Many of the 1960’s civil rights workers Robert Coles consulted in his psychiatric research came from middle-class families. Their parents nagged the kids about getting a real job and making something of themselves. One of them responded to his mother’s concerned prayers over him: ‘I wonder what Jesus said, listening to her prayers! I felt like writing her back and asking her if Jesus ever held “a regular job” – or ever “found himself”. Jesus, the migrant preacher, who became so unpopular and disturbing to everyone big and important that He got crucified.
Working with the poor and oppressed, Coles marvelled over how much their lives resembled the lives of the prophets and Jesus himself. Perhaps that was why they found solace in religion, and why the sophisticated reviews of society so studiously ignored what they had to say about it. Middle-class churches tend to be sweet, soothing and inoffensive, their worship services predictable and controlled. Coles himself, a product of the privileged minority began to wonder about his own resistance to the power of a radical gospel. He could not avoid the discrepancy between the Bible’s teaching on justice and fairness and the lives privileged people tend to live, marked by greed, competition and status. What was the gospel’s message to the well off? What was its message to him? As Coles explored the mind of the privileged ones, he realised he was exploring his own mind. To his shame, he found within himself many of the same troubling tendencies.
Comfortable people, he noticed, were apt to have a stunted sense of compassion, more likely to love humanity in general but less likely to love one person in particular. Did he show compassion? As a Harvard undergraduate, he recalled with a pang, he had treated the dormitory maid as a lowly servant even while earning As in his ethics course. What about arrogance? A physician, he fought the temptation every day; he was, after all, the expert, the healer who had come to help the disadvantaged. Pride? He was generous, to be sure, but he had the luxury to be generous. He had never been in a situation of absolute dependence, the daily state of many poor people.
Coles reflected on these matters in his fifth volume, the book he considers the best of the series but the one most overlooked by reviewers. Ultimately, he came to believe that the most dangerous temptation of all is the temptation of plenty. In the same breath, wealth curses what it blesses. Being privileged, Coles concluded, tends to stifle compassion, curtail community and feed ambition.
Rich kids who tried to break out of their sheltered surroundings and respond to the call of conscience presented a threat to others. Coles interviewed a child from a very wealthy family in Florida who had encountered the teachings of Jesus around the age of ten. He started repeating some of Jesus’ statements in school – such as how hard it is for rich people to enter heaven, and how the poor will inherit the kingdom. His questions became a thorn to his parents, his teachers and his family doctor. Ultimately his parents stopped taking him to church and signed him up for psychotherapy to cure his ‘problem’.
Reviewing the rich and poor people he had come to know, Coles was struck with the ironies. It was true the poor were cursed: he had treated the miners with black lung disease, and the malnourished children like little Annie whose father had held her up before the cross (she died at age three). Yet in a strange but undeniable way, the poor were also blessed, for whatever reason, with qualities such as courage and love and a willing dependence on God. The irony: good humanists work all there lives to improve the condition of the disadvantaged, but for what? To raise them to the level of the upper classes so that they too can experience boredom, alienation and decadence?
Despite his thorough research and credible publications, Coles was met by the reviewing establishment with polite silence. They quoted him in almost every area of his work, except….religion, the very thing that was most often the most important thing in the lives of the poor! Coles came to believe that what he had learned in school about religion – that as an ‘opiate of the people’ it dulls moral and political indignation – was a myth perpetuated by irreligious social scientists who had very little actual contact with the poor. His research told him that all over the world, among the poor, religious faith usually sharpened, rather than dulled, indignation and outrage.
This account and many others is taken from Philip Yancey’s excellent book ‘Soul Survivor – how my faith survived the church’.
The painting is a product of Lluis Fuzzhound and can be found here: lluisfuzzhound.com