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On this blog, I occasionally reflect on the Pentecostal religion of my youth in an attempt to explain how religion works among the poor. I find that people who grew up in mainline traditions just don’t get how religion works in the working class.
Here’s one example:
“Get Behind the Mule” is a song by the American musician Tom Waits. According to Waits, the title of the song is a reference to something that the blues genius Robert Johnson’s father once said after Robert’s untimely death:
Trouble with Robert is he wouldn’t get behind the mule in the morning and plow, because that was the life that was there for him. To be a sharecropper. But he ran off to Maxwell Street and all over Texas. He wasn’t going to stick around. Get behind the mule can be whatever you want it to mean. We all have to get up in the morning and go to work.
That’s the voice of a realist judging the dreams of an artist. It’s also the voice of the working class. I heard that voice when I was growing up as well: “Don’t get above your raisin’” was a phrase I heard a lot.
Those voices have a lot to do with religion among the poorest Americans.
In his book The Making of Working-Class Religion, the historian Matthew Pehl relates a telling incident. In the early-1960s, several Detroit-area liberal mainline-Protestant ministers decided to get to know the working class by working side by side with them in Detroit’s factories. One discovery shocked them: they had assumed that factory labor, especially on assembly lines, would be difficult but rewarding for the workers. After all, from their middle-class Protestant work ethic, work was a positive thing.
The workers in the factories, however, were not liberal Protestants. They were evangelicals and Pentecostals, blacks and whites who for the most part had immigrated from the American south. Those workers saw work as a curse. After all, here is God cursing Adam in the book of Genesis:
cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life. Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. (Genesis 3:17b-19 KJV)
This fundamental difference in worldview continues to baffle US liberals and drive the decisive wedge through US politics.
As a good example, let’s go for the big ones, the “Beatitudes” as set out in the Gospel According to Matthew:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you. (5:3–12 NRSV)
Clearly, these sayings are about the balance sheet of life being righted after death (or after the coming of the Kingdom of God to the earth — the Gospels are self-contradictory as to whether that is on this earth or elsewhere — hence the decisive split in US Christianity).
These saying are pretty clear: Religion offers the Miss Congeniality prize for those on the bottom rung of the planet.
I grew up with these and with the traditional reading of these: things stink in this world, but, just grin ’n’ bear it because everything will be set right in the next world.
The Gospel According to Luke contains four “woes:”
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. (6:24–26 NRSV)
Yes, the takeaway for Robert Johnson’s father and for my father and for generations of poor people has been simple: know your place. Do your job. “Get behind the mule every mornin’ and plow.” Because, as the great Johnny Cash put it, “God’s gonna cut you down.”
It’s a dark worldview, but it offers hope to the hopeless, which — let’s face it — is most of our nation’s and our world’s population.
As we go into yet another US presidential cycle, progressives would do well to remember the other America and their god of another sort.
#Beatitudes #Religion #Humanism