The Haves and the Have-Nots and How Things Work in the Reign of God
I was listening to a show on NPR the one time, which took as its subject college admissions applications counselors. Apparently, and I didn’t know this, you can hire someone to help your child fill out college admissions applications, to give her/him the best possible shot at being accepted. College admissions is a pretty complicated game, played for big stakes. So it stands to reason that an industry would spring up around helping applicants put their best foot forward. The catch, of course, is that to avail yourself of these types of services, you have to be able to pay for them. And, as I gathered from the NPR piece, the whole thing can be rather pricey, leading one interviewer to ask one of the professional admissions counselors if that didn’t indicate some sort of inherent division of access between the “haves” and “have-nots.” The counselor’s reply caught me up short. She said, “Well, sure. But what in America doesn’t cause some sort of division of access between the haves and have-nots? That’s just the way things work.”
And she’s right, isn’t she? If you have the money to purchase the help, you have access to places that would be otherwise closed to you. Who would deny it? If you have the means to hire someone to put your best foot forward for college admission, you increase your chances of getting accepted. The whole industry is predicated on the notion that you can get better results from a professional. But what if you can’t afford a professional to help you fill out the admissions forms? What if the school you attended was one of the forgotten school systems in rural Appalachia or urban Louisville?
Obviously, there is an inherent division of access between the haves and the have-nots in our country. Not everybody is starting out from the same place. Some folks in our country are starting from so far back, they can’t even see the starting line the rest of us started at. Unquestionably, some people have a head start in life.
Which is why the whole issue of a multi-millionaire white broadcaster—on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech—presuming to lay claim to Dr. King’s legacy, sits uncomfortably with me. The plea for a color-blind society, in theory, makes sense. But, let’s be honest, we don’t live in theoretical constructs. We live in the United States of America, where there is an “inherent division of access between the haves and have-nots.” To say, for example, that college admissions ought to be color-blind sounds good, and fair, and American. To say that there ought to be no racial preferences sounds equitable. But what if you were to say that there ought to be no preference shown for a kid whose parents can afford to pay for a counselor to help fill out the applications forms, over a kid whose parents are struggling to pay to keep a roof overhead? Realistically, you can’t do that, but you see where I’m headed with this. The playing field can never be level left to itself because there is an inherent division of access between the haves and the have-nots in our country.
What’s my point? I’m not arguing (at least here) for a legislative action with respect to Affirmative Action (although, I’d be happy to speak with you about it if you want to know how I feel.) Actually, I want to go deeper than that to talk about how Christians communicate. If you happen to be a person of color, you hear things like “there is an inherent division of access between the haves and the have-nots” in a particular way. People of color know who the “haves and have-nots” in our society generally are. And when they hear someone blithely dismiss the inequities of access with, “That’s just the way things work,” you may begin to understand how the have-nots hear the haves whining about “level playing fields” and “color-blind admissions policies” and “reverse racism.” It sounds like a sneaky attempt by those with a head start to hold onto what they’ve historically enjoyed.
And here’s the sad part from where I sit as a Christian and as a minister. Two days ago, as I write this, a wealthy white man, claiming to be tapped by God for the job, led a group of mostly middle class white folks in a rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, declaring a desire to restore America’s honor. Part of what they believe that honor has to do with is a wish for Americans to stop focusing on the inherent divisions of race, and start focusing on achievement. But here’s the problem: I’ve heard some of those same kinds of good middle class Christian white folk seek to embrace people of color out of one side of their mouths, while uttering genuinely nice sounding things about “equality” and “color-blindness” out of the other side—because they believe themselves to be starting at the same place in the race as the have-nots, never understanding what the have-nots are all painfully aware of—that the starting line begins at a different point for each of us. Consequently, our brothers and sisters of color are left to wonder whether or not we really do care about racial unity, because we continue to use the code words that keep them at the back of the line, while making ourselves look fair.
We will have no basis upon which to pursue racial unity within the church until we are honest with ourselves about the fact that the playing field is not level, that it’s not just a matter of hard work, that the language we use, the way we see the world will continue to color our relationships. Clearly, we all want with Dr. King, a country in which our children “will be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of the character.” But what we Christians need to come to terms with is the fact that not everybody in our country is given the same opportunities to develop the kind of character by which Dr. King thought we all ought to be judged. Therefore, how we speak about our situation affects our relationship to one another.
Until we begin to understand that as the body of Christ none of us can be truly happy while another of us suffers, we’ll never understand the eschatological vision Dr. King was trying to get us to see. “Color-blind” is the goal, but before it can ever be embodied among us, we must put away the illusion that we’ve already achieved it. That’s definitely not “how things work” in the reign of God.