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Essay

Breadwinners

By September 10, 2012 One Comment
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I heard about the Election Day Communion project in a recent newsletter of Christian Churches Together. It caught my attention this week because it seems like a much-needed antidote to the rhetoric of work that is saturating political discourse. Let me just say: I’m not averse to hard work, I’m as likely to succumb to a functional works-righteousness as the next person, and I don’t disagree with how crucially important it is for Americans to find paid employment right now. But the pervasive emphasis on hard work, and the constant drumbeat of “you have it because you earned it” is distressing to me. We all know it’s more complicated than that. I believe, too, that it subtly reinforces the tendency to blame the very poor for their condition, as though their state is simply the byproduct of not working hard enough. The nearly exclusive focus on the “middle class” reflects this fear of dealing with the realities of the systems and powers that trap the lower classes in grinding poverty.

There are just too many ways that “if you work hard enough, you will have economic success” breaks down. Ask the Native Americans, or the descendents of slaves, or the generations of women whose unpaid labor keeps the global economy running (have you ever met a stay-at-home mom who felt “underemployed” when it came to the tasks of domestic life?) or the college-educated young adults who can’t find jobs, or the newly retired whose savings were decimated by impersonal and behemoth financial systems.

Maybe this rhetoric gets to me right now because I am making the transition from salaried employment to full-time studenthood, and navigating the accompanying anxieties about how my hard work does or does not translate into economic realities. Am I a bad citizen because I stepped out of the income treadmill in order to study again? Maybe I need to reframe it, say that for the next few years I’m an investment in America’s knowledge economy.

Or maybe I am troubled by the rhetoric because as a pediatric chaplain I have gotten to know and love far too many children who because of their limitations will probably never “work a day in their lives” in the sense that politicians value right now. Can we please affirm that people with major disabilities are a valuable asset to our society, even if they are a financial liability? If we are to really and fully live out a national belief in the sanctity of all life, I think we have to reckon a bit more with the fact that it doesn’t mesh very well with our cherished “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative.

Back to the Lord’s Supper as an antidote to the rhetoric of work. I love the way the theological foundations of communion invite us to confront the distortions we live by. To participate in communion is to receive, and to receive bountifully, all manner of things that can’t be earned. It’s to admit that you’re partaking of the biggest entitlement program of them all, not because you’re entitled but because God’s love entitles you to an embarrassment of riches. We’re freeloaders at the table of grace. This is bread that can’t be earned, bread you can’t produce, bread you can only accept from the radical overflow of your generous host. At this table, you can’t be the breadwinner. You get to be the guest of the Bread of Life, and you get to taste the flavor of both true power and powerlessness. You get a meal that can metabolize into action, witness, service, love, fidelity.  

I’ll end by sharing some visuals I made on Wordle (word clouds that illustrate prevalence and prominence of words) as I mulled over political and theological language.

Here’s one for Romney’s nomination acceptance speech:


And here’s one for Obama’s nomination acceptance speech:


And here’s one for the text of the RCA liturgy and rubric for the Lord’s Supper:

May we be wise stewards of our both our political inheritance and our theological inheritance!

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