Friday, January 12, 2018

On Contempt for the Poor

What mean ye that ye beat my people to pieces, and grind the faces of the poor? saith the Lord God of hosts.
-Isaiah 3:15

I started drafting a blog post here a while ago, meditating on contempt for the poor, and am thinking about it again for some reason today. Isaiah 3:15 is a scripture my mom used to quote a phrase from when she'd read about or how a policy or practice that upset her: they "grind the faces of the poor" she'd say. Why are there so many ways people rip off the disadvantaged?

Two months ago, I read an article in the Washington Post about a district attorney in Texas who berated her Uber driver for following his navigation app rather than her own alcohol-influenced directions. She threatened to call the police and tell him they were kidnapping her. "Who are they gonna believe?" she said, "You or me?"

The driver realized she was probably right, so he took out his phone and recorded her. In a profanity-laced tirade, she did everything she could to tear him down. She called him, among other things, an f--ing joke and an f--ing idiot. She said she hoped the police would f-- him up when they arrived.

With the spread of cellphone cameras and recorders, the story is hardly unique. You can find regular instances of wealthier people with more prestigious jobs, often under the influence of alcohol, launching into extended tirades against poorer workers--who seem to have done nothing more than get ever so slightly in their way. And for the offense of making themselves noticeable when they are expected to be invisible and frictionless, these workers are, time and time again, ridiculed for their appearance, for the neighborhoods they are assumed to come from, for their supposed lack of intelligence, for any stereotype attached to their class.

The rants are awful to read. Growing up, I always focused on the word "grind" in Isaiah 3:15 and the way little acts of material oppression can wear away at somebody, but reading about just a few drunken tirades, it's hard not to think about the word "face." About the way people grind the face of the poor. The prophet's indictment speaks not just to the economic side of exploitation, but also to the psychological side of it. The Lord, the scripture says, wants someone to answer for this persistent crime. God is fed up at how casually people shame the poor to exert power over them.

It's a problem that concerned a lot of the early Latter-day Saints personally and viscerally. A friend of mine gave me his notes from a recent talk by Richard Bushman about the struggles of the Smith family when Joseph was growing up. He went through the economic side first, the little challenges and injustices that grind away at them. “These were the ailments of poor rural farmers everywhere," Bushman said.

But Bushman didn't stop with the material challenges. "Furthermore, I would add to the list something I think is powerful: the ongoing insult of class. It is the equivalent to the ongoing insult of race. That those who are poor are continually perceived as incompetent, degraded even." As evidence that the Smith were affected, he cited statements from their Palmyra neighbors collected by a disaffected Church member in the early 1830s. "The insult of class is everywhere in the Hurlbut affidavits," Bushman said. "The Smiths are condemned for their poverty.”

I understand, I suppose, that we are humans. Vain and insecure. I know that we like to think we're better than someone else, and I understand that if we have to grind the faces of a few poor people to do so, most of us won't hesitate.

We'll ask if any good can come from Nazareth. Or Haiti. We'll make fun of people's intelligence, their accents, their teeth.

And at the day of judgment, the prophet Isaiah will rise to accuse us.

I hope we repent before then.

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