I have been reflecting on The Book of Job recently. In Stephen Mitchell’s introduction of the translation of this text he defines “The Hebrew … tam v’-yashar, which literally means ‘whole (blameless) and upright.’” Then later comments, “When Job is handed over to the good graces of the Accuser, he is turned into the opposite of what the words mean in their most physical sense. He becomes not-whole: broken in body and spirit. He becomes not-upright: pulled down into the dust by the gravity of his anguish.” [Italics Mitchell’s]
Since the end of July, the No Papers No Fear: Ride to Justice have been crossing the country stopping in various communities where immigrant communities have been assaulted by SB 1070 copy cat laws or had families torn apart by the federal 287 (g) or Secure Communities provisions in immigration law. I am beginning to see connections between Job and the undocumented and larger connections in how America views herself.
I believe it was Vice President Hubert Humphrey who said “… the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”
One of the tags the No Papers No Fear group has been using is coming out of the shadows. Their greatest gift to us as a nation is to come out of the shadows. The average person does not think about where their food or clothing comes from. Nor do we think about who is cleaning our hotel rooms or mowing our public lawns. We simply expect that there is food and clothing, clean hotel rooms and manicured public lawns readily available and in ample supply. These are the people in the shadows, whether they are in a poultry processing plant in Mississippi, a day laborer in Alabama, or a migrant farm worker in Immokalee, Florida; these are all people in the shadows in this country. Their shadow supports the rest of us to be in the sun, without them all would be darkness.
When I worked in public education many years ago, I had students when asked where milk, eggs, and vegetables comes from, answered me ‘from the store’ with a look that stated what kind of question is this. Telling them vegetables did not come from a can or a frozen box but were first grown in a field where people stooped over in the hot sun and hand picked them for pennies for a bushel was like telling them that Santa Claus was not the one who made their presents but some worker in China who works 15 hours a day did. It didn’t make sense to them. These are the shadows we do not like to expose to the light of day. The truth behind our economy is one shadow we prefer to remain in the dark about.
But being whole and upright is what we Americans like to proclaim on the mountain tops. We have bought the lie just like Job’s friends that if all is well with us, then we are blessed and favored by God. All is well is defined as being able to have multiple safety nets below us that will catch us and keep us from harm. This is the privilege that many in America–White America especially–have come to expect to be here as if it is a natural law like gravity. We do not need to look down from the trapeze wire to see the scattered bodies of those who fell before us because we have the nets to catch us and bounce us back up to the wire. But many are discovering too late that the net, without our notice, has suddenly disappeared until we slip and fall.
Melissa Harris-Perry spoke passionately about this recently: “What in the world is riskier than being a poor person in America? I live in a neighborhood where people are shot on my street corner. I live in a neighborhood where people have to figure out how to get their kid into school because maybe it will be a good school and maybe it won’t. I’m sick of the idea that being wealthy is risky. No, there’s a huge safety net, that whenever you fail, we’ll catch you, and catch you, and catch you. Being poor is what is risky. We have to create a safety net for poor people and when we won’t because they happen to look different from us, it is the pervasive ugliness. We cannot do that.”
When you are wealthy in America one can ignore the poor, the undocumented, the sick, the elderly, and the disabled, all of the pervasive issues of our day because we can shove them inside the shadows where they cannot be seen. The middle class is expected to follow suit and ignore these people as well and when we cannot any longer we pass laws to oppress them back into the shadows. The middle class is taught in this mobile class society to always keep our gaze on the wealthy because maybe, just maybe, we could be one of the elite. But this upward gazing is equivalent to navel gazing and keeps us from looking where we need to step. Now many are finding our footing slipping, the upstairs climb has become covered in the oil of greed which dictates mine first and the rest be damned to the shadows. We desire a scapegoat to allow us to keep casting long shadows to hide our failings as a society.
Jon Stewart pointed out an interesting aspect to America recently: If we are successful, then we built it, if we fail, it is the government’s fault. I would add this twist… if a poor person, Black or Latino especially, is successful in America it is because of a hand out from the government; if they are not then they are simply lazy and deserve their lot in life. Our nation is certainly contradictory in describing itself. Eric Fleischauer writes about the Cruelty of Kind Alabamians but this trait is not limited to Alabama but extends to all Americans when discussing how we treat those in the shadows.
Job was whole and upright until disaster befell him and pulled him down to be not whole but broken, not upright but immoral and defiled. If only he kept his mouth shut. If he only kept silent and accepted his fate as just the way things are but No, he had to state he was still whole and upright. He had to declare he was still a human being and not something to be tossed aside as worthless trash to be, at best, composted. And so, too, are the people on the No Paper No Fear: Ride to Justice Tour declaring their inherent worth and dignity and the brightness of their truth stings our eyes. They are bringing America’s shadow into the light and we can do something about it once our eyes adjust from leaving Plato’s cave.
When we begin to realize that safety nets for the poor in this country will keep all safety nets intact and ready to catch us, at any level, then we will be able to truly be the class act we proclaim ourselves to be. The poor includes all of the poor; the franchised and disenfranchised, the employed and unemployed, the abled and disabled, and the documented and undocumented. If we can bring the poor out of the shadows then we truly will be whole and upright living in the noon day light of love.