Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Rich Boy,” 1926
A lot has been said recently in Unitarian Universalism, and indeed in its kindred liberal religious denominations, about classism. There’s a concern—and I think a legitimate one—that we have been or have become too strongly identified with and reflective of the values of the Upper Middle Class. A recent report by the UUA Commission on Appraisal put it, “Class issues surface in many congregational contexts. Perhaps most central is the assumption that UUs are upper middle class: financially comfortable, highly educated, articulate, independent, socially responsible, liberal, and tending toward humanist theology.”
That report lays out many ways in which assumptions about resources are unempowering to people who have less. Proffering examples of elitist behaviour, it asks how easy it is for one to engage in congregational life if one doesn’t own a car, or in leadership, if one can’t afford to attend a regional assembly or take time off for the Board retreat? Are newcomers asked where they earned an undergraduate degree during fellowship hour small talk? In large and small ways, warns the report, we can unintentionally create feelings of shame and exclusion, and keep people from participating in our church communities because they don’t have the right background or bank account. To keep people from belonging in our communities is to keep them from embracing our faith—and that is not a behaviour that a people who believe in a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” can tolerate.
I feel that these concerns are real, important, true. Anecdotally, I have seen that dynamic play out. I think it is a problem. I’m glad it’s getting due attention.
But not given much attention in the report is the exclusion, real and painful, felt by those who are outside the other margin of upper-middle-class assumptions. It’s an exclusion I’ve lived and felt. And I want to talk about it.
I want to tell you a bit about what it’s like to be me, a woman born into great wealth and privilege, and what that has done for me and also done to me. I want to tell you about how I realize that I didn’t do anything to deserve my good fortune, and because of that I also want you to realize that I didn’t do anything to deserve scorn for it, either. I want to tell you why I want to belong to a church community, what I believe as a post-Christian religious liberal, what I hope for spiritually, and what obstacles are in my way that maybe you can help me overcome. And I want to tell you that while I’m very much like you, to be upper-class is not quite the same thing as to be upper-middle-class with extra money. Lastly, I want to learn from you about what I do not know because we share different experiences; I want to learn about you and I want to learn about me, too. I’ve chosen a blog because I think there are a lot of angles to explore and tangents to follow, and a simple and direct assertion of my impressions won’t be enough to help us understand each other better.
The F. Scott Fitzgerald epigram above is a shockingly prejudiced and judgmental view of the rich. It is inconsistent with a “covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” I hope we can agree on that. The reason that I chose it to begin this blog is that I once sat through a literature class listening to fellow students, otherwise open-minded and liberal, ratify it in increasingly vitriolic terms. I left that class with a lot of introspection to do. My conclusion? Yes, “possess[ing] and enjoy[ing] early does something to them”—to us—but that something is nuanced and marked by its own hurts and isolations as well as by its privilege and rewards. The sum of our experiences does make differences between us, but we are more than those differences. The quote is from the third paragraph of the short story. Here is the first paragraph:
Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created—nothing. That is because we are all queer fish, queerer behind our faces and voices than we want any one to know or than we know ourselves. When I hear a man proclaiming himself an “average, honest, open fellow,” I feel pretty sure that he has some definite and perhaps terrible abnormality which he has agreed to conceal–and his protestation of being average and honest and open is his way of reminding himself of his misprision.
op. cit., supra.
Photo: The Royal Governor’s pew, King’s Chapel (Unitarian Universalist), Boston, Massachusetts