There was, recently, some hullabaloo about James Harrison, the Steeler who returned his kids’ participation awards. He wanted them to learn to “earn a real trophy.” Fair enough.
Then I was handed an opinion piece which celebrated this move as a critique of the American entitlement culture. I can also live with that.
The piece ended, however, on a disturbing note. The author admitted that we live in an unequal society, but never stopped to address the glaring questions of “why?” or “of what kind?” so critical to these discussions. And yet, perhaps it is not all that surprising that these questions were left out. It seems to me there is a startling mercy blindness in political conservativism. Here’s what I mean.
Sinners and Saints
I grant that our culture has this weird obsession with “fairness,” and that it needs correction. Fairness-obsession produces a bland and colorless society. At the same time, we need to tread carefully, lest we swing to the other extreme of pure merit. The American Dream is laced with this idea of meritorious success. And to some extent, it works. Take a country full of people, some of whom are brilliant and gifted and excel in various areas, combine that with a relatively open market and no governing body controlling the minutiae of life, and you have this marvelous recipe for the wonderful Dream so woven into the fabric of American thought. This is a fantastic way to create freedom for flourishing.
It is also a magnificent stage for greedy exploitation and self-serving oppression. We must be honest here. We are sinful people at our core, and the American Dream (like everything) will always be hijacked by sinners (that is, all of us). At its worst, flourishing transmogrifies into greed; freedom evolves into anarchy; creative influence degrades into controlling dogma.
Of course, the picture is complex. As a dear friend reminds me: sinners corrupt the Dream; saints can redeem it. You always have both.
But here I am concerned mainly with the saint. Without the saint (read: gospel-saturated Christian), the American Dream becomes a grotesque survival-of-the-richest. It is usurped by an oligarchy of the lucky few and powerful who scramble and claw their way to the top. Without the saint, the great American Dream would become the Great American Nightmare, consuming the weak and poor without blinking a patriotic eye.
Love and Mercy
Which is why the saint cannot be blind to mercy. A society driven by pure merit has no place for love and mercy. Love and mercy are signs of weakness to this kind of culture. The Christian, however, understands that love and mercy belong to the strong, because it is the truly weak (read: wicked) who oppress and consume those unable to provide for or protect themselves. The heart transformed by the gospel strives to assist those who are small in society, so that they will not be destroyed by the powerful.
But who, exactly, are the “small”? Here’s where things get sticky.
Conservatives are right, I think, in arguing that social “participation awards” don’t advance society. But they veer towards the Great American Nightmare when they fail to see who the weak and small actually are.
We can all agree that society is unequal. But we need to ask “why?” and “what kinds of inequality are we dealing with here?” Sure, there will always be inequality between the ants and grasshoppers of society (those with a strong work ethic, and the lazy-butts). But is that the only kind we find?
What about the inequality between the healthy and the sick? The young and the old? Those with and those without disabilities? The picture is, of course, varied and complex because our society is varied and complex. And we should respond to each kind of inequality as needed to keep society from flipping into a nightmare.
But categories are tricky things. And it is precisely because of categories (or lack thereof) that I see the dialogue stagnating and remaining truncated among conservatives – especially conservative Christians. Too often, another form of inequality remains ignored: inequality stemming from injustice.
While the American Dream promises a blank slate society (“kid, you can be whatever you want when you grow up”), it’s an empty promise. We simply do not all enter the world with the same number of chips to play. Some start with zero, some start with piles and heaps. For the majority of Americans, the game is fixed before it even begins.
I am stunned by how many conservative Christians implicitly believe the contrary. To be fair, I was one of them. But I was wrong. And I’m increasingly concerned at the dearth of saints redeeming the dream.
Many who suffer under the thumb of injustice are unceremoniously stamped “lazy” or “possessing no drive to thrive.” This is, of course, inevitable, when no category for injustice exists. Because, let’s be honest: many of those limited by structural inequality don’t look sick, old or physically deficient. But if those are the only boxes we have, then we become blind to the invisible walls of injustice, and therefore the need for mercy.
We experience mercy blindness.
And when a huge segment of the church in America experiences mercy blindness, a tragic number of Christians fundamentally fail in their God-given charge to extend love and mercy to those who need it most.
And when that happens, the great American Dream threatens to become a nightmare.