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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

America 201: Tribalism, Gambling, Complexity, Jobs, and Grace

Three months into sabbatical, which is a full term of school, so we're moving from the 101-level of learning into the next level of advanced classes.  As insiders who became and outsiders and came back again, we continue to ponder, marvel, sigh, and puzzle over this place in all its diversity and luxury and pain.

So here are a few more observations, from this week.

First, America exhibits much of the same tribalism that drives fear and violence in Africa.  The conversation here has become so shrill and polarized.  Positions are entrenched, and offense is easily taken.  Perhaps this relates to an impending electoral season, or to the bombardment of opinions on social media.  But the tenor of the loudest voices seems to be the same old tribal fear: if we don't fight for ourselves, the other group will take what we need. There is a prickly defensiveness that makes dialogue very difficult.  Note this exchange between President Obama and Author Marilyn Robinson (Gilead, Lila):

Robinson:  But fear was very much—is on my mind, because I think that the basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people.  You have to assume that basically people want to do the right thing. I think that you can look around society and see that basically people do the right thing. But when people begin to make these conspiracy theories and so on, that make it seem as if what is apparently good is in fact sinister, they never accept the argument that is made for a position that they don’t agree with—you know?
The President: Yes.
Robinson: Because [of] the idea of the “sinister other.” And I mean, that’s bad under all circumstances. But when it’s brought home, when it becomes part of our own political conversation about ourselves, I think that that really is about as dangerous a development as there could be in terms of whether we continue to be a democracy.

Secondly, we notice the pervasiveness of gambling.  When we left a couple decades ago gambling was a fringe activity, relegated to certain geographical enclaves (another story of complexity as corruption, how our country relegated this continents inhabitants to reservations then promoted drinking and gambling there).  Now we pass billboards announcing lottery totals, and see advertisements for fantasy football leagues not as a matter of pride or sports acumen, but as a temptation to gamble money.  A scandal broke last week when the employees of the company running one of them made off with the winnings.  Gambling would not be a great business if the average person really benefited.  It is a way of luring those who don't have the margin to lose.  Yet it is growing in availability and acceptability.

The next trend I am calling complexity as corruption.  In other words, many of our systems are so complicated that only the elite can afford the expertise to sort them to their advantage, which entrenches injustice for the average person.  Taxes, laws, finances, rules in general have so much fine print and differential application that the end result is that the silent majority over-pays to fund the advantage of those who can afford to game the system.  A certain person dear to our hearts, for instance, just received a surgical bill that is astronomically high.  A hundred-times-higher, or more, than where we work.  There will be a murky process now with the insurance company (thank God for Anita, as I said in an earlier post), and we won't know how much money actually exchanges hands between them, but we will be left with a deductible and a percentage based on the initial ridiculous total.  Meaning that our dear person will empty the savings we and he have accumulated to pay his school fees to THE SAME INSTITUTION.  It's legal, but it's not right.

The fourth observation I am not sure whether to categorize as a problem or a solution, but we've noticed the rise of self-serve and self-checkout and the decline of entry-level jobs.  Restaurants that would have had wait staff a decade ago have moved in a fast-food model, and expect you to order at the counter and clear your own table.  Grocery stores and home improvement stores (our two main go-to's) have lines where you scan and bag your own items.  At the gas station, you not only pump your own gas, you fill your own drinks.  If an interaction with a human can be replaced by a card swipe and a keyboard, it will be.  Efficient, yes.  But also, well, in a literal sense, dehumanizing, and I wonder what jobs teenagers can get.
Fear, injustice, betting, isolation . . sounds bleak.  So we turn to the best for last.  Here in this rural enclave, we are breathing in grace.  Our church averages an attendance of about 70; the pastor moves between several rural congregations so half the time the service is led by lay people.  This is a state with some of the highest levels of poverty in the country, and with high rates of alcoholism, addiction, and unemployment too.  But when we walk through those white wooden doors, we sense an incredible welcome.  As we are inevitably late, at least two or three people get up and come over and hug us.  For no reason.  We are smiled upon, drawn in.  I think being on the other side again, after years in leadership, gives us a new wonder at the power of simple kindness and inclusion.  Americans, deep down, are welcoming people and we sense the power of grace in the posture of this country church.

Which gives us hope.  Because if people who live in this town where everyone know everyone for generations can walk over and hug the peculiar missionaries from Africa, then there is always hope.  In 1 Timothy Paul warns against endless tedious disputes (1:4) and states "Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart".  The purpose is love.  Love is the only power stronger than fear, and the only platform that will build community.  Love breathes grace, and America at the street level is full of people who love.


James M Starr said...

Astute, articulate, honest and hopeful. Thanks for today's blog.

Jill said...

I think you will come to love self check out. It is my zen time. I absolutely love it. Cashiers are required to say so many things to their customer now that the interaction is completely artificial. Also, technology = inner glee in my world. I never knew I was such a nerd!

Martha Wagar Wright said...

Thanks as always for sharing your mind & heart, Jennifer. I am in the US for just 3 weeks and these things strike me too. I love our life in Uganda and the personal connections we have over just about everything - from the people we buy vegetables from to the guy who makes cheese, to the lady who sews curtains, the people we turn to for everything we need to know, how to stay well and keep our sense of humor. We also love things that are improving, like internet & phone connections. I hope the time you spend here will be a blessing of connections and fellowship!