Predicating poverty; or, how to offend others
December 19, 2013 4 Comments
A few days ago, a couple evangelical bloggers took some time to write on poverty. I was pretty unsettled by what I read. After a while, I realized the problem: they were writing jeremiads and rhetorical scoldings, but I couldn’t find any real, specific person who originally warranted such a rebuke. It was the problem of predication. Somewhere, some straw man was being beat up, perhaps for the sins of some other person in the past, a ubiquitous person I like to refer to as the “bigoted uncle.”
What is predication? Recall from grammar that some sentences have three parts: an object, a predicate, and a subject. The object does something to the subject. For instance, a girl hits a ball, or a pedestrian judges a homeless man. To hit, to judge, these are predicate acts. These acts must fall upon some subject, as in the ball or the homeless man.
Now the first blog I noticed came in response to a list of habits posted on the website of a famous get-out-of-debt ministry. Blogging on CNN’s website, author Rachel Evans took the list and its purveyor to task.
If you read the original list, there is no explicit causal claim about the behaviors of “the rich” and “the poor.” Evans writes:
One need not be a student of logic to observe that Corley and Ramsey have confused correlation with causation here by suggesting that these habits make people rich or poor.
But Corley’s list did not explicitly make the causal connection. As the reader who interpreted the text’s meaning, it was only Evans who could make that implicit connection.
In something of an indignant response appended to the original list, ministry leader Dave Ramsey may well have affirmed a causal relationship. Even still, inferring causation from statistical surveys does not amount to passing personal judgment on “the poor.” That is another implication that only the reader can bring out. And this is what Evans seems to do (emphasis mine):
A poor family may eat more junk food, not because they are lazy and undisciplined, but because they live in an economically disadvantaged, urban setting where health food stores are not as available: a so-called “food desert.”
The question arises, who exactly called a poor family “lazy and undisciplined” in the first place? It wasn’t Ramsey or Corley from what I can tell. Maybe it was bigoted uncle.
Further on, Evans informs us:
And far from having contempt for the poor, Jesus surrounded himself with the needy and challenged the excesses of the rich.
Who actually had contempt for the poor? It doesn’t seem to be Ramsey and company. Again, it could have been bigoted uncle.
A few days after Evans’ post, evangelical writer and HBU provost John Mark Reynolds warned against “poor shaming.” In the course of the text, we never learn who specifically Reynolds thinks has been shaming the poor in virtue of their being poor. Recounting the overwhelming external factors that perpetuate poverty, he does opine:
One thing we should not do is have rich Christians give advice to the teeming masses from their Olympian sofas.
This kind of biting rhetoric drives me mad. Who do these writers, a fellow sister and brother in Christ, actually have in mind? When they lay down their thoughts in writing, each proposition is preceded by an implicit “I think that . . ..” They are bearing in mind and making judgments either about specific persons or else some useful fiction. They are predicating many times over, on the rich, the poor, the middle class, Christians, Americans, and so on.
If serious and thoughtful Christians are going to be predicating, let’s be sure we’re doing it with accuracy and precision. Evans deplores painting with a categorically broad brush, and so do I. It’s natural to talk in terms of abstractions, as in Wall Street, Main Street, the one percent, the ninety-nine percent, the rich, and the poor. If it’s bad to judge individuals, why is it any better to predicate uncharitably on some ambiguous social construct that another person may identify as?
“The rich” and “the poor” both might as well be the Hegelian “The Other.” If your head is spinning after all of this meta-analysis, I’m nearly done. Now I will be silent for a time, allowing the Other to self-identify and speak for his or herself.