. Mic drop.

So when does well-meaning relief become toxic? Luton gives the example of Hurricane Katrina which struck New Orleans. Six years later, relief was still being offered. He says, “When relief does not transition to development in a timely way, compassion becomes toxic.” (p. 7)

So in order to prevent Toxic Charity, he gives the compassionate crowd an oath he wants them take:
  • Never do tor the poor what they have (or could have ) the capacity to do for themselves.
  • Limit one-way giving to emergency situations.
  • Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements.
  • Subordinate self-interests to trends of those being served.
  • Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said — unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service.
  • Above, all, do no harm. (p. 8)

He tells a story of a typical compassionate endeavor. A struggling seminary in Cuba was hosting U.S. volunteers. Twenty youth and adults arrived to lay tile in a new dormitory addition. They had no experience and the shoddy work had to be ripped out and done by local contractors after they left. The kitchen staff worked overtime to provide good, American-style food. Faculty members had to arrange the myriad logistical concerns such as housing and transportation. The president of the seminary knew the $30,000 spent by the volunteers on the trip was a total waste and cost her precious resources. But to turn them down would have endangered the much smaller cash donations the volunteering church made regularly to her ministry. This heartbreaking story is repeated countless times all over the world. 

The author found himself guilty of toxic charity right at home. He had worked for years with a group delivering holiday food and presents. But he discovered the lack of men in the house was often a symptom of shame as they hid from the volunteers. An emotional price tag cost those he most wanted to help. 

Then he discovered a quote from Jacques Ellul, a French philosopher in his book, Money and Power:

It is important that giving be truly free. It must never degenerate into charity, in the pejorative sense. Almsgiving is Mammon’s perversion of giving. It affirms the superiority of the giver, who thus gains a point on the recipient, binds him, demands gratitude, humiliates him and reduces him to a lower state than he had before. (p. 34)

Wow. Charitable giving can degenerate into a perversion. A counterfeit of true charitable love. This is a huge charge being made. But I believe Lupton backs it up. 

His solution is to return to a mindset based on Micah 6: 8, “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” We are to “act justly” and “love mercy.” Lupton elaborates, “Twinned together, these commands lead us to a holistic involvement. Divorced, they become deformed. Mercy without justice degenerates into dependency and entitlement, preserving the power of the giver over the recipient. Justice without mercy is cold and impersonal, more concerned about rights than relationships.” (p. 41) Therefore, we must make sure our charitable efforts do both. But how? He recommends doing your due diligence as any investor would. “And if you don’t have time to invest in foraging a trusting relationship, give your money to a ministry that does.” (p. 49)

Although he specifically works in domestic ministry, he discusses foreign aid as well. He describes the $1 trillion in charitable aid that has been given to Africa as “Dead Aid.” A Zambian economist, Dambisa Moyo, describes it like this, “Aid has been, and continues to be, an unmitigated political, economic, and humanitarian disaster for most parts of the developing world.” (p. 96)

Lupton discovered this was not the answer many charitable organizations were looking for. He told audiences, “When we respond to a chronic need as though it were a crisis, we can predict toxic results: dependency, deception, disempowerment….  Exasperated, I asked, ‘Why do we persist in giving away food when we know it fosters dependency?’ ‘Because it’s easier! the attractive lady blurted out.’” (p. 56) He goes on to sadly conclude, “A hunger-free zone may be possible, but developing the dependency-free zone is the real challenge.” (p. 101)

He lost friends and supporters when he began to ask people whom he partnered with to take the hard route. Unfortunately they wanted easy and they wanted something that would make them feel instantly good about themselves and the work they do. 

And there it is. 

All too often, charitable activity can mask a desire to feel like “a really good person.” Building two-way relationships and doing the hard work of balancing mercy with justice, while closely following the prompting of the Holy Spirit, is too messy and takes too much time. Better to give away free food and regale others with your stories of helping out the less fortunate. Ouch!

He urges churches to focus on a geographic area and work to build relationships with the people in that community. Have a vision of what the area can look like and develop attainable goals and a road map to get there over an extended period of time. Years, not “service project days”. Move from Relief, to Rehabilitation, to Development. He then offers some practical advice for getting started.

One family, who had moved to an urban neighbor for the specific purpose of helping the people asked him where to begin. He told them to do nothing for 6 months. Just watch. Try to see what the real needs are. Identify assets the community already has. Meet with leaders who are already in place. Then start with small achievable goals. Build relationships and live life daily with the people. Be part of the community and not an outsider swooping in to save them. Even then, it’s not enough. This is exactly what he did. He moved into a neighborhood, raised his family there, established relationships, only to hear his neighbor and close friend remark one day, “I hate church vans.” He knew the reference was to a van that had just gone by full of outside kids ready to embark on a service project. Even though this neighbor had, himself been a recipient, he hated that way he felt being on the receiving end. This shocked Lupton. He realized he needed to think long and hard about what our charitable acts are actually accomplishing. 

Don’t we all. 

Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

I read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair because it is a classic and I feel a certain obligation to read it. I didn’t think I would like it. All I knew is that it was of the “muckraker” genre from the early 20th Century and it lambasted the meat-packing industry. Ironically, I discovered that going after the meat-packing industry as a muckraker was not Sinclair’s intention. Apparently, he intended to highlight the plight of the poor and immigrants in this country, but that got lost in his revelations about the work the central character does. I think the reason he didn’t fulfill his goal, was that his story seems unrealistic, even at the time. The story is such a haunting story of helplessness and despair, I think we can be forgiven for believing it is just a story and not the lived experience of the poor.

That being said, Sinclair opens in media res with a joyous scene taking place just after the wedding of two Lithuanian immigrants in a town just outside of Chicago. He wants us to feel the excitement and hope as the young couple embarks on a new journey together. This high forms a peak from which the lows can be measured, The ostensible leader of this ragtag group, Marija, is a strong, single woman who single-handedly takes it upon herself to make sure the group is well-taken care of. She barks orders and bends the will of those around her to do all she can to create a successful and joyous affair. Small, quiet and humble Ona has just married the gregarious Jurgis. He now sees himself as the man of the family and will do all he can to relieve Marija of the responsibility for the group, allowing her to have the life and family she dreams of. He’s strong, a hard worker, and a man of unfailing integrity and optimism. But the first chapter ends with a note of dire warning. The gifts from the guests are not enough to cover the expenses of the wedding and Ona may lose her job for having to take a day off work to get married. 

Soon, Jurgis gets a job in a slaughterhouse. He is excited for the opportunity to work and support his extended immigrant family as well as his new wife. Jurgis believes that as long as he is willing to work hard and sacrifice, bringing in an income will not be a problem. Sinclair lets us know right away that this will not be a dream job, but Jurgis is, for now, blind to the realities he will face. With their combined incomes, the family decides to move from an overpriced rented hovel, to a home they can purchase. Once again, Sinclair is heavy on the foreshadowing and the reader can easily infer this will not end well. 

Slowly, the immigrants begin to understand the realities of their jobs. The workers are taken advantage of. Injuries are not compensated and the worker usually loses his job after being hurt. They begin to sense they are trapped with no free will of their own to make their own way. The realities of homeownership also hit them hard. They discover that no one told them about interest on the loan they took out to pay for the house. Ona must return to work and the oldest child, Stanislovas must work as well. While Sinclair lets the struggling family have a moment of hope, the reader is not afforded that opportunity. We know this ends badly. 

If the conniving business owners and shady realtors aren’t enough, the weather conspires against our heroes. Jurgis’ father, Antony, dies a broken man, unable to find work, and unable to survive the cold. The run down home provides little shelter from the elements, and Jurgis begins to spend his hard earned money on alcohol to keep warm. 

Seeing how they are mistreated, for example only full hours worked are paid for, not partial hours, Jurgis and his family decide to form a union. He becomes an evangelical missionary for the cause, making a name for himself. Slowly the family comes to discover hardship after hardship in Packingtown. Disease is rampant. The food manufactures are only too happy to sell dangerous products to unsuspecting people. The politicians and the political bosses are thoroughly corrupt. There is nowhere to turn. No one can help. 

Eventually, Ona has a baby, but both she and the child are sickly. Marija loses her “good” job painting cans and is forced to take a job working in the meat industry. Again, more disgusting details are supplied of the way our food is produced. Jurgis falls at work and injures himself, costing his job as well. Another winter hits to further devastate the family. Jurgis falls into despair. He finally finds work in the worst possible place, the fertilizer factory. The stench seeps into his very being and forces him to become an outcast. The last one available to work, Elzbieta, goes to work in a sausage factory. Again, we don’t want to know how sausage is made. 

Jurgis continues to drink. Ona is pregnant again, and full of despair. We learn she has been sexually assaulted at work. Once Jurgis finds out and tries to kill the man, he is arrested and blacklisted. For a month, he agonizes in jail over the fate of his struggling family, who suffer terribly without him. He returns to find them homeless, relying on the kindness of neighbors. Ona goes into premature labor. Jurgis begs a midwife to help. The $25 fee is devastating, but he promises to pay. She and the child both die, and he turns even more to drink. 

Eventually Jurgis runs to Chicago to escape. A social worker lands him a job, but he learns that his first son, Antara, drowns in his absence. The children of Elzbieta are working in the streets and rarely return home. Feeling completely disconnected from what is left of the people he immigrated with, Jurgis takes off, living as a tramp, hitching rides on trains and doing odd jobs. He actually feels a bit of freedom and sees a different side of the country, but once again, winter looms. He returns to the city, finds work, but a broken arm has him out of the workforce again. He is desperate, out on the streets, begging. 

A criminal syndicate happens upon Jurgis and puts him to work. He enters the corrupt world of politics trying to gain spoils from the system. He had started off in America as a Republican, now he works for Democrats but both are equally corrupt. Eventually this lands him another job in a packinghouse. But when a strike breaks out, he continues to work as a “scab.” His union-supporting days are long gone. He sees the man who harassed his wife and beats him again. After getting out of jail, he looks up Marija. He finds her working in a whore house. Both are arrested when the police choose that particular time to do a raid. 

After being released, Jurgis finally finds his true calling. He stumbles into a meeting on Socialism. His eyes are opened. Finally the truth is revealed to him. A Socialist hotel owner offers him a job. Jurgis becomes an fired-up evangelist for Socialism. The story ends with big political gains for the Socialists in Chicago. 

I think because the book ends on such a propagandist note, whatever Sinclair’s argument was fails. He is clearly trying to persuade the reader of the need for Socialism and the horrific plight of the poor. Yet the actual effect of the book was to convince readers to reform the meat-packing industry. Why the disconnect? I believe it was because although his story portends to be a typical story of the working poor, people cannot relate. It simply does not comport with our lived reality. Of the 7 or 8 people who immigrated, two are dead, the children are running loose on the streets, one works as a prostitute, and one has a disgusting job. Only the enlightened, Socialist Jurgis is a “success.” This heavy-handed morality tale simply doesn't ring true. 

Sinclair paints all business owners and politicians with a very broad brush. All are corrupt. All are completely devoid of any morals. Only the Socialist care at all about their fellow man. He completely disregards reality. I kept wondering, “Why would a business sell food that kills its customers? Isn’t that bad for the bottom line?” “Why would a business owner so mistreat his employees? How long can he continue to find workers if he maims and kills them?” None of the actions taken by the evil corporations and politicians ring true. 

While Sinclair certainly creates a family that earns our sympathy, we really can’t relate. Their tale is ultimately foreign to the experiences of millions of immigrants. America is not the kind of country Sinclair believes it to be. Immigrants have struggled here, but most tend to do very well over time. Most do not end up dead or involved in criminal activity.  Further, his prescriptions are not what is best for America.