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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.

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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."


Anonymous said...

Mike, I can fully sympathize -- my wife and I earn over $150k a year, but building a house we knew we were stretched for in the heat of high costs in 2006 coupled with not being able to sell a fairly unique house until 2008 has left us in a terrible hole. I still bounce checks on occasion because the credit card bill minimums due each month are eating up all of my salary. We would be in fine shape if I could find a $100k loan at 6% interest, but that's not happening anywhere commercial with our score and lack of assets. And we're too ashamed to ask for help, even in our families. If something were to happen to one of our jobs, we'd lose everything very very quickly. It is so tempting to want to declare bankruptcy and stick it to the credit card companies, but that doesn't make it right. So I just keep on each month, paying bills as I can and not answering any phone calls. And being stressed. And as you said -- ashamed.

Henry J. Rodgers said...

Earth as it is in heaven

The blog dated Monday, August 22, 2011, Homeowners’ Shame, author Dr. Mike Broadway, raises a very interesting issue concerning the mental and emotional effect of the foreclosure crisis experienced in today’s economic climate. I had not considered that homeowners facing hardships were keeping their problems to themselves because of “shame.” According to Dr. Broadway, shame is rooted in certain moral convictions that parallel with being a good American and being a good Christian – “character and lives of good, church going people.”
I agree with Dr. Broadway on some levels, but I must admit that I believe that lower income persons have become immune to being ashamed because of hardship. Speaking from experience, I conclude that when a person has been denied numerous times they begin to expect rejection. But for the middle class and the well-to-do it is a different story. It is not surprising for them to be embarrassed or ashamed when their clout is not sufficient enough to convince the lending institution to approve their loan or finance their project. The lower income person would simply say “welcome to my world.”

Mike Broadway said...

Henry, I agree that I my situation is not the norm for people with lower income. Many would think it is business as usual. Getting my case out of the way, what I want to address are the low-income people who did get loans, purchased houses, then lost jobs or faced other challenges that led them into foreclosure. The folks in my church who "disappeared" after foreclosure were people whose jobs were physical labor, the people who get cut so that bosses can keep their jobs. I don't think I am wrong to say that many people who lose their jobs, face foreclosure, and have other economic setbacks turn the blame back in on themselves as shame.

Henry J. Rodgers said...

An Ironic Reading of Psalm 8: Is Humanity All That Much?

I appreciate you calling my attention to this issue pertaining to this psalm. I serve as a wakeup call to the danger of “thinking too highly of oneself.” The phrase: “a little lower than the angels” from the KJV, I am inclined to question the transference of the word “angels” in the plural to mean “God” in the singular. Would it not be more appropriate to render the phrase: a little lower than the gods?
I agree with your stance of the notion of hierarchy and your rejection of the system of domination. Speaking from the influence of my family history (where my relatives were slaves) I can appreciate your outcry on this subject. It is truly ironic how a godly message that is designed to liberate can be so easily twisted to enslave, dominate and control. Your comments clearly explain the mindset of certain European whites that took this passage out context and added their own interpretation to fix their desires to dominate. The example you gave citing the former U.S. Secretary of the Interior is a suitable example of the result of the union of bad theology and a disregard of the value of life and property.
As I read your post, I could not help from reflecting on a scene that shook me to the core of my being, while standing in the court yard (holding pen) of the slave dungeon in Ghana, Africa. I was bewildered to see the horrible place and conditions of my people that were victims of the slave trade. This was the place where despicable things occurred in the name of dominance designed to serve the “good of the so-called superior white race.” But this is not what traumatized me, for I expected these conditions. What disturbed me so was the sight of a large church that was situated above the horrors below, above the reach of the slaves. A place of worship, blessings, freedom a monument of the result of a perverted view of the doctrine of domination, your cry will not go unheeded.

Michelle said...

I certainly understand the "shameful" concept, but I also believe that many people are supportive because we understand that people are out of work due to no fault of their own. We understand that jobs are leaving America everyday and heading to other countries such as China, India and the Latin American countries.

While many people feel ashamed, I think some of it may be their own personal concerns about what people are saying and not necessarily what many people are saying.

Yes, we do think highly of ourselves. When we don't think highly of ourselves we are labeled as having low self esteem or low self worth. When we think highly of ourselves people think that we are arrogant. It is a no win situation.

I think it is important for those who are caught in job loss and foreclosure to surround themselves with loving and supporting people and cut themselves off from the negative people.

Michelle said...

Hello Dr. Broadway,

I would like to respond to the anonymous writer (9:36 PM).

I am a banker and I can tell you that bankruptcy is not always a bad thing. True, bankers don't like it, but we do understand that it must happen. You can work with your mortgage company through in the process of your bankruptcy. Talk to your banker and explain your situation. Look at the Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Check in your local country for the non-profit companies that help you work with your creditors to lower your monthly payment.

Your bills should not make you feel sick to the stomach or to live in fear.

Look to some local credit unions for financing or smaller community banks for financing.

Roosevelt Ethridge said...

Certainly, the idea of self-reliance is notion that is battling today's church. I have found many colleagues, family, and friends that try to find success that affects them solely, however, one's decisions never just affect him. Truly, what was suppose to be the American dream, "purchasing a home" has become a trap of indebptness for Americans. I do agree that the church should be for the good of the people and not for the good of one individual.

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