About Me

My photo
Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

Popular Posts

Monday, August 22, 2011

Homeowners' Shame

Since the foreclosure crisis began to be named in 2009, I have been noticing a pattern among homeowners facing hardships.  They are ashamed, so they keep their problems to themselves.

This speaks to certain moral convictions that form the bedrock of what many would believe makes a good U.S. American.  Because in the U.S., the concept of what it means to be a Christian is largely derivative from, or a corollary to, what it means to be a good U.S. American, these moral convictions find their way into the character and lives of good, church-going people.

Self-reliance is one of the moral convictions of which I am speaking.  Christians are likely to cite Paul's remarks to the Thessalonians in support of a belief in self-reliance:  those who will not work, shall not eat.  Again in Galatians, just after telling the church folk to bear one another's burdens, Paul turns around to say that each one should carry her own load.  Thus it is not outside of Christian faith to believe in the goodness of carrying one's own weight. 

Yet for faithful biblical and theological teaching, self-reliance is always tempered by being set in the context of community mutual responsibility.  Isolated from the communal context, self-reliance can become arrogance and blind optimism in times of good fortune, or it can transform into self-hatred in times of bad fortune.  "Fortune" is a key concept here, but one that self-reliance likes to ignore. 

Contrary to the self-deceptive claims of the Romantic/Progressive era, which led poets to wax eloquently about being "the master of my own fate," human beings are not individually in control of their own destinies.  First of all, human society is a complex, dynamic system in which many people are engaged in non-coordinated activities and agendas.  What I do may effect you, and vice versa.  Second, many powerful forces can affect the lives of particular people, completely without their own knowledge and participation.  The housing bubble, the house of cards called credit default swaps, and the entangled labyrinth of mortgage-backed securities were mostly invisible to average people.  Yet when these huge economic systems began to implode, they took away jobs, home values, credit availability, health insurance, and hope for many people.

Under new circumstances, people formed by self-reliance and the assumption that it mechanically leads to success, found themselves in a pit of shame.  They should have known, they thought, not to buy that much house, get that big a mortgage, borrow against their equity, etc.  Certainly there was a time, in another generation, when many people would have been more cautious.  Yet fed by a steady diet of "the rules of the old economy no longer apply" and "low downpayments are the new norm" and "housing values never go down," plenty of people were pointed, urged, or lulled into believing that extending more credit and taking out more debt would be an excellent plan, even a good example of self-reliance.

Closely related to self-reliance is the moral conviction of individualism.  This more encompassing concept asserts that knowledge, value, and action originate in the individual person.  Thus, individualists make up their own minds for themselves, adopt their own values, and do what they decide to do.  The myth that individualism perpetuates is that "doing it my way" is both a good idea and an actual practical activity.  The outcome is that people who do not have all the information that they need, have not experienced the pitfalls of certain activities, and may not be reasoning with full clarity, become convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt and "know that they know that they know that they know" what they should do.

Individualism linked with positivity can be a dangerous combination.  Many people think that if they do not think bad thoughts, entertain bad consequences as real possibilities, or say out loud what might go wrong, then everything will be fine.  This ignores that one person's thoughts and words operate without any relation to the risky, careless, and unjust actions of others who may be controlling millions and billions of dollars of economic power.

Individualists, counting on self-reliance, operating with positivity, expect that their efforts will lead to satisfying results.  They don't deny risks, but they have done what they should have done and things should go well.  If things don't go well, the self-reliant individual has trouble avoiding the conclusion, "I have no one to blame but myself."

Thus, shame has a powerful role in an economic crisis.  It protects the wealthy securities traders from a mass uprising against them because the average people blame themselves for their economic problems.  Many keep the problems to themselves, ashamed to admit that something has gone wrong. 

People who lose their jobs, have their homes foreclosed, and fall into medical debt may stop going to church, or even leave their churches, ashamed to admit that they are not prospering.  They theologize the problem to believe that they have sinned or failed God, interrupting the input-output machine of being a good person in order to get blessings from God.  They must be bad, for the blessings have stopped.

This shame makes it hard to organize people harmed by the economic downturn.  Some simply give up.  Others keep trying the same thing over and over, sure that if they just try harder the system will work.  Only a few get so fed up with the way that powerful economic institutions abuse and oppress them that they start to fight back.

What got me to write about this was a personal experience.  I am not facing foreclosure.  For now, my wife and I both are holding our jobs.  We are not in economic distress, as compared to many people.  We are, however, making lots of big financial decisions because we are relocating from North Carolina to Texas, while I still work in North Carolina.  After a year and a half of transition, we are finally preparing to sell our house.

Credit is tight, so even with a respectable credit rating, borrowing may not be easy.  Optimistically thinking that the process of getting a construction loan would not be hard, I was awakened repeatedly to realize there are many hoops to jump through and obstacles to overcome.  I can take that--life is not easy.

What caught me by surprise was a powerful emotional hit that came when a lender suggested that there were undisclosed details that would hinder the loan process.  Along with dread, there was a deep feeling of failure and inadequacy that welled up.  The dread was that feeling of wondering if there would be anything I would be able to do to solve the problem.  My self-reliance had not worked.  I was ashamed.

Now frankly, it was a very minor setback.  We continue to make progress on remodeling and getting credit to put our house in order.  It is not all worked out, but I'm not in the kind of mess many people are in.  But the reason to write about it is that I had a temporary and partial glimpse of what is multiplied millions of times over in this country with people who have lost jobs, lost homes, face foreclosure, face medical costs they can't pay, and feel ashamed.

If there is any truth in the Christian faith, then the teachings of the Bible should make it clear that the winners and losers of economic life do not equate to the ones God loves and hates.  Economics is rough in its sorting process.  Leverage, muscle, cheating, and injustice have inordinate power over people's destinies.  That is why the Sabbath Year and Jubilee systems were put into place in the biblical economic teachings. 

No economic system can claim to be just if it allows and promotes permanent indebtedness, homelessness, poverty, and joblessness.  There has to be a reset system to get people back into the economic game.

Moreover, our wealth is not our own.  It is for all of God's children.  Churches must find a way to leave behind their accommodation to modern economics and recommit themselves to be communities in which "there is no one in need among you."  We don't have to be ashamed to love one another enough to share our lives with one another.  That is the way of Jesus, who said, "Follow me."
Baptist Bloggers
Powered By Ringsurf
Christian Peace Bloggers
Powered By Ringsurf