God, the American Dream and the Select Few

It’s not enough that the rich have co-opted the American Dream. Now they are trying to co-opt God. Forget all that stuff about the poor inheriting the earth, it being easier for a rich man to go through the eye of a needle than to get into Heaven, or that Christ tossed the usurers out of the temple–the rich are not worried.

Because they don’t believe it. They believe God is on their side. After all, He made them rich, didn’t he? And He lets the poor live in poverty, doesn’t he? Which obviously means He finds the poor undeserving. Old Rockefeller said “God gave me my money!” and it is more obvious than ever before that this is what the rich believe.

Until recently I had not realized how pervasive the idea of the deserving rich is in our society. I mean, I knew money bestowed power, but I had no idea it also created and supported such a belief system. For the very rich, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the after-tax income of the top one percent rose 228 percent from 1979 through 2005, while the earnings of men in their thirties, based on a study released by the Pew Charitable Trusts, have remained flat over the past four decades. Improvement in family incomes during that time has been mostly due to the increase of wives and mothers in the work force.

I guess you could blame my naivete on my birth as a member of the undeserving poor. I was born into coal, on the excavating side. My father was a coal miner for twenty-five years before he pursued the American Dream by getting out of coal to become a barber, upward mobility to much cleaner and less dangerous work. Meanwhile, families who had never seen a coal mine lived wealthy lives provided by royalties from coal while romping beneath the golden Sun on the French Riviera.

This belief system of the rich that God gave them their money works as well as it does because it is supported by other belief systems that are working in tandem. One, built around the theme of entitlement, inclines the believer to acept the rich’s approbation of themselves as deserving of their immense wealth because they think that with time and chance, they too can belong to the select few. Although the second group hasn’t yet arrived at the very top, they, like the rich, feel entitled to the best of everything. Based on what? Their looks, talent, intelligence, education? Culture? Their sparkling personality?

When my father died, my family was thrown into poverty. Despite how hard my older siblings worked to keep us together–warm, fed and clothed, I remember one day at school having nothing to eat for lunch and I hid from the other children until lunchtime was over so they wouldn’t know. I was ashamed of being hungry.

Except for a small group who provide much ammunition to the welfare critics, most of the poor do not feel entitled to anything, and even blame themselves for not doing better than they are. After all, this is America, land of opportunity and the American Dream. Or was. But even though the Dream has died for many, God cannot be co-opted. He lives within the heart of His people. His love shines on us all.

The Passion of Appalachia

“Life is passion and action and each man (woman) must take part in the passion and action of his (her) own times at peril of being judged not to have lived.”   Oliver Wendell Holmes

Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout The Good Old Days) by the Judds twanged the strings of my heart in 1987. As it did for many, winning the Grammy award for Best Country Song and Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal.

Sometimes it feels like the world’s gone crazy still echoes in my mind. Today, it seems truer than ever. We continue to lose faith in our leaders, question our moral beliefs, and, in spite of the progress made in Civil Rights, our society is still segregated between black and white, between rich and poor, and, unfortunately, also between the ideal of America and the reality.

Perhaps it’s time we rediscovered the passion of Appalachia.  Passion brought into the mountains by our ancestors, those early pioneers who had so recently fought and won the American Revolution. My own family in the Kentucky Mountains can list the names and service of fifteen of these passionate souls who put their blood and guts into the founding of America.

For their descendants to “grow up with this stigmatized image of the place where they live” (Rudy Abramson, a former journalist and coeditor of the recently released Encyclopedia of Appalachia, reviewed by Amy Green and Arian Campo-Flores in the April 17th copy of Newsweek) is not just a loss to the Appalachian people, but also to the nation.  Green and Campo-Flores close their review with “Perhaps with the help of this book, that won’t be true for long.” 

Unlike the song, I don’t want to go back to the “good old days.” They weren’t so good; back-breaking labor, women and children dying in childbirth, abject poverty (of course poverty is still with us, especially in the inner cities and up the hollers).

Yet “the good old days” was also a time when the line between right and wrong didn’t seem so hazy.  As a people Appalachians still uphold the values of our Revolutionary ancestors: love of God, love of country and love of family. When my dad died in 1947 leaving eight children, the older siblings took on the responsibility for the younger ones and finished rearing us (one of them, only sixteen years old, went to work in the coal mines). They not only provided us with food and shelter but also taught us to be self-reliant, encouraging us younger children to find and create our own place in a changing world.

Grandpa, everything is changing fast. We call it progress, but I just don’t know.  When the country went soaring off into the future, into the three-piece suits and skyscrapers, the industrial and then the technological revolutions, a beautiful new world came into being, with a higher standard of living than the world had ever known. We kicked the dust of early America from our heels and it no longer mattered where we came from, but only where we were going. 

Except perhaps in Appalachia, where the past, and the passion, from those early times, still lives on.