No matter what your opinion of the work of Karl Marx it is undeniable that there are certain parts of his ideological program that are now indelibly marked on secular thinking. One of these is the idea of the importance of class which now is a matrix used in the Census Bureau of the United States. Some of his thoughts about class are now institutionally accepted, while others are wildly rejected. We are not a socialist country after all, as all our politicians seem to remind us. While Marx in no means began the discussion about class in the West (or the East by that matter) he is the important link toward seeing class as something that matters in historical, economic, social, psychological, religious and sociological settings. It is hard for us to imagine a time when a statement like, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.” wasn’t common. Although, we may disagree, it is not something that is uncommonly argued with or without many nuances today.
In the United States we have maybe the most benign view of class. In a personal, individualistic responsible way we denote one’s class in very narrow 18th and 19th century categories so that we can know how to make a federal budget. Whether these categories are still valid is not argued, what is argued is whether these people in lower, working classes are deserving of services or whether that is asking too much of our society. While the census has worked around how the numbers are compiled they have made no serious attempt to make more nuanced understandings of class.
Last week it was announced that Britain came out with a new and updated class system for it’s country. There is even a calculator that helps to determine which of these new classes one is now a part of at the BBC. The new and more nuanced class system in Britain consists of an interesting cross section of their society including: Elite, Established Middle Class, Technical Middle Class, New Affluent Worker, Traditional Working Class, Emergent Service Workers, Precariat.
Often in the US it appears that we believe that there are two or three classes. All of us in the middle class and those other people who are poor. If one actually admits to being wealthy they are often seen as no different than oligarchical billionaires of which they are certainly not in the same category. Everyone admits to being middle class and no one wants to fall into the bottom category. Wealthy people lie to themselves and others about their financial struggles. The super rich are untouchables. They are too big to touch, influence or even see.
In the church there is even less of a distinction. Even in churches like the Presbyterian church we often live blissly ignorant of our own class structures that bar us from being effective in a broadening and diversified community. All one needs to do is listen for about 10 minutes in any discussion about mission. Inevitably the conversation becomes, “What can we do to help.” This denotes a certain position of power to make such a non-collaborative statement. In over 20 years of social justice work in the church this phrase is one that I have come to expect and revile.
In the larger denomination I am a part of we almost blithely ignore class as a factor in our decisions and our inability to reach new and emerging groups in our society. What about educated students who are struggling to keep their heads above water with debt? What about immigrants who are sending money back to a country of origin and working for slave pay? What about foreclosures? Our old class assumptions do not help answer these questions. Just parroting the phrase, “first world problems” denotes another callous classist way of thinking that ignores justice issues at home for more well deserving people in far off lands.
Last week on vacation I visited the trailer park that my great-grandmother lived in during the last few years of her life. I was amazed that 30 years later, next to the railroad tracks, this dilapidated structure was still in use. People were living in this run down metal structure. I was humbled. I again realized that a certain segment of the church that I am a part of would not be accepting of the people I come from. How do I know this? I review our educated oriented curriculum, I see how our style of preaching is lectures and I watch how our outreach often is toward a certain type of people that would be more comfortable in our pews. Uneducated, poor, unhealthy, conservative, gun toting, trailer park, using improper English usage and t-shirt wearing cultures may be tolerated by some, but are not who we are looking for to fill our pews. They work at Wal Mart (not even in management) and are not lawyers, doctors, professors, realtors and business owners. The Wal Mart society is most of our population and are increasing in our craptacular economy.
Yes, I do think there is also sexism and racism. Yet, even those I can see as being complicated in the miasma of our ignorant relationship to class in the denominational church.
I believe that the denominational church will continue to miss its calling if it continues to be ignorant of class and how it functions as gatekeeping in our congregations, leadership and judicatories. We will miss out on the increasingly diverse array of people that are living in our society and we will increasingly look like the white, upper middle class, educated elite that is mostly our reality. That is not the world most of our society wants to inhabit any longer. It is also not where the Spirit resides.