That Preferential Thing and Class Angst

Long before Gustavo Gutierrez and other Liberation theologians began speaking of “preferential treatment” for the poor, I had learned of it in my own fashion. Having been born poor in the southernUnited Statesand having grown up Pentecostal, I got with my mother’s milk my own peculiar set of prejudices.

I suppose a prejudice is usually about affirming the negative concerning oneself, and thus two prejudices I well remember concerned the middle class ability to take care of themselves—as the servant class, we insisted they could not; and that it was we, not the privileged and educated, who had the true religion. I remember preachers thundering in particular—with no sense of irony that it was Hebrew scripture—two verses from that minor prophet Zephaniah (and, yes, the thundering was the King James Version all the way):

‘Seek ye the LORD, all ye meek of the earth, which have wrought his judgment; seek righteousness, seek meekness: it may be ye shall be hid in the day of the LORD’s anger” (2:3) and “I will also leave in the midst of thee an afflicted and poor people, and they shall trust in the name of the LORD” (3:12).

Though “meek” did not appear to me to describe the Pentecostals I knew—except in the face of scolding and condescension from the middle class—“afflicted and poor” rang true in deadly earnest. The “maybe you’ll get mercy” tone of Zephaniah’s “it may be ye shall be hid” also rang true: no guarantees. Not in this world.

Nowadays I belong to a faith tradition, Unitarian Universalism, that has a great deal of angst around the subject of class. In one way this puzzles me, since many if not most of the UUs I know are financially insecure at best. For this reason, I suspect much of the talk is really whistling in the graveyard, a wish to be middle class once again, in the style of, oh, about 1973 or so. As my father would say, “That ain’t happinin’.

Yet the angst isn’t really financial. We in theUShave never known what to call people who aren’t middle class. Poor? Working? Lower Middle Class? Blue Collar? In addition, where is the financial, the income, line that demarcates these states of being? My parents—both of whom are semi-literate—knew the answer quite well, as did those Pentecostal preachers of my youth—it’s education.

Those who have lost everything can feel perfectly at home in a Unitarian Universalist congregation—providing they have educations.

UU congregations aren’t classist, they are educationist. Take me, for example. I was born poor. I am still poor—if by poor we mean that I don’t own a car; a house; that I don’t have a credit card or a sufficient credit score to get one; that I’m hopelessly in debt. I have lived my life “another day older and deeper in debt.” But, along the way, I got an education and I learned a tolerance for middle class ways of being. So, I pass.

Unitarian Universalists are not classist; we are educationist. UUs are often “afflicted and poor.” But we speak with particular cadences; we disagree or show affection in particular ways; we trust particular expressions. It is the manner of discourse and intercourse, not the bank account, that keeps many people away.

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One thought on “That Preferential Thing and Class Angst

  1. If you’re preaching religion of any kind, maybe you’re not educationalists but indoctrinatists. I don’t know the details of your particular sect but, overwhelmingly, religion is a major tool for maintaining the status quo: poor, dispossessed, disenfranchised, fettered.

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